Language acquisition is a multifaceted process, shaped by various factors and methodologies. The ideas of input and output often play a significant role in any discussion of how language is acquired. Let’s look at the intricate interplay between input and output, drawing insights from the book “Common Ground” by Florencia Henshaw and Maris Hawkins.
How is Language Acquired?
At its core, language acquisition is an implicit process, unconsciously constructing a linguistic system by connecting form and meaning based on the input we receive. It’s the subconscious work that takes place while we’re immersed in comprehending messages, operating beyond our conscious control. Language acquisition thrives on grasping the portions of input that assist in decoding the intended message, as opposed to consciously dissecting language rules.
Communication, conversely, revolves around the deliberate interpretation and expression of meaning. Our focal point on communication hinges on two pivotal questions: What information or content is being conveyed? And what will the audience do with this information? These inquiries form the bedrock of meaningful interaction and exchange.
The Role of Input
Input serves as the cornerstone of language acquisition since understanding must precede the establishment of form-meaning connections.
The Role of Comprehensible Input
Krashen’s Input Hypothesis introduces the concept that learners progress in language when they comprehend input that is slightly beyond their current proficiency level, often referred to as “i+1.” While Krashen’s ideas have evolved and faced criticism, a consensus remains regarding the importance of comprehensible input. Crafting such input involves a combination of strategies:
- Ensuring that the topic and text type align with students’ proficiency levels.
- Employing visual cues, body language, and target language equivalents.
- Utilizing examples that relate to common associations and cognates.
- Gradually delivering content and simplifying language.
- Embracing circumlocution to convey intended meaning.
- Incorporating authentic resources to provide genuine context.
- Implementing comprehension checks to maintain communication-driven interactions.
While explicit instruction isn’t deemed necessary for acquisition, directing learners’ attention to grammatical forms during meaningful communication can be beneficial in strengthening form-meaning connections.
The Role of Output
Output, defined as the production of the target language to convey meaning, plays an essential but distinct role in language development. Merrill Swain’s Output Hypothesis suggests that pushing learners to produce accurate and meaningful messages facilitates language development by prompting them to pay closer attention to linguistic form. Output assists learners in recognizing their gaps in knowledge and affords opportunities for testing hypotheses. However, Hawkins and Henshaw contend that output doesn’t construct the linguistic system; its primary function lies in helping learners identify their input needs.
While there is often a significant emphasis on input, the role of output remains paramount, particularly in communicative language teaching. Traditional teaching methods tend to prioritize output, associating communication primarily with speaking and writing. However, the equilibrium between input and output isn’t dictated by a fixed ratio. Instead, it is essential to provide ample communicative input and grant the linguistic system the time it requires to develop organically, particularly at the novice level.
You can also listen to episode 63 of the World Language Classroom Podcast where I go in-depth on the topic of input and output.
The journey of language acquisition involves a delicate dance between input and output. Both are integral components, each contributing uniquely to the development of linguistic competence. By understanding their roles and finding a harmonious equilibrium, educators can guide learners towards achieving language proficiency and effective communication.
Henshaw, Florencia Gilio, and Maris Hawkins. Common Ground Second Language Acquisition Theory Goes to the Classroom. Focus, an Imprint of Hackett Publishing Company, 2022.
Sales, Antonia De. “The Output Hypothesis and its Influence in Second language Learning/Teaching: An interview with Merrill Swain.” Interfaces Brasil/Canadá, vol. 20, 2020, pp. 1–12,