Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why output trumps input in language learning

OK, so I don't really think that output trumps input, but I thought I'd lead off with a contrarian title vis-à-vis Steve Kaufmann's post entitled Why input trumps output in language learning. Some amount of input necessarily needs to come before you can produce any output, but saying one trumps the other is like saying reading blogs trumps writing blogs; sure, you can learn a lot by reading blogs, but you'll only be getting your message out there once you start writing one. (And, incidentally, in either case, you'll be getting exposure to a language.)

The reason I went with a contrarian title was because, when I read Steve's post, I thought that most of his arguments for input learning could easily be changed to serve as arguments for getting into output sooner rather than later. Below I've edited Steve's post to show how easily those arguments can be turned in the other direction. I've tried to edit as little as possible. Some of the changes work better than others, and some even work surprisingly well, but they all go to my main point here, which is that early output is a good thing.

I've used red to mark text I deleted from Steve's post, while blue marks the text I added:
Some arguments in favor of output input. I am sure there are many more.
  • We need to start speaking understand before we can speak well.
  • I would rather communicate with people early understand well and stumble when I speak than communicate with people later and stumble less the reverse.
  • If we can never pratice producing intelligible phrases and do not understand the answers, our conversations will not last long.
  • Passive vocabulary is powerful, necessary, and always much larger than our active vocabulary of the words we like to use, so we need to start working on active vocabulary early and frequently.
  • The more we can write and speak understand, and the more words we can use actively have, even passively, the more interesting our interaction with the language and the more words we can acquire.
  • If we can actively use understand most of the words in a text or conversation, it is easier to pick up the words and phrases we do not yet know than if we merely understood everything passively.
  • The ability to use active acquisition of passive vocabulary through output input, is like putting the pieces of the jig-saw together. Gradually the picture of what we're trying to express becomes clearer.
  • Output Input is easy to arrange. We can speak listen and write read anywhere and anytime.
See here for some ways that the internet makes output possible from anywhere, which of course includes Steve's own LingQ.
  • Output Input is interesting, if we choose content that is meaningful to us.
  • If we develop the habit of producing output input learning, we become independent.
  • Being able to produce output Input learning makes it easy to practice review our languages, and maintain them.
  • Through producing output input learning, especially on topics we like writing and speaking about with authentic content, we learn not only the language, but many more things.
  • At any time in our output producing input learning activities, we can decide to listen speak or read write, to practice what we can produce have learned.
  • Of course we need to speak read a lot in order to speak well, but. Our progress in speaking will be smoother if we invest time in output input, and continue doing so.
  • Our interaction with any language, including our own, is mostly as listeners and readers, so we need to make extra efforts to practice producing output.
  • If we are good speakers listeners and writers readers, our output input skills will have a sound base.
One of my goals in any language learning project is to have little difficulty in conveying complex ideas to native speakers read a full length book in that language. Getting there is a powerful moment of achievement, an Everest.

I could go on....


  1. Fantastic write-up! :D Very clever idea to prove a point, using the argument against it itself - I love it :D
    You're certainly proving yourself as a competent blogger, by getting out there and doing something about it ;) I agree with all of your edits, shows how any point of view is "right" if you phrase it to yourself in a particular way.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Well, just remember that in my day job, I'm a lawyer, so this kind of things comes easy to me! (And that sort of document mark-up is just the kind of thing I spend my days doing.)

    But I wasn't trying to show that any point of view is right if you phrase in a particular way, although you can certainly split all kinds of rhetorical hairs when making an argument. Rather, I wanted to show that (a) many of the arguments for input-based learning also support early output production (some requiring more massaging than others, of course), (b) input and output are a two-way street (even though you need to first enter the street on the input side), and (c) there are just as many arguments in favor of early output as there are for an input-centric method.

  3. Maybe it depends on what stage you are in, but right now I'm finding input to be really important. Why? Because I want to say things like a native, using their way of expressing things. Indeed, I've found that even WHAT people choose to express is quite language dependent.

    On the other hand, if I didn't "output" then my wife couldn't correct my Portuguese which would be an obvious problem!

  4. I definitely not saying that input isn't important. You do need tons and tons of input. I don't even disagree with Steve that you need (and, in all likelihood, will get) a lot more input that output. All of this input will allow you to get used to what native speakers choose to say, their intonation, their pronunciation, etc. I think Steve and I see eye to eye on all of these points.

    Where Steve and I differ is that he says you shouldn't try to output until are ready. That could be a wastefully long time for some people. I say that you need to output early and output a lot, even if the amount of time you spend on output is dwarfed by the amount of time you spend on input.

    As for the stage you're in, I would say that it will gradually get easier and easier to produce more output, so the farther along you are in a language the more output you'll be able to quickly produce. If you think about trying to compose a few meaningful sentences on day 1 in a language, it'll probably take you lots of time, whereas on day 1,000 you'll be able to whip out the same thing in no time. So, in that way, there is some stage dependency given time constraints.

    Corrections is a whole different issue on which Steve and I disagree. He doesn't appreciate corrections, where as I (and apparently you) eat them up. Output is much more useful if you can get it corrected, and Steve not being particularly interested in being corrected certainly builds into his focus on input.

  5. Here is one pitfall that I know I fell into long ago at the beginning of my journey long ago: thinking that vocabulary + grammar is enough to produce correct output. Basically you could end up translating from your native language to the target language--following as best you can the grammar--and yet produce output that is weird. Worse yet, if your native speaking friends are too polite, they won't correct you and you'll end up getting ingrained in totally incorrect phrases!

    For example, I used to say "vou te ligar" to my friends which is a correctly conjugated translation of "I'll call you" in Portuguese. But a Brazilian would use the present tense and say "te ligo". Grammar alone wouldn't be enough to help you avoid this mistake.

    Don't get me wrong. Grammar is useful. But I now think of it as a collection of mnemonics to guide you in the right direction, rather than as something that is powerful enough (alone) to allow you to produce appropriate output.

  6. Grammar rules and vocabulary are two sets of data points that you need to know. However, when faced with multiple technically correct usages of those data points, only listening and reading will show you which ones native speakers use more in any given context. So I think we're pretty much in agreement here. (And I recall making that very same mistake when I was in Brazil, although I eventually graduated to "te ligo" as well.)