A Month in Munich Creates a Case for Comprehensible Input

This text by Drew was written as part of a grant process that got him over to Germany last summer to study at the Goethe Institut. Part of his grant was to write an article for the California Language Teachers Association. The title of his piece was “A Claim for Comprehensible Input.” 

The article explains how he learned much more German doing things he wanted to do than when sitting in a classroom where he stared at the clouds passing by (evoking in my mind classroom scenes from Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier). 

Drew told me that he submitted it in October but hasn’t heard anything back yet and that he doubts he will. He thinks he offended those who awarded him the grant. So much for encouragement of free thinking and new ideas in teacher development, right?
I think it is an excellent article. Here it is:

“Pidió que lo siguiera” is the phrase written neatly in black on my white board today. Right next to it is the translation in blue: asked to follow him. It’s laid out, comprehensible and easy to follow. I repeatedly circled the statement for at least 15 minutes trying to get a number of repetitions of “pidió” and “sigue.”  Throughout the conversation and lesson of the day, I go slowly and point and pause each time I say any piece of our target structure.

The script that I planned fell through when Emily picks up on the word “sigue” and hijacks the conversation toward people students follow on Twitter. In her mind she thinks she is dominating the class, but in my mind I’m thankful we connect my target structures with something they care about. I don’t care if we get to my story–the language just got real for my second period class.

“Sr. Hiben, yo sigue [sic] a Snookie en Twitter.”
“¿Quién yo? No. Yo no sigo a Snookie ¿Usted la sigue?”
“Ay, ¿pero por qué la sigue?”
“Porque es cómica.”
“¿Usted, Señorita Emily, la sigue porque es cómica?”
“Sí… y sigo a Paulie D”

The class laughs. That’s real language. In that 25 seconds of conversation with Emily I got in the word “sigue” 3 more times. With the continued circling Emily responded and in the correct form by the end. I modeled. They reacted. They comprehended. They produced.

Since adopting Comprehensible Input as my sole method of teaching Foreign Language, I have realized how heavily it relies on the instructor’s proficiency to guide the language of the class wherever the students direct it. The belief is to shelter vocabulary but not grammar. We let real language happen when it happens. And I can do this in Spanish.

But I am not just a Spanish teacher, I wanted to teach German also. I wanted to rebuild our dormant program, and if I wanted to rebuild my proficiency, I needed to go to Germany. I applied for and was awarded a CLTA grant to study in Munich at a Goethe Institut course.

I knew to expect a traditional style of learning that was more conservative than my Comprehensible Input-based classes. We were a class of 12 learning from a native German. I was the only American from the United States and my colleagues were all German teachers from eight-different European countries, Egypt and Mexico. The beauty of this diversity was that our common language was German.

I believed that most teachers become teachers because they were good at school, so I wasn’t used to being a poor student in any class. When I realized the instructor’s teaching philosophy was an exacting pursuit of excellence, I overcompensated by using my humor and wit to shield my deficiencies in the language after 5 years of German atrophy. I began to empathize with any of my past students who may have encountered my own exacting pursuit of excellence.

I asked a question during an enthralling discussion about direct and indirect objects and the verb sprechen. The sharp response, directed at my ineptitude in regards to prepositions, silenced my desire to participate anymore. My Welsh colleague said that night over a beer, “she quite cussed at you.” Others picked up on it, too. Maybe it’s a cultural difference between the Germans and Americans, but I did not speak anymore in class because the fewer words I said, the less of a chance I had to be wrong. Besides, den or dem did not really affect how well anyone understood what I was saying. I attributed this experience to karma for having ever embarrassed a student who was trying his best to communicate an idea to me. One point for the universe.

The second experience came during a Presseschau in which we had to present a current event to the class. Women’s soccer had its World Cup in Germany so I chose Die Frauenfußballweltmeisterschaft as my topic. I prepared to use this topic and relate it to sexism in sports. I gave anecdotes from the United States and began tying in the German article I read. I paraphrased a quote about the Germans wanting to ride the wave after their first win. I blocked the verb I used from my memory. It was mitsomething. My teacher looked at me as if I had cursed her mother. I showed her in the article where I got the quote and she looked at me and said mit something mit, “and you shouldn’t use words you don’t know in a presentation.” I apologized for having missed the second occurrence of the preposition mit and quickly finished so I could sit down again. Humbly, I realized that my unintentional omission of mit had revealed my gross lack of preparation in her eyes.

All of us came to class with a unique agenda of learning. Mine was input–comprehensible input. I can recite my rules of German grammar; most language teachers love grammar. We get to stand in front of a class and show how smart we are and revel in the beauty of direct objects and the use of Konjunktiv II because the Konjunktiv I looks just like the indicative mood. But that is not what I sought. I needed to be engaged in conversational German so that when I engaged my own students, the language would flow naturally.

And then there was the monotony of lecture after pedantic lecture which forced me to longingly gaze out the window. I took my eyes off the clouds when Susanna, our Danish colleague, said something to hijack the conversation to something that we all wanted to talk about. According to her, the Danes are the happiest in the world. Åsa from Sweden who always had something snarky to say, disagreed but I loved how her German sounded like it was from Ikea. Nuno from Portugal sent me looks as our friend and UK German Teacher of the Year, Elizabeth, used her perfect German to chime in after Åsa. Then Samar and Mohamed from Egypt discussed the recent violence in their homeland. Samar got quite heated, “Meinst du, dass ich luge?! Are you saying that I’m lying? I saw men with rocket launchers with my own eyes!” That’s when it got good. I was in that authentic conversation. Portuguese Marisa, who sat next to me, told me stories about her family and her son whom she missed for those two weeks we had class. Mateja from Croatia always brought us something new to eat, “Probier’ mal. Es wird dir schmecken.”

The comprehensible input that I craved came after school hours. Susanna and I became art friends as we visited the three Pinokoteke. She was great at describing how the use of color helped set the tone. Susanna loved still life and the use of light and shadow; I explained to her how I preferred art with human subjects, especially the really gory stuff. Afterwords she bought me ein Eis as the different groups came together for our own Stammtisch under the chestnut trees in the Biergarten of choice for the day. We shared about our adventures and swapped notes about where to go the next day. Of course, all in our common language.

When using real German nobody passed judgement. When there was miscommunication, there was true negotiation of meaning. All 12 of us had moments of dem, den, des? Dennen? “Verstehst du mich? Do you understand?”

The opportunity that the Goethe Institut provided me to engage with other German teachers and the Erlebnis of rich, cultural experiences in Germany reaffirmed my passion. A month in Munich sharpened my philosophy of what it is to be a language teacher.  I want my students to fall in love with language. I want my students to learn real language spoken in a real context about what really interests them. I want my students to learn high-frequency words and phrases that they can string together to create meaningful language. I want to present meaningful comprehensible input that fuels their passion.

Although I may not be teaching German again, in the meantime I am teaching real language to real people. Eines Tages.



9 thoughts on “A Month in Munich Creates a Case for Comprehensible Input”

  1. This is a powerful epiphany and wonderful story, too. How can we spread these insights? Can they only be experienced personally?

    1. Now I know where your perfect German comes from!!! The same happened to me in Paris many, many moons ago (although my French is nowhere near as good as your German). I had to realize after 5 years of – what I considered – intensive study of French in High School that I was unable to understand, let alone use the language in a productive manner. Two months in the streets of Paris and I had acquired more than in 5 years of drilling and rote memorization.
      This experience was also what led me on the search for “something else/better” for my own teaching. I just didn’t know what it was. I am so glad it only took me two years to find it – I don’t think I could have made it the traditional way for 24 years like Ben did.
      I am so keeping my fingers crossed that you will get your German program off the ground again – there can never be enough like you!

  2. “in the meantime I am teaching real language to real people”
    I think that is a real powerful lesson. There is no perfect language program, and various obstacles will always prevent our “ideal teaching situation” in some way or other. But if we are able to teach language authentically, as authentic human beings, that is better than most language teachers have ever had it.

  3. One of the questions I keep going back to is, “What is the goal?” That is going to influence what we do and how we do it. My perspective comes from various experiences inside and outside the classroom.

    In my Spanish acquisition I had lots of ALM. While I speak Spanish, I realize it is because of factors other than classroom instruction and the philosophical underpinnings of ALM – which are behaviorist.

    When I was in seminary I learned Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic through Grammar-Translation. My purpose was to analyze and translate ancient texts. Don’t ask me to carry on a conversation, but I can still spot a Hiph’il imperfect 3rd masculine singular and translate an ancient text. The purpose and method aligned. Just remember that the purpose was not interpersonal communication; it was totally interpretive and analytical.

    As a 4%er I can do reasonably well learning a language with traditional methods. Two summers ago I had a wonderful time in France using my two years’ worth of university French. I know I made lots of mistakes, but I communicated, and both I and the very helpful French people I met could laugh together at my mistakes. The experience reminded me in a very concrete way that my students don’t have to use the language perfectly. It also reminded me to be alert to sensory overload. There were a few times when even simple sentences sounded like “wah wah wah wah wah” because my brain was on overload. A pause and a repetition usually solved the problem.

    During my first extended stay in Germany I lived with a family in which the father was Swabian and the mother was Swiss. All of my communication took place in Modern Standard German, but I heard the mother interact with her children in Swiss German on a daily basis. Near the end of my stay we were having Sunday dinner with a couple from the church we attended. (They were local Swabians.) The phone rang, and one of the children answered it. He came and told his mother that Frau X was on the phone. She asked him to find out what she wanted. He reported back, and the mother told him to tell her that she would call back that evening. When all of this was done, the visiting couple asked, “What was that about?” I said, “You mean you didn’t understand that?” Everyone at the table looked at me and said, “What, and you did?” I had come to understand Swiss German just by hearing it in context over time. Had I continued to do so, I’m sure I would be able to speak Swiss German as well as understand it.

    Those experiences are what helped me recognize the value of Comprehensible Input over other methods when the goal is communication.

  4. Ditto Drew, that’s a gem!

    “I attributed this experience to karma for having ever embarrassed a student who was trying his best to communicate an idea to me. One point for the universe.”

    I took an ASL class recently, and I think I was the slowest processor in the room of 13 students. The teacher did not hesitate to let that be known (in a not so subtle way). I was honestly trying to understand, but just needed SLOW. So, that quote of yours really resonated with me.

    Well done.

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