Together forever…another happy match from a +1 that wasn’t left lonely!

Photo by Jeremy Wong Weddings

No, not for the wedding…or to fool the Chinese parents over Spring Festival…that’s been solved with all the useful rent-a-date services out there. (See for more.)

The +1 I’m talking about here is part of the famous “i+1”. We know that if we keep doing the same things, the things that students have already mastered, they’ll never grow. They have to be pushed out of their comfort zone to learn new things, right?

To learn, yes. To acquire — kinda.

People do need to hear or read new language to acquire new language. But the issue that happens so often with teachers who want to use Comprehended Input in their classrooms is that they confuse new language (good) with incomprehensible new language (not good). ALL new language must be made comprehended if the brains in the room are going to acquire it. Any language that can’t be matched up to meaning remains behind in an untidy puddle on the floor and has to be mopped up at the end of class. It’s useless, except perhaps to develop a sense of “what the language sounds like”. But compared to comprehended input for the same length of time, that unmatched language packs about 0.0005% of the punch in acquisitional terms. (Genuine made-up statistic there, but you get the idea.)

Say that again. ALL new language must be made comprehended. At the time that it’s being used. That could mean beforehand, by “pre-teaching”, for example, associating a gesture with each new chunk of language and giving students a chance to respond with the gesture to demonstrate their comprehension. In Chinese — and in fact for other languages, as well — it’s powerful to make the gesture actually seem to “mean” something (and contain the tone(s) of the phrase, as well, for Chinese and other tonal languages).

The other choice is making the new language comprehended in real time. As soon as the teacher notices or suspects that there are some students who don’t understand something, it’s time to act. At that exact second, by pausing the forward progress of the conversation, description, dialogue or story, and establishing meaning. The teacher may know this is language the students have never heard before — that’s not too difficult to predict in, say, a 1st year class. Or maybe it’s a suspicion that some students are missing the meaning based on blank expressions, fidgeting, or Undesirable Student Behaviors. So much of “bad behavior” or “engagement issues” can be traced directly to teachers just not being comprehensible enough. (Remember, it’s easy for us. That’s why we’re language teachers.)

Whichever it is — fix the problem by offering the meaning. Make sure to “announce” the correct meaning, slowly and clearly, and write it somewhere visible if the students are literate. This is particularly important if there is a “process” like a back-and-forth with one or more students leading to the precise correct meaning, because that might have confused some students along the way as to what’s really the right meaning.

So, the +1 is necessary for acquisition, but it is NEVER actually the meaning itself. The meaning must be available to be matched to language in order for acquisition to occur. So that +1 is form, or grammar, or vocabulary in the target language. Of course we are going to continue constantly using new words and patterns to expand our students’ language. We just want to make sure that we’re not expanding their powers of guessing instead of just providing them with comprehended input.

If you never clarify what the correct meaning of new language is, you’re risking them coming up with something incorrect and then matching that wrong meaning to the language, very possibly over and over. I am of the opinion that — particularly in the case of beginners — we are not in the business of “building grit” but of “building language”. Just as no parent withholds the Cheerios from the baby until he says the word correctly with a full-blown American “r” sound, good language teachers don’t withhold the meaning of language in the name of building character in their beginners. As students advance, it’s more appropriate to have them work with unknowns in the language, because they have the necessary tools (the acquired language and grammar) to make sense of it, and the unknowns are a smaller proportion of the total.

So when you’re picking out your +1, be picky. Don’t settle for just dumping new language and trusting to luck that students will understand. Make that +1 new words, new grammar, new expressions, sure — but always insist that the meaning be established and available for the match. You wouldn’t want your +1 to be wandering around the reception all alone, and you shouldn’t let your language wander around in search of meaning, either.