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When are you ready to output?

I think that the recommendation of needing “near-perfect comprehension” without subs to start outputting is honestly absurd. – Brent

The Output Controversy

There have been many questions in the community about why we’ve set level 5 comprehension of a domain as the threshold for output. A lot of people think this level is too high and that learners should start speaking earlier.

I want to supply some history about why we decided to set it at level 5 so you can decide for yourself whether you want to wait that long.

Why We Created the Roadmap

The roadmap is meant to provide clarity to the language learning process. I struggled for years to understand what it actually takes to become fluent. There’s an enormous number of different opinions, tips, and tactics on the internet, but I’ve never found a true “Map to Fluency”. The Roadmap is meant to fix that gap.

We wanted to create a clear, step-by-step guide to fluency that provides structure to this very long and arduous process; structure that I badly needed for my own learning.

That does not mean that the steps we created are perfect, or that they can’t be improved, or that they are right for everyone. It’s simply a template that each learner should adapt to their own goals and needs.

Threshold for Output

The core framework of the guide has always been the same:
Learn to understand the language (input).
Learn to speak the language (output).

As we broke those two steps down into 4 stages and various substages, we needed to provide clear criteria that learners could use to evaluate their progress and move between levels.

To graduate from input to output, we created the following self-test:

“You’re ready to move to Stage 3 when you have level 5 comprehension of slice-of-life TV shows intended for adults, without using any significant supports. Watch the episode without subtitles and without pausing. You should have near-perfect comprehension of everything said.” – link

A lot of learners misinterpret this test. To clarify, you don’t need to understand every piece of native content in a domain. You should just have level 5 comprehension in any one piece of content, as long as that content is new to you and is made by natives, for natives.

This threshold is not set in stone. It’s not a law that you have to blindly follow. It’s simply a proxy for your progress in the language. If you’ve achieved this level, it means that:

You’ve experienced the input process.
You have tools and strategies that work for you personally.
You’ve acquired a solid foundation of vocabulary (~7,000 words).
You’ve acquired all the basic grammar structures.
You’ve developed some level of listening automaticity so that you can understand parts of the language instantly without thinking about it.

It means that you’ve laid a really solid foundation for future fluency.

The Output Trap

When I started learning Spanish, I 100% believed that language hacking and extreme output was the path to fluency. Following this method, I hit a wall at around 8 months that felt insurmountable.

My language abilities were extremely rigid. My sentences were all structured the same and I could tell that they didn’t sound natural. I had mastery of a very small domain, but outside of that, I couldn’t speak at all.

I hit these barriers because I hadn’t laid a foundation with large quantities of input.

Now I have a thousand hours of input under my belt. My language abilities feel unbounded and much more dynamic. My iTalki tutor is constantly delighted at the vocabulary I use in conversation because she’s so used to rigid and limited learners like I used to be.

The Level 5 threshold is a way for us to ensure that when you do start outputting, your ability won’t be limited the way mine was.

Why Not Level 6?

AJATT was of the opinion that you shouldn’t start outputting until it felt natural, which in Matt’s experience was Level 5 across many domains. From the perspective of mass-market appeal, that is not a suitable model. Most learners want to start speaking much earlier.

I’m also not convinced that waiting so long is the most efficient way to achieve high-level language proficiency. There are lots of examples of people who have achieved fluency in a second language while using hybrid input/output approaches.

As I see it, there are two complementary processes that occur simultaneously in immersion learning:

The more input you get, the easier traditional methods become.
If you get enough input, your subconscious language abilities take over and you can speak without thinking.

AJATT’s advice was to only aim for #2 and accomplish it before ever trying to speak. In Refold, #2 is still the goal, but we acknowledge that as long as you have a solid chunk of input under your belt, you can develop good speaking ability much earlier if you do #1 on your way to #2.

The Input Trap

There’s this idea in our community that if you just get enough input, then one day you’ll wake up perfectly fluent.

This is not true. No matter how much input you get, you will still make mistakes and you will need to deliberately practice output. A strong foundation with input simply allows you to improve your output abilities much faster when you choose to start speaking.

Even if you get an enormous amount of input your output abilities will still suck on day one. And you’ll know exactly how bad they suck because you will be able to hear all the mistakes you’re making.

That’s a GOOD thing. Knowing how bad you suck helps you improve much faster.

If you want to start speaking at level 4, then by all means, do it. Just know that you’ll need more correction from native speakers because you won’t be able to correct yourself.

If you want to wait until level 6, then by all means, do it. Just know that no amount of input allows you to completely skip the discomfort of output.

Am I Level 5?

I hit the Stage 3 benchmark about 6 months ago. I could fully understand some native content but it was not common. For most content, my comprehension was mid-level 4.

That’s fine with me. I want to speak earlier and I’m willing to hire an iTalki tutor to correct me.

Now, 6 months later, there’s a lot more content that I can fully understand, but I still would not call myself level 5 in any domain. My comprehension level is definitely improving, but I only get a few hours a week to immerse so it’s a slow process, especially now that I’m balancing that time with output practice.

However, the foundation I gained in stage 2 allows me to speak and write in stage 3 at a much higher level than I ever could during my language hacking days and I’m very happy with the amount of active vocabulary and grammar I have at my disposal.

Summary

The Refold guide is meant to be an example path to fluency. It’s not a bible. We do our best to explain the theory behind our recommendations so that you can make the appropriate adjustments for your goals and your needs. 

We recommend getting lots of input before you start outputting. The specific amount of input is up to you.

We recommend focusing on comprehension first before trying to speak. The specific level of comprehension is up to you.

Moral of the story: do the things that make sense for your life and your goals. It is not useful to constantly worry and stress about optimizing your learning path.

PS: We still love you, Brent.

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