Teaching with comprehensible input (CI) makes sense because students just don’t learn as much from incomprehensible input.  Children learning their native language are admittedly exposed to some incomprehensible input, but they have thousands of hours to help them learn how to figure it out.  They have hundreds of real-life experiences a day and caretakers to continually talk them through the process. 

Many foreign language instructors are understandably attracted to the “input” side of the CI equation and they try to provide experiences in class that are similar to the way children learn by using only the target language (TL) in class.  Children can slowly pick up the meanings of words through context and repetition. Instructors simply do not have  the time that a parent has.

Instructors that use only the TL all the time think that students will learn through immersion, but without establishing meaning it is more like what Jason Fritz calls “submersion” –being held under water and not allowed up for a breath.  Also known as drowning.

Guessing at word meanings is slow and inefficient.  Instructors have to establish meaning more quickly than that, which is why simply translating into English—both to initially introduce the word and to periodically check for meaning—is so much more effective.  This is seen as “code-switching” by many instructors, a deviation from the pure usage of the TL in class, but using ONLY the TL in class can quickly become a problem.  The problem with playing the immersion game is that the meanings of words can be unclear.

A good example of this problem comes from the teen novel  Speak by Laurie Anderson.  In one memorable passage, the author describes a high school Spanish class.  I love how the narrator says that it was “easier to ignore” the teacher because she never translated anything into English.  Here is an excerpt from the book:

“My Spanish teacher is going to try to get through the entire year without speaking English to us.  This is both amusing and useful–makes it easier to ignore her.  She communicates through exaggerated gestures and play acting.  It’s like taking a class in charades.  She says a sentence in Spanish and puts the back of her hand to her forehead. “You have a fever!” someone from the class calls out. “You feel faint!”  No. She goes out to the hall, then bursts through the door, looking busy and distracted. She turns to us, acts surprised to see us, and then does the bit with the back of the hand on the forehead. “You’re lost!”  “You’re angry!” “You’re in the wrong school!”  “You’re in the wrong country!” “You’re on the wrong planet!”

She tries one more time and smacks herself so hard on the forehead she staggers a bit.  Her forehead is as pink as her lipstick.  The guesses continue.  “You can’t believe how many kids are in this class!”  “You forgot how to speak Spanish!”  “You have a migraine!”  “You’re going to have a migraine if we don’t figure it out!”

In desperation, she writes a sentence in Spanish on the board: Me sorprende que estoy tan cansada hoy.  No one knows what it says. We don’t understand Spanish–that’s why we’re here. Finally, some brain gets out the Spanish-English dictionary. We spend the rest of the period trying to translate the sentence.  When the bell rings, we have gotten as far as ‘To exhaust the day to surprise.’ “