Language learning

Input vs Output in language learning

In language learning there are a lot of techniques that many agree upon but there is one debate that still doesn’t have a definitive answer – the importance of language input versus the importance of language output.

Language input refers to listening and reading while language output is speaking and writing. Simple enough, right?

The problem occurs when people try to say one is better than the other. The thing is, these activities are not mutually exclusive. They work together to the goal of learning a new language. We all need both.

There are those out there who advocate input only or output only. I don’t think either is a good idea –

Problems with input only

Image courtesy of indigo_jones on Flickr

Image courtesy of indigo_jones on Flickr

If you’re only getting input, you’ll probably understand most of what’s going on around you but chances are you won’t be able to add much.

Your pronunciation won’t be very good as you haven’t practiced making the sounds of the language.

You probably won’t realise how much you don’t know – it’s much easier to gloss over words you don’t know when reading or listening as the context can help you out quite a bit. When speaking and writing what you don’t know becomes painfully obvious.

Problems with output only

Your pronunciation is probably not the best either. It might sound great to you, because as you haven’t been listening to native speakers you don’t know any better. You’re making the sounds the way you think they’re made but chances are you’re way off.

You know what you’re saying but others may not – due to your bad pronunciation, or you could be speaking in a very English way, not taking into account the flow or tones of the language.

What do I think?

Input before output

This is the most important thing. When first starting a new language you need to listen as much as possible, just like babies do for a year or so before they begin to speak. Listening gets you used to the different sounds of the language, which may not be present in your native language. You’ll get to know the flow of the language, which will help you immensely when it’s time to speak. You’ll start off with a better accent and more natural, native sounding speech. You’ll still make mistakes, of course, and you won’t start off perfect. But you will start much better.

But it’s not enough to rely solely on listening, reading will help you get ahead as well. Reading is one thing that gives adult language learners an advantage over children. Doing both together (with a book in text as well as audio, or a transcript of a recorded speech, for example) will get you used to what letter combinations represent which sounds. This will improve the ease with which you can read and will help get you ready to speak.

There are so many reasons why input should come before output. Here are just a few:

You need to understand before you can speak. Understanding comes from input.

When you do get to speaking, you’re going to want to understand what people are responding with – which, once again, comes from input.

You don’t want to solidify mistakes, either in grammar or pronunciation, as it is so much harder to fix these problems later than it is to get it right from the start. Trust me.

What does this all mean?

It means we all need exposure to both input and output to achieve a high proficiency level in the language. Although my method is input first, it doesn’t totally neglect output. I just prefer to get to know the sounds and structures of the language before I try to produce it. It works for me, and I do think it’s the best way. I know others think differently and that’s fine.

The main thing to take away from this is not to neglect one or the other. Work on both and you’ll have a well rounded knowledge of you language. You won’t get frustrated when you realise you can understand everything you hear but can’t respond or you think you can speak well but others can’t understand you.

Work on each aspect of the language and you’ll do well. What are your thoughts on input and output? Do you prefer one over the other?


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