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Beware of the false fluency

January 9, 2011 in Thoughts and ideas

Beware of the false fluency

December’s quite the busy month: birthdays, holidays, pre-New Year craziness, deadlines and other time-consuming events. There is barely any time left just to make a cup of a good tea, sit down and write. Nevertheless, here I am.

In the last essay I tried to remember a point in my life when a decision was made that the languages should be a part of it. Sadly, no specific date came to my mind (too many events have occurred since then), yet I still managed to define it quite clearly. As an added bonus, I’ve made a vague reference to a problem I want to discuss today.

Huh?

Funny thing, the Internet. Wherever you go, any community or significantly large group, you will find several subjects which are quite controversial and therefore serve as a point for constant arguments. In almost a year that I’ve been following language learning communities and the blogosphere, one of such subjects always was a dispute on when a learner should start practicing his target language, i.e. the dreaded “input vs. output” problem.

Really, so much is already said that it’s almost impossible to come up with anything fresh to say. Which is why I won’t. For a good break-down on the problem I recommend reading this article by John Fotheringham in his blog “Foreign language mastery“, which is short yet very comprehensive.

What I want to do instead is to drive the point home and show exactly what happens when you go for an input-only approach. I did it unknowingly for 5 years (at least) and I am not sure that the place I ended up in is a nice one.

Here are the advantages I can highlight. There aren’t many of them.

1. Great comprehension skills: listening and understanding texts, conversations, podcasts, songs is rarely a problem, as long as you are familiar with the topic and the vocabulary (you might not understand a discussion on string theory if you never looked it up in your native language).

2. An ability to think in the language. This one I consider to be the coolest. About a year ago, I hit the point when my internal train of thoughts was completely in English. With a little bit of practice, I’ve learned to switch between English and Russian seamlessly in my mind without driving the aforementioned train “off the rails”, i.e. breaking the thinking process.

The list of disadvantages, however, is far more dreadful.

1. Even if the pronunciation in your mind is perfect, you will still enter the world of disappointment when you will try to actually speak out loud. It’s going to be mediocre at best.

2. In addition to the mispronunciation problem you will most certainly encounter a feeling of frustration upon discovering that saying your thoughts out loud is not as easy as going over them in your head. We tend to think chaotically, jump from one thought to another, maybe not paying much attention to the grammatical structures at times. When you need to speak, however, you realize that you need to take all those factors into an account and that throws you off your game.

3. Already sounds quite awful, doesn’t it? Sadly, this is not the end yet. All that massive vocabulary you think you acquired over the months/years/decades? You will find it to be shuffled and confusing.

The bottom line

Of course, it is not all that bad. You’ll still have a solid grasp of the language in your mind, which is a fantastic skill to possess. However, I found out that trying to communicate in my what I thought to be almost-fluent English at times brings me more frustration than doing the same in a very limited Spanish. In the latter case, at least you expect that you will stumble or pause in order to find an appropriate word. All part of the process.

The thing about this kind of “false”, input-only fluency is that you feel confident and fail to foresee these problems. Just imagine yourself telling an exciting story. You outline the premise, create a rich background in the minds of your listeners to capture their attention. Suddenly, right in the middle of relating an entertaining dialog between two characters you stop abruptly.

Why? You simply and suddenly forgot that tricky word or a figure of speech needed. Here it is, on the tip of your tongue. You heard or read it countless times, yet it still eludes you. You are forced to regroup, rephrase the line. Depending on your story-telling skills, the situation might still be saved, but the momentum is lost.

If your aim is fluency, do not let yourself stray off the road into the dark and unwelcoming forest of a biased, unbalanced approach. Experiment and find your balance in learning a language. In the future essays, I will share some of the experience in pursuing that balance.

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Picture by Giles Douglas

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

John Fotheringham March 28, 2011 at 21:38

Excellent analysis of the problem, Roman.

Here is an updated link to the article (some of my domains changed slightly when I relaunched the site): http://www.l2mastery.com/featured-articles/the-input-vs-output-debate-john’s-2¢

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Roman D. March 28, 2011 at 22:57

Hello, John!

Thanks for the heads up on changes in the link. Glad to see your blog being back in business!

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John Fotheringham March 28, 2011 at 23:20

Спасибо

That’s about the extent of my Russian for now but it’s on my list of languages to learn next!

Keep up the great work on The Road to Fluency. And if you ever decide to tackle Japanese or Mandarin, let me know (I’ve got heaps of resources to share).

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Robby April 3, 2011 at 18:23

Hi Roman,

I just thought of another example which perfectly illustrates our mind’s capability of projecting internal images and concepts while we’re struggling to produce anything nearly as accurate on the outside.

Think of any person that you know. Close your eyes and picture him or her in your mind. If you try well enough, you can get a pretty clear image of that person in your mind. Now try to replicate the same image on a piece of paper using a pencil…

It goes to show that our speech as well as other acquired skills needs a whole lot more practice to become capable of replicating to what our mind can conjure up!

Thanks for the article!

Robby

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Roman D. April 5, 2011 at 21:45

Hey, Robby!

Thank you for stopping by. This is a great example, the one I believe anyone should keep in mind. Learning how to shape one’s thoughts into words takes a lot of time and practice. That is, if a learner wants to starts speaking confidently as soon as possible.

My experience taught me that having a lot of exposure give only the confidence in the fact that you will find the right way to voice your thoughts. But the actual ability to do it – that requires some work.

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Robby April 5, 2011 at 22:21

Exactly!

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