How do you learn new words if everything is known?

On a Chinese-learning forum, a user asked:

I understand how CI develops the ability to recognise and produce appropriate structures and functions in a language, but if the input is all known to the learner (in terms of vocabulary used) how does the learner acquire the long lists of vocab needed to actually use the language day to day?

The answer is that in CI teaching, the input isn’t all known; it’s all comprehensible.  Or it’s made comprehensible. There are two ways that something might be comprehensible: either he really, really knows it already (so that when hearing it, he immediately associates the correct meaning) or we make it comprehensible at that moment. That means that when the learner is presented with a new word or structure, he is told immediately what it means. In TPRS, we write it on the board right in front of him, bigger than death. I wouldn’t consider that new item “known” (for a beginner, I mean) until it’s been circled a lot and the learner has encountered it probably 60-70 times in completely novel and unexpected contexts over a bit of time.

As learners get more advanced, I believe that the amount of repetitions needed to “own” a new word or item decrease. But probably that would belong to what I think of as “phase 2 fluency” in Chinese, where the learner has acquired all the main structure of the language already, but doesn’t have much (relatively speaking) in the line of acquired vocabulary.

That’s the time when the focus can shift to reading (reading being more effective than listening as the input can be timed to the learner’s pace, he can look things up, and so on). Ideally, the learner would be provided with mostly comprehensible reading input, still following the progression of the most common items (or the items most common in the learner’s world — depending on his profession, situation and goals) and would be no more than maybe 5% unknowns. Any more than that and reading becomes a cryptogram with a dictionary backup, and gets frustrating for all but the most die-hard of learners.

I am a strong supporter (no surprise here) of CI for beginners, but I’m still thinking about what I believe the role of CI is — or better stated, what specific CI-based techniques are best — as students progress. I do focus on beginners and most of all on “false beginners” — people who’ve had some classes but really haven’t acquired what was covered in those classes. I’m not in a situation just now where I deal with a lot of people who have already acquired all the structure of the language, but it’s something I like to think about and discuss.

I think the relatively shorter time to acquire the structure of Chinese as compared to, say Spanish (through CI means) means that although both are languages and are best acquired through CI (IMO), we need to think about different strategies at different points of time. The ultimate goal is a student who has all the structure of the language AND a sufficiently broad vocabulary for what he needs to do — which to me would mean command of most of the high-frequency items plus a pool of specialized items that cover his own personal endeavors and focus. But that happens at different stages for Spanish and Chinese. Because classes presenting Spanish structure require more time, more vocabulary is acquired along the way. So I think the question you raise about how to supercharge the long lists of vocab one needs day to day is a very good one.

If we assume that the learner who already has the structure but wants to expand vocabulary needs somewhat less repetition (but still needs repetition and unexpected contexts) the challenge becomes how to present increasingly less-frequent words in sufficiently repetitive ways. I would suggest:

1. Reading — general reading of level-appropriate texts in topics of interest. It would be great if some attention were given to writing “young adult” reading level novels in Chinese for learners, with, say, a particular list of mid-frequency words repeated a lot in the story. It wouldn’t need to be the “pound it to death” repetition of TPRS for beginners, but some attention being given in the crafting of the book so that the list of words has some chance of being acquired or nearly acquired through that reading.

2. Listening — this is tougher. I’d like to see scaffolded listening opportunities for learners. Just listening alone isn’t enough. Listening to open source stuff while using an alphabetically-arranged dictionary is an option (and today with the ability to record things and slow them down, it’s probably a better option than when I was in college and we had to collect nearly-dead batteries to slow tapes down). Better still would be some listening program that provided the glossary ready-made so the learner could preview the new items and then hear them repeated in unexpected contexts within the listening passage.

3. Assuming that the learner has the structure of the language acquired, and has a reasonable accent and ability to pronounce any Pinyin word he sees correctly, output can jumpstart acquisition of vocabulary items IMO. Once you’ve been “stuck” on a word, looked it up or had it told to you, AND then used it repeatedly over a short and memorable period of time, you tend to retain it. This is good for people living in a Chinese-speaking environment who have to accomplish specific tasks (“I need to buy copper wire, how the heck do you say ‘copper wire’ anyway?”) but it does lack the breadth of vocabulary presentation and the benefit of further exposure to native-like use of all the structure of the language (since it’s output and not input, the learner can’t really get much more than the word, although the interaction with the native speaker about whatever is going on would provide input that should be more comprehensible than average since the learner has established the topic and previewed some of the vocabulary that’s likely to appear). The benefit of this approach is that it’s really practical — you get your wire bought at the same time.

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