Starving for Comprehensible Input

Could the lack of interesting and understandable content explain a common behaviour among language learners?

A desert scene to depict a lack of comprehensible input today

A good friend not long ago remarked that he’s “starving for comprehensible input”—opportunities to hear the language he’s learning in ways that are both highly interesting and highly understandable at his level.

He lives in Bangkok, just a few stops away from a one-of-a-kind program that provides hundreds of hours of Thai input in ways even beginners can understand no matter their first language, but a busy schedule keeps him from going there.

He occasionally takes lessons with a Thai tutor who understands the importance of comprehensible input, but is also too busy to do much about it—booked solid with students who demand not to hear a lot of Thai in understandable ways, but rather, to get explanations of how the language works and how to say things in it.

Second language acquisition research shows that we acquire languages and become fluent in them not through study and practice of words and grammar rules, but through massive comprehensible input.

So where is all the comprehensible input?

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Abundant Compelling Comprehensible Input: What We’re Aiming For, and How to Get There

There’s no shortage of compelling things to communicate in every language. The challenge is having people make them highly comprehensible even to those who don’t yet know their language at all.

In order to acquire new languages as effectively, efficiently, enjoyably, and effortlessly as possible, the most important thing is to have an abundance of compelling comprehensible input at every level.

Compelling comprehensible input means being able to hear the language you’re learning in ways that are both highly interesting and highly understandable to you.

Unfortunately, although we have both the technology and human resources to create it in abundance today, compelling comprehensible input remains needlessly scarce.

This is especially the case for total beginners, but it’s true for every level of learner, all the way up to advanced.

This blog, Beyond Language Learning, is about creating a world where compelling comprehensible input is available in abundance to every language learner.

You’re reading this, I hope, because you too are interested in the same kind of goal, thinking about how to get there, and perhaps even working already to build that world.

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Looking For a Shortcut?

There are no true shortcuts to learning a language to fluency. But there could be far more efficient and enjoyable ways to get there.

Several years ago when I was learning Chinese, I encountered a guy at a language meetup.

He had lived in Taiwan and spoke fluent Mandarin.

As I remember it, he remarked that the vast majority of foreigners in Taiwan failed to learn the language.

He also said that the people there wouldn’t understand you if your pronunciation was even slightly off—even with very common words in their language like numbers.

I remarked that all these failures and difficulties pointed to a need for better resources to support language learning.

“You’re looking for a shortcut,” he told me with what sounded like a hint of annoyance.

I tried to explain that I was looking for better opportunities to learn languages—not so much a shortcut.

“And I’m telling you there isn’t one,” he reiterated.

He said that you had to put in the time and effort, and there was no way around it.

I am putting in the time and effort, I protested; I am listening to Chinese.

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How to Make Input-Based Language Teaching More Efficient: Comprehensibility, Repetition, and Memorable Experience

With around a million followers across social media, A.J. Hoge is perhaps the most influential former student of the AUA Thai Program so far in terms of impacting language learning in the wider world.

A.J. Hoge Effortless English ad
A.J. Hoge in an online ad for his Effortless English system

In developing his Effortless English system to help learners who have studied English for years but still can’t speak it well, Hoge (rhymes with “rogue”) surveyed a variety of language-teaching methods, especially ones based on comprehensible input.

His research included attending AUA in Bangkok for over 600 hours of classes taught uniquely using the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) methodology, where students pick up Thai without study or practice through listening to teachers who speak it using non-verbal communication and context to make it understandable.

Thankfully, Hoge blogged about his experiences at AUA around 2004 and shared his thoughts and analyses, and his writings have remained online since then.

I didn’t give his posts much thought when I first read them, but after attending AUA myself for over a year, noting how it differs from what was intended for ALG, and surveying other comprehension-based approaches, I realize that I’ve arrived at very similar views on how AUA’s implementation of ALG could be improved.

As I’ll explain though, there’s another aspect of ALG that I would also emphasize strongly in improving how the approach is implemented: the power of highly memorable experiences in the target language.

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An ALG student understands only a few words after over 30 class hours. Has that time been wasted?

Recently I was following some discussions that an Automatic Language Growth enthusiast prompted through writing about their experiences as a student for the first time in the AUA Thai Program, where the ALG approach has mainly been applied.

A highly experienced language teacher expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the ALG method, and was unimpressed with the student’s report of being able to recognize many words, though not yet understand most of them, after 30 hours of classes.

The teacher uses TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling), another comprehensible input-based language teaching method.

TPRS teachers use tools such as translation to establish the meanings of new words, very slow speaking of the target language to ensure understanding, and asking many questions to provide meaningful repetition of language and check student comprehension.

They generally aim for very high levels of comprehension on the part of their students, with some trying to ensure that nearly 100% of the words that they say in the target language are not just comprehensible to their students, but indeed comprehended by them.

To these TPRS teachers, it may appear that the time that the student has spent in the ALG classroom has mostly been wasted.

What acquisition of language could have occurred if the student has comprehended so little of the actual language that they have heard?

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Guessing for meaning can be helpful, but it’s not what ALG is really about

In my last post, I wrote about the dangers of focusing on certain aspects of Automatic Language Growth as it’s applied in places like the AUA Thai Program, then emphasizing these actually peripheral things at the expense of more central and critical aspects of the approach.

I looked at the avoidance of translation or first-language use that many people take note of in ALG classes, and argued that this isn’t really central to ALG: Using the learner’s first language to help get meaning across can be compatible with ALG when the learner’s attention is entirely on meaning rather than language.

Rather than focusing on avoiding or banning translation, we should be focusing on the heart of ALG: providing abundant compelling comprehensible input in the target language for learners at every level, with the goal of creating understandable experiences so rich in context and meaning that no translation is needed.

Following some recent discussions, I’ve been thinking about another aspect of ALG as it’s observed in practice: the role of guessing.

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The Dangers of “Cargo-Cult” Thinking in Applying the ALG Approach

A sometime enthusiast of the Automatic Language Growth approach recently remarked to me that there’s a somewhat cultish aspect to the theory.

I definitely agree that the central claims of ALG—that given the right experiences and approach, adults can acquire new languages effortlessly and approach native-like levels of fluency—are of the sort that can inspire potentially cult-like devotion.

One of the main messages I try to communicate is that there are good reasons to take such claims seriously and they need to be the subject of rigorous scientific research.

Research of this kind largely hasn’t been done yet, but I think it could yield important insights supporting far better language learning.

In the meantime, we need to think clearly and carefully about how we go about putting ALG ideas and concepts into practice.

A danger that can arise from an uncritical devotion to ALG based on aspects of the theory that can capture the imagination is to become dogmatic about applying it without regard to practical concerns such as the overall context.

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We Need Experience of All Kinds for Better Language Learning

Experience is huge in the theory and practice of Automatic Language Growth, which claims that even as adults we can effortlessly pick up new languages and approach native-like levels of fluency and ability.

The ALG approach is based on the notion of comprehensible input popularized by Dr. Stephen Krashen, who said the only way we acquire language is “when we understand messages.”

In developing ALG, Dr. J. Marvin Brown narrowed this idea of understanding messages down to “happenings”: hearing the target language in meaningful situations that have elements like a ‘who’, a ‘what’, a ‘when’, a ‘where’, a ‘why’, and a ‘how’.

The idea is to create understandable experiences through which students can pick up language without paying attention to the language.

ALG argues that rather than age, the adult tendency to focus on and analyze language is a main reason why older learners don’t learn them as successfully as young children, who cannot consciously do that.

But in implementing ALG, Dr. Brown wanted a lot more than plain old “happenings”.

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Where Is All the Comprehensible Input?

UPDATE: Read about how I’m creating comprehensible input videos that beginning English learners can watch, understand, and pick up English from without study, practice, or translation—even if they don’t know any English at all.

It’s been well over 30 years since linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen popularized the notion of comprehensible input as the basis for language acquisition.

According to Krashen, even as adults we become fluent in new languages not by studying and practicing words and rules, but by gaining exposure to language in ways that make it understandable to us.

You can see Krashen demonstrating comprehensible input in a 1983 BBC documentary where he’s shown giving an audience two brief German lessons.

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