10 December 2010

Whither comprehensible input?

In an earlier post discussing expository and naturalistic language, I linked to this video from a talk given by Stephen Krashen, discussing comprehensible input (CI):


So what exactly is comprehensible input?  A very clever man once said that "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."  That man was Albert Einstein, and never has a truer word been spoken.

I have never, ever had a simple explanation of what comprehensible input is.  I have had trivial explanations, but while these are simple, they explain nothing.  So I decided to go to my friendly neighbourhood search engine and look for that elusive definition, and ended up back in YouTubeLand.

First up, here's a teacher's explanation of CI, from a resource pack for teachers of modern languages:


The first thing of note is when she says "Sometimes easier to say what it's not" -- this is an immediate warning that we're in the field of not understanding in Einstein's terms.  She then follows this up with a list of quite trivially obvious things that aren't good teaching practice (just like Krashen's first demonstration with German).  Anyone watching the video should already be familiar with the idea that talking at full speed to a beginner is a no-no in the language classroom, so why is this of such note when discussing CI in particular?

As she continues, she gives an example of what she has developed as CI and says that "most sentences are about 4, maybe 5 words long."  This is a very impoverished model of language, as she is therefore reduced to generating a series of independent declarative statements.  The real meat of any language comes in the textual metafunction -- how words change each other's meaning.  All those little connectors that compare, contrast and relate individual phrases by demonstrating cause and effect, simultaneity, sequence of events and all that stuff that allows simple facts to add meaning to each other (my recent post against rote learning demonstrated how I used various facts and consequences to learn the order of 4 of the US presidents).

Textual metafunctions are notoriously difficult to learn by induction from context and do appear to need genuine conscious teaching -- the TEFL methodology normally gets round this by defining them as inherently "advanced" and teaching them through target language several years down the line.  However, doing this actually makes it harder to engage with authentic native materials, and the process of "grading" texts becomes ever more important.  CI would appear to keep students away from native language, not get them closer.

Ok, so just before the one minute mark, she recommends that material is 80% comprehensible.  This sounds very scientific, but at no point has she described how to measure percentage comprehensibility.  I'm not sure where this 80% comes from, but I've heard it bandied about quite often, and I suspect it's just another generalisation from the Pareto Principle.  (80% has become something of a superstition for our times -- the Pareto Principle has gone from being an observation of general behaviour in systems, to being considered an immutable law for success...)  But in this case specifically, what does she mean?  Well the general claim is that the reader will be able to infer no more than 20% of the meaning from the context provided by the other 80%.  This is all well and good, but this is not a simple game of numbers -- certainly language features will provide useful context for working out others, but other features won't.  If CI is to work, you need to look at which features interact in this way to reveal useful information about unknown language.  Again, how to do this is never really explained in a discussion of CI.  (It is discussed at some length by academic linguists, who develop some very sophisticated maps of how certain language features reveal others, but this remains in the journals, and never makes it into language teacher training materials.)

Now, at just after 3:30, the presenter goes quite far off the rails, telling us that texts that are "dry and uninteresting" are not CI. The whole video was announced as being on the topic of comprehensible input, but now she starts talking about something entirely different -- student engagement.  This is a recurring problem in teaching methodologies -- a fairly simple idea covering a small part of the methodology is used to describe the whole methodology.  Student engagement is very important, but engagement doesn't increase the "comprehensibility" of a text, it just increases the chances that the student will put in the effort required in order to understand it.   Both of these two variables must be considered at all times, so it is not helpful to try to present them as a single item.

So, on we go, and here's another great example of Einstein's definition of not understanding.

The definition revealed on the slides between 0:50 and 1:00 is anything but clear.  In fact, it isn't even a "definition" at all in the most common usage of the term -- the second and third bullet points, presented as part of the definition, are sidenotes on particular issues.


As she expands, the definition becomes rather circular.  The first "characteristic of comprehensible input" that she defines is "understandable" (2:14), which is the Germanic synonym of the Latinate "comprehensible".  The fact that she doesn't stop there means that she is, like the woman in the previous video, expanding the term "comprehensible input" in directions it wasn't intended to go in.  But like the previous in the previous video, we quickly get a "what it's not", and again it's a trivially obviously bad way of teaching that she throws in.  It does not help define CI.

As she expands on "understandable", she hits a particular danger zone, asking that you teach "using as many cognates as possible."  In the TEFL world, that means using "arrive" when you really mean "get to" or "depart" when you mean "leave".  Target-language-only teaching justifies itself by saying that we need to learn how words are used -- grading language by the introduction of cognates actively teaches language that is not natural, and the natural tendency for Romance language speakers to overuse terms such as "arrive" is something that has to be actively combatted in class, not reinforced.

Yes, using cognates is good when they can be used naturally.  The example she gives is a good one -- English "important" vs Spanish "importante" -- but she presents no guidelines or advice on how and when to use cognates.

Like in the previous video, an unrelated variable is thrown into the mix -- the "affective filter".  Again, this is not part of comprehensible input and only serves to distract from the discussion on what CI is/isn't.  She then starts talking about repetition.  Again, I'm confused as to how this fits into CI.  Surely the point isn't about "repetition" in the rote sense, but the sense of having it come up in 7 different texts before production.  But if she means that, she should say so.

Then she moves on to "visuals".  This is quite insidious, because now that we've establish the notion that texts must be "comprehensible" as a sort of divine law, we can address the fact that it is impossible to make texts comprehensible.  So step by step we redefine what is and isn't the text.  We introduce the notion that including "visuals" makes the text understandable, when in reality we are using visuals because the text is not comprehensible.  Why is it that visuals make a text "comprehensible", but a native-language equivalent word doesn't?  The video gives us the normal line (3:33): connecting a "new vocabulary word" [sic] to a picture "they will remember it quicker rather than having to connect the word in their target language to the word in their native language and then [exasperated tone] finally to the image produced in their mind."  The idea is thus presented that an image is more closely tied to the mental model of a concept than a word, but any look at the nature of abstraction and iconicity will show that this idea is built on very shaky ground (I'll explore this in greater depth in a later blog post).

The visuals is then supported by something else that all CI advocates propose: body language.  Unfortunately body language is linguistic, meaning there is native body language, there is target body language, and there is something that is neither.  Classroom body language is normally a constructed language, and it is not the target language.  Suddenly the target-language-only classroom has grown a third language.  And the student must learn that as well as the intended target language.  At least if the native language was used there'd be no need to learn a third code.

I was particulary intrigued by the rather odd claim that unspecified "brain research" has somehow proven that we can only learn 7 new words per day.  It's patently absurd -- you cannot "learn" any words in 1 day -- learning only takes place over the longer term, and I have never seen any language course that doesn't use less than 7 words in lesson one -- it would be a boring lesson indeed!

The demonstration given a 5:45 was something I did not expect; to me, this is nothing more than an audiolingual drill, which demonstrates something quite important:  language teachers don't normally change their techniques to match what research proves is effective (or claims to, at least), but instead find ways to justify what they already do in terms of the new idea.  Recasting the idea of audiolingual substitution as comprehensible input is dead easy -- if you want "N+1 comprehensibility (a woolly favourite of the CI crowd) then what could be more natural than taking a known structure and simply adding a new word?

The next video is an extreme example of the same phenomenon.  It is an excerpt from a relatively old book-and-tape English course.

This is a really heavily behaviorist course, but someone has recently decided it's CI and relabled it as such for the purposes of the video. I don't believe it's what Krashen intended the term to mean, but it certainly fits the definition he and others provide.  There's a lot of repetition, there are visuals supporting the text, the text uses context to support the comprehension of new structures and vocabulary...

...so we must conclude that "comprehensible input" is an overbroad term that doesn't really define anything specific.

Finally, here's a video presented as an example of "comprehensible input".


The language used in general is highly expository and not particularly naturalistic. The visuals she uses do not support the learning of grammar, they only assist in the learning of very concrete terms, particularly proper nouns.  Does the Mexican flag assist us in understanding that she's talking about her family? No.  It only helps us understand "Mexico", which is probably where most of the class are from.

Now, note at 0:58 she gets the students to say something -- a single word: south. She then proceeds to go through a string of questions with very simple one-word answers.  The goal here isn't to get the students talking, it's merely to verify that they've understood.

And this is where CI theory falls flat: it is based on Krashen's idea that "language acquisition" is a matter of simply absorbing and absorbing a language until you know the full language, but the streets of any major city are full of immigrants who learn to understand the language of their new homes, but never learn to speak it with any particular degree of accuracy.

CI fails because it necessarily focuses on concrete vocabulary and on learning to understand.  But these are far, far easier to learn than functional vocabulary (modal verbs, linkers etc) and learning to produce.  More than that, these are the things that students can learn outside of the classroom.  Surely it's the teacher's job to teach the hard stuff, the stuff that the student can't learn independently, and then let them do the rest on their own?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

No, you can only hold c7 concepts at once in short term memory, add one too many and you 'drop' the lot, like a juggler trying to keep too many objects in the air at once. Google for the classic paper "The Magic Number Seven (plus or minus one)". So as usual a teacher spouts nonsense about something they don't really understand.

Nìall Beag said...

It was plus or minus two when I was studying AI.

But yes, you're probably right that this is the source of the claim...