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2A: Comprehensibility Factors

Throughout Stage 2, you will immerse in many types of content across various levels of difficulty. When choosing what to immerse with, finding content with the right level of difficulty is key. You want to be able to comprehend as much as possible while still stretching yourself.

Content well-matched to your level will maximize your comprehension, making it more entertaining and helping you acquire the language faster. Content that is far outside of your current abilities will still help you build your language skills, but the acquisition will be slower because you will understand so little of the content.

This article explains the various factors that determine how comprehensible a given piece of media is likely to be. Keeping these factors in mind when searching for content should help you find media on your level.

Contextual Comprehensibility

Have you ever watched a TV show on mute and still understood the story? We call this contextual comprehensibility. Comprehensibility isn’t just about how complex the language is. It is also about how much visual information is provided, how predictable the story is, and how familiar you are with those kinds of stories.

Visual Context

When watching TV or reading comics, there is visual information that communicates the story. This visual context supports your comprehension of the language used. Even if you don’t know a word, you may be able to infer the meaning based on the visual action of the characters.

Listening and reading without visual context adds a layer of complexity because the context needs to be described entirely with words. A picture’s worth a thousand words, which means without a picture, you’ll need to learn a thousand more words to understand the context.

Narrative Predictability

Scripted content with a narrative structure allows you to become familiar with the characters and story, and this familiarity gives the language context. If you are aware of narrative clichés and the personality of a character, you can usually predict what that character will express in a given situation. The simpler the narrative, the better you can make these predictions and inferences. Try to avoid shows with complex narratives like Westworld or The Witcher.

For beginners, unscripted content is much more difficult than scripted. Although the content may use simple, ordinary, day-to-day vocabulary, the lack of a consistent story makes it harder to follow. Street interviews, improvisation, regular conversation, etc. are difficult for beginners because they don’t follow any narrative tropes or patterns that make the content predictable.

Domain Familiarity

As noted in 2A: Domains, focusing on a smaller subset of the language allows you to build comprehension quickly because you become familiar with the vocabulary and grammar common within that domain.

Narrative content tends to stay within a narrow domain, but many types of media don’t. News broadcasts, stand-up comedy, and talk show interviews tend to bounce around between many different topics which means you need to master multiple domains to understand them. These multi-domain media types are a major challenge for beginners.

Another domain concern is dialect. Many languages have regional dialects that are entirely different from each other. Accent differences alone can be enough to make the language incomprehensible, even to natives. Along with differences in slang, vocabulary, and grammar, and two dialects can be far enough apart to be thought of as different languages. We recommend mastering a single dialect before trying to branch out into others.

Linguistic Complexity

Different content has different levels of complexity in the language used. Audience level and genre are two major factors in evaluating the linguistic complexity of a piece of content. Additionally, dubbed content tends to be simpler.

For the following sections, we use TV shows as examples to explain these concepts, but all are equally applicable to novels, podcasts, and other media types.

Audience

Different audiences expect different levels of linguistic complexity. In the United States, most video content is rated for different ages of audience. Movies utilize the MPAA rating system while TV uses the “TV Parental Guidelines” system. Although these rating systems are intended to evaluate how inappropriate a piece of content is for children, you can use them as a proxy for linguistic complexity.

Audience segments break down into 5 levels:

Infant (0-5 years): shows for infants (e.g., Dora the Explorer, Blues Clues) rely on exaggerated visual context and extremely simple language to convey meaning to the infant. We do NOT recommend using this type of content. The language density (words used per minute) is very low and the story is usually boring for adults. Ratings to look for: MPAA-G, TV-Y

Child (5-10 years): shows for children (eg. Pokemon, Power Rangers) rely on simple storylines, but expect a larger vocabulary from their audience. These shows are a good place to start for new learners if you can stay interested in simple and repetitive storylines. Ratings to look for: MPAA-PG, TV-Y7/G/PG

Adolescent (10-15 years): shows for adolescents (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Hey Arnold) are a perfect place to start for most learners. The stories are complex enough that they can hold an adult’s interest for multiple seasons, and the language is dense and complex enough to stretch an intermediate learner’s abilities. Ratings to look for: MPAA-PG-13, TV-14

Adult: shows for adults (Friends, Star Trek) can vary wildly in terms of comprehensibility. Adult TV can be difficult because of linguistic complexity, but more often, it’s due to the subject matter and the lack of narrative predictability. We discuss these issues in more depth in the following section on genre. Ratings to look for: MPAA-R, TV-MA.

Technical: Technical media such as college lectures, conference talks, and textbooks are less comprehensible, but usually not because of linguistic complexity. Comprehensibility for this type of media is dependent on your prior knowledge of the subject matter rather than on your language ability. Even a native speaker won’t understand an advanced chemistry course if they haven’t learned basic chemistry.

Domain Difficulty

As noted in 2A: Domains, different domains have different levels of complexity. A slice-of-life TV show like Friends will use common vocabulary that you will encounter in most other media. On the other hand, a political show like The West Wing is full of complex terms related to the American political process.

We recommend choosing slice-of-life as your first domain to master. Slice-of-life means that the characters and stories in the show are similar to what you might experience in your day-to-day life. Drama in these shows tends to revolve around dating/marriage, disputes between friends, money troubles, or any number of typical life experiences. The language used in these shows is going to be the most comprehensible for a beginner.

However, not everyone likes slice-of-life. As always, follow your interests to stay engaged and entertained. Just be aware that genres like fantasy, politics, science-fiction, and crime are all larger domains which make them harder to master than slice-of-life. They will also teach you vocabulary that won’t be relevant outside of that specific domain.

Dubs

When a TV show or movie is dubbed, the language is simplified. Often, when translating between languages, the concepts in the NL don’t translate completely to the TL, so the creators of the dub need to simplify the dialog. The dubbed version removes puns, jokes, and idioms to make the story fit into the linguistic paradigm of the TL. By simplifying the language, the dubbed version becomes more comprehensible. This can be useful when you are immersing.

However, it’s important to remember that dubbed media is not native to your TL. It won’t contain the same sense of humor or cultural phrases as native content. Do not ONLY watch dubbed content or you will never learn the quirks of a native speaker, their sense of humor, or the nuances of their culture.

Most importantly, when evaluating your level of comprehension, do not use dubbed content. Your comprehension level will be artificially inflated.

Maximize Your Comprehension

In Stage 2A, you start with very little comprehension. To overcome the learning curve and kick off the acquisition process, it’s important to find immersion material that’s as comprehensible as possible.

You can do this by choosing content that is aimed at children or adolescents, and using dubbed content if available. You can watch serialized TV shows, which adds both visual context and narrative predictability. Also, make sure to consume content in a single dialect of the language.

You are not limited to the inherent comprehensibility of a piece of media. In the next article, we’ll explain how these comprehensibility factors can be manipulated to make any content even more comprehensible.