That’s right: you don’t need to speak a single word in order to learn languages. Let me explain that in more detail because I’m pretty sure you found this statement strange and hard to believe.
We’ve always been told that what we call “practice” or output is essential to language learning and that through it, some day we’ll be able to actually speak the language. Practice usually comes down to just doing exercises and taking grammar exams, but let’s just focus on practice as our oral output.
Like I’ve just said, we’ve always considered output or practice to be the key to improving our knowledge of a language, but I want to show you in this article that this is not the case at all.
Output is not the cause of our improvement, but rather a result or consequence of it. An improvement that came about through getting tons and tons of comprehensible input. To put it into simple words, we don’t improve when speaking, but rather we’re able to speak because we’ve already improved. That means our ability to speak is a consequence and not the cause of our improvement.
When we speak in foreign languages, we’re not directly improving our knowledge of the language at all. However, like I’ve said a couple of times before, we do improve indirectly when speaking, and that’s why my intention with this article is not to make you avoid output but to explain how the process of truly acquiring a language works.
We do improve indirectly because every time we talk with someone we’re going to get a response and lots of comprehensible input. I’ve already talked several times about what happens when someone lives in a country where their target language is spoken.
These people end up acquiring the language because they have access to comprehensible input pretty much 24/7. We usually give output the credit, but they acquire the language because of how much comprehensible input they have access to. With that being said, we need to be careful with immersion per se, because in the early stages of the learning journey, the input might not be comprehensible and we’re talking about noise that won’t help us acquire the language. Input must be comprehensible.
Again, as strange as this sounds, we just have to get back to the example of kids and their native language. Kids get comprehensible input for quite a while (it’s comprehensible because their parents make the effort to do so through simple language, gestures, toys, props...) until they’re ready to start speaking.
The fact that they don’t speak a single word doesn’t mean they’re not improving, it just means that the process doesn’t work like that. In fact, we can easily check that they’re improving because they can understand more and more of the language and because many times they make an appropriate gesture or move in response to our words.
That’s one of the main differences between kids and adults. Because they’re not conscious about it, kids don’t worry at all about not being able to speak, while we adults want to start speaking as soon as possible. Although I perfectly understand that, at the end of the day it’s all about trusting the same process by which each and every one of us acquired our native language.
We’d all like to sound native-like in three months, but I’m afraid that’s simply not possible, the language acquisition process just doesn’t work like that in our brains.
We also have many examples of kids who grew up in bilingual or trilingual environments and never used some of those languages until they travelled to the country where the language is spoken or found themselves completely surrounded by the language. Let’s talk about an example.
There’s many cases in which let’s say the kid grew up in the US and his/her parents talked to him/her in English, Spanish and German, for instance. Let’s say that his/her mother talked to him/her in German because she was born in Germany. Well, there’s then many examples in which that kid doesn’t speak a single word in German until the family travels to Germany when he’s 14, for instance. When that happens and the kid is completely surrounded by a German environment, the “miracle” happens and the kid starts speaking a perfect native German despite not having said a single word in the language up until that point.
We can really witness cases like this all the time and they show us that the absolute key to the language acquisition process is comprehensible input, and not output as we’ve been told to believe. We acquire the language through comprehensible input, and then our output starts to show up as a result of that.
This may sound a little bit like a simplistic idea, but I’ve already talked several times about the fact that if our progress depended on output, no kid would ever start speaking.
This is the reason why the title of this article is “You don’t need to speak a single word to learn languages”. But, like I said, I don’t want to make you forget about output and I’m not saying we need several years to start producing, all I want to do is explain how the language acquisition process actually works and help you understand that output is a consequence and not a cause. I believe it’s essential to understand this concept.
With that being said, I encourage you to speak as much as you want, but just keep in mind that we’re talking about a result and not the cause of your improvement. I want you to remember this when you can’t speak as much as you’d like to in a certain language, because it just means that the process works like that and you need to get more comprehensible input, it doesn’t mean you’re bad at languages or any similar (false) beliefs.
I’ve personally been able to avoid a lot of frustration thanks to my knowing this, and I’ve observed how not being able to speak as much as we’d like to is one of the main, if not the main, cause of frustration in language students. We know now that the process just doesn’t work like that.
I believe it’s also a great relief, because all you have to focus on when your speaking ability is not there is getting more comprehensible input. And we know we can do that by reading our favorite books, watch our favorite series, TV shows…
What a difference between this and the traditional grammar approach!, don’t you think?
Thanks so much for reading this article and I truly hope it’s also been a relief for you to know that there’s a different and more appropriate way to learn languages. Like I’ve said thousands of times, we can ALL acquire ANY language while enjoying the process if we follow the right principles.
Don’t hesitate to leave your comments, suggestions… below, I’ll be happy to read them.