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1.2. Principle I: Expose yourself to massive comprehensible input


As you read this sentence, you are exposing yourself to comprehensible input. If you are reading it, then it is input. If you are understanding it as you read it, then it is comprehensible input. If you are still in the process of learning English, then the reading you are doing at this very moment is contributing to your ongoing language learning, since it is providing you with exposure to English that you can understand, that is, it is providing you with comprehensible input. If you are a native speaker of English, what you are reading right now is not helping you to learn English, but it is nevertheless comprehensible input. In the case of spoken language, anything you listen to is input. If you understand what you are listening to, the input is comprehensible input.

Stephen Krashen (1985), (1987) has suggested that the way people acquire languages is, practically speaking, incredibly simple. Instead of three main principles, he boils it down to only one: people acquire language automatically as a result of understanding messages. This is known as the input hypothesis. It is a daring hypothesis, and it has not won wide support in its extreme form. However, it is helpful to realize that simply understanding messages in the language you are trying to learn is a major factor, possibly the major factor, in acquiring that language.

In Urdu, there is a certain construction that is referred to as past perfect or pluperfect. In one language school, the students are taught that this is equivalent to the English past perfect, which is illustrated in the following sentence:

I had eaten all my food.

The idea expressed by the English construction is that the event described by the verb (the eating of the food) occurred before the time under discussion. That is, we are discussing some time X, and my eating of the food occurred prior to that time, and at time X, I had no food left. As a linguist studying Urdu, I noticed that the so-called past perfect in Urdu did not usually have this meaning. Rather, the meaning was that I ate the food exactly at time X, as opposed to any other past time. In other words, it indicates a specific past time rather than a general past. The details aren't important. What is important is that I observed graduates of that language school using the form correctly, rather than using it in the way that they had been taught to use it. More significantly, they were not aware that they were doing anything different from what they had been taught.

This small point about learning Urdu illustrates a large point about language learning in general: however much you may learn about a language in a school, if you ever come to really speak it fluently and extensively, a large portion of what you will be saying will go beyond anything you were taught. No matter how people begin their language learning, in the end, if they really learn the language, it will be in large part because of all the language that they absorb unconsciously. When do they absorb the language unconsciously? They absorb it unconsciously while they are hearing it (or perhaps reading it) with understanding, which is what Krashen means by “understanding messages”. If you hear the language being spoken, but what you hear is a big blur to you, how can you expect to absorb it? But as you hear thousands of hours of speech that you can understand, you will become thoroughly familiar with the language as it is actually spoken (or written). That is one of your main goals: become thoroughly familiar with the language through hearing (and possibly reading) vast amounts that you can understand.

The trick will be to find ways to expose yourself to speech that you can understand. Before learning the language everything you hear is a blur. It is like reading the following sentence in some unknown language:


There is no way to tell where one word ends and the next begins, much less what the words mean. At least in this written sentence you can recognize the letters, because they are familiar to you, drawn from a fixed set of twenty-six letters that you already know (though you don't know exactly what sounds these letters stand for in this language). And the letters just sit there on the page and let you stare at them. By contrast, the sounds of spoken language are not only strange and unfamiliar, but they whiz by and vanish as quickly as they appear. Getting beyond the stream of strange sound and hearing meaningful words, and understanding the message they are intended to convey is no simple matter.

In Thomson (1993a) I point out how a person with no knowledge of a language can begin understanding that language, provided what is said is supported by pictures, objects or actions. The pictures, objects and actions help to break the stream of sound up into meaningful words, and you are able to relate the words to the message because you can see with your eyes what the person is talking about. This is typical of the first stage of language learning. Since I am assuming that you are beyond that stage, I won't repeat that material here.

At each stage of your language learning, there will be certain kinds of speech that you cannot understand very well, and other kinds that you can understand reasonably well. If you want to keep hearing masses of language that you can understand, you will need to have some control over the types of speech you are exposed to. Of course, if you are living in a community that uses the language that you are learning, you will also be exposed to a lot of speech that you have no control over. In the more advanced stages of language learning, that exposure will be profitable to you, since you will understand much of it. In the early stages, you will only receive a large amount of profitable exposure if you have some control over the input you are getting. When I discuss language learning techniques and activities below, I will be discussing ways in which you can exercise the needed control.

Your language learning experience can be divided into four phases. As I say, during the first weeks of your language learning, you were able to understand speech provided it was well supported by pictures, objects or actions. For example, if you were learning English, and I merely told you, “The bump in the middle of my face is my nose”, with my hands folded in my lap, and a blank expression on my face, you would not have had a clue what I was saying. But if I pointed at my nose, and said “This is my nose”, and then pointed at my mouth and said “This is my mouth”, and then at my ear and said, “This is my ear”, and then back at my nose and said, “This is my nose,” there would have been a good chance you would understand the meaning of “This is my nose”, etc. That is because the meaning of what you heard would be made clear by what you saw. In the same way you would quickly come to be able to understand simple descriptions of pictures. That's life in Stage I.

Even though you are now beyond Stage I, you will still find that, other things being equal, it is easier to understand someone's description of a picture if you can see the picture than if you can't. That would even be true if you were listening to your mother tongue, but it is much more the case when you are listening to a language that you are still learning. In the case of your mother tongue, even when you can't see a picture that is being described, you can clearly recognize the words that the speaker is using, and understand the spoken sentences in a general way. In the case of your new language, seeing the picture that is being described may mean the difference between being able to hear the words clearly and being unable to catch the words at all. So pictures are still helpful to you in making input more comprehensible, or more easily comprehensible. You might want to refer to Wright (1989) for numerous suggestions as to ways non-beginners can use pictures as an aid to language learning. Still, at this point in your language learning, the advantage of seeing what you are hearing about is not as dramatic as it was during your first few weeks, so I won't say much more about the use of pictures during Stage II.

During Stage II, you can understand speech if the content is fairly predictable. The main contribution of pictures during Stage I was that they made the content of what was being said partly predictable. But, in listening to statements about pictures, you were typically hearing only single sentences, or at best short sequences of sentences. Assuming you now have developed some skill in understanding isolated sentences and short sequences of sentences, you need to start working on learning to understand longer sequences of sentences. However, in order for you to understand long sequences of sentences at Stage II, the content still needs somehow to be predictable. Here is a simple example of how that is possible. Consider the story of Goldilocks. If you grew up in the English speaking world, you probably know this story well. At the beginning of Stage II you can have someone tell you the story of Goldilocks in your new language, and to your delight, you will find that you can follow what is being said with good understanding of most sentences right as they are spoken. And so you are indeed able to follow a long sequence of sentences with good understanding. You have thus moved from understanding isolated sentences and short sequences of sentences to understanding long sequences of connected sentences. We will have more to say below regarding ways to do this.

At Stage II then, you are able to understand long sequences of sentences provided the content is fairly predictable. Getting comprehensible input at this stage may mean continuing to expose yourself to speech which is supported by pictures, objects or actions, but it can also mean exposing yourself to a large amount of speech which has this property of predictability, as illustrated by the story of Goldilocks.

Also at Stage II, you can understand input which occurs in a conversation in which you are interacting with a sympathetic speaker, who will go to the trouble of making the input comprehensible, and who will work with you in helping you to express the meanings that you are trying to express. We will have more to say about this in the next section. Along with listening to predictable stories, and other predictable discourse, engaging in conversational interaction with cooperative conversational partners is a major source of comprehensible input during Stage II.

At Stage III, you are able to follow long sequences of sentences that are less predictable, provided you are familiar with the general topic, and you don't get lost along the way. For example, if you are a welder by background, and you listen to a local welder discuss his work, you will be able to follow most of what he is saying. In order to follow a discussion of a familiar topic, you will first need to be keyed in on what the topic is. In addition, you will often need the full context of what is being said, or your comprehension will suffer. That is, if you come into the middle of a conversation, or a story, or a sermon, you will understand less of what you are hearing than if you had been there from the outset. There is a sense in which this is true even if the language is your mother tongue. However, in the case of your mother tongue you can at least catch the words and get a general meaning of each sentence even if you don't know the context. With your new language at this point, if you hear a sentence out of context, it will often be difficult to catch what is being said at all.

Since, in addition to the language, the culture and local history is also new to you, there will be many topics which are common, familiar topics to all native speakers of the language, but which are unfamiliar topics for you. Even fairly straightforward accounts of recent events may baffle you because you are unfamiliar with the general nature of such events, and with the general beliefs associated with such events. Thus you will want to spend a lot of time during this stage making yourself familiar with new topics and types of events that are common in the culture. As you do this, you will increase your ability to understand speech to which you are exposed. I will provide suggestions as to how to do this below. But in the broadest sense, your goal remains the same: get massive comprehensible input. That is, expose yourself to masses of speech (and possibly writing) that you can understand.

Eventually you will reach the point where most of the speech that you hear around you in most situations is reasonably intelligible to you. That is Stage IV. At that point, continuing to receive massive comprehensible input will be a matter of lifestyle. If you choose a lifestyle which largely isolates you from people speaking the language, your progress in acquiring the language will slow to a snail's pace, or cease altogether. But since you are well aware of that, you will put a lot of thought and effort into finding a lifestyle which will support your continued progress in the language, right?

So that is Principle I. Expose yourself to massive comprehensible input. With the right techniques, you can insure that you get a lot of input that is appropriate to any stage of language learning. As you are exposed to lots of comprehensible speech appropriate to the stage you are at, your ability to understand the language will continue to grow, with the result that you will reach the next stage, where you will use different, more advanced techniques, so that you can become skilled at understanding more advanced types of input. You move from 1) being able to understand speech that is well supported by pictures, objects or actions, to 2) being able to understand long sequences of connected sentences that are fairly predictable as to their content, to 3) being able to understand less predictable speech on familiar topics (provided you have the full context), to 4) being able to understand just about any speech whatsoever. You will progress from stage to stage, provided you are exposed to a lot of speech appropriate to each stage while you are at each stage. Simple, isn't it?

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