How to practice input

Cover of "Rules (Newbery Honor Book)"

Cover of Rules (Newbery Honor Book)

Awhile back, I wrote a post about my favorite and best output based courses to learn Spanish.  My intention was to turn around a write another post on the best input courses.  That never happened. Why not?  Well….It’s complicated.

Output based courses and output based practice are very straight forward.  You talk and learn new ways to talk.  There isn’t much more to it than that.  Even when talking about something you don’t know the words for, you learn what words you want to say, so you can go back later and learn them.  Not always easy, but it’s still simple.

Input, however, is not that simple and at the same time easier to get a hold of.  You don’t get to choose what is said, which colloquial expression is used and which accent they say.  You don’t get to choose if they say, sit down or take a seat or what ever other ways there are of saying ‘sit down.’  But there is so much of it free and very cheap that it’s hard to know what to do with it.

How best to practice with Input

With input, you can get what I refer to as the Oreo cookie effect.  I wrote a lot about it over at Eurolinguiste, but in short:  if you put a oreo cookie into milk and then pull it right back out you’ve wasted your time, because the milk hasn’t had a chance to do anything with the cookie.  If you put it in and hold it there too long, the cookie crumbles and you wasted your time even more.  The best thing is to hold it till the cookie is soft, but not too soft.

The same with input, you listen/read something too easy, then it’s a waste of time.  If the input is too hard, you can’t keep up and you get very little out of it.  The trick is to find something that is both challenging, but still appropriate to your level of language abilities.

I have developed rules or guidelines to help me know if I am challenging myself at the right level.  Before I give these rules, it goes without saying that the best form of input is part of a conversation with a Native speaker.  Try to have as much of those as possible.  You will learn So much that way.  I assume that if you read this blog and find this advice useful, is because you are probably not an expat living in the country or some thing like that.  You are probably a person with full-time commitments living in an environment where you probably only speak your birth language most of the day and trying to be efficient with your language learning in between your regular life schedule.

The Rules

The first rule is if you are going to listen/read passively, without having a transcript or guide to help you understand it, then you need to understand most of what you hear.  I don’t want to try and put a number to it.  You will know.  If you can understand enough of the sentences to understand what is being said, even if you don’t know all the words or grammar for the sentences, then you are at the right level to passively listen.

The second rule is that if/when you are actively listening it must be something you don’t understand just based of your own knowledge.  When you are being active, and you are using a dictionary/guide/transcript to help you know what is going on, then you need more to challenge yourself.

The third rule is to, regularly, listen to radio/tv or anything else beyond your regular abilities for as long as you can take it and then stop.  This may seem contradictory to the first rule, but it is not.  The first rule applies to passively listening, assuming for longer periods of time.  Rule 3 only recommends that one should do something hard until it is unbearable and then you can back to the level you enjoy.

I know these are not perfect, but they have served me well as I have learned to speak Spanish better and better.  Do you have any experience with this?  Please share for the benefit of all who read this.



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