language input characteristics

The Language Input Blueprint: Managing 9 Key Language Input Characteristics for Accelerated Language Learning (Bonus – Expert Tips included)

language input

Master the science of manipulating language input characteristics to accelerate language learning in this essential guide. Added bonus: expert tips included to help your kickstart your innovation!

Table of Contents

Can language teachers manipulate language input characteristics to support language learners? As a child, I have always been fascinated with the world of Alchemy. Based in philosophical pursuits of mastery and transformation, it trails between art and science. As a daily practice, alchemists seek to “purify, mature, and perfect certain materials” as part of the journey. Not everyone approves the way of the alchemists, perceiving them as “hoax” and “doomed to fail”. For others, however, Alchemy represents the early heritage of chemistry that was grounded in philosophy.

Despite the apparent failure of ancient alchemists in their main quests to create the philosopher’s stone or transform lead into gold, modern alchemists are regarded noble scientists that seek to engineer new materials through careful experimentation – all part and parcel of what we call “material science” today.

Back to the question: Can language teachers manipulate language input characteristics to support language learners? Are we able to become the Alchemists of language input characteristics where we can mix and meld the elements of language input to create potent elixirs for accelerated language learning; or combine the magic of audio, visual, and interactive resources to create an enchanting blend that captivates our learners’ minds and trigger language acquisition?

Drawing inspiration from material science, which played a pivotal role in uncovering and crafting materials like steel, I have delved into the knowledge offered by language scientists who extensively studied language acquisition. Through this exploration, I have curated a set of language input characteristics that we can skilfully engineer for our learners. In this article, I’ll guide you through each characteristic and share practical tips on how we can adeptly “manipulate” language input to optimise language learning for our learners.

What is LANGUAGE INPUT?

language input characteristics
Photo from Envato Elements / A language teacher smiling with her preschooling learners

As in important prelude, we need to know what LANGUAGE INPUT is. Generally, LANGUAGE INPUT encompasses all auditory or textual stimuli a learner encounters in the target language. In simpler terms, it refers to everything that the learner hears or reads in a particular language. LANGUAGE INPUT thus exemplifies how content with meaning can be spoken or written in a target language.

To scholars of language acquisition, the presence of LANGUAGE INPUT precedes any form of acquisition. Any theoretical models require the in-depth examination of how learners process language input and how it eventually leads (or not) to language acquisition. For these models to be taken seriously, they necessitate a thorough exploration, bolstered by empirical evidence, of how learners construct or modify their mental representations of the grammar(s) in the target language through the interactions with the input. By all measures, the importance of language input cannot be underscored further.

There are at least 7 different types of language input that can facilitate language acquisition where all language educators should consider as part of their enacted curriculum. Regardless of the type of language input that we plan and use in our classrooms, there are additional dimensions that we need to consider before exposure to any type of input can yield impactful acquisition. Let us now look at these language input characteristics that we need to manage when we put on our “Language Alchemist” hats.

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1. Quantity

quantity of input
Photo from Envato Elements / A child buried in toys to represent the amount of language input

As the cornerstone of acquiring a second language, the quantity of input in language learning plays a critical part. It refers to the extensive amount of exposure to language that learners require for language development. The higher the quantity of language input, the more oxygen is given to the flames of second language acquisition. To put it succinctly, reading or listening more to content in the target language significantly enhances our learners’ prospects of mastering the language.

Ample research in language teaching demonstrates a positive correlation between the quantity of target language input and language proficiency across a range of skills (Unsworth, Brouwer, de Bree & Verhagen, 2019). The more the exposure to the written or spoken forms of the target language, the more opportunities are opened up for “noticing” of the regularities of the language, such as the semantic intricacies of word usage, the phonological patterns inherent in continuous discourse, and the systematic sequencing of words and phrases to compose coherent sentences.

How has “quantity” been operationalised by researchers? Placed in a scientific study where specific elements are studied, researchers have measured quantity in terms of the number of words / tokens / utterances (Anderson, Graham, Prime, Jenkins & Madigan, 2021); or length of exposure and percentage of daily exposure (Cowan & Olmstead, 2023). In studies of looking at a broader experience, measures can include “time spent in-country, in the foreign language classroom, or more appropriately, time spent using the language for the negotiation of meaning” (Piske & Young-Scholten, 2009). These give us some clues as to what and how we can “shape” the quantity of language input in our classrooms.

TIPS:
  • Incorporate extensive reading activities: Encourage our learners to read a wide range of texts in the target language, including books, articles, and online resources. Provide them with interesting and relevant materials that match their language proficiency level (e.g. graded readers) to promote comprehension and vocabulary acquisition.
  • Guide learners in adopting technology-based language learning tools: Explore and utilise technology-based language learning opportunities, such as the adoption of language learning apps, accessing media in target language in online platforms (e.g. Youtube videos of various genres), and re-purposing of existing AI-enabled tools (e.g. guide learners to use ChatGPT for increased exposure to target language). These tools can provide additional language input as percentage of daily exposure for our learners outside of the classroom. Where affordances allow, our learners can even practise using the target language interactively.
  • Integrate language learning into daily routines: Encourage our learners to incorporate the target language into their daily routines. This can be done through activities such as listening to podcasts or music in the target language during commutes or setting the language of their devices to the target language for selected days.
  • Leverage community-based language learning opportunities: Language exchange programs or conversation clubs are excellent opportunities to practice speaking and receive valuable feedback from experienced speakers. Our learners can consider volunteering time in target language communities (if such avenues are available) or joining online communities focusing on language learning (e.g. social media platforms such as Facebook or Discord has a lot of language exchange communities).
  • Enhancing the linguistic landscape where learners are situated: In the field of sociolinguistics, a linguistic landscape refers to the visual representation of languages in the public space of a particular area or community. This is a domain where we can exercise agency in agreement with the institution in which we are teaching to increase the presence of our target language(s) on physical signs, posters, wall descriptions, etc.
  • Communicate with parents to influence language practices: An effective parent-teacher partnership can be powerful in enabling the increase in quantity of the target language input. Where parents have the capacity, we could work with them to also manipulate language practices on the home front. This can dramatically increase the “length” and “percentage” of daily exposure to the target language when our learners leave the classrooms.

2. Quality

quality of input
Photo from Envato Elements / A quality ink stamp

When quantity of language input has been taken care of, the next question will usually be on quality. Arguably, scholars have argued that language input quality matters more than quantity in certain learning contexts (Anderson et al., 2021; Jones & Rowland, 2017; Unsworth et al., 2019). For instance, listening to 10 hours of the various tones of “Hello” and “Thank you” sound like a lot, but will not lead to much acquisition of English.

So, what exactly is “quality” as defined by academics? Most would frame it in terms of diversity across different dimensions, such as the ways language is used in different contextual domains (e.g. formal/informal, home/school/community) (Piske & Young-Scholten, 2009); or distribution of lexical items (vocabulary) and syntactic complexity (grammar)(Anderson et al., 2021, Rowe, & Snow, 2020). The key message is that learners benefit from “diversity” – a wider spectrum of exposure to various facets of the target language – especially for the older learners or more advanced learners.

Another perspective of quality relates to the degree to which the language input provides an ideal exemplar for learning, though quality can become more subjective and situational in these learning situations:

This is not an exhaustive list of possible manifestations of quality. Again, the key message here is that there is a preferred end of the spectrum for these definitions of quality (e.g. speakers/interlocutors providing language input to be highly proficient in the target language) which can be contingent on the needs of learners (e.g. more interactivity for younger learners). In a sense, there are debatable differences between high-quality and low-quality input as filtered by the lenses we decide to wear.  Nevertheless, the exploration and rigorous studies conducted by scholars gave us invaluable insights to the general direction of “manipulation” for quality.

TIPS:
  • Provide diverse and rich language input across different contextual domains: When we plan our curriculum, we should remember to incorporate a range of communicative contexts which require language use in formal and informal settings, as well as in various domains such as home, school, and community. This will expose learners to different registers and help them develop a broader understanding of the language.
  • Implement extensive reading activities: I know. This sounds like a repetition of the tip for quantity. BUT reading widely does have the value of familiarising learners with a wider range of lexical items and complex sentences which they may not necessarily encounter in their daily target language use.
  • Leverage podcasts in various topics for different levels of language use: Podcasts have gained popularity as a versatile and engaging tool in language education, offering students a flexible means to learn languages. The world of podcasts has already established itself, granting us access to a diverse array of content covering various topics, primarily tailored for L1 users. There are also specific podcasts that  help learners with other proficiency levels. Leveraging these advantages, we can guide learners in crafting their own ecosystem of podcasts, allowing them to receive a steady stream of diverse audio language input.
  • Plan for more socially-mediated language input for beginning and younger learners: Research findings point consistently in a similar direction, urging us to align our practices accordingly. When instructing beginning and younger learners, we must prioritise the integration of interactions in a substantial proportion of our lessons to maximise their language learning outcomes.
  • Calibrate the level-appropriateness of the language input: In order to tailor the learning experience to our learners’ designated profiles, we need to adjust the various dimensions of quality. This entails taking into account their age, proficiency level, and specific needs, and then offering language input that is both suitable and appropriately challenging to foster growth. We must actively modify the input, simplifying or elaborating it as needed to optimise for the language learning purposes.

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3. Variability

Intercultural competence
Photo from Envato Elements / A multicultural group of learners that uses a common language in different ways

Variability is almost an inevitable feature of language use – even ChatGPT does not generate identical responses to the same prompts on different occasions. To extrapolate this further, language use can be highly variegated across speakers from different speech communities (e.g. countries, regions, social groups) even when they are speaking “similar” languages (e.g. languages as we know to be socio-politically constructed as English, Spanish, Japanese).

I got to experience this first-hand during my undergraduate studies in Peking University and postgraduate studies in University of Edinburgh. My representations of English and Mandarin are pretty much fortified in Singapore and Malaysia which arguably also host at least 3 – 4 varieties of each language. Nevertheless, I consider myself a L1 user of either language, considering the fact that I achieved rather excellent results in both at A levels and have taught both languages effectively on different occasions (though my runway is much much longer for Mandarin).

However, the lectures provided by different academics at both universities challenged me to rethink about what exactly “knowing the language” is. Do note that my specialisations are in language and linguistics (for Edinburgh) / literature (for Peking). I experienced a whole range of varieties in either languages (e.g. English from Scotland, Newscastle, Rwanda; Mandarin from Jiangsu, Guangxi, Sichuan). The experience really strengthened my resilience for variability, and I can pretty much converse and understand L1 and L2 speakers of either language – quite an important premise for language educators, ain’t that?

Variability in language input holds the key to a more holistic and diverse language learning experience. By using different sources and types of input, learners can gain a richer and more comprehensive understanding of the target language. Taking reference from my personal experience, variability allows learners to be more capable of interacting with users of the target language from various linguistic backgrounds.

At this point, we might be wondering: is variability linked to quality in the earlier section? Yes, it is considered a subset of quality that is so pertinent that it warrants a characteristic of its own. I did also mention that learners benefit from “diversity”. However, I need to mention a caveat: While the significance of input variability cannot be understated, it is also imperative to recognise that increased variability in language input concurrently also intensifies its complexity, thus potentially giving rise to learning difficulties for early learners in terms of age and proficiency (Sinkeviciute, Brown, Brekelmans & Wonnacott, 2019).

This difficulty is especially pronounced for adult learners of a second language, where they tend to face highly variegated language use due to larger social circles and nature of learning (e.g. immigrants listening to various varieties of same language by different L1 users native to the host country and L2 users who are fellow immigrants)(Flege, 2009). Helping them navigate variability by compensating with more modified input (simplified) at the start to more naturalistic and interactive input over the different stages of language development may be more useful for them. 

TIPS:
  • Use language materials ranging from focusing on standard variety to incorporation of more varieties: Assuming that we teach learners from beginning stages of language learning to more advanced stages, do sequence and provide a variety of resources (e.g. books, articles, videos, and audio recordings) that expose learners to the standard variety of the target language in the earlier stages and slowing increasing the amount of exposure to different accents, dialects, and registers of the target language over time. This helps our learners to become familiar with the variability of language use and develop their comprehension skills in both listening and reading. If your learners are already at advanced levels, other than challenging them with advanced grammar or literary skills, introducing more variability within language exposure can be good way to go too.
  • Encourage interaction with both L1 and L2 users (or native and non-native speakers): Create opportunities for our learners to engage in conversations with speakers who have different linguistic backgrounds. This allows our learners to see how their language skills are applied in real-life situations and be exposed to a wider range of language variation for a more holistic learning and development.
  • Leverage technology and online resources: Take advantage of technology and online resources that provide access to a wide range of language materials and authentic language use. Online communities and virtual language exchanges provide a learning environment which exposes our learners to different varieties of the target language and facilitate interaction with speakers from around the world.

4. Frequency

document with frequency
Photo from Envato Elements / A form depicting the different descriptions of frequency

Allow me to be unequivocal from the start. The frequency discussed in this section does not pertain to how often our learners engage with the target language input – that aspect might be more relevant to quantity and somewhat connected to the later characteristic on “processing time”. The frequency highlighted here, although it may surprise some, is more closely associated with the “variability” discussed in the earlier section.

In essence, frequency denotes the rate of occurrence of targeted language input, as defined by specific linguistic properties. The higher the frequency, the greater the likelihood of learners noticing those linguistic properties. Conversely, infrequent occurrences may lead to reduced noticing and, consequently, a lower possibility of acquisition.

In layman’s terms, this means that if we desire our learners to recognise specific linguistic forms from the given language input, those forms should appear more frequently in the input to attract their attention. A detailed exploration of frequency effects, as presented in research, could be technical and would necessitate another article (I can do that in future). However, the essential evidence arises from findings in research on language acquisition which demonstrates that children tend to acquire the more frequent linguistic forms encountered in naturalistic input before the less frequent ones (Ambridge, Kidd, Rowland & Theakston, 2015; Demuth, 2007; Lieven, 2010).

The rationale behind the preferential acquisition of frequent structures is quite simple: the higher the frequency of a specific linguistic form, the earlier learners are encouraged to pay attention to it and process it. This phenomenon draws parallels to the “priming” effect as studied in psychology. The same premise also guides the design of “input flood”, an input enhancement technique where learners are exposed to targeted linguistic features in high frequency. This is achieved through the strategic repetition of targeted linguistic forms in written texts or by embedding numerous instances of the targeted linguistic form in speech.

TIPS:
  • Employ input flood to foster noticing: We can consider the technique of input flood. Essentially, it involves repeating targeted linguistic forms in spoken or written input to augment the frequency of exposure for our learners. For further insights, you can access this article.
  • Strategically plan and implement deliberate practice in using targeted linguistic forms: Based on the principles of spaced repetition, we can ensure abundant practice opportunities where the targeted linguistic forms can appear more frequently in the language input provided, granting our learners increased chances to internalise them.
  • Adapt the linguistic landscape from time to time: We can take an active approach in arranging the display of physical signs, posters, instructions, and similar elements in our classrooms to mirror the key targeted linguistic forms at a particular moment in time, resulting in an increased frequency of exposure to these forms. Engineering a dynamic language learning environment (especially of our language class) has reap immense learning benefits for our learners.

5. Salience of forms

input enhancement, enhanced input
Photo from Envato Elements / A word written by crayons

In the preceding section, we have explained the relationship between the frequency of certain linguistic forms in language input and their noticing and subsequent acquisition. In this section, the salience of forms takes centre stage, concerning the extent to which linguistic forms are presented in ways that can influence their likelihood of being noticed.

With minimal intervention, our learners may find it challenging to acquire substantial amount of targeted linguistic features from any given language input. While they may be exposed to a large volume of such input (e.g. hours of drama and movies), forming accurate mental representations of the structures in the target language remains elusive. Perhaps, they only manage to grasp a few formulaic expressions that happen to occur frequently, while the rest of the language input goes unused.

This is unsurprising, given the limitations of attention. Due to these limitations, Schmidt puts forward the “Noticing Hypothesis” (1990, 2001, 2012), highlighting the position that language input needs to be consciously noticed and registered by the learner before any acquisition can take place, as opposed to simply being passively exposed to it.

The challenge, however, lies in the fact that individuals (including our learners of course) tend to prioritise meaning over linguistic forms when processing language input. As a result, less salient linguistic forms often go unnoticed. In order for these forms to receive attention and establish the groundwork for acquisition, they must possess features of salience.

So, how have researchers increased “salience”? Frequency was one way of increasing salience. Other means include: manipulating the perceptual elements of the input (e.g. using colors to make certain words stand out from the rest, stressing keywords in speech); providing learners with language input using multi-modalities to engage different senses of learners to direct them to the targeted forms. Other than the tips below, you can also refer to this article for a more comprehensive set of suggestions.

TIPS:
  • Manipulate the written/printed elements of the input to make the target forms stand out: We can do this by using a set of different typographical elements in our design of language learning resources to draw attention to the targeted forms in the written language input. 
  • Emphasise the keywords or important elements of the target forms in speech: By stressing targeted elements in spoken language input, learners are more likely to notice and pay attention to them.
  • Use multi-modality to engage different senses of learners: This can involve incorporating visual aids, gestures, or other sensory cues to reinforce the target forms and make them more salient.
  • Provide explicit instruction about the target forms as part of input: By drawing learners’ attention to these forms and providing information about their usage and meaning, they are more likely to notice and understand them.

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6. Processing Time

time pressure, time taken
Photo from Envato Elements / An hourglass depicting time

I often receive questions from parents and language teachers alike: Can our learners be intensively exposed to massive amounts of input in a short period, resulting in successful acquisition? This question has perennial relevance, particularly in regions or countries facing the constraint of providing only one hour of second and/or foreign language lessons per week or in situations where we opt for an intensive 10-week program to learn a second or foreign language.

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is a resounding “no”. Although I have expounded upon the benefits of language immersion trips, which often entail brief yet intense episodes of language learning, I have not come across any instances of achieving complete acquisition of the target language within a single trip.

What causes this phenomenon? The shorter the available period to engage with a specific language input, the more efficient one must be in attending to the linguistic properties of the various components of the language system present in the input. However, human brain processing capabilities have their limitations, rendering it practically impossible to address all necessary aspects of a given language input within a brief time frame, regardless of the language input’s quality.

Consequently, what implications does this hold for our language classrooms? It pertains to the timeframe during which we engage our learners. Should we expose them to targeted language input, be it spoken or written, and anticipate some “noticing” behaviours within a limited time span? Should we expedite our lessons to rapidly reach learning points, without allowing sufficient time for our learners to digest the input? These represent some of the considerations we might confront concerning the processing time of language input. We must identify the sweet spot—the optimal amount of input—that our learners can manage within the given time frame.

TIPS:
  • Break down the language input into smaller, manageable chunks: Depending on our learner profiles, we have the flexibility to choose or present our targeted language input in smaller, manageable chunks rather than delivering a complete spoken or written text all at once within our learning activities. Once learners feel comfortable with the initial segment, we proceed to introduce subsequent parts of the text.
  • Use visual aids, such as images, charts, or diagrams, to support the comprehension: Employing multimodality actively engages the brain’s different processing channels, filtering information effectively. If we limit ourselves to textual processing alone, it can result in bottlenecks, particularly when time is constrained. However, by integrating support from other channels, we enhance the content and alleviate the load of grasping linguistic forms. The Silent Way method serves as a valuable source of wisdom and insights on how to utilise visual aids for effective language learning in general.
  • Incorporate exact and varied repetition as reinforcement: Our learners, particularly those facing challenges in learning from audio input in a single exposure, can derive better learning outcomes from two techniques: exact repetition (involving the straightforward repetition of the same input) and varied repetition (involving repetition with slight variations in tokens to focus attention on targeted linguistic forms). Repetition enables priming in the initial exposure and makes the input comprehensible in subsequent exposures if well-facilitated.
  • Adjust the pacing of the lessons based on the learners’ needs and progress: Granting ample time for our learners to process and internalise the language input is our fundamental responsibility as language educators. Despite its intuitive nature, time limitations and the desire to swiftly cover the syllabus may lead some of us to overlook this aspect. It is imperative, however, to remember that merely completing the syllabus does not ensure meaningful learning. Thus, our foremost priority should consistently be to prioritise learning, as it directly impacts how much our learners truly benefit from our instruction.
  • Strategise with the optimal combination of intensive and extensive exposure: Time is always a scarce resource in education. As such, in our classrooms, we usually facilitate intensive language learning experiences where our learners are guided in focused instruction to attain specific learning outcomes; while outside the classroom, our learners should aim to immerse themselves in extensive language learning opportunities which are unfocused and more incidental. An optimal environment of time-constrained instruction and self-paced learning holds the potential for accelerated learning.

7. Attitudes and Motivation

children interested and actively learning
Photo from Envato Elements / A group of interested learners actively involved in inquiry

Attitudes and motivation play a crucial role in the processing of language input. The affective filter, a concept introduced by Stephen Krashen (1981, 1982) alongside the influential “input hypothesis”, refers to the emotional and psychological factors that can either enhance or hinder language acquisition. The affective filter serves as a barrier that can impede the processing of language input if negative attitudes, anxiety, or lack of motivation are present. On the contrary, a positive attitude and strong motivation can lower the affective filter, making it easier for individuals to process and acquire language input.

We may thus be asking: isn’t this article solely focused on the design of language input? Attending to attitudes and motivation might appear to be irrelevant. However, if we take a moment to reflect further, we may come to the realisation that it is not necessarily the case. Attitudes and motivation are not distinct entities that demand isolated interventions with no relation to others. The design of input itself can wield a powerful force in changing attitudes and motivation.

The examination of language attitudes and motivation warrants separate articles owing to their complexity. In the context of this article, it suffices to recognise that attitudes and motivation are intricate constructs, shaped by socio-political forces beyond our immediate control.  However, we hold the ability to optimise the design of target language input, proactively addressing certain concerns, and thus, rendering the input more appealing to our students, thereby enhancing their willingness to engage with and acquire the language through this processed input.

Recall my earlier point about learners giving precedence to processing input for meaning rather than linguistic forms? This underscores the importance of ensuring that the language input contains inherently engaging content or is supplemented with elements that hold appeal for our learners. Conversely, we should also refrain from presenting content that surpasses their assessed comprehensibility in terms of age-appropriateness and level-appropriateness, as this can act as a major deterrent for many learners. In essence, our design of input extends beyond mere content presentation to encompass thoughtful content selection from the outset.

TIPS:
  • Strive to comprehend the interests of learners: The active pursuit of understanding learners’ interests enables us to discern the type of content they truly desire to engage with. By tailoring the material to appeal to their specific preferences, we can then draw learners in and significantly boost their level of engagement.
  • Actively seek feedback from learners: This allows us to gauge our learners’ interests that can be dynamic and ever-changing and adjust our language input content accordingly. In doing so, we do not only validate learners’ opinions but also ensure that the content in our input remains relevant and appealing.
  • Co-construct input in the target language with learners: Somewhat similar to the previous point, by allowing our learners to actively participate in the creation of content, they become more invested in the learning process. This collaborative approach fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility, as our learners see their contributions being valued and incorporated into many learning activities. Imagine the sense of empowerment when our learners read their own constructions as part of formal language tasks. 
  • Invest time in learning the basics of design: This improves our capacity in presenting content in a more engaging manner. By enhancing the experience of our visual aids, interactive exercises, or multimedia resources, we are then able to make the input in our learning materials more captivating.
  • Leverage the rich culture of the target language in selection of content: By including elements of the target culture, we can facilitate the development of a profound connection and appreciation for the target language among our learners. This intrinsic connection to the culture can also function as a motivator to redefine the purpose of the language input, as our learners actively engage with content that resonates with their interests and aspirations while processing for linguistic forms to better grasp the content.
  • Take reference from literature in the target language for interesting content: Literature offers a wealth of engaging and thought-provoking material that can captivate our learners and spark their curiosity. Literature has many benefits for language learning and I do recommend us to read this article.
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8. Prior linguistic knowledge

simplified input, baby talk
Photo from Envato Elements / A grandparent interacting with his grandchild

Prior linguistic knowledge plays a significant role in the processing of new language input. Learning itself is a continuous flow of schema development, or a series of mental models building, where new data that enters our processing system is always tested against already acquired data. The process of adaptation then proceeds to decide whether the new data can be assimilated into existing system or that it should be used in accommodation to shift the existing system.

So, what does prior linguistic knowledge entail? When individuals hold a strong understanding of the structures and patterns in their previously acquired language(s), they become more adept at recognising and applying similar patterns in a new language. The higher the level of relatability in prior linguistic knowledge, the easier it is to anchor new knowledge and, consequently, a more efficient adaptation.

What if our learners’ prior linguistic knowledge contrasts the linguistic patterns of the target language? It is thus dependent on the level of their “language awareness”. By attaining a heightened level of sensitivity and conscious awareness regarding the functioning of a language, our learners can enhance their aptitude to analyse and comprehend the target language as a complex system.

As a result, they become better equipped to identify specific linguistic features that facilitate language acquisition. In that sense, even if the prior linguistic knowledge did not contribute to assimilation (i.e. supplementing an existing schema with additional pertinent information), our language learners may also be more capable to engage in active accommodation (i.e. modify pre-existing schema(s) in response to new contrasting information) – thanks to their stronger awareness of prior linguistic knowledge.

How does all of this inform the design of language input? A comprehensive grasp of our learners’ prior linguistic knowledge can greatly influence the selection of linguistic features in the target language input, at any given moment. Tailoring the input to capitalise on their previous knowledge allows for the strategic choices of either building on their existing understanding for assimilation; or presenting explicit contrasts to encourage accommodation. Also as important, the design of the instructional process that accompanies the input should also be considered during this phase.

TIPS:
  • Understand learners’ language backgrounds: We can start with taking account of our learners’ first language(s), any additional language(s) they may speak, as well as any previous exposure to the target language. By understanding our learners’ linguistic backgrounds, we can identify potential challenges and opportunities they may face during the language learning process. We can then be strategic in our selection of linguistic forms that we want to present as well as possible strategies in leveraging their prior knowledge to grasp these forms, thus addressing the needs of learners. 
  • Activate learners’ prior linguistic knowledge: We can start by designing activities and tasks that require our learners to draw upon their existing linguistic knowledge and skills (e.g. activities that require learners to make comparisons between their first language and the target language, use their existing knowledge to make predictions of new language forms). By incorporating such activities into the instructional framework, our learners are encouraged to actively engage with the new language input and make connections with their prior knowledge.
  • Strengthen language awareness through some focus-on-form instruction: This is about directing learners’ attention to specific linguistic features and structures, while helping them develop a deeper understanding of linguistic patterns and rules governing the target language. By having some focus on form, learners become more conscious of the language they are learning, enabling them to notice and analyse linguistic features in novel language input more effectively.

9. Proximality

a special zone in the park
Image generated by Air Brush / A special zone in a park

Let me start with a couple of imagined scenarios of language input in a classroom: a preschooler listening to a podcast on generative AI, and a university student reading Peppa Pig. Do both scenarios represent absurdity at its finest? Where is the issue?

These examples serve as extreme negative instances of the desired balance, falling within the language input characteristic known as “proximality”. The podcast is completely inaccessible for the preschooler, whereas Peppa Pig proves to be far too easy for the university student.

The concept of “proximality” draws reference from Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, which emphasises the significance of the learner’s cognitive development in the context of educational practices. In essence, “proximality” refers to the notion that learners are more receptive to acquiring new knowledge and skills when they are presented with tasks and challenges that lie within their proximal range of development. In other words, these tasks should be just beyond the learner’s current level of understanding, providing an optimal balance between achievable goals and meaningful challenges.

This idea highlights the importance of scaffolding and guided instruction, wherein educators provide appropriate support and guidance to learners as they work through tasks that are slightly above their current competence. Incorporating the concept of proximality into the design of language input implies that we should aim to present input that caters to our learners’ zone of proximal development, so that we can foster an environment of optimal language growth.

The implementation of proximality corresponds with Krashen’s proposal of comprehensible input (1981, 1982, 1985, 2009), wherein the hypothesised language input aligns with the i+1 range, which is similar to the zone of proximal development. To put it plainly, language input should adhere to the Goldilocks Principle, striking a balance in terms of difficulty or comprehensibility – neither too easy nor too difficult.

TIPS:
  • Understand the learners’ current level of understanding: Before calibrating the proximality of language input, it is crucial to have a clear understanding of our learners’ current level of understanding. This can be assessed through various methods such as language proficiency tests, observations, or informal conversations.
  • Provide a variety of input materials: To cater to our learners’ zone of proximal development, it is essential to provide a variety of input materials that cover a range of difficulty levels. This can include graded readers, authentic texts, audiovisual materials, and interactive activities. From observations and evaluations on how our learners interact with these materials, we would become more skilful over time in identifying the sweet spot.
  • Gradually increase the complexity: As our learners progress in their language acquisition journey, we must also remember to gradually increase the complexity of the language input. This can be done by introducing new vocabulary, more complex sentence structures, and advanced topics that align with their developing cognitive abilities.
  • Use scaffolding techniques: Scaffolding refers to providing appropriate support and guidance to our learners as they work through tasks that are slightly above their current competence. This can be achieved through techniques such as pre-teaching vocabulary, providing graphic organisers, offering sentence frames, and modelling language use.
  • Monitor and adjust subsequent input: Monitoring our learners’ progress and adjusting the language input accordingly is essential to ensure that it remains within their zone of proximal development. Regular assessments, formative evaluations, and ongoing observations can help us identify areas where learners need additional support or where the language input needs to be adjusted to maintain the optimal balance between achievable goals and meaningful challenges.

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Conclusion: Manipulating language input characteristics like a scientist

Designing language input is both a science and somewhat of an art, considering that we may not always have immediate access to all the knowledge concerning this matter when planning curricula or preparing lessons. However, despite this constraint, by keeping the framework of all the 9 language input characteristics in this article in mind, we can effectively enhance our ability to create the most optimal input regardless of our circumstances.

Before concluding, I must also emphasise that this is not a checklist where we make sure our language input possesses every characteristic. We do not approach curriculum design by creating sets of language input and determining if every aspect is covered at all times. Instead, the design largely hinges on curricular objectives and the intended learning outcomes to achieve practical optimality for our learners. For example, learners aiming to achieve brief communication after a short period of learning may benefit from intensive exposure to high-frequency linguistic forms and structures (e.g. formulaic expressions) in the target language, even if such an approach may not align with considerations of quality and processing time. With such considerations in mind, I hope all of us become expert language alchemists in due time.

Thank you for reading! If you like what you are reading, do subscribe to our mailing list to receive updated resources and tips for language educators. Please also feel free to provide us any feedback or suggestions on content that you would like covered.

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