How to Start Producing – Transitioning from Input Only

So, you started learning a language. You’ve been diligently studying vocabulary and grammar. You’ve been working on your listening skills and perfecting your pronunciation. Maybe it’s been 2 weeks, maybe it’s been 2 months. Regardless, you have decided that you are ready to start speaking and/or writing. The massive input phase has been fun, but now you’re ready to reap the benefits of your hard work and start actually producing something. Ok. So, what next? The answer certainly isn’t the same for everyone, but I can tell you what works for me.

When is the right time to start producing output?

I addressed this in some detail in a previous post called Speaking From Day When? Truthfully, there is no perfect answer to this question. I usually look to start producing “something” at around the 2 week mark. At this point I usually have a couple hundred words and a smattering of basic grammar. Why don’t I wait longer? Because I’m impatient. I learn languages primarily for the thrill of actually using them to communicate. Without output, I feel like I haven’t really even started yet. Why don’t I start earlier? Because I don’t feel equipped to actually say anything of relevance.

I have to ask myself, as a native English speaker, how would I react to an English learner who could only say “Hello. My name is Bill. How are you? I am fine, thank you”? Probably not very well. What would I even say to this person? Truthfully, I’d be pretty annoyed. I would want to interact with someone who could at least talk about a few basic things beyond greetings. To me, it would be beyond rude to expect someone to spend time out of their day practicing “hello, how are you” with me (unless I was paying them, in which case that would be a different story).

Ok, so you’ve decided that this is the right time to start with output. Let’s move on to:

What kind of output should I start with?

My first attempts at true output are always writing. Why writing? Because it gives me a chance to transition to output without the kind of pressure that speaking for the first time can put on my shoulders. Writing allows you to produce at your own pace. You can look up words and structures you don’t know without someone waiting on you. Writing for me is when a language comes alive. I can see the fruits of my labor taking shape on the page in front of me. Good writing paves the way for good speaking. Here is a step by step guide to how I start writing in a new language:

1. I tend to start with dialogs because I see writing as stepping stone to speaking and people speak in dialogs. Most of the initial dialogs are things I know I will want to speak about: Greetings, introductions, my family, my hobbies, etc.
2. I take the dialog(s) that I write and I submit them to lang-8.com, italki.com or ask my tutor (if I have one) to correct it for me. I always mention that I’m looking for “real” colloquial-type language. When do start speaking, I want to sound natural and not like a textbook.
3. I take the corrections and compare them to my originals. I use these corrections to make sure I don’t make similar mistakes in the future. I take notes and practice writing similar sentences using the new constructions so that they sink in.
4. I take the dialogs and use them as my first “islands” as discussed in this previous post about developing fluency early.
5. I use these “islands” for self-talk fluency exercises to get my mouth used to producing full-speed (or close to it) target language speech.

Armed with a few dozen or so of these rehearsed dialogs, I am usually feeling confident enough to move on to:

Speaking with natives (or advanced learners)

My next step is to find people to talk to. This seems to be something that a lot of new language learners struggle with. I get a lot of questions about how I find natives to talk to when I don’t live in a country where the target language is spoken. Bear in mind, that I have never tried to learn any of the lesser spoken languages of the world like Fula or Susu, so some of my advice may not work for everyone. Here are a few places I have been able to find people to talk to:

1. Meetup.com – Sounds like a dating site but it isn’t. It’s a website that let’s people organize real-life meetups with groups of people in their area that share common interests. Most decent sized cities in the US have organized groups for certain languages. For instance, here in Denver, CO, I belong to 3 different German groups, 2 Chinese groups, and 2 Spanish groups. Between them, they meet often enough that I could spend every evening at a meetup group speaking at least one of these languages.
2. Couchsurfing.com – Host a speaker of your target language and “voila” instant conversation partner.
3. Itaki.com – My personal favorite. I have met literally hundreds of native Chinese, German, and Spanish speakers who are all willing to do free Skype or QQ conversation exchanges. I have spent hours and hours speaking with people that I met on italki. Additionally, the tutors and professional teachers on italki are not only very inexpensive, but of very high quality (at least the ones I have encountered).
4. Other websites are popping up all the time. Google “language exchange” and start discovering what might work for you.

In Conclusion

There is more to output than just talking. For me, writing is “talking lite”. I know a lot of people out there that put off output a lot longer than I do. Great! Nothing wrong with being prepared. I also know a lot of people who firmly believe in the “speak from day one” philosophy. Great! Whatever works for you. There’s no right or wrong way to transition into output. Hopefully this post can inspire a few people to take that leap and add a new dimension to their learning routine.

How do YOU transition into output? Do you have any tips or tricks of your own? Post them in the comments. I’d love to hear them.

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