As a language learning addict, I follow lots (and I mean lots) of polyglot blogs and podcasts. It is always interesting to see what has worked (and what hasn’t worked) for successful language learners. While most fluent foreign language speakers tend to agree on the vast majority of language learning DOs and DON’Ts, there is one area that always seems to cause heated debate, shouting, name calling, and occasional mud/poo flinging: the importance of language input (i.e. listening and reading) versus language output (i.e. speaking and writing).

I have sat quietly on the sidelines for some time now, politely listening to both sides of the argument. But it’s time to blow my referee whistle because both teams are “offsides” (Okay John, enough sports analogies already!)

The Argument is Flawed to Begin With…

The problem with the whole argument is that input and output are not mutually exclusive components of language learning. You need both. The key is order and balance.

1. Listen first, then speak

When just starting out in a language, it is important to get as much listening input as possible. Just like when you learned your first language, your brain needs time to get used to the patterns and phonology of the language. But unlike little babies, adults can also rely on reading input to back up what we listen to. This difference (along with the fact we already have fully developed brains and don’t have to wear diapers) gives adults a major leg up on babies learning their first language. For more on the many advantages adult learners have over children, read this excellent article by Benny the Irish Polyglot.

Once you have filled your teapot up with enough listening input, language will naturally want to start pouring out. That’s when it’s time to start speaking; and speaking a lot. But be careful with the “I’ll wait until I’m ready” approach, especially if you are a shy perfectionist. If you fall into this category, years or even decades may pass before you feel “ready”. Depending on your temperament and how many hours you spend a day with the language, a few months, weeks, or even days should arm you with enough exposure to start communicating.

And by all means, if you want to start speaking day one, go for it! Just don’t feel obligated to do so, and don’t let yourself be forced by a tutor or teacher as this often leads to a fear of speaking later on and negative feelings toward the very language you aim to learn.

To get started in a language, try to find short, simple dialogues of actual native speakers with transcripts. Then listen and read, listen and read, and listen and read again as many times as your schedule and sanity allow. Read the dialogues out loud if you want to get your mouth used to the sounds, but keep in mind that you will be mispronouncing things for a while until both your ears and mouth get used to the language.

And I suggest avoiding textbook companion CDs as they tend to offer overly stilted, monotonous dialogues that aim to teach a particular grammar point at the expense of natural communication.

2. Take equal doses of your input and output medicine.

Once you have gone through a few days, weeks, or months of listening and reading this way, start mixing in equal amount of output activities (speaking with friends or tutors, writing a blog post in the foreign language, etc.). It may be nerdy, but it’s a good idea to literally use the stop-watch feature on your iPod touch or phone to time your input and output activities each day. As Peter Drucker says, “What gets measured gets managed.”

If you follow the above regimen, your foreign language skills will progress quickly, efficiently, and most importantly, enjoyably. However, if you follow the advice of the extremists on either side of the input-output debate, you are in for heaps of problems and a world of pain. Here’s why:

Output Only Problems

Proponents of the “Output is awesome; input is lame” philosophy suggest that learners just “get out there and start communicating with native speakers”. This approach, while certainly sexier than what I prescribe above, has a number of problems:

1. Nasty mispronunciation habits.

Bad pronunciation habits develop when you pronounce things how you think they should be pronounced based on your overly limited listening exposure to the language, and your logical, but nonetheless incorrect, assumptions based on how words are spelled but not pronounced.

2. You’ll be that annoying guy at the bar.

Because you have a limited vocabulary and only understand little of what is said to you, you will likely attempt to control conversations by keeping them on topics you are familiar with, using phrases and vocabulary you have memorized. All but the most patient interlocutors will get bored or annoyed by such one-sided conversations. Don’t be that guy. But by the same token, don’t miss chances to speak with natives speakers out of fear you won’t be able to communicate. You’d be amazed how much you can communicate with a few words, body language, drawings on a napkin and animated gesticulation…

3. You probably won’t enjoy the process and give up early.

Many would-be language learners give up because they simply don’t enjoy the process. Much of the angst, tedium and phobias stem from having to speak before one has a chance of performing in the language (and yes, language is a performance). Language teachers are the worst perpetrators, presenting you with new words or phrases one minute, and then expecting you to actually use them the next. Well-meaning friends or language partners are no better, trying to “teach” you new words and phrases and expecting that you can actually use them right away. Assimilation takes time and repetition, so don’t beat yourself up if it takes a few times (or a few hundred times) of hearing or reading a new word or phrase before you can actually use it.

Input Only Problems

If, however, you spend months and months diligently listening to your iPod and reading online newspapers, but never actually speaking with native speakers (by design or chance), you will understand quite a bit of what goes on around you but will struggle to actually verbalize your thoughts well or have natural exchanges with native speakers. This happens because:

1. Proper pronunciation is a physical feat.

You can’t think your way through pronunciation (believe me, most introverts have tried and failed!). Good pronunciation requires that your ears first get used to the new language (i.e. through getting lots and lots of listening input), and then also getting your lips, tongue and larynx used to new sounds not found in your native tongue, which of course takes lots and lots of talkin’ the talk.

2. Speaking and writing identifies your learning gaps.

Until you actually try to say or write something, you won’t know what you really know. While you may passively recognize certain words, phrases, idioms or Chinese characters, you may still struggle to say or write them. This is even true for your native language (as I found out when I first started teaching English and was confronted with such conundrums up at the white board as “Wait a second…How in the hell do you spell “misspelled”?)

The more you speak and write, the more you know where the “holes” are in your language cheese, and the easier it will be to fill them with focused study and review.

Conclusion

So as in all things, the extremists tend to be just that: extreme. They tend to get more attention, but the efficacy of their advice tends to be an inverse proportion to their popularity…

To become fluent in a language, just consume a balanced diet, rich in listening and speaking, with plenty of reading and writing sprinkled in for flavor.

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