As you’re learning a language, one common term you’ll hear thrown around classrooms and in books is input – how important it is, how often you should be getting it, how to get it, etc. Many people will just nod their head and play along when input is mentioned, but don’t actually understand what it is or realize just how important – rather necessary – it is for the learning process.


What is Input and How Does It Work?

Input is defined as sentences, words or utterances from native speakers of a language that, when understood, are stored in your brain. This could be anything – words, sentences you overhear in the store, phrases in a song, sentences you read in a book – anything. Over time, all of this input becomes compiled into a sort of “database” that your brain refers back to every time you need to produce something in that language. The brain doesn’t look for sentences per se, rather it looks for smaller parts and patterns that can be repeated to produce ideas that are correct.


How Your Brain Uses Input


©2015 University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth

Input serves a very important purpose for our brains. If your brain hears a sentence like,
“She is going to work now,”
it can easily produce similar sentences such as:
“She is going to class,” or “She is going home later.”

With more input comes more possibilities, even for more advanced transformations. For example, if you hear three sentences like,
“I like reading,” “I like riding my bike” and “Reading is relaxing,” the brain can take all three of those and produce a sentence like, “Riding my bike is relaxing.”

Your brain is constantly learning what works and what doesn’t, but it can’t do that if you aren’t constantly feeding it correct and understandable input. The more input your brain gets, the more it can reproduce and the better it gets at creating original output. This is why immersion is often regarded as “the best” or even “the only way to learn a language”, and why many people recommend listening to the radio or watching TV shows in the language you are learning. The entire time you’re listening your brain is paying close attention to the rhythm, pronunciation, sentence structure and more of that language – it’s learning what sounds right. This is very important, because if you hear or make an error in that language your brain now has something to compare it with which makes that error sound wrong.


Native Speakers vs Speakers Learning the Language


In my experience learning Spanish throughout school, I’ve heard many classmates lamenting over the fact that they always sound like they’re “learning Spanish,” or that they’ll “never sound like a native.” What I’ve come to realize is that the only difference between someone who sounds like they’re learning and someone who sounds like a native is the amount of input they have received over time. The native speaker doesn’t have to go back and look through all the rules of a language to tell you why a sentence is wrong – they just “feel” it or “know” it. They can tell if a sentence sounds good or not just by looking at it.

Anyone can reach this level or proficiency with any language, but the only way to do it is to give your brain what it needs! Jump on every opportunity you can find to use and practice the language, and like everything, the sooner you start, the easier it becomes.

How do you go about acquiring native input while learning a language? What else have you seen that has helped non-native speakers learn a language? Leave a comment below, and check back next week for a new edition of Links Interpreters Love.

-William Cerkoney