“(…) interest may be not enough for optimal language acquisition. It may be the case that input needs to be not just interesting but compelling. Compelling means that the input is so interesting you forget that it is in another language.”
“Compelling input appears to eliminate the need for motivation, a conscious desire to improve. When you get compelling input, you acquire whether you are interested in improving or not.” 1
In 2011 I started learning German. Early on, I found that reading stories could be an effective method to learn the language. ‘Which stories should I read?’, I thought. I believed my options were children’s books or fiction books for German native speakers. The former was too boring. Unappealing. The latter seemed fun and interesting, but too difficult for a beginner. Later on, I would learn about graded readers. This was a third category I wasn’t even aware of. It’s what many learners use to build and practice their reading skills in a foreign language.
These graded readers are usually fiction stories. They come in many difficulty levels, which help you build up your comprehension skills one step at a time. I decided to give them a try. I bought a few easy stories for German learners in multiple genres, by different authors. It didn’t take me long to find some common patterns: most graded readers had vocabulary lists and quizzes at the end of each chapter, and many of them were bilingual (German-English). I know a lot of language students who love all these extra activities. I am not one of them. To me, that approach feels pretty much like school. It reminds me of homework.
I kept looking for graded readers hoping to find something different. And, eventually, I found it. Short stories for German learners, without vocabulary lists, quizzes nor exercises. But not only that. These stories were modern, engaging, and fun. They were much more interesting than anything I had ever read for language learners. I couldn’t get enough of them, and reading each book was a breeze. They were compelling.
I learned about the importance of engagement. Now I knew that I could practice my emerging German skills and enjoy the process at the same time. It didn’t have to be painful or stressful. And, most importantly, it didn’t have to be either boring (children’s books) or frustrating (books for natives). It could be fun and easy. I could read stories relevant and interesting for an adult self-taught learner.
These German graded readers in ebook format were the biggest inspiration for the Spanish Novels Series. As I was passionate about language learning —and Spanish was my mother tongue—, I thought of creating an easy reader in Spanish. At the end of 2012, I published my first ebook under the pen name of Paco Ardit: ‘Ana, estudiante’. Even before starting to write it, I knew how it would be like. It would be easy, straight-forward, and fun (the book, not the publishing process!). Back then I didn’t think of it in terms of compelling input, but I tried my best to make it as interesting as possible.
We love reading and we love stories, but the idea of compelling input goes beyond books. You can also listen to a compelling podcast or watch a compelling movie in Spanish. Once you have built the foundations of your Spanish knowledge, you can even take a stab at more difficult materials. Just make sure they are compelling. In my experience —and the experience of many other language learners—, interest and enthusiasm trump difficulty. If you truly feel like consuming a specific piece of content that’s beyond your reach, it might be good for you nonetheless. ‘Hard + compelling’ could be more effective than ‘Easy + boring’. When choosing materials to get better at Spanish, go with your gut feeling. Look for compelling content. Always.
As a rule of thumb, if I don’t know how to find interesting materials in a target language, I like to get stuff similar to what I already enjoy in languages I know. Here’s an example of how I find compelling music in Italian, the language I’m currently learning:
- Think of an artist or a band I really like in a language I know (Entre Ríos, in Spanish)
- Search the artist on Wikipedia and get the exact genre (electronic pop / pop electrónico)
- Make a search on the genre on YouTube or Spotify, in my target language (elettropop italiano)
- Create a playlist and add songs and artists in my target genre/language
You could do the same with fiction and non-fiction books, movies, series, videogames, newspapers, magazines, recipes… you get the idea!
As Stephen Krashen says: ‘(…) listening to or reading compelling stories, watching compelling movies and having conversations with truly fascinating people is not simply another route, another option. It is possible that compelling input is not just optimal: It may be [the] only way we truly acquire language.’
Is your Spanish input compelling enough?
1 The Compelling (not just interesting) Input Hypothesis, by Stephen Krashen. http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/the_compelling_input_hypothesis.pdf