Input, the Secret Ingredient to Language Learning
“If you don't use it, you lose it.”
We've all heard these words of advice before. If you don't practice using the language that you’re learning every day, you won't make any progress, or worse, you'll start to forget. But sticking to the habit of daily practice is a lot easier said than done. The endless drilling, conjugation sheets, and flashcards can quickly become repetitive and boring. It can also be costly for not only students but instructors as well. Someone has to create textbooks, worksheets, and lesson plans, which takes time and money. And when we don't see the progress we had hoped for, it's discouraging. We feel that we’re not doing enough or that what we need is another textbook or the latest learning program. Is all that hard work even worth it?
There's a better way
What if I told you that you can learn a new language just by sitting at home on your couch, doing the same things you enjoy doing every day. You don't need to buy a single textbook; you can do it all for free. It's not too good to be true, it's science, and it's proven to be effective.
The Input Hypothesis
Dr. Stephen Krashen, a leading researcher in the field of linguistics, has devoted his career to language acquisition. He is an expert in how we learn and develop language. His research has shown that our current ways of learning are flawed and ineffective.
The key to his research lies in a single word: Input. We achieve input any time that we read or hear words in a language. It's what we put into our brains. Output is the opposite. When we speak or write, we output. Most classrooms use both output and input exercises to teach. If you've ever studied a language from a textbook, I'm sure you are familiar with grammar drilling, translation exercises, and rote memorization. These are output exercises. They aim to familiarize the student with the language by repeated practice.
But Dr. Krashen says we don't need output at all. According to his research, the progress we make in language acquisition comes from the input that we receive. In other words, all we need to do is listen, and our brains will do the work.
And it's common sense. No amount of memorizing flashcards or conjugation charts has ever gotten anyone to fluency. Yes, we can memorize the definition or direct translation of a word. But to understand the entire meaning of a word, including the subtle nuances and the cultural image of the word, we need context.
Context is King
Words are complex, and their meanings can be abstract and rely heavily on context. This is why it is so important to learn words within context when it comes to language. Isolating words and phrases and trying to memorize them is like trying to guess a picture from a single puzzle piece. Without all the pieces together as a whole, it has no meaning. Language is the same way.
Any time we hear a word in context, we build up meaning in our heads. For example, if I said to you, “I woke up in the morning and had a hot cup of ______,” you can probably guess the next word is going to be coffee. This is because our brains are constantly doing guesswork. Filling in the spaces of words we don't know or didn't hear well. The same thing happens when we hear a new word in a language. We might not guess correctly the first time, but after hearing it several times, we start to build a clearer picture. We learn from context.
But an output-based learning approach ignores this fact and treats language as if it was math, giving students grammar exercises and sentence structures to memorize. Language is not a learnable skill that needs practice. It is an innate ability in humans that comes as naturally as walking.
We only need a little push in the right direction and the right fuel to push us forward.
My experience with input
In 2019 I moved to Japan. I barely knew any of the language other than a few simple phrases, but I was determined to master the language. I’ve always been interested in language learning, and I've tried just about every method out there. I was attending a language school, but I was feeling frustrated. It wasn't at all what I had expected. The lessons were repetitive and boring, and many of the exercises seemed pointless. More importantly, I wasn't making any progress. So, a month into my program, I decided something had to change. I did some research into learning methods, and that's when I came across the input method. I put away all my textbooks and bought myself a handful of Japanese novels. I purchased a streaming subscription, and I got to work. I spent about three to four hours every day just reading, and when I got tired of reading, I would turn on the TV and watch Japanese dramas. I made friends, and I got to enjoy beautiful literature that many people don't even know exists. I traveled around Tokyo and felt the language and culture all around me. It was like a new door had opened. It was one of the best years of my life. By the end of that year, I was one of the few students in my class who passed the second-highest level on the national Japanese proficiency test. And I never studied a single page.
Learning with input is simple; anyone can do it, and it's impossible to go wrong. You simply find something in your target language and read or watch it for as long as you can. That's it. It's important not to worry about understanding every single word. You will come across plenty of new words. Try not to let them distract you, and let your brain do the heavy lifting.
If you see a word you don't know and can figure out the meaning through context, then great. But don't linger on it too long if you don't understand. Just skip over it and continue along. If you have no idea what’s going on, it's time to switch to something that you can understand more easily. You need material that is entertaining, engaging, and most importantly, understandable. That last one is the most important. Input has to be understood, or you won't be learning anything at all.
For a complete beginner, it might be tricky getting started when you don't know enough to follow along with even the easiest books and movies. In this case, I would suggest maybe learning a list of some basic words to get you started. Once you've done that, there are plenty of resources online where you can find graded readers made for beginners.
Also, consider watching children’s shows. They can be a great resource for beginners and advanced learners alike. Children's shows are designed to keep the attention of young children, so it's perfect for input. They are made with developing kids in mind, so explanations are slow and clear. And they can be just as engaging and rich in vocabulary as any other show.
Learning a language, no matter what method you choose, is going to take a lot of mental power and dedication. Even though most of the work is subconscious, your brain will do a lot of work in the background. Don't get ahead of yourself. If you find yourself frustrated and unable to focus, take a break. There's no rush.
Keeping track of progress with input-based learning can be tricky, as most learning is not conscious and recorded. I would advise you to not focus so much on a concrete goal, as it might be discouraging. It's important to remember that while certain institutions will have set standards, what makes someone fluent is not so black and white. Your average 10-year-old won't have the same vocabulary as an adult, but there's no denying that both are fluent in their native language. Focus on making the most out of what knowledge you already have. In most situations, you don’t need to use elaborate words to get your point across. Remember, the goal is to learn a new language, not to impress people with your vocabulary. You would be surprised how far a conversation can go just by nodding along; comprehension alone can get you a long way.
There is always something more to learn. But if progress is important to you, I would suggest taking a standardized test at a regular interval. If you're skeptical about input’s effectiveness, try the method out for three months. Take a standardized test before and after without studying the test material, and see if you made any improvements. Go back and rewatch shows that you barely understood before. If you stick with it, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the progress you'll make.
Input in the Classroom
Since input learning is focused on listening and reading, the way the language is taught in an input-based classroom would look much different and require a different approach. Teachers would have to possess unique skills. The most effective way to implement this would be with storytelling. Teachers would stand in front of the classroom and tell a story aloud while the students listen. This has several advantages: it provides context for words and phrases, and it also provides a story to connect with.
For beginner-level students, more support might be necessary. Giving a visual aid is very beneficial. The more senses we can stimulate while learning ( visual, audio, etc. ), the higher the likelihood that the information will stay. Teachers can supplement their storytelling with what is called Comprehension-Aiding Supplementation. This method involves using visual cues such as gestures or drawing to help tell the story. This can be a beneficial approach for teaching lower-level students.
Make it Interesting
For teachers wanting to implement this technique in their classrooms, I recommend taking the time to do whatever you can to make the experience more engaging for your students. Many teachers avoid topics like the news or current events because they want to keep the environment fun and friendly and avoid possible conflict.
But for adult learners, this atmosphere can feel mundane and sterile. If your students are adults, they probably don’t want to hear fairy tales and nursery rhymes. They want interesting stories that they can relate to, just like in their regular lives. If you are an instructor from a different country than your students, then that’s great. Use the opportunity to engage your students with real stories about where you're from. Tell them what it's like in your country.
Learning a language takes a long time. But that doesn't mean that the process has to be boring and dull. Learning a new language is an amazing opportunity to connect with others and experience new things. We have a whole world of culture, stories, and adventure to explore. Isn't that why we learn a new language in the first place? Let's not waste our lives waiting for the day we master a language fully before we allow ourselves to experience it.
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