On a web group for CI teachers, a comment was recently made:

Intake(the part of the input that is comprehended) could be different for each student. This is to say one man’s targeted CI is another’s non-targeted CI.

In light of our TPRS/CI lens, I have some questions about this assertion.

Many people argue, “But it’s impossible to make input 100% comprehended!” To which I would answer: “Is it? Is it really? Or are we simply choosing not to bother?” It is the teacher who controls whether things are comprehended in the vast majority of cases with ordinary students.

Sure, it’s impossible to make input 100% comprehended (particularly for novices) without working at it. But most, if not all, things in life that are worth doing require effort. Just as one can fall in love and feel, right at the beginning in that heady burst of happiness, as though there will never be anything hard about a relationship, it’s tempting to believe that we can “just speak the language” with our kids and everything will be okay and they’ll get it “eventually”. Because the misunderstanding people have is that it’s okay for some not to understand some things because “they’re not ready to acquire those anyway”. And for a time, the honeymoon continues.

It does take some effort, and some conscious technique, to ensure that everyone understands everything at the moment it’s spoken in class. It’s much more appealing to simply say “You’ll be surrounded by incomprehensible language some day in the target culture. Just relax and don’t worry about it, and try to get the gist.” Funny, that sounds like a legacy method excuse for not presenting comprehensible input, not a statement that should be coming from the mouth of a CI teacher who believes it is the match between meaning and language form that causes acquisition. Without the meaning, there is no match.

But we do believe that language is acquired through matching. The brain matches incoming sounds to meaning, over and over. Not once, in most cases. But multiple times. In the case of grammar patterns, many, many times. In the case of single words with concrete meaning (“dog”, “cat”), fewer times. In the case of words or patterns that are very similar to something the brain already has about that language or a previous language, relatively fewer times. In the case of words or patterns that diverge widely from the brain’s previous experience, many more times. Think about how much more difficult it is even to simply parrot a long word in a very unfamiliar language with unfamiliar sounds in it, versus repeating a short word in a language with a sound system close to your native language. But in every case, no matter how many matches it takes, understanding must occur for a match to “count” toward acquisition of the word or grammar. And in our limited classroom times, we would much prefer those matches to be between language and its correct meaning. There’s no time to waste on matches that are building wrong rules in the brain’s mental representation of how that language works.

When is not understanding ever okay in a CI classroom? I guess if you define your “CI” as “comprehensible” (=”could possibly be understood”) it might be okay. In a natural acquisition setting, with little babies, there is no way to guarantee that real understanding takes place. But in the classroom, there definitely is. The classroom situation is not natural, and the students are not babies. ComprehenDED input for classroom use doesn’t allow letting students not understand, because comprehensible but uncomprehended input doesn’t help anyone, and we don’t have time in a school year, or even a student’s K-12 career, to wait around and hope for the best in regards to all that uncomprehended input. The understanding must take place for a match to even potentially occur.

Now, saying that not everyone is ready to acquire a particular feature of language at the same moment is probably true. But the point is, language is not acquired strictly sequentially. People don’t acquire one thing, then begin to acquire “the next thing”. It’s more like a huge line of buckets set under a long array of dripping faucets. The buckets aren’t the same size (things that are easily glued to the brain’s previous contents have smaller buckets, more easily filled to overflowing). Drop by drop, match by match, the neural connections are built in the brain, but until that bucket is full (the language acquired), the water won’t naturally slop over without any effort or any work involved. Being even one drop short will allow the next drop to be “gotten” and held in the bucket (understood, another match made), but not to overflow (be acquired, and be output naturally as the result of acquisition).

A single sentence will drip into multiple buckets. “Bob is buying a car.” There are the buckets of the individual words. There’s a bucket for the idea that putting “a” before a noun means we are not sure precisely which exemplar of that noun we’re talking about. There’s a bucket for the -ing on the end of ‘buying’ that tells us the action is going on right now. If the student’s native language doesn’t distinguish between the “ah” sound and the “uh” sound, there’s a bucket that says “there’s a difference between “ah” and “uh” (“car” vs. “cur”). It’s lucky we don’t have to teach all these things, because one could hardly even list them — and that’s just for hearing a very, very simple sentence. Fortunately, the brain does our work for us — provided we make sure to provide both the incoming language and its meaning to the student.

So to provide any input that is not comprehended by all is to shut off some or even all of the the faucets of some of the students. These days, everyone is talking a lot about inclusiveness and fairness and so on. Is it fair for the teacher to fail to make input comprehended to everyone, and to fail to check and make sure that has happened (since we know that failure to make the input comprehended is by and large the “fault” of the teacher, not the students)? I would say that in a language class, the most basic fairness is to ensure that everyone understands. It’s ahead of the kind of fairness that’s frequently discussed, such as not making all your story characters white, or talking about something other than “she’s beautiful”. The right to understand — which really means the right to acquire — is basic to a real CI classroom.

Saying “you’re not ready to acquire that yet” is an excuse (and based on a theory, not fact. The “Natural Order” is a hypothesis, and it’s based on acquisition in babies. By and large, no one who holds language is acquired through CI is really willing to think of the school setting as being an essentially different type of acquisition situation because the conditions are different). And even if we assume some students are not ready to acquire this or that at the moment, that has nothing to do with the teacher’s responsibility to have the student understand all the language at that moment. The teacher has no crystal ball that informs about what specific language each student is “ready” to acquire at a given moment, so really the only rational thing to do is to make sure that everyone understands everything when it’s said or read.