“Comprehensible input” is a term used pretty frequently in language learning circles, and for good reason: It’s important.
The basic idea goes something like this. When you’re learning a foreign language, you need to read or listen to comprehensible input–that is, stuff you can understand the basic idea of. In turn, you pick up the language subconsciously.
So if you watch a movie and can follow along with the plot, then your brain will subconsciously pick up a lot of the language, including both grammar and vocabulary. That’s the basic idea behind the theory, and if you want more on this, I covered it in depth in a previous post.
There’s a lot of debate on whether comprehensible input is the only path to picking up a foreign language. I don’t think it is myself, but I do think it’s a vital tool in any language learner’s toolbox.
Where do you find comprehensible input?
Traditionally, a teacher would assess your skills and give it to you by adjusting his or her speech. But what if you’re a self-learner like I am?
Well, you need to find texts that are appropriate for your level. You absolutely do not have to understand every word, but if you can get the gist of what’s being said, then you are getting enough comprehensible input to effect improvement.
Here are ten ways to find it.
1. Read kids’ books and watch kids’ shows.
Adults are often hesitant to do this. I mean, I get it. Content that’s tailored for kids is not always the most interesting material for grown ups. But when you’re starting out in a language, this is exactly the kind of stuff you should be reading and watching.
In fact, the only thing you have to watch out for is that sometimes kids’ stuff is too difficult. When I was going through my Arabic class, we didn’t start watching Iftah Ya Simsim (Sesame Street) until we had had about 1500 to 2000 hours of instruction under our belts, and we still didn’t understand every word.
2. Pick videos over audio.
Remember, the idea with comprehensible input is to understand what’s going on, not understand every single word. Videos provide contextual clues that can help you follow along without getting too lost. For example, if you hear a guy say, “I love [word you don’t know],” and he’s holding up a pomegranate, then you can infer he was saying he loves pomegranates. And if you remember the word he used, you’ve learned the word for pomegranate.
Don’t stop listening to audio, such as podcasts and the radio, by any means. Just know that with videos, you can understand more difficult texts, sooner.
3. Read books with pictures.
Same exact idea as with videos. With many children’s books, you can follow the gist of a story without understanding a single word by looking at the pictures–which are often high-quality drawings. This might help you ease into being able to understand text-only novels.
I’m not just talking about kids’ books either. Coffee table books, science books, and even technical manuals often have helpful pictures that provide clues.
4. Watch translations of movies and shows you know.
One of my favorite movies is Bloodsport. (Don’t judge me.) When I was studying Spanish, I watched the Latin-American Spanish version of it. I was able to follow along because I knew the plot inside and out.
Same with watching Family Guy and Simpsons episodes in both German and Spanish. I know the characters, I know the episode plots, and I know the jokes. And hearing the jokes in my new languages makes me appreciate them even more.
6. Read translations of books you know.
Same idea, but with books. Harry Potter is translated into several languages, as is The Little Prince, Twilight, and The Hunger Games series. If you’re not a big fiction reader and are into more self-improvement type books, check out stuff like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. or anything else you’re familiar with.
7. Go over the same text again and again.
I wrote about this before, but basically if you can stand it, then read the same book, watch the same show, listen to the same song, or watch the same movie over and over again. Even if you don’t catch a lot the first time, you’ll catch more and more as you go along, just as kids do.
8. Read tabloids and celebrity magazines.
Imagine someone learning English trying to read The New York Times or The Economist. Of course they’d struggle, even if their English were decent. I mean, American high school students struggle with those kinds of publications.
Some news sources publish articles written at a sixth-grade level. Others at a college level. The harder publications use more “elevated” vocabulary, use more complicated grammatical structures, and cover more complicated topics. When you’re starting out learning and looking for stuff you can understand, just do yourself a favor and stick to the easier media.
I love reading tabloids–such as the German newspaper Bild–and celebrity magazines–such as the Spanish version of People magazine–because they’re written using more down-to-earth language. They’re a nice segue to taking on more lofty publications.
9. Listen to stuff while reading the transcript.
There are news programs and podcasts that provide a transcript with the audio, so that you can listen and read at the same time. Alternately, if you’re watching a DVD or streaming video, you often have the option to turn on closed captions.
I don’t like to overuse this technique because it feels like a crutch and it slows down development of my listening abilities. But sometimes in the flow of a dialog you’ll hear words you know but don’t recognize, and reading along helps you get past that.
10. Concentrate on one subject for a while.
If you spend one to three weeks concentrating on a single topic–technology, weather, celebrities, politics, whatever–you’ll see the same words and patterns over and over again. Reading sports articles, for example, will get you acquainted with vocabulary words such as team, defeated, lost, crowd, points, and so on.
If you struggle through a couple articles in a topic with a dictionary, you’ll find that you’ll soon be able to understand similar texts with fewer problems.
With several of these techniques, you are converting material that should be too difficult for you into stuff that you can understand. With that in mind, if you follow these techniques, you’ll have almost an endless amount of free, comprehensible texts at your fingertips, available in most languages.
Give some of these a try and let me know what you think in the comments.