“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Which language learning method is more effective?

A) learning about languages in general.

B) focusing on understanding the language through exposure.

The former is how schools teach languages. This is why you don’t remember anything from your high school language class.

Choice A: The Comprehensible Output Hypothesis

The Comprehensible Output Hypothesis states that learners progress by encountering a gap in their understanding of a language. By noticing the gap and adjusting their output, they learn something new.

Schools use this approach because it is measurable. It is easy to grade. 

The teacher exposes students to a gap in their language through a grammar lesson or vocab list. The student is then required to close the gap to pass the class. You either know the vocabulary or you don’t. You either know the grammar rules or you don’t. 

But language learning is not linear. Language learning is messy.

Our goal as language learners is to understand and be understood, not to learn the intricacies of linguistics. The Comprehensible Output Hypothesis doesn’t match this goal. 

Choice B: The Comprehensible Input Hypothesis

The Comprehensible Input Hypothesis claims that 1) learners progress through understanding input slightly more advanced than their current level and that 2) languages are not learned but acquired. Acquisition happens on a subconscious level.

Since the only way to comprehend is to be exposed, the majority of CI is based on reading and listening. Here’s an example of CI in action.

You are reading a book in your target language. While you understand the general plot, there are unfamiliar phrases and vocabulary words. Through reading the book, the words become vaguely familiar but remain on shaky ground. As you see and hear the same words in different contexts, that familiarity grows into understanding. 

While this process is largely subconscious, it has requirements.

1) Any form of media works, but it must be 100% in the target language. 

2) Regular exposure is necessary. Consistency is key. 

This method works. It is how polyglots are acquiring languages, and it is how we can expand our understanding as well. 

This is Part 1 of a series on Language Acquisition. Part 2 will feature in-depth, actionable steps for foreign language acquisition.

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