Language Acquisition with Comprehensible Input

In January, I explored the language learning literature and discovered concepts that have reshaped my perspective. So I decided to share my thoughts here.

One interesting idea is the distinction between language learning and language acquisition. Learning refers to the conscious process of studying a language, including its vocabulary, grammar, and more. Acquisition, on the other hand, is a subconscious process that occurs naturally, much like how children acquire their first language. It happens when we understand messages in the target language, without necessarily focusing on grammar rules or vocabulary lists. This is where the concept of comprehensible input comes into play.

Comprehensible input is a theory developed by linguist Stephen Krashen. He suggests that the key to language acquisition happens with exposure to the target language through texts, videos, or audio. The content should be:

  • Mostly understandable (if it’s too complicated, we won’t be able to follow);
  • Slightly more advanced than our current level, e.g., it contains words, expressions, or grammar points that we haven't mastered yet;
  • Engaging, so that we have the motivation to understand it.

Think about a child reading a book. They’re captivated by the story and will continue reading even if they don’t understand all the words or language subtleties. Through exposure, they naturally acquire the language. However, if the book is too complicated, they’ll lose motivation and give up.

While studying a language is of course useful, Krashen suggests that language learning is used to monitor our output. For example, I learned German declensions and can apply the rules if I pause for a few seconds. But to reach fluency, these rules should come naturally, without having to think about each one. This is where language acquisition shines: as our brain gets exposed to content, we develop a natural sense for what a proper sentence should sound like.

So, where can we find comprehensible input? There are books (“graded readers”), podcasts, and YouTube videos available. But a good starting point I’ve found is the wiki

Personally, I find games to be more engaging than reading a book or watching a video. As it’s interactive, there’s an extra motivation for understanding the content. So I wonder if there are story-based games that could serve as comprehensible input?