Input vs Output in Second Language Acquisition – Part 1

in My Learning Progress

I’ve studied Japanese pretty constantly the last year and a half and here’s my progress report:

Input
Listening: JLPT N2~N1 level for daily conversations. News and specialised topics like economics/politics are still a stretch though. As an anime fan, I have also clocked over 2,000 hours of watching anime (and hence listening to conversations), so this is unusual for the amount of time I’ve spent learning.
Reading: JLPT N4~N3 level, my reading speed has picked significantly compared to 6 months ago. I can whiz through a page in less than 5 minutes, when it used to take me at least 30 minutes. This is the result of learning new vocab and kanji through spaced repetition methods like Anki.

Output
Writing: Daily life stuff is alright, but I struggle with more abstract things like books and thought. I still have some serious problems with the particles.
Speaking: Absolutely crap. Basic introduction and basic things like what my hobbies are is alright. Anything that has less than 10 syllables is usually manageable. Anything longer, and I start to stumble. Either I am trying to recall the grammatical rules or my mind just temporarily goes blank.

As you can see, I suffer from a huge gap between input and output. And the gap seems to be widening everyday.

There are two schools of thought about how to fix this. Some, like Stephen Krashen, say that I gotta load up on input. I don’t have enough input or enough usable input, so I can’t possibly produce good enough output. The other school of thought says I gotta force myself to speak and write more often — that the only way to speak well is to um… speak.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to believe at this point, seeing that I’m going nowhere with my efforts so far. But these are some of my observations of my (failed) attempts to improve output.

  • I can’t speak naturally by memorising grammar. At one point, I was fanatical about memorising the grammatical rules for every new expression I had learned. This was great for scoring well in exams, but became pretty useless when I tried to speak with natives. I spent so much time trying to remember which particles go where, that I simply took too much time to respond and my fluency suffered as a result. I also translated directly from English sometimes, which obviously came out really wrong in Japanese.
  • I speak most naturally when I have heard the precise or related phrase from somewhere before. When speaking to natives, my most natural responses come from phrases I heard from anime or conversations. A lot of times, I surprise myself because I don’t even know where it came from. And I even speak it in exactly the same tone and manner I heard it. I guess, in a way, it’s very similar to first language acquisition by children. It’s as if Japanese resides somewhere in my unconscious and my mind just automatically draws upon it when needed. I guess, this lends some truth to the “more input” school of thought, but I wonder how many times I have to hear something before it seeps into my subconscious. It works wonders but it doesn’t seem like a very efficient way of language learning.
  • If I don’t practice new expressions, I forget how to use them quickly. I wouldn’t forget what they mean though. When I read it or hear it, I know precisely what it means, but I’m just unable to use them after a while because I’d forgotten the grammatical rules that come with it.
  • If I don’t produce output, I won’t notice gaps in my knowledge. When I read something, I somehow assume I would be able to produce it at the same level. But it’s not until I try to write or speak that I realize I’m unable to. So in a way, forced output is forcing me to learn as well.

That’s all the observations for now. I’ll revisit this topic again once I have switched up my learning styles. For now, I’m increasing output by forcing myself to write something simple in Japanese every day.

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