Using Comprehensible Input in your Chinese learning

using comprehensible input in your chinese learning

Being the content writer at TeaTime Chinese, it is always my mission to “make Chinese understandable”. How can I express complicated ideas using simple vocabulary? How can I explain a difficult word with explanatory phrases while keeping the sentence short? Speech is an art. There is something satisfactory in expressing my thinking in a clear and lucid manner. It is like shooting a bull-eye’s shot into an aim. Comprehensible Input is the principle that guides us at TeaTime Chinese, which we believe is THE way for learning Chinese.


Stephen Krashen explaining "Comprehensible Input".
Stephen Krashen explaining “Comprehensible Input”.


If you aren’t familiar with the term “Comprehensible Input”, it is a second-language acquisition (SLA) method developed by linguist Stephen Krashen in the 1970s and 1980s. The idea is that, quoting from Stephen Krashen, “We acquire language in one way, and only one way: when we understand messages. This is called Comprehensible Input.” Whether we are reading books, watching a video or talking with native speakers, we make progress only when we understand what messages are being conveyed to us. 


Here, it is important to point out that, “understand messages” doesn’t mean understanding each and every word of your input material. In fact, studies have shown that Comprehensible Input can be achieved when we understand 85% of the message. From personal experiences, I think the number can be even a bit lower than that. On the contrary, if you are reading a book, and you find yourself not knowing 50% of the words in there, it is better to put down the book and come back to it in a few months. 


How can you embed Comprehensible Input in your Chinese learning? Here are 3 useful tips.


1. Use materials for children

"Journey to the West" cartoon from 1998.
“Journey to the West” cartoon from 1998.


Whatever is good for children is good for you in terms of language acquisition. Children are language geniuses. 10 years of Chinese learning as an adult sometimes doesn’t guarantee that you speak as well as a 10-year-old child in China (though not impossible). I advice using kid’s materials for two reasons. First, they use simple language. Almost every word that you find in a children’s book or cartoon will be useful in daily lives. Second, children’s materials are visual. Visual aides are good assistance to help you understand the message. This said, I do not recommend fables and fairy tales. They contain too much vocabulary that won’t serve you much. Watching videos of 小猪佩奇 (Peppa Pig’s Chinese version) ,西游记 (a 52-episode animation of Journey to the West, made in 1999) or 麦兜 (McDull) is a good starting point. 


2. Graded readers

Throughout my previous experience as an online Chinese teacher, I have had students who have shown me several of Chinese graded readers. I read through some of them and understand why they are popular amongst intermediate Chinese learners. The language is easy, which guarantees comprehensible messages. New words appear repeatedly throughout the story, which is good for space repetition. The only complaint that I have is that the Chinese graded readers in the market are mostly not so fun to read. I wish that the stories were more engaging. If you happen to find a Chinese graded reader that have an appealing story, go with it.


3. Street interviews

More and more individual YouTubers are taking their cameras in the street, asking pedestrians their opinions on social and political issues. Street interviews are enjoyable because you get to see how people talk in real-life scenarios, and you learn about the culture. Most videos in Chinese are subtitled, and some with English translations. Since YouTube is restricted in Mainland, most street interviews that you will find take place in Hongkong or Taiwan. Politics aside, these two places share similar culture with Mainland, and are worth a watch. Here, I recommend the “Easy Mandarin” YouTube channel, which takes you to the streets in Taiwan. 


These are 3 of the main resources to look into if you want to apply Comprehensible Input into your Chinese learning. Of course, TeaTime Chinese podcast also serves as a bridge for intermediate learners to reach an advanced level. In the end, depending on your actual level, you need to filter out materials that are too easy or too difficult. The Chinese level of the materials you are using should be just a bit higher than your current level. We acquire languages in one way, and only one way: when we understand messages.

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