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.
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.
This was written by Donovan Nagel.
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