The Difference Between Input and Output

The common metaphor people use for language learning is climbing a mountain.  It’s a pretty serviceable metaphor, you got the sense of scale and intimidation of looking up from the base and having trouble seeing the summit, you got the parts of the trek that are easy walking between parts that are more rough to get through, you got plateaus that feel like little to no progress, and you got a huge task that can only be completed one step at a time.  Though I have to admit that it’s a bit of a bitch that you can climb a mountain in a single day.  I should know, I live in Colorado, I’ve done that.

I’ve talked about the stage of learning that, fittingly for this metaphor, people call the Intermediate Plateau, wherein a learner feels like there is a big stretch of not-all-that-much-progress, because their pool of knowledge covers most things adequately, while their ultimate goal is to be able to cover basically everything at a close to flawless level, which ultimately is a minor improvement that requires a huge addition of new knowledge.  Of course it feels like you’re not going anywhere when the level of detail you’re adding is the equivalent to the difference between there, their, and they’re in English.

Of course, that’s all at the far end of the plateau, while I’m more toward the beginning.  I said before that I wasn’t sure if I was there yet or not, and if I wasn’t then, I’m a lot more certain now.  A few things have come into a lot more sharp relief for me to notice in my studying, which is both a positive sign as I’m more attentive to those things, but also a negative one, because they paint a picture of how wide the chasm is between my different abilities in Spanish.

Reading is obviously my most developed ability in the language.  At this point, I’d be bold enough to say that I’m pretty good at it.  I have what would probably test as a 9th or 10th grade reading level—though maybe with a little shaky command of vocabulary for what would be expected for high school students—and I can read fairly quickly.  Not as quick as English, but hey, I have a post-graduate reading level in that.  Reading in Spanish is at this point fluid and comfortable for me, and if that was the only skill that mattered, I’d be strongly considering that I’ve taken my learning in Spanish as far as I care to go, at least in the focused way I’m doing it now.  Early on in this blog when I was attempting to define where I wanted to go, I said that I ultimately wanted to be “as comfortable in Spanish as I am in English.”  I don’t know that I can say I’m all the way there yet with Spanish, but I am almost there, to where it’s more or less a home stretch.

That said, reading is not the only skill that matters.  Most folks break down language into two broad skill types, input and output, which break down into four broad skills that are necessary for communication: reading/listening, and writing/speaking (well, ‘necessary’ is a bit of a stretch, as plenty of people managed to communicate with each other for thousands of years without a writing system or general access to literacy and plenty of deaf and mute people get around fine, but necessary for my purposes).

I’ve discussed my troubles with listening before, and while it continues to get easier—understanding Daniel San GMR videos is already less of a strain than it was last week—it is still much worse than my reading skill.  This week I ended up sitting next to a Spanish speaking family for about a half hour, close enough for me to hear them clearly while they talked, and…yeah, no idea what they were saying to each other.  I got individual words, and maybe even a few simple sentences out of the stream of dialogue, but not close to enough to get the gist of what they were saying, at basically any point of the conversation.  It’s been growing more and more apparent over time how much of a crutch subtitles have been in a lot of my “listening” practice time, and it’s all the more apparent how much trouble I have understanding people when there aren’t any words written under them when they talk.

Output, on the other hand, is still largely uncovered ground for me.  My “speaking” practice of just getting used to working in the Spanish set of phonemes has been paying off well, as I am a lot more comfortable with it, but straight recitation is not really what output is all about.  Output is about generating the language, communicating an idea from your head to someone else in some fashion, and while I haven’t devoted much time to it in direct practice for this blog, I’m also not a total beginner at it, either.

It’s a natural byproduct from all the input that I have a ton of tools for output now.  I know the words for lots of things, and I know how the sinewy bits of the language works to put those things into a sentence that conveys meaning.  I have at this point experienced a few authentic conversations in Spanish and managed to do okay, and I think I could go a lot deeper and wider in scope if necessary.  Speaking is a lot scarier than writing is, but a lot of it is doable.  All that said, it’s very clear to me as I read that there is a whole world of difference between my ability to comprehend Spanish and produce Spanish.

There is a lot of sentence construction, word choice, and phrasing that I can read and understand without a second thought, but am consciously aware that it would not yet occur to me to try and use when speaking.  There’s a lot that I have assimilated, even stuff that’s drastically different than English.

(For a quick example, in one of my brief conversations in Spanish, I had cause to say, “It makes me nervous,” [the it in this case was speaking Spanish of course], and I said without needing to think about it, “Me pone nervioso,” which is correct and almost completely different than English in every way.  It shares one cognate in nervous/nervioso, but the verb, poner, typically means “to put,” like placing down an item, and the me is an article that determines the object of the sentence.  In a general sense of meaning, it’s more like saying “It puts me nervous,” which of course isn’t the correct way to say that, but isn’t so far off that you couldn’t see how English might have settled on that as the way to express the idea had people said it like that in the past; we do say that something “puts me on edge” after all.  And beyond the different word choice, translating word for word, the grammar is a bit inside-out for English, more along the lines of saying, “To/on me, (he/she/it) puts nervous.”)

But for all the stuff I have assimilated, there’s a ton more that I haven’t, and I’m very aware as I read how little of it is phraseology that I know well enough to use.  I can understand it all clearly, but actively using it is a different story.  And as pools of knowledge go, my ‘know but can’t use’ one is the size of a lake, while the ‘know and use’ one is a kiddie-pool.

In some ways, I’m aware this doesn’t matter a whole lot.  Were I to try and say that “it makes me nervous” but said me hace nervioso, using the verb meaning “to make,” or made some similar mistake, it would sound as wrong in Spanish as saying “it puts me nervous” sounds in English, but would still be understandable when talking to someone.  Those sorts of errors get smoothed out over time, and plenty of people make them while otherwise at a very high, very competent level for a second language.

In other ways, though, these sorts of phrases and pieces of the language are the actual building blocks, more akin to the vocabulary of the language than actual individual words.  Being worried about not being perfect isn’t the problem, it’s being worried about having the tools to express yourself well.  And I can tell as I read that the tools aren’t there yet.

So, yeah, definitely not as comfortable with Spanish as I am with English yet, but if I could get everything else on better par with my reading, I’d be much closer.

Let’s look at this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 10/16

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 90 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of Harry Potter y las Reliquias de la Muerte, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, 3 episodes of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 10/17

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y las Reliquias de la Muerte, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, 2 episodes of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 10/18

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 120 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y las Reliquias de la Muerte, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 10/19

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 7 chapters of Harry Potter y las Reliquias de la Muerte, ~220 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 10/20

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 5 chapters of Harry Potter y las Reliquias de la Muerte, ~150 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 10/21

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 190 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of Harry Potter y las Reliquias de la Muerte, ~100 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~15 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 10/22

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 190 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of Harry Potter y las Reliquias de la Muerte, ~100 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 3 episodes of Daniel San GMR, ~40 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Anki: 960 cards reviewed, 70 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 1090 XP, 210 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 2 tv episodes and 9 YouTube episodes watched, 175 minutes
  • Total reading: 25 chapters read, 830 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 21 hours 25 minutes

A pretty good week, minus Thrusday which was a football game day.  For all the talk about things lagging behind reading, I spent most of my time this week reading.  What can I say, Harry Potter is exciting.  On that note, I said last week that it was very unlikely that Las Reliquias de la Muerte would show up on Tuesday, so I’d end up reading something else in between the last two books, but the post office had to go and make me a liar.  As of Monday night, I’m about 2/3 of the way through the book, so chances are very good that by the time the next blog rolls around I’ll have finished the series in Spanish.  That’s kind of exciting.

I’m beginning to really feel the weight of things being a “plateau” right now, because a lot of what I’m doing feels like I’m treading in place.  I’m enjoying Potter of course, but I can’t say it’s really getting “easier” anymore, because it’s basically fully intelligible.  I know there’s growth inside of consuming fully intelligible stuff, as it’s more and more exposure to the language, but there’s still a sense of inertia to the act.  And while watching/listening has a lot more difficulty tied up in it, I’m struggling to feel like it’s going anywhere fast.  Not a big deal, really, all I can do is keep on working.

Well, that oughta do for this one.  TTFN.

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