Living Latin and Comprehensible Input

UD’s Living Latin curriculum for K-5 is partly based on current research on comprehensible input (to the extent that it is compatible with the tradition of classical liberal arts education – we’ll touch on that another time). Comprehensible input is widely recognized among second language researchers as the sine qua non of second language acquisition.

Here’s a quick reminder of what we mean by comprehensible input and why it is important.

First, input refers to language students hear or read (as opposed to output, which is language they produce in speaking or writing). Current second language acquisition research has in fact demonstrated that learners acquire language when they understand messages they hear and read, not through producing and practicing. An important corollary of this is that output is not forced but allowed to emerge gradually. In the early stages, more output does not increase language acquisition; more input does. Likewise, more formal testing doesn’t result in more language acquisition; our time is more wisely spent by providing large quantities of high-quality input.

Input is comprehensible when a learner can fully understand it. We achieve this through pictures, gestures, but also through translation when necessary. Full immersion is not necessary. It is better to translate something to ensure everyone understands, than to risk frustrating students who will then simply tune out. 

However, good input is not just comprehensible, but also compelling, that is, so interesting to the learners that they will become absorbed in the content. Instruction thus must focus primarily on meaning, not on form (grammar). That is why our curriculum is not organized by grammatical topics, but by thematically interesting content. Thus we also don’t limit our input to only first declension nouns and first conjugation verbs: we use the nouns and verbs that are needed for the content at hand, regardless of what declension or conjugation they belong to.

Good quality input is also abundant: students are immersed in the language as much as possible, and the input is repeated frequently with variations to keep it interesting. The repetition is crucial: input needs to be fully internalized for true mastery. Good quality input is also rich, not impoverished: while simple or even simplified language is important to ensure comprehension, students should be exposed to a variety of linguistic structures as demanded by the context.

Finally, let’s keep in mind that language learning takes time. In their native language, babies get to listen and try out sounds for about a year until they produce their first words. They often take another year or more to string words together to make short sentences. Meanwhile, however, they understand most of what you say or read to them. A five-year-old who has been exposed to lots of good quality input in their native language can understand highly complex sentences (as long as they are part of an age-appropriate, compelling story!), but will likely not speak in extensive relative clauses. A good feel for correctness, understanding of grammatical rules, and a large vocabulary gradually emerge as students are exposed to more high quality compelling and comprehensible input. UD’s Living Latin curriculum aims at providing as much as possible rich, abundant and compelling comprehensible input.

We should emphasize, though, that comprehensible input is only one part of the picture. In a future post we’ll discuss the other important part: that of the classical framework of the Trivium.