Blonde woman jumping up in excitement on a forest path
Photo by Mert Guller

But will your students be?

Teachers go to demos, and teachers loooooove to learn new languages. That’s why we’re language teachers. We get excited by the grammar patterns, the new sounds, even (let’s face it!) the geekery — everything. And presenters love to do demos because (frankly, speaking as a presenter) they’re a lot easier than actually teaching students. No management problems. No missing students. Short and sweet and no accountability or testing.

So let’s say you went to a demo, and someone used Comprehensible Input to teach people with no previous experience in a language about some factual topic. Car repair, or the importance of changing batteries in smoke detectors every six months, or whatever. Something non-fictional and unrelated to the details of the actual people sitting in the room.

The teachers typically come out of that demo saying “Wow! I was amazed at how much language I got! I could read the whole paragraph about canal engineering after we talked about the dredging tools in Whoziwhatzian!” They don’t go into the lunch break speaking the language, because people don’t typically talk about canals during their leisure time. But they chalk it up as an exciting experience that they definitely want to bring back to their classrooms.

But let’s back up a second. How will beginning students react to the same experience? They have no language, and many of them aren’t specifically excited about having language. Some are there because it’s a required course. Some are there because the Other Language They Wanted was full, or they didn’t get selected, or whatever. Others are just having such a hard time with life in general that they’re distracted. No breakfast, or not sure where they’re going to sleep tonight, or dysfunctional family dynamics, or no family at all.

How excited are those students going to be about being able to read a paragraph? Not about what’s in that paragraph, just about being Able To Read It?

In Chinese (since characters are seen as “cool”) — maybe. There’s some wow-factor going no matter what people read. But in an alphabetic language — not so much.

TPRS (the first really practical pre-college level widely-used form of CI language teaching) specifically focuses on the students for a good reason. That is a topic that never fails. It’s very unusual to find a person who’s not interested in themselves. It is, however, not very hard to find a person — especially one who’s between the ages of, say, 5 and 18 — who’s not especially interested in the capitals of Spanish-speaking countries, or the nutritional pyramid, or whatever.

So there are two questions operating here. Is it possible to teach “content” using CI with beginners? Yeah, you can do it. You can make any language comprehensible if you know how to do it, and it’s not rocket science.

The second question goes to why many teachers “try and fail” with CI, or decide they must “mix” with traditional methods. And that question is this: is it desirable to teach “content” using CI with beginners?

I don’t think it is.

Maybe occasionally. Maybe just a bit later in the course of things, when they already have some language and are able to use what they have talking about topics near and dear to them (each other, things they’re interested in, and so on). Even the ACTFL standards repeatedly mention “familiar topics” as the scope of language for various levels of proficiency below the very top of the pyramid. But not from zero, and not exclusively for beginners, as some people are promoting. There’s no shame in using topics that “hook” students to get them to acquire language.

Rigor is great in the classroom. But not for acquisition. And rigor certainly shouldn’t be followed by “mortis” when we’re talking about student engagement and interest. Not just the “good” students, but ALL the students.