On Comprehensible Input

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Hey guys!

Sorry it’s been a little longer than usual since my last post – I’ve been extremely busy lately! Aside from being a full-time University student, I’ve also been running my own company (or trying to) and doing a lot of work for an organisation called ACYA (Australia-China Youth Association or 中澳青年联合会) for which I’m a Vice-President of the Monash University Chapter. In fact, I’m writing this post from the plane! I’m on my way home from the ACYA National Conference that was held in Brisbane. I met an amazing bunch of people, including many Chinese people with amazing English and quite a number of Australians with flawless Chinese – it was definitely an eye opener and reassurance that reaching a high level of fluency in Chinese is definitely possible.

Anyway, on to it!

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So, comprehensible input. What is it?

I believe the term first appeared in the work done by Stephen Krashen on language acquisition (if you haven’t heard of him, look him up). Essentially, he devised a model for language learning based around input (reading and listening) as an alternative to the traditional grammar-based approach favoured in classrooms. More specifically, he contends that in order to maximize efficiency in language learning, the input should be comprehensible: meaning not too hard that you can’t understand, but not too easy that it isn’t challenging.

I am a strong believer of the input model, as are other many far more accomplished language learners than me. Input, and listening in particular, makes up about 90% of my Chinese learning. The rest is spent learning characters and speaking. In the past 3 months I’ve been trying to average an hour a day of listening, and in that time I’ve progressed tremendously. Like, seriously, my Chinese is infinitely better. I wrote an article about my first month doing this challenge, which you can read by clicking here.

 

Why an input based approach is so effective:

  1. It’s the way we learn our native language. Have you ever wondered why everyone (pretty much) is able to speak their native language flawlessly and naturally? Or why you rarely make grammatical mistakes despite never touching a grammar textbook? The reason is because from your first day on earth, you are bombarded with an intense dose of input. A baby just sits there all day, absorbing the language being spoken around them. The result is that they have a seemingly ‘natural’ feel for the language. The good news is that you can be baby. You have my permission. Take some time out of your day to turn on your iPod and listen and absorb the language, and you will reap the benefits.
  2. It’s easy. You’re lazy. I’m lazy. We’re all lazy. From a survival perspective, it makes sense. Humans instinctively opt for the path of least resistance in order to saving time and resources. It is super easy to just turn on some ChinesePod and enjoy. Who can really be bothered smashing out those grammar exercises? And who can keep it up long enough to learn a language to fluency? I sure can’t. Whoever can must have some seriously God-like willpower.
  3. It’s fun and it’s interesting. Grammar is not interesting. I’ve always hated those fill-in-the-blanks like exercises most language teachers insist on making you do. I hate them so much that I don’t even own the exercise book my University’s Chinese course makes us buy. One of the fundamental rules of language learning is that it must be fun. If learning feels like a chore, then you are doing it wrong. There is plenty of interesting podcasts and books out there, so there’s no reason you should be doing anything boring. Plus, if you’re not enjoying the learning process, you are unlikely to give it up long before you get anywhere near fluency.

 

How hard should the input be?

I think this is sort of subjective. If the content is too hard, then you won’t be able to enjoy what you’re reading or listening to. But if it’s too easy, then you won’t learn as fast as possible. Things like ChinesePod are great, as their lessons/podcasts are separated into Newbie, Elementary Intermediate, Upper Intermediate and Advanced sections.

As a general rule, once you become ‘comfortable’ with a particular level, you should move up. It’s always going to be a bit of a shock when you move from Intermediate to Upper Intermediate, for example, but give yourself a few days to get used to the increased difficulty before you decide it’s too hard.

 

So, should you study grammar?

Like I said, the overarching rule is that learning must be fun. Therefore, if you enjoy reading about grammar or doing exercises, then by all means, go for it! It is just not something that I enjoy. I think that, in general, reading and listening will be more efficient that doing mundane exercises.

That said, when I am unsure about the meaning or function of a particular word, I often find it useful to look it up. Eventually, with enough exposure, you will learn what it means and how to use it from the context, but it is often simpler to just look it up. An example of such a structure would be the 只要(zhǐyào)… 就 (jiù) structure, meaning roughly ‘if this happens…then this will happen’. For instance, ‘只要我去学校,我就要学很多事情’ (If I go to school, I will learn a lot of things). It is used whether there is a cause-effect relationship between the two things. Apart from situations like that, though, when I come across an unknown structure that I look up, I never read about grammar or do grammar drills.

Want to read more about comprehensible input? Here are some more articles on the topic:

Author: Dan

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  • Great post, Dan! I totally agree that Comprehensible Input is super important. A mistake that many people do is trying to go too fast with the language, by dealing with complicated sentence structures and a vocabulary they don’t understand too early on, and they end up making their life miserable by looking up every other word in the dictionary. Definitely something to avoid doing!