how much input do you need?

I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to this excellent article from Antimoon: “How much input do you need to speak English fluently?”

It first caught my attention because it mentions the little facts that you have to know about a language, but which are not classified as “grammar”. For example:

You can give an opinion, but not an advice; buy a cake, but not a bread; move a table, but not a furniture; share a fact, but not an information.

Then I realized that I really liked his comparison of language learning to facial recognition. When you remember someone’s face, you don’t remember a bunch of specific and logical facts about various features. You don’t remember that the distance between the eyebrows is 0.754 times as big as the length of each eyebrow, or something like that. You just know, because your brain has a special part for recognizing faces without use of the conscious part of your mind. Much of language acquisition is similar. You don’t need a bunch of explicit rules, because as you acquire the language naturally through exposure you’ll just automatically start to develop some magical part of your brain that absorbs the needed rules and principles. This is all done below the level of conscious thought and calculation. Perhaps later you can try to develop your explicit ability to describe such rules, but that’s mostly a boring job for professional linguists with Phds, not for those of us who just want to speak and understand a language.

Finally, there’s the question of how much input you actually need in order to speak and understand a language fluently. The Antimoon article does a nice job of going through the various factors in this, but basically comes up with a nice ballpark number of 1000000 sentences of exposure. The author then considers how much work it would require to be exposed to this much of a language within 3 years, which is what he says it took him for English. Remember that this is for a very high level of proficiency, where he speaks and writes almost perfect English. I personally believe that you can gain a really good level in a language related to your own in less than a year, and that there’s always room for improvement.

His summary makes this enormous task seem quite doable. He breaks down the 1000000 sentences in 3 years into 6400 sentences per week. This then gets broken down to 1600 written sentences per week (~60 pages) + 4500 spoken sentences (~6 hours of audio) per week. This is a very doable amount for almost anyone. Just find whatever content interests you, and try to expose yourself for about an hour a day, and then you can expect to be highly fluent in 3 years according to this estimate. For those of us who are even keener, you may be able to up this amount to multiple hours of exposure per day and thereby rapidly increase your learning rate.

To get these hours of exposure in, just try to fill up your “spare” time (like riding on the bus, or sitting at your desk at work if possible) with audio content in your target language. When you get home, instead of watching TV in your native language, have a selection of target-language books sitting on your coffee table so that you can just pick one up and start reading. Or better yet, have those same books along with an MP3 player containing the audiobook versions so that you can listen and read at the same time. If you really want to watch TV, order some dubbed versions of your favourite shows if they are available. If not, order some original shows in your target language.

If you use whatever method you can to understand more vocabulary, you will soon be enjoying real adult materials in your target language. I couldn’t understand even 1 word of swedish in december 2009, but right now I’m listening to an audiobook in swedish and I’m able to follow along with the story most of the time, and I catch a lot of the vocab. I’ve been slack recently too, so I probably just barely averaged 1 hour per day, if that. I just very efficiently got myself up to speed on basic vocabulary, and put a lot of basic sentence material into Anki flashcards so that I could review them regularly, and did as much listening and reading as I could. Now that I have this basic level, it’ll be easier to ramp up my intake, and hopefully soon I’ll be racking up dozens of hours of content and thousands of sentences worth of exposure, on my way to fluency.

You can do it too, just start reading and listening in any way that you can🙂

11 Responses to how much input do you need?

  1. Keith says:

    I hate to state the obvious, but the examples you quoted are covered by grammar. All of the crossed out words are non-countable, so we do not use the singular article “a” or “an” with those.

    You can give advice, buy bread, move furniture and share information.

    I’m sure there are much better examples to support the statement. I am, by no means, trying to suggest that grammar has to be studied or learned.

  2. Keith says:

    I just looked at the other examples on the page you linked to. There are examples he has crossed out that can be said.

    “Mary very much likes cheese,” is a very legitimate statement but has a different meaning than “Mary likes cheese very much.” The first statement is like saying, Yes she does like cheese.

    “He could eat the cake,” is also a legitimate statement.

    “He ate what?” is also usable.

    You can definitely “suggest somebody to do something.”

    You can also “clean the dishes.” Though we’d normally say “wash the dishes.”

    Some of the examples here that I have contradicted are used in special circumstances or just rarely used.

    Even when a learner can get to a native-level, write like a native, and sound like a native, there is still a slight difference in knowledge between that person and an actual native speaker.

    So I think is a good example that supports my recent post, Should I ask an advanced learner?

    Sorry for straying from the intent of your post.

  3. doviende says:

    Keith, thanks for the comments. Let me just say that the “explanation” of the words being “non-countable” is really just a label after the fact. There’s not much difference physically between a cake and a loaf of bread (at least in a practical sense), but due to language conventions we somehow treat “bread” as a mass noun. Clearly loaves of bread are countable, and it’s very strange to think of “bread” as a mass noun in the same way that “rice” or “water” or “sand” is.

    You make some good points, but mostly they’re on a very specific level. The overall point I’m trying to get at (and I think the antimoon author is trying to get at) is that when you are learning a language, you will be confronted by an endless stream of very similar words. Most of them may have useful distinctions, but it will be hard for you to memorize those distinctions based on logic and grammar rules, in order to calculate out what must be said. Instead, to fluently use these very similar words, you’re going to need a lot of input.

  4. Jennie says:

    “Suggest somebody to do something” is definitely not correct in my dialect of English. It’s either “suggest that + subject + verb” or “suggest V+ing”

    Anyway, I like the comparison between recognizing words and faces too. Now if only I could get my students to actually listen to English outside of the classroom… In the class, they do guided exercises on learning which nouns are count vs. uncount, or which prepositions go with which verbs – but judging by their midterm exam grades, they didn’t really learn much.

  5. Keith says:

    Doviende, I agree with you.

    The face recognition thing is also comparable to Chinese character recognition.

  6. I would agree with Keith on his grammar point regarding the examples included above. Countability is really no different from, say, gender in Spanish. They are both characteristics somewhat arbitrarily assigned to words that need to be learned with the words in order to be able to use them correctly with other words (i.e., apply the grammar rules to them).

    Whether a native would use a particular phrasing, on the other hand, is a vocab use issue.

    In either case, lots of exposure will teach them to you, but my position is to explicitly learn the rules whenever possible and couple that with lots of exposure.

  7. Olle Kjellin says:

    I agree: The more the exposure to idiomatic phrases, the better the result.
    http://www.olle-kjellin.com/SpeechDoctor/ProcLP98.html

  8. Chris Demwell says:

    All grammar is a label after the fact, doviende, in any natural language. It’s not like someone sits down and says “Hey, let’s start with a grammar and then make up words that fit it so we can talk to each other” – aside from the question of how they could say that without a language, I mean. Grammar is trying to build a framework that formalises the spoken language.

    • doviende says:

      I agree, Chris, although in my reply to Keith I was trying to point out that the assignment of bread to the category of mass nouns as an explanation was especially vacuous. Bread makes no sense as a mass noun, but it happens to match the rules applied to that category. Because of this, it’s a good example of why the rules we’ve come up with are not as descriptive as we would sometimes like.

      In many cases, they are just sets of arbitrary exceptions, even when we can find a pretty pattern for most of those exceptions. There are a lot of people out there who really latch on to the idea that they can all have pretty patterns, and forget that there’s another way to learn these language features other than the conscious memorization of the patterns. This becomes especially harmful as a formalization when it becomes the sole way to teach the language (see also: most official educational institutions). This blinds people to what’s missing, which is that it’s all only really learnable from exposure to the language, not as formalizations.

  9. Jakob says:

    Great post, Doviende. I think it’s worth noting, though, that the Anti-Moon guy spent years learning English in grade school the “traditional” way (i.e grammar, etc.). It would be interesting to know how much longer it would have taken to achieve full fluency it he didn’t already have this background. I think a little grammar is unavoidable.

  10. doviende says:

    The difference, though, is what studying grammar does for you. According to the research I’ve read, you can’t get a normal grasp on how the language works by reading the described rules. You need to develop pathways of understanding and connection in your brain, not calculate using the conscious/logic part of your mind.

    Reading about grammar rules in class or in a book can certainly help you figure out a sentence you’re trying to read, and may assist with making certain content more accessible, but it’s the absorption of the content itself that gives you the true understanding. In contrast, vocabulary can be learned quite well by having it explained, so I think that’s where we should put our emphasis during any explicit learning.

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