In a recent post I wrote about how meaningful repetition of language can help provide comprehensible input (CI) to language learners and support acquisition.
Meaningful repetition helps learners acquire new language, both by increasing their comprehension through adding redundancy to the input and by increasing their number of understandable encounters with words and structures.
I talked a lot about the power of the circling technique, where a teacher makes a statement in the target language and then asks their students various kinds of questions based on what they just said.
Since that post, a friend has alerted me to another way of providing a lot of meaningful repetition of language.
He finds it so useful for acquiring language that he calls it “the crown jewel of comprehensible input”.
I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I can certainly see how powerful it can be.
We could call this technique the use of parallel structure.
What is parallel structure?
In grammar and rhetoric, parallel structure, also known as parallel construction or parallelism, refers to using similar grammatical structures or patterns across a set of phrases or clauses.
One famous example of parallel structure in rhetoric is U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” phrasing in his Gettysburg Address.
Studies suggest that the use of parallel structure makes statements in a language easier to process.
This suggests that by improving the comprehensibility of messages, parallel structure can be a great aid to second language acquisition.
As a language learner, I’ve noticed how parallel structures in input often stand out to me, especially when dealing with largely incomprehensible input as a beginner (because more comprehensible content was unavailable).
At the very least, they provided a definite pattern of sound in what would otherwise be a string of unbroken noise (for example, imagine a non-English speaker hearing Lincoln’s phrasing by listening to this Russian translation).
The pronunciation of these words might be remembered, and then later have meaning attached to them when they are heard again with further context.
With teaching and content that provides more context through non-verbal communication, repetition using parallel structure can make understanding and acquisition of new words and patterns more likely.
Using parallel structure in CI-based teaching
As a technique for comprehensible input-based language teaching, I would use the term parallel structure in a somewhat narrower way than what it can include in grammar and rhetoric.
While parallel structure in grammar encompasses things like just using the same verb form in a series—for example, “I like bicycling, swimming, and running”—as a CI technique, it should generally be used in a way that provides repetition of larger chunks of language.
Using the example I just gave, to provide more repetition of language, a natural approach teacher might instead say to a class of beginners: “I like cycling, I like swimming, and I like running” while pointing to images depicting these activities and displaying gestures that indicate “I like” each time.
With this parallel structure, the students hear “I like” in context three times instead of just one, and the longer, more redundant statement can be easier for the students to process and take in.
As in this example, parallel structure will be used alongside other tools that help make the input more comprehensible, especially non-verbal communication like pictures at earlier stages.
One way to think about using parallel structure is that we want to provide the learner with many examples of language, but without putting the focus on the language itself; instead, we’re communicating meaningful things by providing a lot of examples of what we’re talking about and using language alongside these examples as part of our communication.
For example, if I’m talking to an English learner about what Canada is like, I could show them two photos I took in Toronto at different times of the year and say: “This is a photo of Toronto in the summer; this is a photo of Toronto in the winter,” pointing to the respective photos as I say these phrases.
The learner is getting a number of useful things out of hearing parallel structure with the photos:
- They’re hearing the same words and structures repeated, which aids comprehensibility and the likelihood that they’ll pick these things up. Using the same phrasing again with more examples, such as additional photos of Toronto in the spring and fall, would provide even more meaningful repetition this way.
- Because only one word differs between the two clauses, they can connect this with how the photos change and be likely to pick up on how the different words indicate different seasons. Additional examples with other places—for example photos of New York in the summer and in the winter—would make it even more likely that the meaning of the words that differ will become clear to them. Note here that varying another word with pictures provides another parallel structure with CI. For example, I could show and tell using parallel structure about pictures of New York, Toronto, and other cities in the winter.
What’s also important is that I’m communicating something that’s meaningful, especially in this case if the learner is really interested in Canada, what the weather is like there, and what it looks like there.
Again, in contrast to its use in grammar or rhetoric, parallel structure in CI-based language teaching will tend to involve repetition of larger chunks of language, and the words that change will often be connected with some change in extra-linguistic information, like the weather conditions in the otherwise similar pictures of Toronto.
With visuals and other non-verbal communication to provide context, and many examples, this use of parallel structure with interesting CI can quickly help turn what beginners perceive as unbroken strings of sound into utterances that have meaning to them and words that can be acquired.
It can also be used at every level to provide repetition and reinforcement of new words and structures and increase comprehension.
Usefulness for recorded content like video
It appears that the use of parallel structure as a way of providing meaningful repetition of language to make input more comprehensible and promote acquisition hasn’t gotten very much attention compared to techniques like circling.
This is perhaps because circling is a major part of TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling), which may be the most widely-used CI-based method today, and TPRS is mostly used in classroom contexts.
Because the classroom situation is interactive, circling is highly suited to it: the teacher can ask questions of the students and the students can answer.
Parallel structure may be more suitable for providing meaningful repetition in situations where interactivity isn’t possible, such as video and other recorded media.
So far, very little content has been created for recorded media that is both highly interesting and comprehensible for language learners, especially at the beginner level.
In content like video, the use of circling risks becoming trivial or like a drill because of the lack of interaction to motivate the questions and answers.
A single speaker on camera can only come up with circling questions on their own and then answer them themselves.
But they can use parallel structure in many ways that are meaningful and natural in order to provide meaningful repetition.
Differences from substitution in language teaching
Something like parallel structure that does seem to be well-known in the world of language teaching exists in the form of substitution drills, where students practice structures or phrases by replacing a word or part of them with other words.
Especially similar to parallel structure is what’s called the single-slot substitution drill, as seen in this example from a site for English teachers:
Students: The cat is under the table.
Students: The cat is under the chair.
There is an expectation that through these substitution drills, students will pick up the structures and get a feeling for how the language should sound.
This idea of substitution supporting implicit learning seems to be the case in particular with the audio-lingual method, which makes heavy use of substitution drills and avoids explicit instruction of grammar.
Of course, CI-based teaching also expects that learners will pick up the grammar of target language implicitly through many examples.
But there are some key differences between the substitution activities and the use of parallel structure for creating comprehensible input that I’m describing.
With the use of parallel structure in CI, the focus is on using it receptively, rather than forcing production of language as through drills and practice.
Unlike substitution and other drills, it should be about communicating meaningful things in the language.
Like all comprehensible input, input that makes use of parallel structure should be really interesting to learners, and ideally, so compelling that they forget they’re acquiring the language.
Examples from Automatic Language Growth
One example I’ve found of the use of something like parallel structure in CI-based teaching is in suggestions for how to implement the Automatic Language Growth, or ALG, approach to language teaching.
ALG wants to keep the focus as much as possible on meaning and experiences, theorizing that any conscious focus on language interferes with acquisition and keeps adults from effortlessly reaching the same high levels of ability that young children acquiring second languages do.
As ALG’s originator Dr. J. Marvin Brown wrote, maintaining this focus on meaning can be a challenge for programs where it’s been used like AUA Thai, which most adults attend with the intention to learn a language:
Understanding without noticing the words—that’s the name of the game. With children it’s literally ‘child’s play’, and little kids aren’t even aware of words. But with adults in a language class, it’s not easy to keep the students’ attention off of words. It does no good to tell them not to pay attention to words. We have to trick them.
One kind of trick Brown goes on to describe is the use of misdirection in class to keep students’ attention off of the structures they’re expected to subconsciously acquire:
One activity is talking about fruits. With a big picture of Thai fruits being sold in the market as a prop, we point and talk. There’s constant reference to the different kinds of fruit and the students are busy noticing and trying to remember their names. But it’s all a trick. We know that the adult mind is tempted to notice words so we use the names of fruits to keep their attention off of everything else. Think of all the possible talk between teachers. “What’s that?” “It’s a …”. “Which costs more, … or …?” And all the possible talk with students. “Do you know what those are?” “(Nod, or headshake, or an English name.)” “They’re called … in Thai” The students are noticing the blanks in these examples (the names of fruits)—not the sentence patterns that contain them. The fruit names are noticed—and soon forgotten. The patterns aren’t noticed—and they’re free to enter the ‘experience brain’ and grow.
In this case, if students consciously focus on language, it will probably be the names of the fruits, which they can see.
But with perhaps dozens of different fruits being discussed, these words will be repeated little and mostly forgotten.
But other patterns and chunks of language like “They’re called” and “costs more”, repeated over and over again many times in meaningful ways, are understood and eventually acquired without noticing.
Like the use of parallel structure I described, this is providing lots of repetition of chunks of language and patterns in meaningful ways with variation.
Ideally, ALG is about providing language alongside rich experiences that involve many senses and emotions, create lifelong memories, and make input that’s so compelling that people forget they’re acquiring a language.
But as I’ve written, this level of experience is difficult to consistently provide in the classroom.
In the classroom context, natural approaches like ALG probably need to provide more repetition of language to increase understanding and make up for the relatively weaker contexts the language is heard in.
Along with techniques like circling, the use of parallel structure is another powerful way to provide more meaningful repetition of language that’s comprehensible.
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