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The importance of output in teaching bilingual children to communicate in the second language.

Date of writing: 14th October 2013.
Age of subject: 4 years and 4 months. 

The Input Hypothesis.

For many foreign language teachers and parents concerned about language learning for their children it would have been a rather unfamiliar and disconcerting scene. A second language class begins at school and teenagers begin to file into the classroom. Some sit down and get out a book from their desk and start reading. Others choose an audio cassette off the shelf then proceed to make themselves comfortable, slip the cassette into the cassette player, throw on a pair of headphones and begin listening. The teacher makes no effort to get the class's attention to get the lesson underway. Instead, he busies himself helping students find materials, and discreetly answering the odd question. This was a second language teaching method based on an the comprehensible input hypothesis.

Developed by Stephen Krashen in the 1970's, the comprehensible input hypothesis was used initially to teach French in immersion courses to Canadian children. The rationale behind this approach was that second or foreign language learning is acquired more efficiently by simply being exposed to large amounts of lexis rather than actually having a teacher trying to teach it. "Speaking fluency is thus not "taught" directly; rather, speaking ability "emerges" after the acquirer has built up competence through comprehending output" (The Natural Approach. Krashen, S.E; Terrell, T. 1983).

For a time, this approach shook the world of foreign language training. Although most teachers found the method impossible to incorporate into their own classes, many started questioning whether the traditional teacher-centred, teacher-empowered approach was now relevant.


The Output Hypothesis.

However, in 1985, an interesting article appeared in a language teaching research journal. Written by Professor Merrill Swain, it proffered evidence that Krashen's comprehensible input hypothesis was perhaps flawed - or at least to some extent. Although second language input of this type was indeed valuable, tests showed that the students' following these immersion courses obtained language knowledge which was weak in the areas of production and proficiency. Swain suggested further work was essential to complete the acquisition process. She termed this - comprehensible or "pushed" output.

Swain suggested that comprehension requires little linguistic evidence to process the new language. Expression in the language, though, demands an in-depth knowledge of the lexical and morphological parts of an utterance. For example, with the words: dog - bit - girl, a learner could easily understand that the dog bit the girl (which is the most usual) even if the words were in another order: bit - dog - girl. On the other hand, to produce that utterance accurately, the learner must produce all parts of the sentence and with the correct syntax: the dog bit the girl. Swain argued that only by being "pushed" into working with output will a student acquire advanced knowledge about the complete sentence structure. "Output, thus, would seem to have a potentially significant role in the development of syntax and morphology" (Swain, 1995, p.128).

In Swain's article, which is now considered a milestone in foreign language learning research, Swain stated that only by providing activities where students have to practise and experiment with the spoken language with at least some teacher feedback can students develop into competent linguists. "That is, the activity of using language helps create a degree of analyticity that allows learners to think about language" (in Gass, S & Selinker, L. 2001). Language teachers took a huge sigh of relief and went back to the classroom to carry on doing what they had been doing before.


Output and second-language learning in very young children.

Although many people would consider Krashen's input approach unusual and unorthodox, the mistake of assuming input to be the essence of correct second language learning for our potentially bilingual child is clearly apparent. Native teachers, private schools, English TV programmes, DVD's of cartoons and films, listening to pop songs, Disney Channel, Clan and native English nannies are what many Spanish parents feel are essential to their child's successful bilingual development. A great amount of effort (and money) is spent on ensuring their child receives quality input of English. Output, it seems, is given secondary importance and is assumed to be an obvious consequence of quality input. Get the input right, it is assumed, and our children will soon blossom into competent speakers of English.

I believe English language output will not occur in our children unless someone (parent, teacher, peer) makes an effort to extract it or inspires the child to produce it. The use of passive input materials alone such as multimedia software, TV programmes, DVD's and the suchlike will only provide very limited stimulation for the child to output the new language that he/she may be (and I say, may be) absorbing. A requirement for children to produce inputted language is the intervention of someone who can engage the child in dialogue and thereby encourage or "push" output.

The following article is about some active techniques that especially parents (but also teachers, nannies, au pairs...) can use to encourage output and which should produce a more ample development of second language communication competence in our children.

Next article: Techniques in producing output in bilingual children...

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