The ability to comprehend new information is a critical concept in language learning — one that can determine how well you’ll be able to absorb language elements and use them in a meaningful way. That is, you acquire language in a predictable order, starting with the most basic then increasing in complexity as you understand more and more language elements.
Comprehensible input is a hypothesis first proposed by linguist Stephen Krashen. According to this concept, language is acquired by hearing and understanding messages that are slightly above your current level of ability with the target language. Same goes for your output — when you practice new language elements, you need to do it at just slightly above your current level of competency.
The formula, then, is to make sure every next lesson is just slightly above your current level of comprehension. That way, you don’t burden yourself with an unusually difficult obstacle, making the learning process very manageable.
Barrier Too High
Say you’re learning English. If you already know the sentence, “You are my first love,” then it won’t be too difficult to comprehend sentences like “You are my second love” and “You are my first dog.” That’s because you only have to figure out one new word in the entire sentence. If it’s put in the context of a paragraph, a discussion or a story, chances are you’ll glean what is meant naturally. If not, you can just hit a dictionary really quickly and get an immediate grasp of the new sentence. This is the kind of barrier that makes language learning accessible — just enough of an obstacle to teach you something new without making it a challenging mental feat.
Same goes when you learn new vocabulary using words and phrases that belong in a group, such as the parts of a face or things you can find in an office work desk. The context makes it easier to remember all the different items in stark contrast to when you have to learn the equal amount of words selected randomly from a dictionary.
When the barrier to learning is too high, it becomes a challenge for students to pick up new information. While some will, undoubtedly, step up to the challenge, most are likely to mentally shut down. Why? Because that’s what we tend to do when something’s too difficult to comprehend. It’s why many people haven’t solved a Rubik’s Cube, learned high-level algebra or studied assembly-level programming — majority of us just aren’t cut to go from zero to hero in many fields of learning. Instead, we’d be better served taking bite-sized chunks and digesting them before moving on to take another mouthful.
Imagine taking a class in Italian where the teacher spoke nothing but fluent Italian. Basically, you’re just sitting in an Italian classroom, listening and hoping that somehow, someway, you’ll be able to make sense of what’s being talked about (i.e. passive learning). While that could be good for exposure to the language, there’s very little chance you’ll be able to pick up anything you can add to your immediate skillset. It’s a good strategy for getting comfortable observing the language, but a terrible one for actually learning.
This way of learning actually shares plenty of common with the acquisition of many non-language skills. When you’re learning programming, for instance, you start out with the most basic — displaying “HELLO WORLD.” Then, you move on to just slightly more advanced things, like changing text displays, simple inputs and the like. You don’t just jump into a programming language and code an entire game your first few times — you need to build up the facility.
Are there exceptions to this gradual form of learning? Sure. Some people are just born with preternatural language gifts, just as some people’s math, logic and problem-solving skills make them naturals for programming. In both cases, though, the exceptionally gifted becomes an exception to the rule, almost like a guy who can jump five levels of a staircase in one gallop. For the rest of us, we’ll have to take our time and climb the ladder one rung at a time.
Good Language Programs
If you follow this line of thinking, then it’s imperative for your language learning program to be structured such that it doesn’t overwhelm you with lessons that are too advanced too quickly. It’s also important that you learn to set filters yourself. If something is a little too advanced for you to understand instinctively, you’ll have to recognize it, then pull back a little and review past lessons before moving forward.
Limiting your practice along the lines of what you can manage is just as important as keeping your input comprehensible. This is a lot harder to accomplish because it doesn’t just depend on you and your material. Instead, you need to manage both the people you practice with and the kind of conversations you conduct.
That’s why some language experts recommend starting out with a silent period, allowing yourself to absorb various language elements before even attempting to bust out into speech. When you start speaking, this theory purports that you do it with folks along the same level of skill as you or, at the least, a native speaker who’s willing to work with you at your current level of ability. Interact with random native speakers and there’s a good chance your mind will just draw a blank, since it’s highly likely they’ll end up spewing words and phrases you can barely comprehend.
A good recourse for early practice is a study group of fellow language learners along or near your level. In such situations, the atmosphere tends to be very relaxed, since you’re not under the pressure of embarasssment. You also get immediate feedback from your peers. While some will dismiss this as the blind leading the blind, it usually works out well, especially when you take the group consensus (instead of just one individual’s). A private tutor who is willing to work with you at your current level should also be good, as well, provided they regularly check your comprehension of what’s being talked about.