Chinese Resources

Friday, January 27, 2012

The massive input strategy

For many students (myself included), the study of Chinese is largely facilitated through textbooks, podcasts, and other learning materials. We work on one lesson until we grasp the material and then move onto the next.This is how I have spent nearly 5 years studying Chinese and I've learned a lot about the language in the process. However, when I was sitting in my Computer Assisted Chinese Language Learning class a few weeks ago, my teacher brought up a different strategy, which I'll call massive input.

What is the massive input strategy?
Massive input/output is essential opening the floodgates of a language and letting the information wash over you. It is not studying in the traditional sense-- no flashcards, textbooks or fancy iPhone Apps necessary. Massive input is about increasing exposure to a language during your daily routine and giving you a better feel for that language. It doesn't matter if you don't understand everything that you are hearing, the point is that your brain is still  subconsciously processing some of the information.

This means trying to expose yourself to more of the language in its natural form. Music is, I think, the most obvious way to use this strategy, but we should really be using the same tactics with other materials as well: books, poems, movies, TV shows, radio broadcasts and blogs are all great ways increase your exposure to the language. By understanding that you are not going to understand everything from the beginning, it makes it easier to just let the language flood over you. Don't understand a word, a sentence, a paragraph... who cares cause you're not going to look it up anyway (at least not yet). 

The reward doesn't come from "learning" new things, rather, massive input is about linking together everything  you already know to estimate, guess, and predict the meaning of what you are being exposed to. 

As my teacher metaphorically described, massive input is about building a skyscraper not a house. Massive input helps us build the "skyscraper" by stacking a ton of information higher and higher. Traditionally, studying and the material to study from is very controlled. Vocabulary and grammar patterns are presented systematically, which is good for building a foundation for a language (or a two story house), but there is nothing natural about it. However, it is also something that we should not, and cannot, ignore, it helps fills the gaps of information that are missing for our skyscraper... it is the cement in our metaphorical language building. 

My own experience with massive input

Ever since that lesson I've been trying to apply this strategy to my own life to better understand what my teacher was saying. On top of reading a an article from a Chinese newspaper every morning during breakfast, and watching the news or movies when I have some time, I'm also currently reading two books in Chinese:《安德的遊戲》,a translated copy of Ender's Game , and《大小雞婆》.  Since Ender's Game is a book I have read quite a few times in English I'm not looking anything up... ever. I'll probably go back through once I'm done to start and cement the gaps in the language, but right now I'm just reading for pleasure. It was frustrating at first, but after a while I started to get a feel for the text and the translation a way that looking up every other word cannot provide. 

With  《大小雞婆》, a book originally written in Chinese, I'm reading it chapter by chapter. Instead of stopping to look up words that I don't know I'm just highlighting them and making guesses about the meaning based on context. Once I'm done with the chapter I will go back and check the dictionary for every word that I highlighted. I've found that this process takes about an hour a day. 

More than anything I've found that my reading comprehension is increasing at a very rapid pace. I'm beginning to notice how certain nuances contained in grammar patterns, simply because I'm seeing them in a space that isn't controlled by a textbook. Since I don't worry (as much) about individual characters or phrases, I'm able to focus on the overall meaning of a text without too much effort. Hopefully this should pay off greatly when reading academic articles or taking any kind of standard test in Chinese. 

Do any of you use a similar strategy with your language learning process? If so please leave a comment below. 


  1. I do this all the time and I think it is an essential part of the strategy I use to learn languages in general. I use SRS, textbooks and so on to learn things more efficiently (looking up how a word is used is definitely more efficient that hearing it a number of times and then guessing how it works).

    Then I combine this with massive input, mostly audio, but I do try to read as much as possible. I always have the radio going, I always listen to Chinese podcasts, news or talk shows when walking, cooking, exercising and so on. I guestimate that I do this for many hours every day.

    I think this is essential if we want to move beyond the "communication is enough" stage. I'm not sure how well this works for beginners, though, but as long as the learner has a chance to understand (comprehensible input), then I definitely think that the more the merrier is the name of the game.

    1. Hi Olle,
      Thanks for the the comment. You make a great point about making your studying time more efficient and I couldn't agree more. I think that most language learners use massive input for audio because it is so easy to turn on the radio, listen to music or watch TV, we just "forget" that it can be applied to reading as well.

      Also, your point about comprehensible input is very valid. This strategy is much less effective for someone who has very little foundation within a language... it is simply too frustrating to not understand the majority of what you are reading. However, when you get to the stage of i+1, or a level of using what you know and adding new material than I feel these kinds of exercises are crucial for growth in the language.

      Again, thanks for sharing!

  2. Massive input, or as I heard of before, immersion, to me is really helpful. While not up the the stage of being able to read a book yet, it's too intimidating to me, I do try to read articles in topics that interest me and I have some background in. My Chinese reading skill is way better than my writing. Working on changing that.

    1. Hi Vicky,
      Thanks for your comment. I think the large difference between this strategy and immersion is that reading, watching TV, listening to music etc. all require some level of active engagement in what you are doing. Immersion is being in an environment where the target language is being spoken everywhere, but even then, after a few short weeks are you no longer exposing yourself to a lot of new material without making an effort. At least that is the distinction I should have made in my post, because I believe that anyone can apply a massive input strategy even if they are not living in the target culture.

      I think you make a great point about reading articles in topics that you are interested in, it makes it a lot easier to guess at words and phrases you are unfamiliar with. Just don't forget that you can use these same strategies for things you are not really that interested in as well by relying on what you know about the topic in your target language. Of course, then the problem is all about motivation, which can be very hard to overcome.

      I have the same problem with my Chinese writing skills, would love to hear what steps you're taking to increase that particular skill.

      Again, thanks for reading!

  3. Hey Jacob, great post. I'm also wondering if massive input is the same as immersion? We had a blog post recently by a Chinese professor who had similar advice: practice everyday. He said that each day he uses his Mandarin, it improves, and each day he doesn't use his Mandarin, he loses some fluency. What do you think? Check out our blog if you get a chance. Thanks for sharing thoughts on the Chinese language.

    Midd-Monterey Blog


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