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3B: Language Activation

Once you reach level 5 comprehension or higher, the majority of that comprehension is automatic and effortless. Even if you tried to not understand, you wouldn’t be able to stop yourself. This is possible because, through input, your brain has constructed a subconscious model of how your target language (TL) works. Because the model is subconscious, it doesn’t take mental effort to activate. Your brain automatically utilizes the model to convert TL input into pure meaning, allowing you to understand.

Output ability comes from taking this model and running it in reverse. You have something you want to express, and your brain runs it through the model to convert it into your TL. Just like with comprehension, it’s largely a subconscious process. This allows output to become automatic and effortless, which is the key to speaking your TL fluently.

The process of learning to run the model in reverse is called “language activation”.

Stages of Activation

Language goes through three stages in the activation process:

  1. Acquisition
  2. Availability
  3. Activation

Acquisition refers to your brain’s subconscious model of the language. If you can understand a word or structure effortlessly when you come across it in immersion, that means you’ve acquired it.

When you want to express a given idea in your target language, your subconscious mind will search through the pool of language you’ve acquired to find relevant words and phrases. The language it finds will naturally appear in your consciousness. We refer to these words and phrases as “available language”.

Combining available pieces of language into full sentences is like solving a puzzle. You evaluate the fit of the puzzle pieces through intuition: what feels right and what feels wrong. If you’re able to combine the pieces together and you are certain that it feels right and that it fits the idea you want to express, then the language will activate.

Activation can be thought of as the process of connecting your pure thought to a specific piece of language. Once you make the connection, you’ll be able to effortlessly use that piece in the future.

For example, let’s say your TL is English, and you want to express the idea that there is a canine who lives with you. The words, “I”, “own”, “have”, “pet, “a”, “the”, and “dog” pop into your mind. By reflecting on your own intuition, you’re able to construct the sentence, “I have a dog”. It feels correct, so you say it. This would activate the structure “I have a blank” as well as the noun “dog”. Through this, you become able to effortlessly use this pattern in the future.

Start with Writing

We recommend you start with writing rather than speaking. As we mentioned in the overview, speaking requires combining four different skills in unison. Writing, on the other hand, allows you to focus solely on the process of converting your thoughts into words. This makes it much more ideal for language activation than speaking.

An additional benefit of writing is that it gives you time to think. Unlike speaking, you can take as much time as you need to put together the puzzle of available language.

Most importantly, writing gives you an objective record of your output that can be evaluated. This makes writing a more effective tool for getting feedback from native speakers.

Solving the Puzzle

When writing, your goal should be activation. This means you should be working with language that your subconscious makes available to you; not looking up words or conjugations as you write. Looking things up is a crutch that hides your true linguistic ability.

If you’ve previously outputted a phrase correctly then it will come naturally and you will feel very confident in it.

If it’s your first time saying something, you might feel just as confident. Sometimes, all the pieces fit perfectly and you can feel it. It just feels right. In this case, by simply saying or writing those words once or twice, you will activate them, allowing you to use them effortlessly in the future.

However, more often than not, you will be uncertain about the vast majority of these language puzzles. You won’t be sure exactly how the pieces fit together. There may be words that pop into your mind, but you aren’t sure exactly how to use them. Or, you may think you know how to express a certain idea, but not have total confidence.

For these uncertain cases, you will need to get confirmation of whether you were right or wrong. Uncertainty blocks full activation of the language, so you need to get more confident in your guesses to accelerate activation.

Calibrating Certainty

When you first start outputting, you'll be uncertain about many things that are actually correct. As you get more comfortable, you will likely become overly confident and start unknowingly making mistakes. Eventually, you'll settle into a happy medium where you'll know what you know and what you don't.

To reach this state of self-awareness, use the tools of introspection and confirmation as you output.

Introspect

Every time you write a sentence, ask yourself how confident you are that it's correct and natural.

It's better to err on the side of uncertainty. Making mistakes is fine as long as you feel uncertain about the sentence. This uncertainty prevents the mistake from solidifying into a bad habit.

Confirm

Assuming your conversation partner is willing to correct you, they'll be able to give you confirmation in real time. When you get a correction, make a mental note to look out for this situation in your immersion.

If you aren't in a situation where you have a partner that's willing to correct you, then you can use Google as a substitute.

At this stage, output shouldn't be a creative process. Someone out there has probably already said exactly what you want to say. Google the word or structure to see if natives have used the same phrase before and if it’s used the same way you expected.

Confirming via Google can be a tedious process that gets in the way of conversation. If you just want to have a conversation with someone and not worry about confirmation, then just make mental notes of the things that feel uncertain and then look for them in your immersion.

Blind Spots

It's inevitable that you will make mistakes and not realize it. You can't fix this class of mistake by yourself and if you wait too long, they can turn into permanent habits.

Make sure that natives are regularly correcting your writing so that you can become aware of these blindspots. When a native speaker points out a blindspot, don't narrowly focus on the specific error. Usually, a blindspot will cause an entire class of mistakes that manifest repeatedly in different situations.

For example, many people will fall into the creases of their NL without realizing. Though the sentence sounds fine to them, a native speaker will consider it strangely worded and uncommon.

Once you are aware of these blindspots, you will naturally search for them in your immersion and avoid them when trying to output. With enough input, you’ll overcome the tendency completely.

Tips for Getting Corrected

Most native speakers won’t be familiar with the Refold methodology. When correcting your writing, they will often try to explain to you why you’re wrong. It’s best to just ignore them. Native speakers can usually tell you when you’re wrong, and tell you how to make it right, but they can almost never explain why. Just notice the class of mistakes that they point out and look out for them in your immersion.

Apps like Tandem and HelloTalk allow you to get correction during real-time conversation with natives. If you don’t like the apps, do a Google search for other language exchange communities.

Be aware that native speakers won’t always correct you. Sometimes, they get caught up in the conversation and don’t pay attention to small mistakes. It’s useful to occasionally work with a tutor because they are trained to point out all mistakes.

If you want professional correction or if you feel nervous about talking to random strangers, we recommend hiring an iTalki tutor. At this stage in the activation process, we recommend text chatting with this person rather than speaking to them so you can focus on improving your writing.

Troubleshooting

If you are a natural outputter, the above information should be enough to get you through all of Stage 3. However, if you find yourself struggling with output, we’ve written a detailed troubleshooting guide in the next article.