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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