The only language learning tool purpose-built on the Comprehensible Input model
How is this the most effective way to learn a language?
In March 2020, right when Governments around the world started locking down, I booked a one-way flight to Iceland.
My plan was to live there for a year and make serious headway towards my lifelong goal of being fluent in Icelandic.
It’s a niche language, and a hard one.
They have phrases like this:
Rúsínan í pylsuendanum - The raisin at the end of the hot dog
Áfram með smjörið - On with the butter
And in preparation for this trip, I spent some time trying to find the most effective way to learn a language.
The answer obviously was not Duolingo.
That’s just a more entertaining wrapper around how schools teach language, which doesn’t work.
I also used pretty much every other popular language app out there but found them lacking.
A good answer to the question:
How is this the most effective way to learn a language?
But one day, while I was scrolling YouTube in bed, I happened upon a video that was published 13 years ago and looked like it was recorded in 1980.
Very occasionally YouTube surfaces old and obscure videos which turn out to be pure gold.
This was one of those rare occasions.
The video was of an academic-looking guy standing behind a lectern giving a talk.
And by the way he was talking, you’d expect there was an audience of students behind the camera.
But there wasn’t.
It was just him talking to the camera.
It was the most enlightening 15 minute talk on language-learning I have ever watched.
Over the course of the talk, he presented his theory on language acquisition while breaking just about every mainstream belief there is about how to learn a language.
- Grammar rules
- Verbs and tenses
- Speaking practice
- Rote memorisation
- Drills and exercises
All of the above - he proclaimed - are less than useless.
They’re demoralising and often actively prevent any learning from happening.
But the single most important thing he said in that talk - the rúsínan í pylsuendanum - was this:
“We all acquire language in one way, and only one way. When we understand messages. We call this: Comprehensible Input”.
Stephen Krashen, the Linguist giving this lecture, explained for the rest of the talk that simply reading stories that interest you is far and away the most effective AND enjoyable way for people to get this Comprehensible Input.
The nice graph I have at the top of this page illustrates as much.
That was the conclusive result of a research study comparing standard instruction to a story program.
And by story program, I mean: students were left with a big box of books in the target language to read in silence.
And they gained 186% over the academic year.
Well over double that of the other group.
Here was my answer.
And so on arrival to Iceland, I deleted Duolingo, Memrise, and Busuu, and headed straight to the downtown Reykjavik City Library to get a library card.
By the way, if you’re single, go to Iceland.
Anyway, áfram með smjörið…
I began implementing Krashen’s simple directive:
Read as much interesting and comprehensible material as you can.
So I filled my arms to the chin with TinTin, Asterix, Smurfs, and other delightfully illustrated comic books and checked out.
And for the next 9 months I read.
Every day, first thing in the morning with a coffee.
Krashen wasn’t lying.
This method was not only effective, but it was fun as hell.
The feeling you get when a word or phrase *clicks* without any need for English translation is wonderful.
You begin to think in the language as you create meaning to the jumble of letters from the ground up using images and context, just like you did for your native tongue.
But there was one problem.
This experience of comprehending a message happened only a handful of times per book.
It was difficult.I’d sometimes read through an entire comic book and only feel like I understood a handful of words.
The issue, you see, was that on one page, you’d have one image.
And that one image wasn’t enough to pick up the meaning of all the text you were reading.
Another problem is that there was no audio.
So I had to supplement this reading with T.V watching to pick up the pronunciation of the language.
So while Krashen’s method was effective, it was also effort.
- Going to the library daily (you can finish a comic book in one sitting)
- Finding books that were at your level
- Not hearing books
- Having to find T.V shows at your level
- Losing books
- Damaging books
- Finishing all the books in the library
And this isn’t even the main pain point.
Just try and get dozens of books in Icelandic if you don’t live in Iceland.
I can’t get them; nor can I get Icelandic T.V. shows when I’m home in the U.K.
So this method only worked while I was in Iceland.
And so after 9 months of that, I had an idea.
A way to scratch my own itch.
> What if there was a way to get stories sent to me, rather than having to go get them myself?
> What if the stories sent to me could be in any language I wanted?
> What if the stories I received were designed to be comprehensible to a beginner, with lots of helpful illustrations, not just one per page?
> And what if these stories came with a native narration, so I could hear how to pronounce what I’m reading, thereby maximising the time spent reading?
That was the moment Mother was born, and if you’ve read this far, I hope you can see now the problem Mother solves.
It is built on the most effective theory of language acquisition, but goes beyond what Krashen himself prescribes, solving the problems that inevitably come up with that approach.
Mother is simply a platform which publishes a new story in your target language every single day.
And each story comes with an abundance of images, emojis, and quality narration.
The result is that you can read 1,000 words in French and understand 1,000 words in French.
There’s no delayed gratification.
No hard-work-now, fluency-someday.
There’s only read-something understand-something, and enjoy it from the very beginning.
There’s no need for a daily streak to get you addicted to pretending to learn.
Streaks and birds and other dopamine hacks are only necessary when the material can’t be enjoyed for its own sake.
Here, you pick stories that interest you.
And, in-time, there will be stories on just about any topic you could ever want to communicate about in a different language.
- Go Karting
- Starting a business
- Finding love
- Having your heart broken
- The pain of stubbing one's toe
- Birthday parties
- Hen parties
- Stag parties
- Globe trotting
- Left wing politics
- Right wing politics
- How to cook
- How to make friends
- Space travel
- Alien civilisations
- Quantum Mechanics
- Fantasy worlds
- The mundane
- The deeply profound
- Walking to the grocery store
- One's favourite pets
- Time travel
- The moral problem of whether one should kill baby Hitler if given the chance
Mother doesn’t force you to read stuff you don’t care about, and neither does it assume all you want to be able to say is:
“Hi my name is François, I have a mother and a father, and in the summer I like to play outside with my friends”.
In fact, Mother takes you so seriously that we even publish stories with profanity.
Yes, Mother may be the only language app in existence that understands you may want to learn how to say f**k you! In Swedish.
It’s “Dra åt helvete!” By the way.
Now that truly is the rúsínan í pylsuendanum.
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