Comprehensible Input for "Just-in-Time" Learning
“There’s a big difference between what we know and what we need at three months and six months of learning” (JH, co-worker)
Our first experiences in our new language often include learning descriptions, commands, or instructions that apply the use of simple words, phrases, and grammar to address our most basic needs. Trying to learn more complex forms at this point would be premature and counterproductive if we cannot yet describe what is in front of us, engage in basic conversations, or talk about what we did yesterday. How we capture those teachable moments in our language learning when we need new grammar structures or vocabulary, so that we can learn them effectively and use them immediately, I’ve heard described as just-in-time learning.
One of the best ways to gauge this process is by intentionally and deliberately listening to the language we comprehend, often in somewhat controlled settings, and not getting flooded or overwhelmed with the language we cannot yet comprehend. Surrounding ourselves with language that we can understand, or getting abundant doses of comprehensible input, is one of the most powerful learning practices we can experience. (We could also describe this as just-in-time input.)
From the moment we begin learning a new language, we start to recognize understand bits and pieces of what we hear. There’s so much we don’t understand, but it’s always exciting when those new words and phrases rise to the surface as we tune in.
For beginners, comprehensible input may mean listening to a simple familiar story with the aid of pictures. Down the road, it may mean listening to a neighbor talk about her family. For more advanced learners, listening to the news and then discussing it may be immersive and engaging.
But it doesn’t stop there. When we immerse ourselves in language environments where we receive lots of comprehensible input, such as our time spent with hired language partners, our exposure to the language we understand actually creates a thirst for more. We build on what we can comprehend by adding small amounts of new language input to large amounts of comprehensible input, thus expanding our comprehension, and therefore enhancing our immersion.