Teaching with comprehensible input and occasional translation makes sense because students don’t acquire language from incomprehensible input. Many foreign language instructors are attracted to input-based teaching. They get that students cannot acquire unless they hear the language. So they try to provide experiences in class that are similar to the way children learn by using only the target language (TL) in class. But this attempt at immersion is ineffective because children have thousands of hours to help them learn figure it out. Children are exposed to incomprehensible input in their native language, but they have time. Children can slowly pick up the meanings of words through context and repetition, but instructors simply do not have time to let students in a classroom guess word meanings with gestures, experience or massive amounts of “input”. Instructors that use only the TL think that students will learn through immersion, but without establishing meaning, immersion can become more like involuntary submersion –being held under water and not being allowed up for a breath. Also known as drowning.
What many students learn in an immersion class like that is that learning another language is just too hard for them. That is so not true. Anyone can learn a language if we use the proper teaching techniques.
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. Quick translations are seen as cheating by many instructors, a deviation from the pure usage of the language in class. But using ONLY the TL in class can quickly become a problem. The problem with playing the immersion game, where students have to guess the meanings of words is that meanings 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. She says that it was “easier to ignore” the teacher because she never translated anything into English:
“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 the 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.”
Pretending that students can understand when a teacher is attempting immerse them in the language is counterproductive and delusional. And it is sadly all too common in language classes. If students do not understand the target language the instructor is wasting everyone’s time.
Me sorprende que no hemos aprendido mucho durante 40 años de investigaciones.**
* It surprises me that I am so tired today.
** It surprises me that we have not learned much from 40 years of SLA research.