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3B: Output Troubleshooting

If output comes naturally to you, you may not need this guide. However, if you’ve been struggling with output even though you've gotten a ton of input, this guide provides a framework for thinking about the problems you may be facing and how to fix them.

Fundamentally, nearly all issues with output can be fixed with more input.

Stages of Activation

As mentioned in 3B: Language Activation, language goes through three stages in the activation process:

  1. Acquisition: when you build your internal model of the language.
  2. Availability: when acquired language pops into your head.
  3. Activation: when you make the connection between pure thought and available language.

Your goal is to have fully acquired, fully available, and fully activated language. This produces instantaneous output that you know is right. You don't have to think about it.

Output difficulty can be caused by a failure in any part of the three stages.

Ideal Scenario

There's some portion of the language that you've fully acquired and is fully available, but you've never tried to output it before.

Whenever you try to output a word or phrase for the very first time, there will be some small amount of hesitation. Once you've outputted the phrase once or twice, it will be fully activated and the hesitation will disappear.

Availability Issues

When you've fully acquired something (meaning you can easily recognize and understand it in your immersion) that doesn't mean it will always be available for output.

Partially Available

There are three types of partially available language:

  1. Incomplete: Something pops into your head, but it's not enough to express the full idea. For example, a noun pops into your head, but you can’t remember the verb that goes with it.
  2. Uncertain: Something pops into your head, but you're not sure about it. The puzzle pieces fit together, but something just doesn’t feel right.
  3. TL Conflict: Two things pop into your head, and you're not sure which is correct.

In all three of these cases, you just need a little extra exposure to the word or pattern to build the ability to use it yourself. Make a mental note to look for this pattern in your immersion. You can also try to confirm it on the spot using Google or a native speaker.

See the instructions listed in the “Confirm” section of 3B: Language Activation for more detail.

NL Conflicts

One of the most common output errors is when you express something as a translation from your NL rather than the natural way it should be expressed in your TL.

Going back to our paper crane metaphor, this is an example of you falling back into the creases of your original language. As we described in 2B: Casual Monolingual Transition, each language has a different way of viewing the world. To speak naturally in your TL, you need to adopt the worldview of your TL.

Most of the time, you have already acquired the necessary language, but just need to change your mindset. The key to getting around this is asking yourself the right question. Instead of asking, “How do I say this?”, ask yourself “What would a native speaker say in this situation?”. This subtle reframing of the question will often produce completely different results from your subconscious.

Not available

Sometimes, even if you've fully acquired something, that language won't come to mind when you need it. You feel like you know how to say something but you just can't remember.

Your brain automatically makes notes of these frustrating situations and becomes primed to notice them in your immersion. Due to the frequency illusion, you'll probably start seeing this situation everywhere.

As long as it's something you've already acquired, you'll usually have a eureka moment the next time you see it and the language will be available next time you want to output it.

You can also deliberately search out the phrase using google. However, if the answer you find doesn't feel familiar, that means you haven't yet acquired it and you should not try to use it in conversation.

Acquisition Issues

Partially Acquired

If you can recognize and understand something in your immersion, but it takes some mental effort, then you probably haven't fully acquired the word or phrase. When you try to use a phrase like this in output, it can feel like an availability issue at first.

To determine if it’s an availability or acquisition issue, use either Google or a native speaker to confirm the correct way to use the phrase. If the correct version feels familiar and clear in your mind, then this is an availability issue. If it doesn’t feel familiar, or the meaning feels fuzzy, then it’s an acquisition issue.

Acquisition issues are solved through more immersion. This is another situation where the frequency illusion will cause you to notice the word or phrase in your immersion and will help you fully acquire it.

Try to avoid this unacquired language until you’re able to observe it’s correct usage in immersion.

Partially Acquired - Grammar

If you repeatedly struggle to output a specific grammar form even though you can understand it, that's an indication that you have not yet acquired it.

The comprehensible output hypothesis argues that during input you won’t always notice the specific grammar or syntax of the language because they are unnecessary for comprehension. When you try to use unacquired grammar during output you’ll struggle. This difficulty signals to your brain to look for examples of the grammar in your immersion so you can acquire it more quickly.

Normally, we would advise you to avoid using this unacquired grammar until you can fully acquire it. Unfortunately, that may not be possible. Many grammar forms are necessary for day-to-day output and you will need to use them even though you haven’t acquired them yet.

This is the one and only case where we recommend using a conscious monitor when outputting. If you can't avoid making the error, then consciously study the right way to do it, and when you output, double-check yourself to make sure you are using it correctly. Eventually, you will acquire the grammar and you won’t need to monitor yourself anymore.

Not Acquired

You won’t be able to express things that belong to a domain you haven’t learned to comprehend yet.

If you have no idea how to express something, then don't bother trying. Say something else that you're confident in. Don't try to use fancy words, difficult concepts, or domains that you haven't yet learned how to comprehend.

Remember, you are trying to master the domain of everyday conversation. Don't try to give a dissertation on physics or politics.

Don't beat yourself up for having gaps in your knowledge. Once you've mastered your first domain, expanding out into other domains becomes much easier. You’ll tackle new domains in Stage 4.