Category: Science

Confused Language Learner

Is Incomprehensible Input Worth Your Effort?

The role of incomprehensible or only partially comprehensible input in language learning is relatively controversial. That kind of input would be, for example, listening to the radio in the foreign language or watching television programs on foreign television as a beginner. The reports of language hackers and claims of learning experts such as Vera Birkenbihl are along those lines:

Even if you aren’t able to understand anything or even if you only understand a small section of what you’re seeing or reading, the language travels into the subconscious, where it is processed. This is supposed to integrate the language into your subconscious and thus make learning the language overall easier or even a literal no-brainer.

Against those claims speak, that there are numerous examples of immigrants who have lived in a country for 10 years and still cannot speak a smidgen of the language. We have had many of them in our courses and they start as beginners exactly in the same fashion as people who have been in the country for ten days. The refusal of those claims is also backed up by science:

Findings on the subject of learning states say, that you can only learn something, if

  • You direct your attention towards it and are actively engagement and
  • It is not too easy nor too complex. Content that you do not understand simply flies passed without immersive learning taking place.

(Spitzer, Lernen. Gehirnforschung und die Schule des Lebens. 2006)

In principle, the use of incomprehensible input is therefore not useful for the actual learning of a language, or at least very ineffective.

There is a way of using incomprehensible input that might make sense: For getting used to the melody and sounds of the language. Language strives through intonation and it could at least not hurt to, for example, become used to listening to it on the radio to be able to decipher it easier in conversation. I haven’t found much evidence pro or contra yet. One big contra is that Kuhl’s research found that watching TV didn’t improve melodic recognition of foreign language sounds in babies and so results are doubtful. On the other hand, it is really easy to find some songs or a radio station you like in the language station and listen to the music once in a while when doing the dishes etc. so you might as well do it, if only just for fun.

It is important to re-emphasize, that we are talking here of mainly incomprehensible input, where maybe only 0-20% are understandable. If you understand a significant portion of the input and at least semiconsciously pay attention to it, learning will definitely take place. A bit of incomprehensibility in the input is actually a really good thing for ideal progress in advanced learners. How high this ideal ratio of comprehensible and incomprehensible input has to be when watching movies or reading a book, is hard to say, often a percentage of 85% or more is postulated. This level is ideal for picking up on the meaning of the remaining 15% or so and integrating that into your knowledge of the language. Even if the comprehensibility level is lower, but you can get the gist of what was said, it might still be helpful, albeit not as effective. So don’t shy away from partially comprehensible input, just from spending too much time with input where you feel like you understand next to nothing.

You can create an image of how difficult it is to actually learn something without understanding a large portion of the meaning of a language by watching the following Youtube video:

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If you can speak some English, when reading the subtitles you will notice straight away how your brain interprets the meaning of the English words in the chanted, actually Korean text of the song. The example will show you how pointless incomprehensible input is for the textual (not for the melodic) learning of a language. For English native speakers this effect is of course more intense. To make matters worse it has been proven in studies with babies that the recognition capability of sounds of the native language or similar, increase after 8 months of age and the recognition capability of foreign sounds decreases (, see our article on the linguistic genius of babies for that.

What this means in essence, is that it’s really hard to learn something with input where you understand next to nothing and learning theory states that not much subconscious learning is going on then either. This is substantiated by the fact that there are many people who have lived in a country for ten years and don’t speak a tad of the language.

All in all, although sometimes proclaimed otherwise, one thing incomprehensible definitely is not, is the great panacea for acquiring actual language skills without having to do much. Rather spent your time on more effective activities such as learning with (mostly) comprehensible input.


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German football

How understanding the difference between declarative and procedural knowledge makes y...

There are two types of knowledge in our brain. On the one hand there is declarative knowledge. That is knowledge of facts, dates, the mother in laws’ birthday, the friends’ phone number, the formula for the theory of relativity, etc. This knowledge is directly accessible and applicable as a “knowledge component”. On the other hand there is procedural knowledge, e.g. the knowledge of a footballer, which movements he must make when shooting a penalty kick, our knowledge of how we place one foot in front of the other etc.

Thus, procedural knowledge is knowledge that is not directly accessible in knowledge components, but is only subconsciously accessible, e.g. numerous consecutive muscle contractions that lead to an entire movement. Language is partially a subordinate of declarative knowledge, e.g. when it is about assigning a specific word of the native language to a word of a foreign language. On the other hand, language cannot function without procedural knowledge (Börner 1997, “Implizites und explizites Wissen im fremdsprachlichen Wortschatz”). The best way of imagining it is by the example of driving a car. Declarative knowledge is the knowledge of how a car functions, what you theoretically have to do when sitting behind the wheel … It is, however, something completely different, to actually be able to sit behind the wheel, to be able to let the clutch run smoothly, to be able to keep up with steering and blinking and the pace, all of which falls under procedural knowledge. Unfortunately, this is just the part that is repeatedly left ignored. And so traditional foreign language class often produces students who may have a lot of declarative knowledge of grammar and words, but when they are to actually speak fluently, they only stutter amongst themselves. This can be avoided by combining declarative and procedural knowledge (and some task-specific training) from the beginning in a way that the natural units can immediately be attributively gathered and reproduced.

Against the prevailing view and how it is done in most of classes, procedural knowledge and not declarative knowledge should be the greatly dominant part of the language learning process. The actual amount of declarative knowledge you need to be quite proficient is very little. It is amazing how few different words actually make up our entire everyday language. 30 word forms in German cover 32% of all researched publications. With 100 word forms you have almost reached 50% of the entire written language. With 1,000 words you can already cover 80% of the entire written language and 6,000 words more than 95%.

On the other hand, think about how long a football player needs to train until he or she has a dribbling or kicking technique down and can use it in a game from the point the trainer has told him how to do it. Trust me, there are lots and lots of practice kicks an failures involved. It’s the same with using the declarative knowledge (vocab, grammar, although grammar has a special role) in language learning. There is a lot of training and subconscious, procedural learning involved until you can fluently understand language and even more until you can speak it yourself. Even more, when practicing you can also gain new declarative knowledge (for example when looking up a word or a grammar form while reading in the foreign language). Because you immediately put it into context, it is oftentimes easier remembered as well.

Training in that sense also refers to practicing some special abilities connected to language learning, particularly pronunciation. In this essentially important part of language, the muscles in the jaw, mouth and throat have to strenuously adapt to and be trained to form foreign sounds. How to train pronunciation will also be coming in a future article.

So my biggest tip for you today: Don’t focus too much on the declarative. Rather focus on ingraining the language into your “muscle memory”, for example by reading texts you already understand, listening to the radio (if you’re already further along) and generally exposing yourself to the language. Why this training should be more passive and with your ears rather than with your mouth, will be the topic of a future article.

This way language learning becomes less “cramming” and more of a “training”, similar to how small children learn their native language. And that’s how language course marketing claims we all want to learn, right 🙂

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Mother reading to child

The Linguistic Genius of Babies


I recently stumbled across a very interesting study, to which there is even a TED talk ( I did not want to keep the fascinating results from you.

Patricia Kuhl and her colleagues have exposed babies to different sounds and „rewarded“ them (they are allowed to watch a cute teddy bear drumming on a plastic drum), if they have recognised and turned their head to a new sound.

At the age of about 6-8 months, the babies could recognise all the sounds of all languages perfectly. Already at the age of 10-12 months they had “zeroed in” on their own language and were only able to distinguish the sounds of that language, but no more those of other languages.

For example, when Japanese babies were examined in comparison to American babies, they were on the same level with how well they could distinguish the English sounds r and l at the age of 6-8 months. After 10-12 months, the American babies had zeroed in on the r and l sounds and could distinguish them better than before. However, the Japanese babies had zeroed in on Japanese, in which language these sounds do not occur in the same form, and were significantly worse at distinguishing the r and l sounds.


Figure 1: The discernment of the sounds r and l of Japanese and American babies each after 6-8 and 10-12 months. Source: Video clip from the TED talk.

Figure 1: The discernment of the sounds r and l of Japanese and American babies each after 6-8 and 10-12 months. Source: Video clip from the TED talk.


As a subsequent attempt, Kuhl and her colleagues placed American babies, in the critical period between six and ten months, in the laboratory with a Mandarin native speaker who spoke and read to them for 12 sessions. Afterwards these babies were just as good at distinguishing two Mandarin sounds as Taiwanese babies that had been exposed to the language for 10 months.

Figure 2: The discernment of two Mandarin sounds of Taiwanese and American babies. The triangles represent American babies who were exposed to either Mandarin or English for 12 sessions.

Figure 2: The discernment of two Mandarin sounds of Taiwanese and American babies. The triangles represent American babies who were exposed to either Mandarin or English for 12 sessions.

Kuhl describes the babies as little statisticians who „zero in” on sounds that are often presented to them. If they are exposed to Mandarin sounds they learn to distinguish them just as well.

Fascinatingly, the sounds have to be presented to the babies by people. When the babies only heard the sounds on the television or over the radio for 12 sessions, there was no improvement of the recognition of Mandarin sounds at all.

Figure 3: The discernment of two Mandarin sounds of Taiwanese and American babies. “TV” and “Audio” represent babies that were exposed to Mandarin via TV and the radio for 12 sessions. Source: Video clip from the TED talk.

Figure 3: The discernment of two Mandarin sounds of Taiwanese and American babies. “TV” and “Audio” represent babies that were exposed to Mandarin via TV and the radio for 12 sessions. Source: Video clip from the TED talk.


What do we learn from this?

  1. We adults are unfortunately already „zeroed in” on the sounds of our language. On the one hand, this makes the learning of foreign languages harder for us. On the other hand, as opposed to babies, we can use the ability to read and write and the knowledge we have collected in our lives so far, which is an even greater advantage.

In any case, we must be very careful to listen to the sounds of the language and reproduce them properly. Otherwise we will apprehend the sounds of a foreign language with a sound interpretation of our mother tongue. A fun self-test if you master English well: Have a listen to this video and read the subtitles:

Even though the sounds are actually Korean, we do rather understand similar sounding English sounds. Therefore, it is very important not to always trust our ears and to train them to also reprehend fine sound differences. Soon there will be a guide with helpful methods in another article in this blog.

  1. Interaction with real people is essential and seems to lead to much greater success than the input of impersonal media such as television or audio. In the end, we learn a language to be able to speak with people. According to Kuhl, the „social brain“ plays a very big role in language. So why not take the opportunity and try to receive language input from real people and through social contact.



Again, here is the whole TED talk to watch for yourself: