If you have ever tried to a learn a second language, then you have probably heard about the input hypothesis. Originally developed by Stephen Krashsen, it claims that input alone is enough for second language acquisition. That is, learners become more advanced the more time they spend reading and listening. I was introduced to this hypothesis years ago by the popular language learning blog Antimoon, when I first started studying English.

My impression at the time was that learning a new language could be completely turned into a subconscious process, that by just reading English books and watching English movies, one day I will be able to speak like native Americans. I did not intend to migrate to an English-speaking country. Instead, I was planning to be a programmer, and just wanted to able to read English books. Therefore, and rather than practicing writing or speaking, I focused on reading and my ever-increasing SRS collection, believing that fluency is just a byproduct that will come later on. To be honest, I managed to memorize thousands of words, greatly improving my reading and listening comprehension,

However, a few years later, interacting with other English speakers became necessary, and the results were disappointing, to say the least. Despite all the books, blog, and tutorials I have read, I immediately became overwhelmed whenever I tried to speak or write, and could not even
produce the simplest of sentences. I failed miserably, and I knew that I had try something new. This is when I started focusing more on output.

Today, many learners share my belief that the idea of devoting all your energy to input is deeply flawed, and a lot of teachers are emphasizing the importance of interaction and output. And in this post, I am going to discuss an analogy between language learning and martial arts training, which helps explain why output is as important as input, and provides insights about how to structure language learning

The martial arts analogy

A couple of years ago I started practicing Muay Thai, and slowly became very interested in boxing and martial arts in general. When it comes to how these arts are taught, there is little variation around the world. First, the coach demonstrates a movement, stance, etc. and you should imitate it. You practice single moves using punching bags, pads, and mitts, but once you learn a few movements, you will be introduced to shadowboxing, where you will try to combine and connect what you have learned so far. Finally, when you develop enough coordination and body control, you can spar with partners. And then you keep repeating this cycle.

Obviously, each level of training is harder than the one before. Shadowboxing challenges you to produce a harmonious series of punches, kicks and so on, and if you ever attempted sparring, then you probably know that it is on a whole other level of difficulty. A great deal of this has to do with the uncertainty that accompanies it, since you can never predict what your opponent’s next move is, and more importantly, you are forced to improvise. Though in theory all of this is to prepare you for the final boss battle, namely real boxing fights, most trainees never really attempt for various concerns, but that’s beside the point.

When we try to think about boxing, for instance, in terms of input and output, we see that boxing training is a balanced mix of both, where all gyms ask you to box from day one. Indeed, nobody claims that you can learn to box just by watching boxing videos. This is mainly because your ability to comprehend the input you receive is directly proportional to how much output you have under your belt. You cannot execute variations variations of jabs when you still do not the difference between a jab and a hook. Therefore, you start gradually, learning and practicing the broad and general concepts at first, before examining them in fine detail. Moreover, it is virtually useless to spend hours on input before making a visit to the gym.

It is a kind of a feedback loop, where you should not overdo one part of the equation at the expense of the other, and where you cannot skip any step in the process, or consider yourself to have learned anything unless you practiced it. If the coach spent too much time instructing you, they will overload your brain with information that will not be able to use it all. Likewise, practice one movement or exercise for too long, and you will reach the point of diminishing returns. All output activities are important, and should be executed in the same order. You cannot jump from watching your coach doing a complex combo to executing it perfectly in a fight, and at the same time, you will not master it if you just practiced it on the bag.

Now, when we think about it, we can see many parallels between language learning and boxing training. In languages, vocabulary, expressions, and grammatical structures represents the moves. The first stage of practice consists of various activities that share same goal of producing full, meaningful sentences, while shadowboxing could be your inner speech, self-talk, or free writing. Finally, sparring becomes controlled conversations with other learners, or maybe writing exchanges with no time constraints. Obviously, the real fights happens when you are forced to interact with native speakers in real-time.

Similar to boxing, claiming that input is all you need for becoming fluent in a language is as unreasonable in language learning as it is in boxing training. Instead, effective learning programs should follow the same principles that guides martial arts programs, such as balancing input with output, the necessity of going through all output activities in their order of difficulty, and the significance of fresh and varied. Let’s elaborate on those principles further.

To get maximum benefit from your input, you need to couple it with plenty of output. When you start reading/listening, you have to master the basic parts first, such as nouns and verbs, before becoming able to move on to things such as collocations, transitions, and more complex structures. This is why it is fairly common for language learners to be able understand speech and writing that are higher in complexity than anything they could produce, and why you can find immigrants who speak poor English, despite spending years in the US, primarily because their jobs and lifestyle offered them very few
opportunities for interaction with native speakers.

Although most advocates of input-only methods claim that you can jump immediately from input to perfect output, this rarely happens in practice, and mastery requires doing numerous output activities. As an example, to learn a verb, you first got to know its meaning, and then form sentences using it, exploring its collocations, and where it fits in different contexts. And if you find these steps already hard enough, why would you think that participating in real conversations would be easier? This is another case of use it or lose it, but with a fundamental difference. Whereas it might takes a few weeks to forget a boxing move, a few hours are enough in the case of a newly learned word.

Finally, is the importance of seeking fresh input cannot be overstated. Successful boxers are always on the move, consulting their trainers, analyzing other boxers, and reading and watching any boxing-related material they could lay their hands on. This serves two purposes: First, it allows boxers to develop the areas they are lacking in, and prepare for all possible situations. Therefore, it pays to focus not just on the topics you are interested in, but also on popular subjects that natives may bring up. An equally important purpose is evaluation. Some people avoids speaking/writing for fear of making mistakes. However, mistakes are only damaging if you repeat them enough, and once you persist with seeking input, you are bound to discover all your mistakes. All boxers make mistakes in the beginning, and I have yet to find a boxer who executed a perfect jab or hook from the first attempt, or advocated jumping into the ring without training.

Why some people succeed

How do some people manage to achieve positive results using methods that emphasize input? Judging by their writing abilities, the guys behind Antimoon blog are, for instance, really fluent, and have reached near-native level of proficiency. To explain this, we have first to agree that, taken to the extreme, a real input only method is just not possible. Imagine
not being allowed to think about any word after the first encounter
(even in your sleep) or to combine it with other words to form a full sentence. This can never happen, and even Antimoon did not go completely against speaking, and in the end, many people learn a language in order to use it. Consequently, all learners produce some output one way or another. However, many of those who claim success have simply underestimated either how much output they produced, or the effect of that output. So, the guys at Antimoon simply dismissed all the English they spoke or wrote as simply inconsequential to their progress, even if they spoke/wrote on a daily basis.

Krashen also pointed to studies showing that the length of
residence is connected to the level of acquisition, that is, those who stays
longer become better, and as an explanation, he attributed this to the fact that the longer your stay, the more input you get. This, however, ignores that a longer stay also means more opportunities for interactions and a larger output.

Moreover, success may have to do with overlooking some forms of language usage, such as inner speech, as an output. Again, the authors at Antimoon always warned against producing incorrect sentences. However, to produce a correct one, you have to really think long enough, so in boxing terms, they were doing a lot of shadowboxing in their heads..


Why do some people find the input-only prospect attractive? Why should you avoid output in the first place? Would you want to learn boxing without ever moving your hands? Antimoon argues that speaking can damage your English, but you will never hear a boxing coach telling you that practice can hurt you. Besides, practice is not about repeating your mistakes; it is about perfecting yourself. However, I believe the reason to be that focusing on input is far easier than other methods.

There is an obvious asymmetry
between input- and output-based activities, since the act of receiving input is passive, while
creating output is active. Easier here does not have to do with laziness. From my experience, the problem with language learning is not that it requires a great mental or physical effort. Instead, the issue has to do with how much disorganized the process is. Thousands of words and expressions need to be learned, and you never really know where to start, or how good you are. Input-only methods eases a great portion of the mental burden by turning the whole learning thing into a structured process, where you just have to finish a long list of books and movies. Creating output, on the other hand, forces you to take matters into your own hands, thinking about every sentence, and mindfully choosing each one of its constituent parts.

Currently, I devote two hours each day to speaking and writing, in addition to motivating myself to think in English whenever possible. I found TOEFL-style exercises on the internet to be very helpful, since they eliminate the need to come up with subjects to write or speak about. As for the input, and due to the nature of my job, I spend a great part of my day consuming English content. However, I found this to be insufficient, hence why I dedicate some time to studying specialized vocabulary books every so often.

Finally, please do not take my post as an attack on Antimoon. I owe these guys a lot, and have learned a too much from reading it. In fact, anyone interested in language learning should read it too, even if you do not agree with every point the authors make. I am just saying that there stance is a bit of extreme, and that a more balanced approach is needed. And do not just speak from day one, but also read, listen, and write from day one. Always challenge yourself, and if you have some spare time, find a local gym and learn a martial art, whether it is boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, or Jujitsu – it does not really matter. Martial arts are really one of the most challenging and rewarding activities you might take part in, and you will not regret trying any of them.


Muay Thai image by Christopher Chiu from Pixabay.

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