The term ‘comprehensible input’ was coined by Stephen Krashen, a distinguished professor of linguistics and expert in second language acquisition.
Before we get into exactly what ‘comprehensible input’ means, let’s try to understand professor Krashen’s views on language learning and how best to achieve a high level of proficiency.
Professor Stephen Krashen
Professor Krashen believes that to make progress in a language requires meaningful interaction in that language, which can also be termed as natural communication.
He believes to achieve natural communication, the learner must have exposure to the language and absorb the language in the form of what he terms ‘comprehensible input’.
Essentially, comprehensible input refers to material in the target language that is comprehensible (understandable) to the learner while still being slightly above their current level of proficiency.
So what professor Krashen says is that to learn a language effectively, we have to be able to understand messages in that language.
Professor Krashen favours the ‘acquiring approach’, which could also be understood as the natural acquisition of a language through being exposed to comprehensible input, over the ‘learning approach’, which is based on the traditional style of formal instruction in the ‘rules’ of the language.
Professor Krashen ultimately recommends reading and listening (to comprehensible input) as the main focus when learning a language.
Is Language Acquisition Better than Language Learning?
Do you remember learning a language in school? How much of that language can you speak and understand now? I would guess not much. That’s because the way we’re taught in school is based on the ‘learning approach’ where learners must memorise grammar rules and sentence structures for exams and so end up knowing a lot about the language, but not being able to speak or understand the language itself.
The acquisition approach, as presented by professor Krashen, is the actual way to learn a language, not just learn about a language.
For all of us learning languages, our goals are to become functional in that language, which means being able to speak and understand it to the extent where we can have meaningful conversations with others. Comprehensible input directly helps us in achieving this goal.
It’s easy to see why the acquisition approach would be more effective when we consider that it is how children learn languages.
Children don’t study grammatical patterns or memorize vocabulary lists. They listen to meaningful, communicative input and naturally begin to express themselves, focusing on functional communication rather than correctness, until, eventually, their ability to speak and understand becomes flawless and effortless.
Chinese Fluency Through Comprehensible Input
Two of the most common reasons why people struggle to make progress in a second language is either the material they’re using is too easy for them, or, the material their using is way too hard for them.
A good example of this is Chinese language beginners that watch TV shows in Mandarin and expect to improve. They won’t improve by watching TV shows because the input they’re receiving is probably not even 10% comprehensible and therefore not in the least helpful.
Learners that study beginner textbooks often wonder why they aren’t improving, despite being able to understand all the lessons in the book. Well, it’s because they’ve reached the limit of what the beginner level can teach them and need to upgrade.
On the other hand, many learners study textbooks that are far above their level and consequently end up tearing their hair out with frustration.
Comprehensible input solves these problems for us.
With comprehensible input, there is somewhat of a middle ground. We’re challenging ourselves enough to make meaningful, continual progress in the language, but not so much that we get frustrated.
Comprehensible input requires us to understand the level we’re at and then select learning material that is 1 above that level.
Learning Chinese can be challenging but by focusing on comprehensible input we can make steady and noticeable progress in speaking and understand without having to study grammar rules and memorize vocabulary lists.
Resources to Use
When it comes to reading, there are plenty of great resources for us to choose from. Depending on your level of Chinese, graded readers may be a good option as they are created with this principle of ‘comprehensible input’ in mind.
Check out my review of ‘Chinese Breeze’ graded readers.
Graded readers are storybooks, written for learners of the language that only contain a set amount of words (and in the case of Chinese a set amount of characters).
So these are proper stories written with, for example, only 200-300 Chinese characters. This means that reading becomes accessible to those who don’t know a lot of characters.
Another great resource for reading is Lingq. Lingq is an online platform developed by polyglot Steve Kaufman, enabling one to read various stories and materials in a number of languages (including Chinese!).
Linqg has a large library of materials ranging in difficulty. The platform also enables you to look up the meaning of words, save unknown words to review later, and import your own material for reading at any time.
When it comes to listening, however, there aren’t as many quality resources out there. However, there is at least one that I absolutely love!
Olly’s language learning philosophy centers around spending time on learning activities that give you the most bang for your buck. In other words, he believe to make meaningful progress in a language one should focus on activities which have the highest payoff in terms of improving your proficiency in the language. This is a philosophy that we also share.
If you want to learn more about applying this philosophy to the study of Chinese, check out our Chinese Mastery e-Book.
Anyway, Olly has developed a language course called ‘conversations’, and we love it.
What is ‘Conversations’ All About?
Conversations in essentially a story, in the form of dialogs, told over twenty chapters. There are 6 characters, all of whom are Chinese native speakers, that engage in conversational dialogue.
Conversations provides you with substantial listening content that is based on the principle of ‘comprehensible input’, tailor-made for the intermediate learner.
The audio is of very high quality and the dialogues also allow you to learn slang/colloquial expressions that you won’t see in a textbook.
If you have been struggling to understand native speakers, then conversations is exactly what you need to rapidly boost your listening comprehension. And what’s more, it can be done in 90 days or less.
Each chapter is also accompanied by a complete transcript, which includes the English translation and the Pinyin. You will also receive a word list for each chapter containing the most difficult words and their translations.
Comprehensilbe input is a language learning tool and methodology that allows the learner to make rapid progress in learning a language. This method is centered around ‘acquiring’ a language rather than ‘learning’ a language.
While ‘learning’ implies the study of grammar and rules with a focus on vocabulary memorisation, ‘acquisition’ is about naturally absorbing all aspects of the language through exposure to meaningful, comprehensible input.
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