It’s always good to review the basics, and this is a topic I thought I should cover, since a lot of people interested in languages don’t know about the wonders of the input hypothesis. Let me enlighten you!
I’ve reached a high level in a handful of languages all through using input. Input-based learning is learning through reading and listening over speaking and writing—it’s building passive skills first. Not everyone is familiar with this style of language-learning, and a lot of language websites prefer to talk about conversation skills and seeking out native speakers. There are other ways to learn, though, so I thought I’d spell out the basics for anyone who’s curious. The input hypothesis was formally defined by Dr. Stephen Krashen, a linguist specializing in second language acquisition at the University of Southern California. It basically states that input (reading and listening—passive activities) is the most important part of learning a language, and output (speaking or writing) is secondary.
1. Input-based learning is learning a language primarily through reading (books, novels, websites, etc.) or listening (radio, TV, movies, music, etc.) to native resources, even in the earliest stages of learning. Native resources are those that natives use themselves—not formal textbooks.
2. The input hypothesis is used by a number of online language learners; however, the blogs, All Japanese All The Time and Antimoon are the most extreme and the most famous. Khatzumoto from AJATT learned Japanese to fluency in 18 months using mostly input and living outside Japan, and reached native-level fluency after moving to Japan (he claims he is often mistaken for a Japanese person if he’s speaking on the phone). Antimoon is about a couple of Polish guys who learned English to a very high level without ever having stepped foot in an English-speaking country. They learned through movies, radio, books, and point-and-click computer games.
3. A major (and controversial!) part of the input hypothesis is that it emphasizes passive skills over active skills. Because learners are reading and listening to their target language all the time, learners develop comprehension skills first, and active skills follow. This is very different from how languages are commonly taught. In the past, language classes focused on translation and memorization of grammar tables (you’ll be familiar with this if you’ve taken Latin classes or even looked at a Latin textbook). Today, language classes focus on speaking, right from the outset. Many of the better-known polyglots and language teachers online focus on speaking with native speakers and developing conversational fluency, straight from the first day of learning.
Oftentimes, learners who focus on passive skills first are seen as shy or avoiding the real reason to learn a language. Another controversy is that passive skills and the effectiveness of input are much harder to test in language exams, so there’s no easy way to support the input hypothesis. Nevertheless, there is a ton of anecdotal evidence that this learning technique works (I can vouch for it!). You might have even noticed that the best speakers of English as a foreign language often say they were really into American or English television while they were learning. Not to study, but just because they liked it. Certainly that input contributed to a native-like accent and natural use of language.
4. There are two kinds of input. There is comprehensible input. This is what Dr. Krashen was talking about in his papers—it’s input that is just out of your reach as a learner. You understand most of what’s being said, be it through context or through your previous linguistic knowledge, and there are some words you don’t know. This is the kind of input that leads to very concrete increases in knowledge, in my experience. As an example, I really like using the Harry Potter books to learn languages. I have them practically memorized in English (and if I don’t have some parts memorized, I have a very deep knowledge of what’s going on), so when I read them even in a language that has very few cognates with English, I have a “foothold” to figure out what’s going on.
Then, there is massive input or immersion. This is what AJATT and Antimoon promote. With the help of the modern age and the internet, you can create your own language bubble right at home. It’s simulating the effects of living in another country without having to move. It’s playing foreign talk radio in the background all day, even if you hardly understand a word. It’s looking at books in your target language, even if all you’re doing is picking out a basic word here and there. Massive input leads to familiarity with the language and a feeling that the language is yours. Some of that input will be comprehensible, and you’ll pick up a surprising amount of knowledge. But there’s also the less measurable effect of simply being surrounded by the language, similar to a baby’s environment. When you do sit down to study vocabulary, you’ll remember words better, because you’ve seen or heard them before. The sounds will be more familiar to you, because you hear them for several hours a day. The language is no longer foreign.
Input-based learning gives you a natural sense of how the language works, like how you know a sentence is off in your native language, without having to name and explain the grammar rule. Adults can achieve that in a second language, as well!
5. So, how do I learn vocabulary? As I said above, you’ll learn a lot through context and from your input-oriented environment. However, there’s nothing wrong with speeding things along. AJATT and Antimoon are very anti-language classes and anti-textbooks because of both of those tools’ emphasis on output and stilted, formal, dated grammar. I think any learning tool can be used to a learner’s advantage, if he or she likes it. Personally, I like to have the satisfaction that I’m gaining basic vocabulary, even while doing a lot of listening and reading. Even with a good immersion environment, it’s funny how you can miss some pretty basic words.
You can use things like:
- Spaced Repetition System (SRS)—these are flashcards that repeat cards based on the algorithm of how the human memory fades. So, if you fail a card, the program will give it back to you immediately. If you keep passing a card, it’ll have you review it in five days, then seven, then twelve, etc. Anki and Mnemosyne are free SRS programs you can try out.
- Wordlists– (see Iversen’s (a polyglot) method here, or a method from the author of the book, Fluent Forever, here)
- Old-fashioned paper flashcards
- Textbook lessons (Textbooks may have canned phrases with stilted grammar, but I think pairing it with massive input will still give you a natural sense of grammar)
- Anything you like!
6. But when do I talk/write? Whenever you want! AJATT and Antimoon recommend a silent period of several months from when you start learning your language. The reason for this is to focus on input and to absorb what you can. Passive skills are important, so even if you can’t say that much, understanding other people will still serve you well. Too much talking early on could reinforce bad habits, so that might be a good idea to wait.
Dr. Krashen and AJATT hold the belief that output is not language practice, but performance. It’s what you do at the end of the day when you’ve done the learning you wanted. In fact Dr. Krashen states in Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition
Output has a contribution to make to language acquisition, but it is not a direct one: simply, the more you talk, the more people will talk to you! Actual speaking on the part of the language acquirer will thus affect the quality of input people direct at you.
Speaking practice will help train your muscles to speak fluidly (practicing rolling ‘r’s and other new consonants), but passive skills provide the foundation for the output everyone else sees.
But none of this is set in stone, and I don’t think you have to avoid speaking (obviously Dr. Krashen doesn’t think so either). Plenty of people talk from day one, and nothing is wrong with their language skills down the line. I personally like to wait to speak or write until I’m at a CEFR A2 level (lower intermediate). But if you have native speaker friends and you’re eager to practice, go for it! If you feel bad about not speaking, and you’re not ready quite yet, don’t feel bad about waiting! Passive skills in and of themselves are very important, and you shouldn’t feel bad for focusing on them.
And if you want to learn a language simply to read and understand and enjoy, then that’s fantastic. I’m a believer that learning can be an end in itself, and sometimes you just want to do something because it’s there.
The Iceberg Theory of Language Acquisition—this is a blog post I wrote for FluentU that goes into further depth about how I see passive skills (the part of the iceberg that is underwater) supporting active skills (the little tip above the surface that everyone can see).
Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition—Stephen Krashen’s book.