Monday, November 14, 2011

Input-only language learning is like being in a new city without a map

You'll get to where you need to be eventually. It'll just take longer.

Quite a while back, a reader (let's call him "Sam" because I didn't bother to see if he cared whether or not I published his real name) wrote to me with the following message:


I saw your "debate" with Steve K. and I considered myself a 100% input-only guy. For some reason, I started outlining (actually copying word for word) Baron's 501 Spanish Verbs grammar/verb section in the front of the book. After just covering the first 12 or so pages (3 verb tenses), I listened to a Mexican podcast I've heard 20+ times. My comprehension went from 10% to 60% (just general estimates). I was blown away by your approach. I know that everyone learns differently, but I swear by this now. I've been adding phrases to Anki as well, and I "knew" what the phrases translated as, but now I "know" the phrases and can substitute in words and other phrases to form thoughts and sentences. I am thinking more in Spanish now, and now that I have a better working blueprint (i.e., grammar) of the language, I understand far more.

I know that input-only types say that you will learn the language "naturally" from input and you won't need grammar, but I think is kind of like saying, "Don't buy a map of New York City; if you walk around downtown, you'll naturally learn it." Your method says, get the map, learn it, and then pound pavement. You will still learn "naturally" but intuitively you will be light years ahead. I still do 5 hours of input every day, but now it's becoming comprehensible thanks to grammar and your method!

Thanks for your blog and time!!!

So Sam appears to have used my grammar-learning method with his own twist—and to great effect.

With the twist being something closer to copying and less like outlining, I was intrigued and wrote back asking for more details.

Very happy to be of help!

I think your city/map analogy is very apt. If you plunk me down in the middle of some city I've never been to and tell me to go find the post office, sure, I'll find it eventually, but I'll get there much more quickly with a map, and after using the map a few times I won't need the map anymore.

So you just copied the text word for word, without doing any reorganizing of it yourself? Certainly better than a passive read or learning by osmosis (i.e., input only), but I'm surprised at how much effect that alone had on you.

I imagine you might have tracked down my grammar posts already, but here's the keyword with all the links.

This one in particular seems on point. Part way down there's a table about how "grammar time" is spent. You did the upfront, time-consuming stuff of going through the grammar, now your time is mostly spent on exposure—right where it should be.

And if you're like me and too lazy to click through the link above to see the image, here it is:

Sam got back to me with more details:

I copied only the parts that directly talked about the grammar. The parts where it talked about "what the progressive present is in English" or "what a verb is", for example, I didn't copy, but the rest I did. I learn really well from writing something down and then making a mental picture of it. Incidentally, smell helps me to remember insane amounts of information and I have aced tests because of it. I did look funny with all these scratch and sniff erasers!

Now, I am working through the rest of the grammar and I review what I have already done by making an outline such as the one you suggest on your site. I have found that a few example sentences is enough to cement the rule into my head... then I build on that rule by adding more example sentences to SRS in the target language (Spanish). It's funny... I know more about English grammar now after beginning to learn Spanish than when I was only using just my native language!

Again, thanks for the great blog, and thanks for taking the time to email me back!

So there's one success story! Has anyone else taken a crack at grammar using my method? If so, I'd love to hear from you.


  1. I'm interested in what you think about the language learning sites like livemocha and - where yout you watch videos passively while the grammar rules are explained.  Wouldn't that make the initial investment in grammar less intensive?


  2. Passive (reading and listening) exposure is generally not as good at burning it into your head as active (writing and speaking) exposure. These methods certainly make grammar learning less intensive (i.e., you have you use your head a bit less), but they also make it less efficient. Sure, eventually, enough exposure via those methods will teach you grammar, but you can get to the same level with a much lower time commitment via other means.

    I get into some more detail in my review of Livemocha. OurUniversalLanguage is new to me, but it looks like a pretty cool way to get access to foreign movies. I'll have to check it out in more detail when I get a chance.