What to Know About Input-based Language Learning

Do you wish you could learn a language through TV and movies?

Maybe you’ve tried textbooks and classes, but they just don’t work for you.

Or maybe you’re an introvert who’s terrified by the prospect of finding language partners online or in real life!

Much of the online language community is big on talking about talking. So if that’s not your thing, you might feel like you can’t learn a language.

Well, you’ll be glad to know that many language learners succeed through watching TV, listening to radio and reading books, some of them without setting foot in the classroom!

Some learners wait until they’re quite advanced to talk to native speakers.

Khatzumoto of All Japanese All the Time, for example, attained incredible speaking and writing skills in Japanese through television and comics.

Kató Lomb, a Hungarian polyglot, learned a lot of her sixteen languages through reading trashy novels.

These learning methods are input-based. “Input” can be defined as all of the things you listen to, watch or read in your target language.

However, it’s not uncommon for learners to feel that their passive skills (reading and listening comprehension) far outstrip their active skills (speaking and writing).

So, how does input-based learning work? How can you learn a language with it? Will it ever lead to speaking and writing, or will input-lovers be stuck with their books and movies forever?

For the answer, we turn to the mighty Iceberg Theory.

What Is the Iceberg Theory?

Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg analogy

To start with, here’s something Ernest Hemingway wrote in “Death in the Afternoon”:

The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

Let’s give some context to this lovely, poetic quote, shall we? Here, Hemingway is talking about short stories. He was, as I’m sure many of you know, a famed short story writer. Part of what brought him that fame was his peculiar, sparse writing style. Hemingway loved to omit details. He may have imagined an entire world surrounding his characters, their personal histories and their setting, but little of that was mentioned in his stories.

Rather, Hemingway masterfully allowed just the tip of the iceberg to show to the reader. Nevertheless, Hemingway insisted that readers still had a sense of the details that remained “underwater.” These were the details that kept the story moving and gave it weight, just as with an iceberg.

But why am I talking about a fiction writing theory?

While Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory was created and tailored for writers of fiction, it can also affect how we view a number of things, including the acquisition of skills like language learning. Don’t take the prose application all too seriously—the imagery of the iceberg is what we’re after.

Your passive skills, your comprehension abilities, may be “underwater,” invisible to all except you, but they’ll one day give you the balance and confidence to express yourself in your target language. When you keep feeding your iceberg more and more input, the bit above the surface will grow as well, and you’ll start seeing more results with your active skills.

The Iceberg Theory is helpful if you find yourself losing confidence over your active skills, even when your passive skills might be well-developed.

So let’s look at some reliable ways that you can start applying this theory to your language learning today!

The Iceberg Theory in Action: 5 Tips to Make Input-based Language Learning Work for You

1. Seek out engaging resources for listening and reading.

Firsthand, I can tell you that input-based language learning can seem like it’s not having much of an effect. But every understood word is a breakthrough. Patience is key, which is why you need to keep your resources fun and engaging. It’s got to be stuff that you come back to, time and time again.

Luckily, there are a million ways to do that! A lot of input-based learners like to set up an immersion environment at home, just to make sure they’re absorbing all they can.

Using authentic materials, like TV and movies, for your input keeps learning engaging and also avoids the problem of using textbook recordings for language study only to discover that native speakers talk at lightning speed!

So, how do you find quality authentic resources for your input-based learning?

Hit up YouTube for songs in your target language, ones in genres that you’ll want to play again and again.

Google online forums that discuss your language for names of podcasts, radio stations and TV show recommendations.

Amazon third-party sellers are great for finding books in even the most uncommon languages.

Build up that mini immersion environment (even if it’s only as big as your bedroom), and soon you’ll surprise yourself with how much you can understand. With input, your comprehension—both in reading and listening—skyrockets. Not too long after that, you’ll surprise yourself with how much you can express. Keep that iceberg growing and growing!

2. Use tried-and-true methods.

Input-based learning can involve simply consuming those native resources such as catchy songs, hilarious TV shows and gripping movies. Input-focused learners might take a breather to sit down and relax with a novel.

However, input-based learning can also involve very specific methods, such as entering sentences and vocabulary items into SRS flashcard programs in order to reap maximum retention benefits.

For example, Khatzumoto, mentioned above, “mined” Japanese sentences from his favorite comic books and websites, and entered them into his SRS. He copied the sentences that he found particularly exciting or funny, and put them onto the “front” of the card, with an English translation on the back.

Because of the algorithm used in SRS programs, he most often reviewed the cards that were most difficult to remember. After 10,000 SRS sentences combined with 10,000 hours of listening to Japanese non-stop, Khatzumoto was fluent in Japanese before ever setting foot in Japan.

Ms. Lomb, also mentioned above, learned her languages through novels, the trashier the better. As she explains in her book, she read through novels trying to parse the vocabulary and grammar as much as she could without a dictionary.

This is called extensive reading—reading without attempting to look up every single unknown word. She enjoyed the language for itself, with or without understanding, and only looked up words that appeared time and time again. With all of the input she received through her novels, she gradually built up sizeable knowledge and an intuitive sense of grammar. What’s even more encouraging is that Lomb learned most of her languages in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, well before the conveniences of online radio, television or international bookstores!

I personally use extensive reading and immersive listening in my own studies. I find extensive reading gives me a broad sense of how the language works. I read things like “Harry Potter” (which I know very well in English) in my target languages, and I “decode” a lot of the language by using context.

In the same way, listening to foreign language radio for hours a day familiarizes me with the sounds of the language so that I can start picking out words more quickly once my vocabulary gets going.

Another way you can get a lot of input in your target language is through an immersive language learning program such as FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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3. Think like an iceberg to gain confidence in your passive skills!

Whenever you feel your confidence slipping over your stuttering speech (it happens!) or long pauses as you search for words, remember how only an eighth of an iceberg is above water. You might not have much at the tip of your tongue when people around you ask you to perform (believe me, this is how I feel about my current target language, Dutch).

Some will argue that speaking is most important, that you can’t say you know a language if your speaking skills are rusty. This simply isn’t true! Input-focused learning methods, those that improve comprehension, help all of us stay afloat. They’re the foundation of your language skills.

Even in our native languages, we can only produce a fraction of what we can understand. The rest is underwater, just like with our target languages. My native language is English—I sure can read a Dickens novel, but that doesn’t mean my attempts at writing come close. I can follow along with the dialogue in “Pulp Fiction,” but that doesn’t mean I can talk like a Tarantino character off the cuff whenever I please.

When learners favor input, passive skills will predictably outstrip the active skills. Just remember that the bulk of your work is underwater. That’s where your vocabulary is. It’s where your grammar is. Rest assured, your input-based language learning is working.

4. If you don’t want to talk right away, don’t! Language learning can be too focused on output.

Speaking straight out of the gate is not for everyone, although it is heavily encouraged by the online language learning community.

Just remember, there’s more than one way up the same mountain…or iceberg.

I, like many, get super nervous when speaking, particularly when I try to talk too early, when my language iceberg hasn’t yet grown to a size at which I feel comfortable. I might have a store of linguistic knowledge underwater, but the tiny tip of the iceberg just isn’t enough to make me confident at output.

It’s not worth freezing up and racking up negative experiences that could jeopardize my whole project, so I wait. Improving my passive skills is wonderfully rewarding—language isn’t all about talking. Reading and understanding are hugely important skills, so don’t feel guilty if you prefer to overindulge in them!

Eventually, you’ll be at the point at which speaking will seem like the next natural step by virtue of that passive knowledge you’ve accumulated.

5. Have faith that you’ll see results.

Yes, input-based learning requires some patience. If you’re more comfortable with movies and books than with chatting while you’re out and about, then there’s a bit of a trade-off.

At the same level, an input-loving learner’s comprehension skills will outmatch someone who focused on conversation right away, but that same input-lover’s conversational abilities will lag behind.

Still, provided both keep at their languages for long periods of time, they’ll both get to well-rounded fluency in the end.

Have faith that increases in your comprehension matter, and that they are crucial for improved active skills.

Your iceberg will always be growing, provided you are interacting with your language, but only one-eighth will be visible. Nevertheless, as time goes on, and as your underwater bank of knowledge increases, that one-eighth will grow as well.

Keep at it, and that underwater bank will be “pushed” above the surface, and you’ll find yourself speaking and writing more confidently than ever!

Recognize that your knowledge is underwater—not nonexistent.

It’s easy to lose confidence when much of your target language is passive. You have little to show off, and you’re not yet comfortable approaching native speakers.

Will anyone believe you’re learning a language? How can you prove that your language studies have not been in vain? You can’t! Not yet, at least. But forget about convincing people. Self-confidence and patience are what input-based learning is all about.

You’re a dignified iceberg! Like any well-balanced, floating chunk of ice, your substance is invisible to others, but that’s what makes you so mighty and powerful.

Why, you could sink the Titanic with skills like that!

And One More Thing...

If you dig the idea of learning on your own time from the comfort of your smart device with real-life authentic language content, you'll love using FluentU.

With FluentU, you'll learn real languages—as they're spoken by native speakers. FluentU has a wide variety of videos as you can see here:

FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.

Didn't catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.

You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU's "learn mode." Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.

And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You get a truly personalized experience.

Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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