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Help! Comprehensible input is not working for me!

I don't get it.

I've watched two series of The Killing, The Bridge, Borgen and Follow the Money (all Danish or Swedish/Danish series with English subtitles). I understood what people said and everything that happened. That's many hours of comprehensible input. Great TV too.

And yet... I cannot understand any Danish (apart from the the odd swear word). I occasionally repeat things to amuse myself and my wife, but I can barely say a word. Comprehensible input failed miserably.

This is not really to dismiss CI, of course, but just a reminder that understanding language with the aid of subtitles is an inefficient way of learning a language. It's also a reminder to teachers that showing a film in the target language to near beginners or low intermediate pupils does little to directly further acquisition. It may serve other very useful purposes, such as giving an insight into culture and contributing to general motivation, but it's a very inefficient way to teach a language to inexperienced learners.

If you want to use film with new linguists you might have a look at Sara-E Cottrell's blog post about scaffolding Spanish film for 'Novice-Mid' students (the ACTFL's term).

She describes her approach thus:

"It is a bridge between the aural input and the oral output, a middle piece in that continuum where on one end they’re passively listening to comprehensible input and on the other end they’re accomplishing a performance task in the target language."

You can read her blog for more detail.

If you want whole films to seriously help with acquisition it generally makes sense to begin with high intermediate students who have acquired enough language to be able to begin to decipher the rapid stream of language they hear. Even then, I would choose films in which characters speak clearly and relatively slowly, preferably with pauses which allow students to process what they have heard. This is when comprehensible input can have its effect.

So with subtitles input can be comprehensible, but not usefully comprehensible. As strong proponents of CI rightly say, input needs to be at the student's level, or just above it. This is common sense.

For lots of ideas on how to exploit film with advanced students you might find this useful:


  1. Great point, Steve, even if somewhat cheekily made :)

    I don't know of anyone--theorist, researcher, or teacher--who would consider TL language that is synchronously translated via subtitles to constitute comprehensible input. If you couldn't understand without subtitles, then, by definition, it wasn't comprehensible input for you. (There's also the practical fact that, even with two languages one knows quite well, it's extremely hard simultaneously to attend to audio in one and subtitles in the other.)

    The actual point of your post, "that understanding language with the aid of subtitles is an inefficient way of learning a language," is quite true, and I agree that consumption of media intended for a native-speaker audience is unlikely to be efficient for Novice or even many Intermediate learners.

    The more general implication--if you want something to provide the benefits of comprehensible input, then you'll need to actually comprehend it--is worth repeating!

    By the way, a number of teachers in the USA have begun using the Spanish show El Internado with 1st year students, and have thought through the issues involved (issues that apply for other languages, too) quite thoroughly. I have mixed feelings about this myself, but you might be interested in Dustin Williamson's collection of his own and others' relevant posts:

    1. Thanks for commenting. Those El Internado resources look interesting. A lot of work by a number of teachers has gone into those. I suppose that, even if the language is inherently too fast, the back-up work and motivational aspects make it very worthwhile. We used to use an old BBC French series called Le Café des Rêves, but that was written specifically for learners and would a good semi-authentic resource. I can't imagine ever using a real TV series myself.


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