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How to use Comprehensible Input to learn French

To learn French efficiently as an adult, use the Comprehensible Input hypothesis wisely. In this article, I’ll give you some background about

  • What is the Comprehensible Input hypothesis by Stephen Krashen
  • French language acquisition: how French kids learn the language
  • How to adapt the method to use the full potential of your adult brain
  • How to create your perfect learning state
  • A lit of resources to find the best Comprehensible Input FOR YOU

If you can’t wait until the end, download a free guide with my method “How to use subtitles to improve your French listening skills (a step by step guide to start boosting your oral comprehension)”.

It also contains exercices to start applying the method right away and a list of resources.

What is the comprehensible input hypothesis by Stephen Krashen

Stephen Krashen developed this hypothesis in the late 1980s and demonstrated it’s a very efficient tool to learn a foreign language.

Actually, as per this theory it would be more accurate to say “to acquire” a language. Acquiring a language means internalizing words, patterns, intonations, etc to become able to produce the sounds and perform those actions yourself. 

But, according to Krashen, this is possible only if you understand the content. For example, you could be immersed for years in a country and never be able to speak the language beyond some survival words. Indeed this happens if you have no “key” to decode the language and no context you can understand. 

i + 1 (your current level + 1)

” i ” is for input (the total of all previous input, aka your skills and knowledge about the language). With all the input you received, you’re able to fully understand or use some concepts.

+ 1 is the next step: you can’t understand 100% of what you hear or read but you’re very close.

A language is a collection of building blocks put together in a way that makes sense to its speakers. When learning a language, we usually start with the larger building blocks, the foundations and we progressively refine our skills and the level of details.

Stephen Krashen’s hypothesis claims that whatever is too far ahead of our current skills will be more or less useless because we won’t know how to fit these blocks into the structure.

how to Comprehensible Input to learn French

Would you try to solve a jigsaw by randomly placing parts ?

Comprehensible input is defined as material that you understand almost fully but some bits and pieces are just beyond your grasp. You may then focus on these elements and try to understand how they fit in the big picture.

Hoping to learn a language solely by watching TV while you’re still at an A2 level is like trying to solve a giant jigsaw without knowing how it should look like in the end.

While if you proceed step by step, your buidling will be far more stable and will progress faster.

I’m not saying you should only rely on Comprehensible Input hypothesis. Everyone learns differently but it is a very useful tool and will definitely boost your confidence and motivation.

How kids learn French through Comprehensible Input

Principles of previous language teaching techniques

Following the example of how kid’s learn, Stephen Krashen was inspired to promote a new method, radically different from the learning and teaching methods that were predominant in the language teaching field before.

These old methods focused on skills, on learning the building-blocks of the language in a fixed sequence (grammar concepts, vocabulary) and on translation.

They relied heavily on engaging the pre-frontal cortex, the “thinking brain” and left little to no place to unconscious acquisition of the language. 

The process of language acquisition in French kids

Unconscious acquisition is what happens when we’re so exposed to something that we start internalizing it.

A part of our brain observes and analyses what’s going on around us. Then it selects what seems useful in our life. Namely whatever will help us survive. Human beings are social animals, being able to communicate with each other is vital. Therefore our brains are wired to develop our communication skills

How French kids learn French: both comprehensible input and “hard skills” like grammar

When you think about it, we provide comprehensible input to babies and kids.

We’re not talking to babies the same way we talk to adults. We articulate more, we exaggerate the sounds, we use simple sentences. So why should it be different with adults?

French is a rather complex language. First, it’s not a phonetic or syllabic language. Then there are masculine/feminine words, more than a dozen verb tenses, somewhat flexible word order, spelling difficulties, etc.

For that reason, French kids also learn grammar at school. When students analyse literature or poetry, there’s also a linguistic component (rhythm, syntax, vocabulary…). Teachers provide them with comprehensible input at every stage.

When you’re learning, you need to progressively increase the difficulty.

However, if comprehensible input makes us able to speak French, what makes us able to have a better command of the language is the analytical work done as a complement.

We all know that kids learn easily how to speak new languages before the age of 7. But, as adults, we have to take into consideration many external and internal factors impeding our language learning.

As a consequence, we need to find ways to become efficient, to optimize the ratio results/efforts.

Learning as an adult

What’s different is that life as an adult is way more fast paced. We need to speed up the process and quickly get used to natural adult speech.

Indeed, as an adult, we already master a variety of concepts in our mother tongue. Kids start with concrete topics and move on to abstract progressively.

As adults, we want and sometimes need to be able to speak about abstract and complex topics.

All languages have a degree of complexity because they’re unknown to us. However, I believe it’s hard to learn French without knowing some basics of grammar.

But having the knowledge alone won’t help you. Constant and conscious exposure to the patterns of speech is what will help you become more spontaneous.

Understanding how others speak and what they say is the first step to being able to reproduce it, at least partially.

It’s only natural that some mother tongue interference remains, I know my English is heavily influenced by my French although I’ve been studying and working in English for more than 20 years. Although it might slow you down in speaking and writing activities, it doesn’t prevent good understanding.  

Moreover, as adults, our rational thinking brain is more developed than kids’ brain. We’re able to reflect upon our behaviour and thoughts which can lead us to know ourselves better and find the best strategies for ourself. When we take ownership of the learning process we learn faster.

What we should learn to trust more, as adults, is the other part of brain.

Mixing up the methods, using the prefrontal cortex to acquire skills and using the unconscious brain to absorb information, considerably speeds up the process. 

The perfect learning state: 0 stress

We also need to acknowledge our reptilian brain and learn how to keep it calm.

That’s what Stephen Krashen calls “maintaining affective filters low”. Affective filters, like stress, fear, self-consciousness, boredom, are obstacles slowing down or blocking the learning.

A stressed or bored brain doesn’t learn.

One drop of cortisol, the stress hormone, can disrupt the learning process.

Working with material falling into the “comprehensible input” range lowers your stress by providing a degree of certainty. You kind of know what’s going on and you can focus on improving your comprehension of the bits that are just out of reach. 

A list of resources to find the BEST Comprehensible Input FOR YOU

When you’re ready to use TV shows to step up your French game, I created a guide with my method “How to use subtitles to improve your French listening skills (a step by step guide to start boosting your oral comprehension)” and some exercices to start applying the method right away.

In this guide you’ll also find a long list of resources. I’m sure you’ll find material which will keep your motivation high!

Check out these other posts to browse more inspiring resources of Comprehensible Input:

About Cathy

Cathy Intro is a certified Neurolanguage® coach helping aspiring French speakers improve their language skills to live their life and socialize in French with confidence. She has a strong focus on active listening, cultural awareness and self-understanding. She believes clear grammar foundations are key to reaching fluency in French but that it shouldn't be taught with a linear textbook-approach method. Her role as a coach is to empower the learner, ignite curiosity and provide support to reach the objectives with no waste of time and efforts, in a positive and fun environment.

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