Input, input, input. I can’t stress it enough.

I am gathering steam in my Czech. I understand so much more. Now I am able to learn more and faster since I can make sense of so much more of what I read or listen to. I call this the snowball effect of input based learning. One of my commenters at youtube likened it to gathering speed down a runway and then getting airborne. Yeah!

22 thoughts on “Input, input, input. I can’t stress it enough.

  1. I generally agree with you very strongly, the only way in which I might differ (I’m not even sure, I can’t recall what your position on this is) is that I really don’t think it <i>hurts</i> anything to start speaking very early on, no damage is done by it and you certainly benefit to some degree. Though, for what it’s worth, when I initially begin in a language the great majority of what I do is input, input in the form of learning grammar and a basic essential vocabulary to start off from, and then I’ll expand that with movies, books, and music. I also make a point of learning how to pronounce the language fairly well early on, because if I don’t then I just can’t read it (well, I can, but I hate it because I know I’m mispronouncing the words in my head and feel like I’m harming myself by learning the wrong way to pronounce things), but this is something that can be done in a fairly short period of time (a few weeks) and it’s the one thing that I find the Pimsleur courses to be immensely useful for (teaching pronunciation to complete beginners, that is)–for all their drawbacks (especially price) they do do a good job of teaching pronunciation to beginners.Cheers,Andrew

  2. Way to go Steve! Your "snowball" analogy perfectly sums up the conclusions I reached in the research for my PhD – "Input, input, input. I can’t stress it enough." Our brains are built to adapt to the environment. If the "linguistic environment" is in some distant foreign country, you’ve got to figure out some way to increase the input so your bain will adapt. We are so lucky in this age to have such ready access to "input" via the internet. However, most would-be language learners, may not realise how much "input" is really required to re-wire the brain to acquire a new language (i.e. growing the new neuronal infrastructure to support a new language takes a lot of "input".). So… "Input, input, input. I can’t stress it enough" – you’re really on the right track I think!

  3. I used to be able to speak a little bit of Italian. I don’t speak anymore but still enjoy reading and listening. I also have an Italian barber. I never told him I understood his language. When he has a conversation with a client in Italian, I just listen and relax. I enjoy it very much. Barbershops certainly create better learning environments than most schools and universities. And to only have a passive knowledge of a given language is not that bad at all.

  4. Andrew, I am not against input at any time. It is just much more difficult to organize, time wise. I can listen and read anywhere and any time. I can also focus on subjects of interest. It is not at all obvious that a beginner conversation in a language is going to be very interesting, for either party. I think it all depends on the circumstances of the learner. In any case, the early output is not necessary, in my view. We san start the output whenever we want.

  5. Yes Paul, we need a lot of input, and most language learners simply do not expose themselves to enough input. The classroom forces them to spend too much time on the nuts and bolts, and on halting output. They would be better of if they realized that their initial goal should just be to understand, and to understand more and more. The brain will do the rest. And when circumstances permit, or dictate, they can start speaking, and they will stumble, but they will progress much more quickly than if they did not have this exposure.

  6. Steve,Oh I agree that it’s not really necessary until around the advanced-intermediate stage, but I was just saying that if you have the opportunity to early on then yeah sure why not, it won’t hurt.That is a valid point about conversations with beginners not being particularly interesting to native speakers, and one that a lot of people fail to realize until they travel to a country where their target language is spoken and attempt to have conversations with natives when their own skills in the language aren’t very advanced yet–they’ll find natives either pretending not to understand them or ignoring them outright (looking at you, France), or they’ll just immediately switch over to English in order to save the trouble (very common in Germany, Netherlands, and Scandinavia where the great majority of people are fluent in English). I’ve actually told people that when they want to start practicing speaking with natives for the first time they’ll probably need to compensate them either by helping them with their English in return (this is precisely how language exchanges work) or they’ll need to just outright pay them (tutors), because otherwise they’re not going to feel like putting up with your crappy [your target language].But it does depend on the country and culture, some places they’re just so ecstatic that you’re even attempting to speak their language, because no foreigner ever does, that they’ll gladly help you for free, but don’t count on this.Cheers,Andrew

  7. Yes Andrew, if I am living in the country, I would start using the language while still focusing on input. That was my pattern in Japan. I am not against early input. I think it is an individual thing. I do agree that we get more out of interacting with natives once we have a certain level. I would delay a visit to a country until I feel I can do that, or at least understand what they are saying.Cheers,Steve

  8. I started following this advice I have no idea when, but your blog has been a huge influence. I cannot describe how effective this is, and how much easier it is to express myself actually understanding what people say. I know that sounds crazy, but so few people make that connection! I read novels in Spanish now, thorougly enjoying what I read, and I take the time to learn all the words. It is exactly as you describe. Now I’m doing it for French. It’s simple, it’s free, but takes effort, and I believe that that is the turn off. But it works. It’s not rocket science.

  9. The barber shop is an example of passive input. Passive input is only possible when your surrounded by people. People are having a conversation, but you’re not expected to participate. You make no effort to express yourself. You don’t even try to understand that much. This is exactly the situation in which a baby learns his mother tongue. Adults almost never find themselves into that kind of situation (the barber shop is one example). Adults almost always find themselves into situations where they are expected to communicate, and this need to perform and to speak right away is precisely what makes them unable to learn.

  10. I’m just now beginning to feel the same way with Irish Gaeilge that you do with Czech, Steve.I’ve had very very little interaction with native speakers so far but lots of input and I had a moment a few days ago where it became really clear how much I’ve advanced since I started. It’s a wonderful feeling.

  11. I am learning English with AJ Hoge, I am learning Power English Lessons. One kind of lessons is Mini-Story, Do you think Mini-Story is more useful than reading a lot books?Should I learn Mini-Story and shout the answer? or Should I learn by reading a lot books?I can read about AJ’s method at:

  12. Thanh, I think that the most important thing is to enjoy what you are doing. If you like reading these stories, that is great. If you want to should the answer do so. Just do what you feel like doing and enjoy yourself.

  13. Thanks Steve, I enjoy reading the book named Zhuan Falun (author: Mr.Li Hongzhi) . I have a Vietnamese Version of the book. Now, I decide to read the book in English. The book has been translated into many languages. I think in the future, I can learn Chinese by reading the book.

  14. So somebody else is learning Czech! I spent 3 years in Prague – the original idea was to teach English, but a great deal of my time was spent learning and then using Czech. (The US Army had kindly taught me Slovak decades ago, so I didn’t expect it would be that big a deal – the grammar and vocabulary are very similar, although the pronunciation differs.)I’ve noticed what you’ve called the "snowball effect" (as an American, I referred to it "breaking the back of a language). At first, learning 5 words is be an achievement (which needs to be repeated the next day). Once the pronunciation is automatic and there’s something to connect new vocabulary to, it goes faster and faster, as you noted.One thing I found helpful in learning to comprehend Czech radio was to record programs and them play them back at a speed slow enough so I could follow, then gradually increase the speed until it was at a normal (or faster-than-normal) rate. Eventually I could simply listen for content. (And then the BBC cut funding because the Czech Republic was no longer a country in transition…).You didn’t mention grammar. Czech is a highly declined and conjugated language – it was reconstructed by German philologists who didn’t want to leave anything out – so I wonder whether you put in some time learning paradigms and rules? (A Russian paper in Prague had advice on "how to learn Czech" for Russians – essentially, turn on the TV and leave it on. Look at a grammar book occasionally, if you feel like it. But Russians already know about cases and the perfective/imperfective distinction.)When learning to read (for pleasure, not chemical patents to translate) I found that translations were an easy entry. It’s a handy way to build up vocabulary without having to deal with the parts of Czech that usually don’t get translated (tot???? and the like). By the time I started real Czech, what I didn’t know usually just fell into place. Detective stories provide an especially good entry point, since they keep discussing the same event throughout the entire book, meaning the vocabulary is repeated and repeated. But that’s the idea behind your snowball, I guess – once you get to a certain level, everything you learn is going to come up again in the near future, even without flashcards.

  15. Mostly I listen to and read the resources available at Ceskyrozhlas. I don’t worry too much about the grammar. I can’t get the grammar wrong when listening and reading. We will see what happens when I get to Prague in October.

  16. Speakers of English as a native language become accustomed early on to a variety of accents and various degrees of "correctness" in their interlocutors; the speakers of languages of lesser diffusion often seem to have more problems. There was a blog post in one of the Belgrade papers recently by a long-time resident from the US who couldn’t get people to respond to him in Serbian. He said he didn’t want to be bothered with grammar, and didn’t realize he was probably asking people to try to make some sense out of what seemed like a collection of random words and phrases. With no endings (to speak of) in English, it’s a lot easier to get a simplified version of what you want to say across: SVO and you’ve got a sentence. But with a background in Russian, you have a basic understanding of how the Czech system works, so you’ve got a running start at it. The Globe Bookstore in Prague used to have a bulletin board where people could find conversation partners to practice with without annoying random strangers. I met some interesting people that way. (It would have gone better, initially, if I’d worked a bit more on Czech before starting and not relied on interpolating between Russian and Slovak on the fly. Czechs who modestly say they know almost no English are apt to be actually pretty good at it.)

  17. I would like to see you learn Hebrew. I love Hebrew a lot. I read newspapers and books in Hebrew. I enjoy listening to Israeli radio programs; especially Hebrew, Yiddish & Klezmer music, Cantorial music, etc.

  18. BTW, people have been trying to get teachers to hold off on pushing production since at least 1570. Maybe before, but <ital>The Scholemaster </ital> was the earliest I’ve noticed it. (It has served as my excuse ever since.) In those days the language everybody learned was Latin, and apparently it wasn’t learned very well in most cases. Ascham said that once the student had learned to decline and conjugate (this is dragged out for a year or two in the US; I think he had a faster pace in mind), he was to listen while the teacher explained every word in a text and then read it over until the student was able to define every word and its function for himself. Only after he’d been doing this for a while was he to be allowed to start "making Latines" unsupervised. Learning to read a foreign language is like learning mathematics, it calls for analysis and memory. Learning to speak a language is more like learning to play an instrument, with innumerable hours devoted to practicing the same piece. Unless you know you’re going to need to speak (which is more like improvisational jazz than a recitation piece, anyway), trying to learn to hold a conversation too early can mean a lot of wasted time better invested in developing a feel for how the language works by seeing and hearing a lot of it. Learning to pronounce what you’re reading correctly is a good idea, but practicing enough in order to come up with it instantly is a waste of time at the beginning. IMHO. In any case, LingQ looks like more fun.

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