Negotiation In Language Learning: The Refining Process

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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Negotiation In Language Learning: The Refining Process

Hope you all had a great holiday and are happier than I am to be back at work!

After a short break up in Seoul and my first time ever hitting the slopes (my backside hit it the most!), I’ve spent the last week up to my eyeballs in work and therefore have fallen behind with the site updates.

Luckily, despite how busy things are I’ve been able to keep up with Korean lessons every week making more very noticeable improvements in my proficiency.

Starting with today’s post, I’d like to begin to explore some vital areas of language learning that in my opinion don’t receive enough attention and how increasing our understanding can have a real positive impact on our progress.

Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Most language learning discussions revolve around ‘input’

When I did a quick analysis of all the questions that people were asking online on various forums, blogs and social media about how to learn foreign languages, it was clear the majority of people are most concerned about the best ways to receive input – what the best books and resources are, the benefits of film, television and music, passive acquisition, SRS/flashcards and so on.**

It’s a given that every learner should be spending the majority of their time in the beginning trying to acquire as much input as possible to build up their vocabulary and listening comprehension skills.

Without input we’re just a dry, empty well with no water to draw from.

But I have to say that I think the lack of output discussion (non-academic) is unfortunate as it’s such a crucial topic.

Today I want to do something a little different and draw your attention to one aspect of output/production and why it’s been proven by research to be extremely important in developing fluency in a foreign language.

Understanding this will help you make positive adjustments to the way you approach foreign language practice.

‘Output’ deserves more attention

Language practice is misunderstood.

You’d think it’s a pretty straightforward thing – just talk as much as possible with native speakers and you’ll improve as a result. Easy. Nothing to explore really.

Well no.

Believe it or not, it’s possible to practice a lot and still make slow or no progress. By understanding how language practice works we can get a lot more out of it by taking a more strategic approach to the way we do it.

Advising someone to “practice” or “just speak to a native speaker” which is what most output advice consists of, actually says very little about how it works or benefits us as learners.

At times it can be an evasive answer – it sounds great but it really doesn’t explain anything.

This is like a new person who joins a gym being handed a weight and told to “just exercise”.

It’s an oversimplification that just doesn’t explore the mechanics of output, how it’s done or how it actually helps us. There’s so much information about receiving input but virtually nothing that explores output in a way that’s useful.

If you worked on strategies for your output as much as you do for your input then I’m confident you’d notice a huge difference in your progress.

When ‘knowing’ isn’t quite the same as ‘acquiring’

I hate to break it to you but just because you can memorize a few hundred flashcards doesn’t actually mean you’ve properly acquired those words.

Out of a hundred newly memorised flashcards you can probably actively use a small fraction of them at any given time.

It’s generally accepted that there are two ‘types’ of knowledge when it comes to language acquisition – receptive and productive.

Receptive knowledge is passive and it comes from listening and reading, memorizing flashcards, word lists and so on. The difficulty with this kind of knowledge is that even though you may ‘know’ it, you still don’t or can’t actively use it. In a real life situation you struggle to recall or notice it.

Productive knowledge is what we’re all aiming for – it’s transforming that passive stuff that we’ve learned into something that we can use effortlessly. Receptive knowledge evolves into productive knowledge and certain parts of the language do so much faster than others.

I make a conscious decision at times throughout my own language endeavours to put my input focus on hold (that is, stop learning new patterns and vocab) and switch my focus to activating all the stuff I’ve already learned.

The goal is to momentarily ‘pause’ intentional learning and concentrate solely on forcing output of what I’ve already learned as receptive knowledge.

You can sit there acquiring passive/receptive knowledge until the cows come home but unless you get out and use it, a lot of it won’t become active.

To give you an example, dozens of advanced terms and expressions that I’ve been studying lately for my upcoming Arabic translation exam didn’t shift to productive knowledge until I went out of my way to use them with my conversation partner that I found through italki.

I had been going over these terms repeatedly and I just wasn’t able to recall them.

5 minutes of production time was infinitely more effective than weeks of passive input in acquiring that content.

It’s eye-opening when you spend a day practising with people and you realise that so much of what you thought you knew while you were reading or listening suddenly vanishes from your mind in a real-life situation.

Until you can effortlessly recall and use it you haven’t really learned it.

What is it about speaking that helps us improve as speakers?

If practice was only about repetitious speech production then theoretically you could become a fluent speaker by just talking to yourself all day every day.

But you can’t.

You need another human being.

There’s something about interaction that powerfully changes us in a way that a sole focus on input and autodidactic learning (learning by yourself) is never able to do.

Take a look at this real sample dialogue between a language learner and a native speaker:

Learner: But uh but uh… we take we take a break…

Native speaker: Oh

Learner: You know thirty minutes

Native speaker: Oh

Learner: Break time

Native speaker: Oh good

Learner: Thirty minutes

Native speaker: At ten thirty you take a break?

Learner: Thirty minutes

Native speaker: Right. When do you take the break? At ten thirty?

Learner: Um. Ten fifteen

Native speaker: Ten fifteen

Learner: Ten fifteen. From ten fifteen to ten fifty-five

Native speaker: Ten forty-five

Learner: Ah ten f-forty-five

The underlined parts are clarifications made by the native speaker.

I’m sure many of you could put yourselves in this learner’s shoes struggling to get a point across (that’s me every day here in Korea! :)).

What’s happening here in this conversation is something that researchers call foreign language negotiation which takes place when there’s a communication breakdown, an inability to get a point across or a misunderstanding of some kind.

This bloke here is obviously trying to make small talk (being a social risk-taker) with a co-worker by mentioning his break time but fails to express himself clearly.

And here’s where the important points are:

  • A lot of people who are at this learner’s level or even higher say that they’re not ready to speak yet. They avoid output until they’re ready. These people miss out big time on the kind of learning opportunities that this dialogue demonstrates occur even in the simplest conversations.
  • The native speaking co-worker alters his own output to create comprehensible input for the learner – in other words adjusting the way they say something to bring it down to the learner’s level so that learning can occur. Think about all the times you’ve adjusted your own speech so that foreigners can understand you better (e.g. saying it is and I am instead of contracted forms like it’s and I’m).
  • It provides an opportunity for what some researchers call comprehensible output. The learner can test his own output by gauging the reactions of the native speaker – if the native speaker doesn’t understand something he says, he’ll naturally make adjustments and experiment with his own production until he gets the desired result.
  • Error-correction during conversations has been proven to have a positive effect on learner outcomes.

I strongly believe that as vitally important as it is to be listening and reading often, nothing helps us improve as noticably as negotiation during output.

How can knowing this help you put a better strategy in place for output?

Input is mining. Negotiation is refining.

Language acquired through input alone (your books, listening materials, flashcards, etc.) is like unrefined, mined material.

It’ll certainly build up your lexical reservoir and expose you to correct patterns but as any experienced learner will attest to, when it comes to a real-life situation you’ll find that your recollection is usually hazy and all over the place (e.g. you’ll remember bits of words and expressions but it almost never comes out the way that you learned it).

Through lots of negotiation of meaning with native speakers, the impurities are extracted (picture a gold sieve – the constant back and forth motion that gradually clears the dirt leaving behind the gold).

Spend less time trying to perfect your passive knowledge and waiting for the perfect time to speak (which will never come!).

Learn small morsels (words and patterns) at a time and use them over and over before moving on to the next one. Rather than trying to perfect it by doing tedious, autodidactic activities, inject them into your conversations and allow the negotiation process to do its work.

Not only will your listening comprehension get better but your ability to be understood will also greatly improve.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Max Bronson

Max Bronson

Thanks for this post, Donovan. I’ve been watching a bit of Steve Kaufman’s stuff on YouTube recently. He gives some very good advice, but the one area where I have nagging doubts is over not trying to speak to early on. Rather, he suggests we just get lots of input from listening and reading. From my experience with learning Mandarin and now Korean is that when I try to speak with the vocabulary I know, it seems to help ingrain that vocabulary into me more.

I also taught English in China for 7 years and noticed that a lot of new students could read really well, but could hardly string a sentence together for a conversation.

Keep up the great work.



I have a lot of respect for Steve and tend to agree with most of his advice but you are right - in my opinion he does put speaking off for too long.

I have no doubt that he’s achieved a lot with his Czech but I think that if he had spent a bit more time speaking rather than solely reading and listening, he’d actually be at a more comfortable speaking level (even though he may know a little less vocabulary).

At the end of the day it really is about balance and what each person’s goals are - for me, wanting to be conversationally fluent means I need to give a lot more energy to output (I frankly don’t care too much about Korean literacy skills at the moment but will do later on).

Thanks! :)



Wonderful points here. I use my coworkers for help in pronunciation and structure on a daily basis with my lessons in Spanish.



Thanks Maria! :)



Thank you for your post. I would like to recommend another article on the importance of interaction in language learning



Thanks for the link, Serena :)

Scott B

Scott B

So what specific things would you recommend doing in an exchange session? Should we try to use vocabulary to create questions or sentences and then ask for correction? Sometimes it’s really hard to work in some vocab on the fly



Sometimes I ask for corrections directly but usually I’ll use the other person’s reaction or response as a way to measure my own output.

If they have no idea what I’m saying or are confused, then it’s a matter of retrying until you get the desired response.

Sometimes people will respond back with an error-corrected form (e.g. if a foreigner said to you, “what time you will come my house?”, you might reply with a corrected confirmation request - “what time will I come to your house?”. When the learner’s exposed to this enough and is paying attention then it’s a great opportunity to fix errors.

My point in writing this was to show that input time should be largely about acquiring lexical items and patterns but it’s important not to try and perfect what you’re saying through massive amounts of input, but rather take that patchy, limited knowledge and let interaction shape it into its correct form.

Just have short study sessions, focus on a few key terms and patterns then jump straight into your exchange session and use it relentlessly, paying attention to all the meaning negotiations that happen with the other person.



I agree with Andrew - this is one of your best ever posts. It’s excellent. And I just wanted to add that for output, if you are too shy (or reluctant) to speak with others early on, there are language courses and software that prompt you to use what you are learning.



Thanks very much, Catherine (and for the tweets too).

Feedback like this encourages me to stick with it! :)



This is probably the best post you’ve ever written (that I’ve read, anyway, and I think I’ve read most of them), Donovan. I can’t commend you highly enough, this was superb. I’ll tweet this and figure out some way to link to it from my site and I’ll probably use it as a source for my book that I’m writing.

I’ve known what you said above for a while now and have been trying to explain it but couldn’t do so as well as you just did.

I’m very nearly to the point of telling people to just spend 20 minutes learning some basic phrases like “Hi”, “how are you”, “what’s your name”, “how do you say _____”, “can you write it for me?”, etc. and then to just go get on a skype call with a native speaker and START TALKING.

A bit more preparation than that would probably be prudent, but not much, and you could certainly do far worse than simply doing the above.

Oh, and you’ll need to clear it with your partner but keep in mind that you can very easily record skype calls so that you can later go back and review them ;)

And don’t forget that there’s more than one way to skin a cat: you can actively use what you’ve passively learned not just in skype calls where you speak out loud but also in written correspondence of various sorts such as journal entries on Lang-8 and in chat sessions with natives. Are these as good as actually speaking out loud in real time to a native, e.g. during a skype call? No, in my opinion, but they’re still actively using what you’ve learned and it’s a lot easier to persuade most people to start off with writing and then to move on to speaking, so we do what we have to do.




Thanks a lot, Andrew.

It’s always good to read your encouraging comments :)

I’m glad you mentioned writing. It certainly makes a big difference going from just reading to actually producing your own written output.

Of course, if the goal is to be conversational then it has serious limitations but if I were to recommend an alternative to speaking (for people who don’t have access to native speakers) then creative writing exercises would be it.



So true, and I’d never even thought about how bad the advice to “just speak” is! Yet another reason to start speaking as soon as possible. I think the negotiation process takes place to a certain extent during the whole process of language learning, but just becomes more and more disguised as a speaker becomes more competent. It’s a great communicative strategy, although is there any way of teaching this? Surely it’s more reliant on personality type...




I wouldn’t say that “just speak” is necessarily bad advice. It’s just an oversimplification that doesn’t explain how or why that should happen.

With regard to teaching, I think that’s a great point and people should work on teaching models that incorporate this as a strategy. At the end of the day, this is about making people ‘aware’ of the mechanics behind language production so that they’re more receptive when it’s actually happening.

It takes the pressure off people who invest so much time and energy into trying to perfect themselves through input alone or autodidactic methods by showing just how much interaction is actually responsible for improving our fluency level.



I can definitely relate to how helpful it is to have some output, even if it is just a little, to get you thinking about what you can actually access at any given time in your brain. It can be pretty shocking how little you are able to use actively, regardless of how much input you’ve had. Thanks for the motivation to start mixing some output into my Spanish studies!




Thanks Jeff.

Best of luck with your Spanish. :)

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- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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