Comprehensible input from a language learners perspective

"If acquisition is it, the question then becomes how do we acquire?"

According to research on second language acquisition by Stephen Krashen, we acquire language in one and only one way.

Comprehensible input.

But what is comprehensible input?

Comprehensible input, is a fancy way of saying listening and reading to things we understand.

"We acquire language when we understand what people tell us, what is said, not how it's said, but what is said"

Simply put if we expose ourselves to a lot of language, listening and reading to enjoyable and engaging content that we can understand, then we will continue to learn and improve.


But I don't understand anything?


When I listen and read I don't understand anything. How can I acquire language through comprehensible input, if I can't find content that I understand?

Being able to figure out meaning from context, scientists recommend the ideal is somewhere between 90-98% comprehension. We should be able to figure out the rest and fill in the gaps by ourselves.

But how do we choose material at the right level?

LingQ counts our known and unknown words for what we read and listen to. So before you click on an article or lesson, we can see exactly how many unknown words there are.

The more we use the system, the more accurate the figures are. This means we can use it to pretty accurately pick content at the right level for us if we use it a lot.

Of course there is still a big problem.

When we first start out in a new language we are at 100% unknown words, so figuring out completely from context is almost impossible.

So what then? How can I make input comprehensible?


How to get comprehensible input


This might seem like good advice in theory. But in reality it's much harder. It's hard to find content at the right level and when we start off we don't understand anything.

Figuring out from context is only one way we can make input comprehensible.

From the learners point of view, anything we use to understand what is being said, is a form of comprehensible input.

A basic example is like Stephen Krashen demonstrated in the earlier video. If we can show visually what we are saying, as we are saying it. Then students can simply watch and listen, and attach the words to the meaning as we go.

Other ways in which teachers can help you is through the TPRS method (teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling) and story listening by Beniko Mason.

Both these methods similar to Stephen Krashen's demonstration. They offer a mix of visual and contextual clues to help you understand basic content, and help you to understand what is being said without translation.

Additionally what you can do if you are a bit further along, is engage in a conversation with a teacher or partner over skype. (my favorite place to find a teacher is italki).

While you are speaking, if you come across a word you don't know. You can either ask your teacher to rephrase it in a slightly simpler way, or you can ask them to write it down.

Once they write it down, you can quickly look up what the word is in an online dictionary, and then carry on talking.

All of these methods work, but they all have one thing in common. They rely someone to help you.


What does Comprehensible input mean for an independent language learner?

As I said before, compressible input simply means anything we understand.

So working as an independent language learner, it is our job to use the tools we have available to make things comprehensible.


Dialogues with vocabulary lists


When I first started learning Cantonese all I had was a teachyourself complete cantonese book to work through.

There is no English translation of the dialogues, just vocabulary lists.

What I did was completely ignore all of the explanations and grammar notes in the book and spent all of my time listening to and reading the dialogues.

First I listened many times over to see what I can understand. Once I have done that I listen and read the transliteration at the same time.  This helps me pick out all of the sounds in the dialogue, and helps me to distinguish any words I already know.

Then for the words I don't know I look at the vocabulary list. This time I read through the transliteration slowly, and every time I come across a word I don't know, I check the vocabulary list for the English meaning to make sense of what I am reading.

After I have read through it once or twice, I go back to listening and reading at the same time. When I forget the meaning of a word, I refer to the vocabulary list and keep reading.

Here I am using English definitions of single words to help me grasp the meaning of the entire sentence. Quickly look up the meaning of a single word or phrase then go back to listening and reading in context.

Any beginners course or book will help you do this. LingQ offers a dictionary you can use by clicking on any word or phrase and translating it to help you make sense of what you are reading. You save the phrase and keep reading. It is designed to keep you in the language, listening and reading with as little time as possible spent looking up words and looking for definitions.


English translations


English translations can also be helpful when trying to understand the meaning of a new text or dialogue.

By going through in your target language first, then reading the English and going back to your target language after. You can use the translation as a crutch to get a clear understanding of what the text is saying.

You can then compare the two texts to look and see what words match, and help you gain a good understanding of what you are reading or listening to in your target language.

To go a step further you can try out a technique called "reverse translation" used by people like Polyglot Luca Lampariello.

Here you translate an entire text from your target language into your mother tongue. This can be with aid of a dictionary or word list if you are just starting out.

Then after that you translate back from your mother tongue into your target language, and compare to find the gaps in your knowledge.

Here is a video by Olly Richards explaining how this works, and exactly why it is useful:



A lot of the time when we think of flashcards, we think about learning single pieces of information or words out of context.

So how can this help us get comprehensible input?

Flashcards are user generated, so we can pick and choose exactly what we learn from and exactly how we set them up.

In my post on SRS flashcards one of the methods I listed was sentence mining.

Basically what this means, is to create lots of flashcards with your target language on side 1, and an explanation in your mother tongue along with audio on side 2.

You look at the flashcard and try to read the front of the card. Then use the audio and translation to check your answer.

If you get it wrong, check the words you don't know by comparing and then try again next time the card comes up.

Here you can see how we are combining the theory of comprehensible input with spaced repetition to help put new information into our long term memory.


Reading with an online dictionary


Reading is an excellent way to boost your vocabulary and learn new words, even at the beginner stages.

The only problem is it can be hard to find stuff at our level.

When we start reading, we can be easily overwhelmed with new words and lose the entire meaning of the text.

However, when we are first starting out it can be hard to find texts simple enough where we know 90% of all of the words.

So we can use online tools and resources to help us understand the meaning and keep going.

I have already mentioned LingQ, and other resources include readlang and popup dictionaries.

With online popup dictionaries installed on your web browser, you only need to activate them and then hover your mouse above a word to get it's meaning.

This can be a great way to enjoy reading at an early stage. Come across a word you don't know? Simply hover your mouse above the word, get the meaning instantly and then keep reading.

With modern online tools, this lets us tackle a much greater volume of unknown words and expose ourselves to much more language and learn even faster.

At an early stage all of the most common vocabulary you will see again and again until it starts to stick.

And at the more advanced stages, you will see targeted vocabulary come up again and again depending on the genre.

For example, I am reading a horror story right now in Cantonese. The main character gets caught in a storm while out at sea, and gets washed up on a deserted island.

Even in the first chapter, the word  荒島 (fong1 dou2), meaning barren or uninhabited island, came up at least 5 times! I had to look it up the first two or three times but because it kept on coming up, I quickly remembered how to read this word and all by just enjoying the story!




In short, comprehensible input is anything that helps you understand the meaning behind what is being said.

We should focus on meaning. Focus on what is being said, and not how it is said.

This works especially good if we are engaged in fun and interesting content.

Our brain is incredibly good at picking up patterns, so if we expose ourselves to enough language the grammar will come naturally, we just have to give it time.

This is incredibly consistent with my own experience.

When I first started learning Cantonese I made a lot of mistakes. I made little to no progress listening to podcasts using English to explain short dialogues. I spend about 15 minutes listening to the explanation of a thirty second dialogue!

You could spend years learning like this and never get anywhere. That's exactly what happened to me in school.

When I made the shift to focus on the dialogues themselves, listen and read many times using the vocabulary list to help me understand, my progress started to soar.

Aim to understand the meaning behind what is being said, and not to micro analyse every tiny aspect of the language.

Now I realize this is down to a concept known as comprehensible input.

How do you inject comprehensible input into your learning? Leave a comment and let me know!