How to Become Fluent in a Language: CI Clouds
This is the million dollar question- How to become fluent in a language?
In future posts, I will discuss possible methods to improve reading, writing, and listening, but how do we learn to speak a different language? Obviously, it would be wonderful if we could sequester an unsuspecting native of our target language and bombard them with questions, but generally, this practice is frowned upon by the law, so instead we need to think of ways to improve our spoken language while alone.
“ALONE?” Surely spoken language is a dynamic, interactive process wherein 2 people are actively engaged in discourse?
Nah. We can actually improve our spoken language alone with a method which I have developed* which I call CI Clouds. It’s not a difficult idea and one which, I believe, fills an important gap in the autodidact’s toolbox of tricks and hacks. This article will briefly outline the theory behind the idea, why it is important, as well as giving examples of how to use the method. It will also teach you how to adapt the method using your own textbooks and to even transform the target skill (speaking) into a writing exercise.
One of the most basic ideas behind CI (Comprehensible Input) is … input (d’uh). It’s so basic, yet it’s incredible how often this idea is ignored by teachers and students alike. We can generally measure our progress in a foreign language by gauging how much input we have received, for example, if we have been exposed to 1 sentence of a foreign language, we will most probably be less able in the language than someone who has been exposed to 10 sentences. A back of the envelope calculation is:
10,000 sentences (of exposure) = basic
100,000 sentences = intermediate
200,000 sentences = advanced
1 million = proficient (I want to say, ‘Man, you’ve read a million sentences!’ but must retain a formal tone.)
These calculations are extremely rough (applied linguistics isn’t an exact science), and there are huge problems here, but they are a helpful starting point. The more input you have, the better you’ll be in a foreign language. Simple. So why do so many textbooks balls this up? Let’s look at a typical grammar explanation along with its accompanying example sentence:
I am happy.
He is not happy.
We aren’t happy.
This is an extreme example, but most others do no better. They believe (wrongly!) that they have conveyed enough information with the examples provided. It’s as if examples cost money and they are reluctant to provide more.
When teaching my students English, I always think in terms of sets. The sets are affirmative (+), negative (-) and interrogative (?):
I am happy (+)
I am not happy (-)
Am I happy? (?)
Thinking in terms of sets is a method I’ve used for longer than I care to remember. Armed with this knowledge we can start to generate many more examples and flesh out the language. Let’s take a simple SVO sentence pattern and see how many sentences we can generate:
There are quite a few here. We have 6 subjects (I, you, he, etc) and 4 adjectives (happy, sad, etc). So, we can make 6 x 4 sentences = 24:
I feel happy,
You feel happy,
He feels happy,
. . . . .
(The red colour code shows changes that must be made)
OK, that’s already more than the usual textbook gives us. But imagine if I want more? Well, let’s add a negative:
So, now we have added negatives to the mix, we can instantly double the number of sentences by negating it. Look:
I am happy
I am not happy,
. . . . . .
So now we have our original number of sentences x 2 = 48. We have instantly created 48 sentences out of our original examples. Now, let’s add questions as well:
So, here’s another 6 x 4 sentences = 24. So in total, using a little logic I can make my original 24 sentences become 72. Here are the clouds in all their glory:
So, just from “I” I can make the following sentences.
I feel happy,
I don’t feel happy.
Do I feel happy?
I feel sad.
I don’t feel sad.
Do I feel sad?
I feel hungry.
I don’t feel hungry.
Do I feel hungry?
I feel thirsty.
I don’t feel thirsty.
Do I feel thirsty?
The paltry, skimpy offerings of my original textbook (3 sentences) was immediately converted to 72 sentences. After playing around with this method for half a year, 72 sentences is a nice, daily drill for spoken language acquisition. Also, only another 199,928 sentences to go before we reach the hallowed halls of advances fame (and world domination!).
To incorporate CI Clouds into your regular regime, I would suggest doing one a day. I’m actually writing a series of textbooks for several languages using this idea, but in the meantime, the method can be readily adapted using whichever materials you’re currently working with. I recommend doing one a day (aloud). They add a touch of variety to your routine and spoken speed is increased instantly. If you do decide to create your own, keep these things in mind:
Limit the number of combinations. If you add too many, the exercise will become overwhelming. I’ve experimented with several combinations ()some days I was doing 300+ and I find the best number is around 50. The numbers really do increase exponentially, so with just the addition of 7 clouds (days of the week), we’d get this:
I am happy ON MONDAY, I am happy ON TUESDAY, etc
Which would ultimately mean we’d be working with 504 sentences. This would take about an hour. Your lips would dry out and your mouth would fall off. Consider this a disclaimer!
Try replacing pronouns (he, she, they, etc) with professions and other nouns. This won’t affect the number of sentences but will help to amplify your vocabulary.
You may even adapt the clouds by writing out the sentences and then going back and reading them. This method would be especially useful with a language with an unfamiliar script, such as Chinese, Japanese, or even Greek.
CI Clouds work as a powerful tool to quickly and effectively amplify the readily available input offered by examples, which often are much less than needed. By applying a few simple rules to almost any sentence using sets (+), (-), and (?), we are able to greatly increase our exposure to the target language. CI Clouds also add an interesting dynamic to our own personal regime, while making roads to fill the gap of speaking methods available to the autodidact.
Today's Challenge: Find a grammar point in your textbook that you feel you need more practice with. Use the Cloud formula to make at least 100 sentences.
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*The method has been around for a while, but I have systematised it and elevated it to a method in and of itself, rather than just an occasional footnote to certain other exercises (which usually aren’t nearly as logical and efficient)