Someone recently asked on another board why CI doesn’t use guessing. Most folks were brought up to understand that the ability to guess an unknown word is crucial for a foreign language learner. Isn’t CI shortchanging learners by always telling them what things mean?

For beginners, CI instruction is concerned with trying to find the fastest and most efficient way to get a beginner or novice speaker to correctly acquire the structures of the language, together with the highest-frequency vocabulary items.

After that happens, the student isn’t a beginner anymore — in fact, he’s actually pretty fluent within the bounds of that vocabulary, because all the grammar is truly internalized and can be used and understood automatically (which is more than many “intermediate” or “advanced” students taught traditionally can say). He’s not applying rules or stopping and groping for the words that he has had before. Now he needs to broaden his vocabulary and get used to how native speakers express themselves. So at that point, the emphasis shifts a bit. More unknowns are okay, since based on the known language, the student can often guess correctly.

More importantly, the unknowns that are occurring at that point are lower-frequency unknowns. There’s no point guessing what “go” means; it’s such a key word that it MUST be known. In the time that it would take to mime its meaning, or have the student guess it, the student could have the teacher establish its meaning and give a dozen-odd additional repetitions of the word used correctly, which will hasten its acquisition. But for a word that is less frequent, it won’t occur that often, and being able to guess it is a useful skill. Student guessing it won’t speed acquisition of the basic language, which is why we don’t play guessing games with beginners. It can be done, but it slows things way down without much corresponding gain in other areas.

My primary consideration in thinking about teaching is always beginners, because in Chinese (where I focus much of the time) very few students ever get past that point in a true sense of the word. Yes, they might finish the book, or do a year or two in class. But most have little ability to use the language without effortful thinking. That’s not language acquisition, it’s learning about the language. Why in the world wouldn’t a student be able to easily use what had been “mastered” in his classes at the end of the classes? What other class do we tolerate this in? “Sorry, I took a lot of math, but I can never remember what that curvy digit is…um, 5? 6 maybe?”

Once we can get the vast mass of students through the critical first year, and have them come out the other end with real fluency over a limited subset of vocabulary, which means internalization of all of the major grammatical structures of the language, we can think about expanding their strategies (guessing, circumlocution, polishing up those last few less-frequent structures, etc.) and exposing them to lots and lots of reading and bridging toward authentic input.

It’s sort of like the CI teacher is the basketball drill guy and after you get master what he is helping you do, you can play in a real game (or maybe some pick-up or half-court to get started!). You still need to gain some experience in real games, but if you know the fundamentals, you’ll perform much, much better than someone who starts playing basketball after just having watched a few games on TV.