Language learning, at its simplest, can be broken down into two fundamental components: input and output.
Input: Listening and reading
Output: Speaking and writing.
Most people acknowledge a person’s output, especially their ability to speak a language, but rarely do we consider the importance of input. In fact, today, I’d like to discuss an important question that’s being raised by the language learning community.
Is it possible to learn a language just through listening and reading (aka input)?
Could someone listen and read their way to fluency while ignoring speaking and writing? The answer isn’t as cut and dry as you might think. Allow me to elaborate.
I believe the answer to that question depends primarily on your language learning goals. Take a moment and consider the following: What do you dream of using your target language for?
- Are you looking to read literature in your target language?
- Is your goal to be able to listen to podcasts, or watch movies without subtitles?
- Are you looking to travel, and survive comfortably in a place where your target language is the primary one?
- Or, do you want to be a conversationalist, able to talk to anyone about nearly anything?
The short answer is you could learn a language through listening and reading alone, but it comes with a significant drawback (or drawbacks, depending on how you look at it). The long answer is that language learning is complex and although input can get you very far, focusing on it alone will hinder your ability to express yourself via writing and speaking.
If this sounds a little suspicious, allow me to explain by way of a personal experience.
Years before I started my own online language learning school, I went to school in Paris in the hopes of becoming a conference interpreter.
If you’re not familiar with conference interpreting, it’s a job that requires you to verbally translate target language speech into your native language on the spot, as you are listening to someone speak. It’s an incredibly demanding job which is only made more challenging by the fact that conference interpreters are most often employed by important diplomatic organizations, like the United Nations. Back then, this kind of language-focused job appealed to me, so I attended an event to learn more about it.
At some point in the evening, I found myself sitting next to the director of the interpreting school. She was a French woman who had worked for many years as a conference interpreter, having to interpret between French (her native language) and German (her target language).
I had been learning German for quite some time by that point, so I was excited to practice German with her. I won’t lie, there was a part of me that was also hoping to impress her with my Deutsch skills. Therefore, I decided to start up a conversation with her in German, but before I could say much, she stopped me dead in my tracks with the following statement.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak a word of German.”
Blasphemy. Nonsense. Lunacy! I thought to myself.
It didn’t make any sense to me. She must be joking. Maybe this is some odd use of sarcasm or a blend of German and French humor that I’m not accustomed to?
Here was a woman who had such good German listening skills that she could interpret the language in the world’s most high-stakes diplomatic arenas—and she couldn’t even hold a conversation in it?
I was in shock. Until that moment, I had always assumed that skilled inputters were always skilled outputters, and vice versa. But no. When I asked her how such a thing was possible, she told me simply that, as an interpreter, all she needed was a perfect understanding of German. She didn’t need to be able to actively use it, so she never developed the skills to do so.
Hence why she probably relied on her listening and reading without needing to worry about her speaking and writing.
I remained curious about this development, even after I went on to enroll in the interpreting school. Is it really possible to have perfect input skills, but zero output skills? With each new student and teacher I met, the answer was as clear as day: Yes, it is.
It sounds crazy, but it's something I've verified time and time again.
So what does this mean for you? Am I saying that no matter what your goal is, you will always have to work on developing all four major language skills?
Not quite. It’s as I mentioned above, the long answer stems from the fact that:
you will only get the skills you actively develop
You cannot focus solely on one or two of the major skills and hope that the others will magically develop from thin air. There might be some skill transfer here and there, but not enough to make you proficient at doing something you've never really practiced.
In theory, you could choose to develop only the passive skills of listening and writing, but your success will depend on how well those particular skills are aligned with your goals.
Let's examine this further by applying it to the three different "archetypes" of a language learner, each with different goals.
I’ll label them as the following:
- The reader
- The listener
- The speaker
First, "the reader” is a bookworm. This is a learner who only cares about understanding written language, like books, magazines, and newspaper articles.
For a person like this, solely practicing input skills is a perfect way to learn a language. In this case, you might not even need to listen; just read as much (and as widely) as possible, and you'll gradually get very proficient at it—and you'll build a massive vocabulary, as well!
You might not think learners like this exist, but they're very common in the area of "dead languages"—languages that have a vast literary history, but are no longer spoken. Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit are good examples. Learners of these languages can get by perfectly well without ever worrying about something like speaking. Although, even in the case of dead languages, some people try to speak them as well!
Next up is "the listener.” This is a learner who is primarily concerned with understanding spoken language. This could be a conference interpreter, like I described earlier, or just someone who really wants to be able to watch YouTube videos and movies completely in their target language.
Just like the reader, these people do perfectly well with a learning routine focused solely on input skills. Unlike the reader, however, I wouldn't ever recommend focusing only on listening, at least not at first.
If your long-term language learning goals involve listening, then reading early on will actually give you an important boost: it will help you identify the boundaries between words, which will then become more apparent to you as you build your listening skills.
For this reason, I recommend that most learners begin their journeys by developing a robust reading and listening practice, where they simultaneously read a beginner text while listening to native audio of the same content. Only after you've gotten plenty of this type of practice should you really try to move on to "just listening,” otherwise, you might end up supremely frustrated and call it quits.
To get even more insight into what content you should listen and read to, depending on your level, check out my courses: the BDT (beginners) and the OIP (intermediate learners). They break down all of the important questions regarding how to choose the best resources based on your level, where to find said resources, what to do with them (intensive vs. extensive learning) and how frequently to engage in such activities.
Back to the topic at hand!
Let's talk about "the speaker.” This is a learner who wants to comfortably carry out conversations with native speakers, or to talk at length about certain topics. Some people may dub this one as the “cool one,” because it impresses the most people.
If you've been following along, however, you might already guess that the speaker faces some challenges that "the listener" and "the reader" do not: the speaker has to practice both input and output skills.
Indeed, since you need to absorb language before you can produce it, it's not possible to learn only through output. Therefore, anyone who wishes to develop good speaking skills will need to practice at the very least listening and speaking, and most likely the linguistic trifecta of listening, speaking, and reading. In this case, writing (apologies, old pal!) would be the only skill that is truly optional.
As far as “speaking learners” go, sorry, I don't think it is possible to learn solely through input nor through output by itself. Rather, you need a combination of the two, in a formula that works something like this:
Input skills (listening and reading) help you gain passive vocabulary, which consists of words and expressions you can recognize, but are unable to use yourself.
After building input skills, practicing output skills will help you gradually turn more and more of your passive vocabulary into active vocabulary, which, naturally, are words you can use reliably in conversation.
This process of taking in passive vocabulary and then continually turning it into active vocabulary is absolutely essential for being able to speak at all, let alone being able to speak well.
If your goal is to speak, you can't get by with just one or the other (input or output skills). Instead, you need to work with both sets of skills often, so that you can speak comfortably and confidently in a wide variety of situations.
In the end, I truly believe it is possible to learn a language through listening and reading alone, but only if the skills of listening and reading are aligned with your long-term language goals.
- If your goal is just to understand books, magazines, and newspapers, then YES, it is possible through lots of reading!
- If your goal is just to understand movies and podcasts, then YES, it is possible through listening AND reading!
- But if your goal is to speak, then no, listening and reading alone will not be enough. It will be a great start, but eventually you'll have to move on to actual speaking practice. If you don't do that, then speaking skills will not just magically develop out of nowhere.
So which of these types of learners are you?
Are you a listener, a reader, a speaker, or something else entirely?
Let me know by leaving a comment down below.
Thanks for reading and as always, happy language learning!