The Importance of Input

The one question that my students ask me all the time is, “How do I REALLY learn a language? How can I become fluent?”

And I always like to share this simple rule: 

“What goes in, is what goes out.”

In other words, in order to be able to produce language, first you have to develop strong receptive language skills.

We can formulate this idea in different ways, like Stephen Krashen did with his theory of “comprehensible input.” Less technically, it means we should be asking our students to read and listen in the target language–a lot.

Here’s a picture!

The box here is your brain. Your brain is incredibly magical. It can take other peoples’ words that you hear and read, and then mix them up, reorganize them, turn them into your own thoughts and words. Your brain is like a transmuter of language.

But, just like an alchemist, your brain can’t do any magic if you don’t supply it with the right ingredients. Comprehensible input creates comprehensible output. If your starve your brain, or if you fill it up with nonsense, you’re not going to be happy with the result.

What goes in is what comes out.

This is a pretty obvious point, but one that’s often overlooked. Know someone who spends all her time memorizing flashcards but can’t order a cup of coffee? Have a student who’s really good at verb conjugations but can’t understand a simple class announcement? These are all people that have fallen into this trap.

In class, it’s easy to ask students to do things: write an essay, give a presentation, create a project. And that should, rightfully, be the ultimate goal of language learning.

Before we demand that students do, however, I would suggest that we first ask them to absorb. The more listening and reading they get, the stronger their language foundation will be, and the more fluently they’ll be able to produce the speech and writing we expect.

So, what’s the best way to give our students comprehensible input?

For reading, extensive reading with graded readers are a great way to get started. In my Chinese class, we use book series like Mandarin Companion and Chinese Breeze, as well as leveled news articles from Chairman’s Bao

For listening, obviously, we think that FluentKey is a great way for students to improve their listening skills. Our site has hundreds of fun, engaging, and authentic videos in the world’s most popular languages. Easily find the perfect video for your students and then assign them to watch it. You can even track their understanding with built-in quizzes and other cool interactive tools. Best of all… it’s free!