Input method vs Output method

When it comes to independent language learning, there are two main schools of thought. You can learn with the input method or with the output method. A combination of the two is possible as well, but learners generally lean towards one of them.

In this post I want to go over a few things that will help you choose what’s best for you:

  • The philosophy behind the two approaches
  • The methods you employ in each of them
  • Their strengths and weaknesses and what purpose they both suit best.

The philosophy of input vs output method

Should you start speaking right away or should you first build a foundation and speak later?

That’s the key difference between the input and output method. The former argues for building a solid foundation by consuming, practicing with and internalizing massive amounts of material through reading and listening. The latter keeps to the thought that language is for communication, hence one should start speaking from day one since only practice will yield results. Accuracy is an afterthought and the burden of dealing with mistakes is placed on the person you’re interacting with.

As always in life, neither is right or wrong and there’s a time and place for both. Personally, I use the input method more for reasons I’ll explain later. 

The input method

We consume languages in two ways: visually, i.e. reading, and through listening to it. The premise of the input method is that, just like a child that’s exposed to an enormous amount of listening before it starts speaking, the adult learner should also consume an enormous amount of language before he starts to speak. Therefore, you expose yourself to reading and listening materials with the goal of familiarizing yourself with and internalizing the correct grammatical forms and most common expressions.

In practice this works as follows: you pick a source that you’ll use for deliberate practice. I recommend a book that’s designed for self study because it provides you with a structure and is designed to facilitate your learning. In principle though, any source would do. In this book you work thoroughly with the texts and audio files provided, meaning you read and re-read/listen to them, do all the exercises, practice pronunciation and do translation work.

In addition, you use other sources of reading and listening so as to revise what you have practiced in a different context. This has the added benefit of making your learning less monotonous. I usually stick to one additional resource but this isn’t an iron rule, you could also use many different ones. Time is a limiting factor though and there’s only so much you can do.

Production happens only through reading out aloud and shadowing the audio files. Additionally, you do written production and have conversations with yourself. However, there’s no work with a teacher since you’re first aiming to get a grasp of how the language is structured. Only at a later stage, usually after A1 or A2, you’ll start working with a teacher.

Advantages and Disadvantages

First of all, you’ll build a better grammatical foundation and will learn to speak accurately right from the start (unless your work is sloppy). That means that you won’t have to deal with “going back to the basics” at a later point because simple concepts like correct formation of the past tense, syntax and so forth will be clear.

Your pronunciation will be better as well since you’re making a conscious effort to work on it. To my knowledge this doesn’t feature in the output method at all and unless you have a trained ear, your pronunciation will be pretty shit if you “just start speaking”.

Plus, your confidence when you actually start speaking will be much higher because you’ll already know a bunch and the conversations will be more meaningful. At A1 or A2 level you’re not really able to maintain much of a conversation, which makes speaking less fun.

The downside is that, well, you don’t speak. For this reason, it doesn’t appeal to many people because this is what they want. Also, reading out aloud and drilling grammar forms and pronunciation isn’t most people’s idea of learning a language in a fun way. 

When you should use this

This is best used if you actually want to learn the language to a high level. If you want to be able to order tequilas on holiday or holla at attractive women, you don’t need to shadow audio files for days at a time. But if your goal is B2 or higher in a language, you’ll use parts of this strategy inevitably at some point in your learning journey.

It’s also better suited, in fact the only really viable way, to learn  languages that are alien to your own (Asian, Arab etc). I might be wrong but I don’t think that you can just “start speaking” in Arab. Since these languages also use a different alphabet, you’re going to read a lot in the beginning anyway.

I personally prefer it since I like to be able to speak for longer than a minute at a time. It’s very rewarding when you can have an actual conversation with a person the first time you really speak. I also learn every language with the goal of getting it up to a really high level so I don’t want to deal with simple mistakes at a later point. Lastly, and this is just a personal thing, I think that speaking accurately and with good pronunciation is a sign of respect towards the language and the people you’re talking to and makes you sound more educated as well. But of an ego thing here but when people compliment you on it, it feels fucking good, not going to lie.

The Output method

Most people just want to speak a language. Especially if you’re learning it casually or don’t want to reach a high level, you are concerned with being able to communicate as quickly as possible. That’s why the output method appeals to so many people. You start producing language immediately with the goal of communicating as fast as possible.

The learning happens in “chunks”. You learn by practicing and repeating bite-sized pieces of relevant language. You don’t pay attention to being accuracy but are trying to learn to make yourself understood asap. Naturally, this requires a teacher that will correct your mistakes, interact with you and steer the conversation. 

You don’t really need any particular kind of source material for this method since it works off the cuff in principle. Just take whatever you consider most important and relevant for your learning progress. I would still recommend using a structured source though.

As source material you don’t have to use anything, you can just learn what you consider most important. But still better to use a structured source

Advantages and Disadvantages

This method appeals to a lot of people because you speak from day one and can learn to communicate immediately. You can get to a level where you can make yourself understood in basic situations quickly. Often, this is exactly what learners are looking for.

However, you need a teacher to do this. Thanks to italki and others, this isn’t expensive, but it’s still not for free and an added factor you need to deal with.

Also, you might fossilize errors that are later hard to get rid of. A lot of speakers of foreign languages that I know personally have excessively bad grammar and I can tell that they have inadvertently used a form of out method while learning. While this won’t necessarily impede your being understood, it will impact you not learning the language properly. 

When should you use this

The output method is best suited if you don’t need a high level in a language. No point in learning A2 in Spanish and trying to mail the pronunciation, it’s better to just work your conversation skills.

However, with languages that you already know a bit or have knowledge of a similar language, like Spanish and Italian, this makes a lot of sense. You can likely speak the language with a minimal amount of input. Thisis doubtful to work with Arab and Chinese and the likes though. 

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