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"Comprehensible input" and broadcast media

I'm kind of thinking aloud here, but I'd really like to hear other people's thoughts.

I was watching an interesting YouTube film where a language professor was talking about "comprehensible input" and "acquiring" a language rather than learning it. He pointed out that toddlers don't learn grammatical rules and they don't learn to read and write, they just spend an enormous amount of time listening, before trying - haltingly at first - to put their own concepts into the words they've picked up. He presented studies showing that adults also learn better and with less effort in this way. (He said that reading and writing and formal grammar were far more easily learned if you can already speak the language, again as happens to children with their first language.)

He wasn't talking about immersion courses, but about spending some time - an hour or two - every day with a native speaker who would offer "comprehensible input", talking almost exclusively in the target language in a way that the learner could understand. Pointing (especially to pictures), mime, acting out, that sort of thing. He suggested strategies for people to get hold of native speakers who would be willing to do this, including friends and family, and "exchange" where you offer English (or another language you're fluent in) in return for your target language, and simply swap roles. He might also pay a student looking for some pocket-money. I think the wide range of people he roped in was a strength.

The demonstration was very impressive. He himself learned Arabic (a very difficult language from English) from scratch in a year. He obviously put in a lot of hours, and the last three months were spent in Cairo, but they were clearly fun hours. He wasn't studying, he was simply having entertaining interactions (progressing to conversations) with agreeable people. At the end he was still completely illiterate in Arabic, but could understand and speak the oral language pretty creditably.

I can see how this works. Economic migrants who move abroad to take low-skilled jobs don't always go to formal evening classes, but if they're constantly being exposed to the target language by people trying to explain stuff to them, they do pick it up and often become fluent. A late cousin of mine spent most of her working life as a linguistics expert in the Amazon jungle. She went to live among tribes whose language was a complete mystery, and who in their turn had no English, and learned their language, and then (as these were usually entirely oral languages with no writing) codified and formalised a written form of the language. She must have done the initial stages by comprehensible input.

So how can we apply that? The key is the word "comprehensible". In many situations it will be possible to do what that professor did, even if on a smaller scale. (I think it's especially possible in America where there are people of many nationalities who speak a wide variety of languages.) But thinking about the Scottish Gaelic learning experience in particular, it falls down. Few of us know any native or fluent speakers who can be induced to give up an hour of their day even a couple of times a week. There is no such thing as a native Gaelic speaker who wants to learn English! Can we get "comprehensible input"?

There are Gaelic meet-ups in most of the big cities. There are knitting groups and pub meet-ups and I'm told everyone is welcome. I had thought I was too elementary to go to something like that but I'm reconsidering. It's comprehensible input that's needed, and if a few people who are reasonably fluent are prepared to give you five or ten minutes talking at a level you can understand, then whoopee. Worth a go I think.

The other thing is TV or radio. Those of us who live in Scotland have access to Radio nan Gàidheal and BBC Alba, and I have seen people talk about using these. My question is, at what point do these become actually useful resources? Because they have to be comprehensible. If you have fully assimilated the entire Duolingo tree as it is now, can you begin to comprehend?

I had a go the other night. I love the kiddies' cartoons, but they have no subtitles for obvious reasons, and mostly they're above my level. Other programmes often have subtitles, but do the subtitles help or get in the way? (I think they might help. I've noticed watching French films with English subtitles that I can clearly hear what the French dialogue is saying, whereas without the subtitles I might struggle to follow it.) Is it possible actually to advance your grasp of the language just watching this stuff? (I mean as an extra of course, not instead of study.)

I had one small encouraging incident. The TV was still on but I wasn't really paying attention. Then I suddenly heard the words, clearly, "Bha mi a' ruith, a' snàmh..." These went right into my head as meaning, without me consciously thinking of the English words "running" or "swimming", and I looked up to see someone with a bicycle, obviously taking part in some sort of triathlon. So maybe? What is the experience of others?

(Another cyclist, in an earlier programme, pedalling up a hill, said clearly "Mo casan!" and my brain went, "Mo chasan, surely!" Pedant.)

February 7, 2020



As an add-on, I'm finding the CBeebies programmes on BBC Alba quite fascinating - I mean the ones aimed at the really wee ones. The grammar and vocabulary are simple, a lot of what we've already covered, and the presentation is quite obviously meant to be comprehensible input for quite small children. If you can stand a Bagpuss-style cat that makes things by drawing them and the relentlessly upbeat Blue Peter presenters, it's a winner.

"Can Seo" is another one. The styles are a bit retro, mind. (I remember trying to start that when it first came out but I was up to my eyeballs in university work and there were no videorecorders then, and you were supposed to buy a book and a record as well, and I didn't last more than a couple of weeks.) It seems to cover material in the same sort of order as the Duolingo course (Runrig gets in there in episode 2) and especially as the course advances just letting it run and watching it is a great way to reinforce the concepts. Comprehensible input for beginners. Easier to follow than Sgriobag the scribbling cat. And I think there's another similar, more recent course somewhere.

So maybe lots of possibilities. I found an article saying that if the learner can more or less understand 80% of the input, that's enough. I'm not at 50% with Sgriobag yet, but I think I'll get better as I revise the Duolingo tree. (I like a dubbed cartoon for older kids called "Sràid nan Sgread", but it's above my level by quite a way.)


OK, "Wallace and Gromit" dubbed into Gaelic seems to be my future this hour. It's all about rabbits. I'm concentrating on trying to pick out words I recognise, with some success. However, nary a hint of "coineanach".

Then I notice a word that keeps appearing when I was expecting "coineanach". ["Raban."] No, "rabaid". So I look that up, and apparently that also means "rabbit" in Gaelic. Confusing. New learning.

ETA: I just heard "coineanach" from Hector (Victor?) the hunter. I don't know what the distinction is, if anything.


Most languages have several words for the same thing and often the most popular word varies regionally


Interestingly, if you put ["raban"] sorry, my mistake, "rabaid" into Google Translate in Gaelic, it gives you "rabbit" in English. But then if you switch the languages so that English is the starter language, the Gaelic side changes to "coineanach".


'Rabaid' is what it should be, not 'raban' I don't think.


Yeah, you're right. I had it right while I was watching the Wallace and Gromit film, and put the right word into Google Translate - I must have done, because "raban" gets you nothing. Rabaid it is, for sure. Damn my memory!


Halò Mòrag. I'm in Australia, and it's even more difficult for me to find native speakers. However I do find some programmes on BBC Alba useful (don't ask). "Speaking our language" is not bad and I have been following the episodes that are available. (I've also seen Iain agus Anna on TV!) Some are available on YouTube. I also like some of the documentaries on BBC Alba, but it's difficult. The time difference is a problem, so I have to download the programmes.

I can identify with a lot of what you said. I learnt French mostly in Africa, but have brought it up to date with Duolingo. I used to love watching TV5Monde because it has French programming with subtitles in French. Now that's a great way to advance a language if its available. It's also a good way to learn slang!

With Italian, I learned it using duolingo and a "pen pal" with whom I swapped audio files. He is improving his Engish while I improve my Italian. Recently on Netflix I found a film called "The Man without gravity" (L'uomo senza gravità) and I changed the subtitles to Italian. To my complete surprise I managed to follow the movie very well.

With the various languages I've been learning on Duolingo, I try not to perfect the spelling or even learn the grammar until it becomes absolutely necessary. (It's absolutely necessary with Russian)
When I'm starting off I use an iPad with the language keyboard and hints installed. I wean off the iPad as I get more proficient. That gels well with what you were saying about the natural learning process. I think if you concentrate too much on the details at first, you lose the intuitive side, and languages are very intuitive.


I caught the end of a "Speaking our language" episode and thought it looked very good. I intend to look out for more of it. There seem to be a lot of repeats and while that might be annoying for native speakers wanting to watch TV it's perfect for us.

In fact I see the channel is broadcasting right now, which would normally make me very annoyed as it uses Radio 3's bandwidth and the TV signal is actually the best reception for Radio 3 in my house. But I'll forgive them. I was never angry with BBC Alba themselves about this, but I do think it's appalling service from the BBC that they can't find enough bandwidth to give Scottish people both a Gaelic TV station and a classical music radio station at the same time.


The video conversations from Speaking Our Language are available on LearnGaelic, organised in order. The BBC Alba versions are currently on Series 4, so should be due to reset back to the beginning soon.


Thank you. When I saw from the web site that it was series 4, I thought maybe a bit advanced for me.


Thanks Rona. That's great information. I was wondering what the seres went up to. I'm finding Series 4 helpful, but it would be useful to go through the others.


You should try BBC iPlayer. You'll find a lot of old episodes there. Like yourself, I've finished the course and I'm finally confident with the spelling and meaning of every word. I'm using as many other resources as I can. It's a pity there isn't a Gaelic section on Quora. I regularly answer questions in Italian on Quora, and find it very useful.


There's a fair bit on YouTube too. I'm not yet confident with the spelling and meaning of every word in the Duolingo course though - I've been at this less than three weeks! The early skills I find quite easy but although I keep practising the later ones I'm still looking stuff up, getting the spellings wrong, and mixing up similar words. But I'm working on it.

I notice that already I'm picking up a lot more words on the BBC Alba programmes than I was even at the beginning of last week, and I'm even cottoning on to simple phrases. I find the dubbed items easiest, because these are professionals trying to be clear - especially when dubbing children's programmes that are designed to teach language to toddlers. Learners are also better than native speakers I think (and I think I can tell the difference) because they don't speak so fast and they tend to enunciate more clearly.

I need a bigger vocabulary, but considering I haven't mastered the vocabulary in the Duolingo tree yet I also need patience!


IPlayer is dead well useful. I enjoyed BBCALBA ‘s documentary about Trump’s mother, as I find it difficult to believe he’s half Scots, and she’s largely ignored. I used to get all French terrestrial channels thanks to a very big satellite dish, but now they’ve gone digital I can’t. TV5 just isn’t the same! I do change my keyboard many times a day partly because predictive text gets annoying if you use different languages and it’s useful particularly in German to have ü ä ß readily available.


I just noticed a forum post from a couple of weeks ago giving a link to a YouTube archive of a BBC Alba Gaelic-dubbed version of Peppa the Pig. It's great! Perfect comprehensible input for the early stages.



I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that stuffing oneself to the eyeballs with Postman Pat, Peppa the Pig, Scriobag and other programmes made for pre-schoolers being raised Gaelic-medium is just sgoinneil for the adult learner.


Several years back I signed up to a Gaelic course at Adult Ed in Tunbridge Wells. A full class, but I was the only Scot in the room. The tutor had a Scots father lived in Dover and was about to sit Higher Gaelic in Cardiff! Teaching materials were VERY limited. Not discouraged, I’ve kept on trying like Bruce and his spider! Since I’ve managed to become fluent in French without ever living there I’m not discouraged about Gaelic now I can hear it, read it, watch it on TV.


Subtitled films or TV shows do help quite a lot. I completely understand the feeling of hearing the language better with subtitles on, especially if you know a decent amount of the other language but aren't fluent. If you're closer to beginner level it might not be quite as effective because you'll rely too much on the subtitles, but it's at least going to expose you to the spoken language.


That was sort of my question, or one of them. At what stage in learning do you actually start to benefit? I'm honestly not sure, because part of my problem is that I can barely hear the grammar at the speed they're generally speaking, never mind decode it. But fluent speakers must be able to pick up the subtle differences in the words, in context, and decode it automatically.

I think the toddler-level programmes (which don't have subtitles for obvious reasons) are possibly helpful, I'm not sure about the rest of it as yet.


BBC Alba does have the advantage that its programmes are actually interesting and even as a beginner you can look out for words you know. Myself I like to know something about how a language is constructed before I start learning it. Probably that’s because I’m so old I learned Latin at school routinely- no university without a decent Latin “O” grade in Scotland back then.


I was "back then" too. Amo amas amat. Mensa mensa mensam. And so on. I know what you mean.

I like the programmes too. I really should have remembered to turn it on sooner. I've missed Sgriobag, and also apparently Katie Morag.

The girl who's on just now sounds a bit like the girl in the Duolingo clips.


https://youtu.be/illApgaLgGA. Think this is video,yup à couple of interviews really brought Home The difference between learning and aquiring the target language.


Yes, that's it, I should probably have included the link. I really enjoyed watching it even though it went on for an hour!


TV and radio are good learning partners in my opinion, as you say total immersion is hard when few Gaelic speaker need to learn English. My experience of learning Spanish and Catalan was the use of media is graded. I started of with kids programmes; I got bored quickly. then the weather forecast; the pictures helped. The news was good for the clear speech and having seen what was going on in the world in English first. Progression was slow, like tuning in a radio. I´d hear the odd word in a phrase then two then three. Progressing on to fictional programmes was a real challenge. I found dubbed films to be easier than "made in Spain" films as the latter had lots of colloquial language whereas dubbed versions were soft translations into very correct language. Finally, I was able to move on to regional films and TV shows my biggest achievement to date was watching a film made in Cuba (a very challenging accent). Proficiency comes in small steps and all input is good. Listening without understanding everything helps "tune in the radio" separating one word from another. Hearing the intonation and turns of phrase, fillers, etc. all help in getting you up to fluency. I´ve just started my Gaelic journey and would love the opportunity to meet up with native speakers or other learners in Glaschu. In the meantime, I´m getting my input from duolinguo and youtube (no telly in my house) Good luck with your comprehensible input journey!


Wow, well done on the Spanish and Catalan.

I think the professor's point was that you can do a lot even if you can't have a total immersion environment. I'm trying to figure out what sorts of input are helpful and what are too advanced to be any use. It's interesting what you say about tuning in the radio. That was a thought I had myself, but I wasn't sure if there was anything to it.

I was interested in that wee happening with the "... a' ruith, a' snàmh..." snippet. I wasn't actually paying attention to the TV at that point, it was just on in the background. But my brain seemed to pick up these words it recognised and alerted me to them. I'm hoping this is something that happens more frequently.

The Learngaelic web site has a lot of Gaelic events and meet-ups listed, and quite a lot of them are in Glasgow. I've found a beginners' evening class from that list that's only nine miles from where I live. Means I don't have to think about travelling to Edinburgh just to hear the language spoken live, just yet.


No merit to learning Barcelona´s two languages - I lived it 24/7. The experience of being a total immersion learner helped immensely.

Thanks for the pointer to the learngaelic website. A good secondary source for sure.

Don´t stop tuning in the radio! ;-)


You don’t have to live in Scotland to watch BBC Alba. I live down in Kent, and I’m very grateful for BBC Scotland and BBC Alba as an escape from London focused media.


You think BBC Scotland isn't London-focussed? O... K...


Not the channel. There’s a difference between programmes made with UK wide broadcasting in mind, and those where folk don’t have to put on their “bools-in-the-mooth” voice.


I think we're talking about two different things.


A comment about 'comprehensible input' that might help clarify the theory. I don't know if they mentioned the ''ínput hypothesis" that goes along with it, but it's a basic tool for learning languages.

The input hypothesis states that to learn and remember what you learn, you need input that is just slightly beyond your total comprehension. In other words, if you understand, say, 80% of a conversation, then you are challenged enough so you have your ears wide open and yet not overwhelmed by too much that's unfamiliar. The result is (in theory) a feeling of satisfaction that encourages you to persevere and to store the new words/structures you've learned in your memory.

There are other psychological factors involved in the theory and I'd suggest looking it up, if you're interested. (It's also known as the i + 1 hypothesis.') The main point is to choose the input carefully. Listen to speech that is just out of your reach. Talk to people in a way that will encourage them to challenge you, a little. Read texts that are just a little difficult. And always adjust so that the experience is a pleasant one.

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