Comprehensible Input: Why Immersion Doesn’t Work and How To Fix It

Here’s a fun fact about the human brain. Everything you hear but don’t understand magically transforms into background noise.

Unfortunately, more often than not, any foreign language speech automatically falls within the same category.

In his Brain Rules, a leading neuroscientist John J.Medina explains that if nothing in the input arouses us we tend to check off within the first 10 minutes. Here’s a catch, however: paying attention is crucial for learning and memory formation. Once your brain gives up on trying to make sense of your GermanPod101, your language learning is over.

Ever had such an experience?

Don’t rush to the conclusion that you’re not talented in languages. It’s likely that you simply violated one of the maxims of language learning: you didn’t focus on comprehensible input.

Comprehensible input vs Immersion

One of my favorite moments in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York is where Kevin’s family sits in a hotel room in Miami and watches It’s a Wonderful Life… dubbed in Spanish. The expression on their faces needs to be seen.

This mix of “WTF?!“, boredom and disgust is the face of practically any immersion situation:

I had pretty much the same feelings while watching Intouchables fully in French for the first time. And if you ever tried to get through a foreign language movie, a radio show or – worse – a conversation with a native as a beginner, you should be able to relate.

At some point, it just becomes impossible to follow. Your brain checks off and bids farewell.

Compare it to another situation. You’re reading your favorite childhood book in Italian. Although way too many words look unfamiliar, somehow you are still able to follow along. You remember the story in general terms, and this background knowledge helps you to fill the gaps. As a result, you get lost in the book and soon forget what language you’re reading. That’s a whole different experience.

The only difference between the two learning situations is input quality.

What is comprehensible input

We acquire language in only one way: when we understand what people say and when we understand what we read“, explains Stephen Krashen, one of the most cited linguists and educational researchers in second language acquisition. It was him who invented the term comprehensible input back in 80-s, as a part of his five-fold Monitor model.

According to Krashen, comprehensible input is anything that you can understand despite the obvious lack of vocabulary and gaps in your knowledge of grammar. The optimal input is just a little bit beyond your actual language proficiency level.

Reading or listening at the right level allows you to build up your language skills and unconsciously acquire a foreign language very rapidly.

i+1: looking for comprehensible input

My favorite part of all this is Krashen’s formula. He illustrates his hypothesis in the following way: if your current linguistic abilities are i, then comprehensible input is i+1.

… …. ….

Wait, are you wondering the same thing?

What the heck is +1 ?!

Unfortunately, even Krashen himself won’t enlighten you on this regard. There is simply no clear-cut criteria for determining what this i+1 would look like in your case. No one would be able to tell you whether a specific book or a certain podcast is just a bit beyond your current level.

Moreover, what is comprehensible input for you today may not be so two weeks from now. Your i+1 zone tends to expand as your i (which is your current level) improves. The more you read the more vocabulary and grammatical constructions you acquire. Improved comprehension allows you to extend your reach and read more. And, as a consequence, to learn even more of the language.

Continuous experimentation and field-testing are two great ways to ensure that you are falling within the right range. However, there are surefire ways to adjust any kind of input to your current level.

How to make input comprehensible

The best thing about the comprehensible input is that you always know when it is not there. The sinking feeling of falling behind is always at your service to signal that you’re doing something wrong.

While working on my French comprehension skills last summer, I got to that point multiple times. As a result, I developed a list of guidelines that helped me to troubleshoot my input and tailor it to my proficiency level. So if you reached the same saturation point, stop doing what you’re doing and reassess the input with regard to five criteria:

#1 Slow speech

Most people naturally speak fast. This is the #1 thing that stresses out 99% of language learners. Podcasts and YouTube videos are recorded at the natural speech rate, and if you’re not able to follow at this speed, you won’t understand them.

Using software that gives you control over audio- or video speed is a great way to lower the stress and make the input more comprehensible.

#2 Visuals

Your ability to grasp the main point is a crucial characteristic of comprehensible input. One way to help yourself with this task is to use images. “Vision trumps all other senses” goes the rule #10 in already mentioned Brain Rules. The brain remembers 50% more information with images, no matter how complex the concept is.

So, if you have a choice, prefer YouTube and comics to podcasts and books.

#3 Familiarity

Our brains are ultimate outcome-calculation machines: they constantly build expectations about the future. Knowing in advance what may be said in a book can double your chances to understand it.

Avoid trying to learn something completely new through your target language while you’re still in the beginner-intermediate stage. Instead, opt for learning something new on the topic you already know well enough.

Reading a translation of your favorite book is a proven way to get comprehensible input.

#4 Multisensory learning

The more senses you involve in learning the better will be your comprehension. Combining audio with visuals will always trump audio alone. Similarly, combining text with audio will work wonders compared with simple reading.

Take the full advantage of multisensory learning. Whenever you can, buy both audio- and print versions of a book and use the Double Input method to boost your comprehension.

#5 Clarity

While you can work your way through all other criteria, a little can be done about clarity. People’s enunciation and writing style are completely out of your control. No tinkering with the software will help you to improve speech on already recorded video.

Combining your imperfect knowledge of the target language with someone else’s speech defects is a recipe for disaster. Automatically say no to such materials, or they will impede your progress.

Learn with comprehensible input

Forget about immersion, focus on getting comprehensible input instead. By far, it’s a more effective way to learn another language.

The best advice to learners might be to experiment with lots of different podcasts, blogs, books, and YouTube channels. Finding your fit may be time-consuming, but the effort is most definitely worth it.

Get as much comprehensible input as possible, and you’ll be able to learn a language by reading and listening quasi-automatically.


Image Credits: Photo by timJ on Unsplash

Author Details
Polyglot, Author and Founder of Linguapath
Hey! I am Alina Kuimova, and my long-lasting obsession with learning languages led to creation of this site. Apart from being a grammar enthousiast, I enjoy reading smart books in any language available, finding easier ways for the brain to learn things and buffing productivity stats by 180%.

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