Output and Beyond to Dialogue: A Review of Merrill Swain's
Current Approach to SLA
David J. Woodfield
Human International University
On the weekend of February 22nd and 23rd, Merrill Swain gave a seminar
at Temple University in Osaka entitled "The Role of Output in Second
Language Learning." A more accurate title for Dr. Swain's address though
might be "Output and Beyond." First, Swain discussed the background
to her interest in output. Then, she outlined three functions that she feels
output has in facilitating language learning. Finally she moved beyond output
alone to embed the concept in the idea of dialogue and then proceeded to
show how,when language learners discuss their output in certain circumstances,
what is actually going on at exactly that time is language learning.
Swain's idea here, then, is not of dialogue as leading to language acquisition
but of dialogue as the context in which language acquisition takes place
The Background to Swain's Interest in Output
If asked how language is acquired, many teachers would reply that it
is through comprehensible input, through understanding messages in the L2
that are just a little above one's current language level. There is no doubt
that Krashen's input hypothesis still holds great sway among language teachers.
Indeed , it would be fair to say that the communicative task-based approach
much used in classrooms is, to some extent, based on Krashen's theory. It
seems intuitively true, however, that not only comprehension, but also production,
has a direct role to play in acquiring a language.
Swain's interest in output evolved in the context of her ongoing study
of Canada's French immersion programs. In such programs, non-French speaking
children are placed as early as kindergarten into school classes where French
is the sole language of instruction. Students are immersed in the L2 and
are thus provided with what would seem to be a nearly ideal, acquisition-rich
environment. Yet after doing their schooling in such an environment, do
the students acquire native-like competency? Swain investigated the accuracy
of predictions based on the comprehensible input hypothesis that immersion
would help students acquire native-like competency.
Studies Swain (Swain, 1996) undertook in the eighties found that while
immersion students acquired native-like reception skills they typically
maintained certain non-target-like structures in their production. Swain
wondered why, and therefore carefully examined what went on in immersion
classrooms. She found that: the input itself was limited in various ways
(for example, some grammatical structures such as conditional tenses were
seldom used); although grammar was taught, it was taught discretely point
by point and was seldom referred to during content area study; in their
immersion classes, students actually produced language much less frequently
than in classes taught in their L1; and when immersion students did produce,
few of their linguistic errors were responded to, and when their errors
were responded to, they were not responded to in any systematic way by the
As a result of her findings Swain then hypothesized that the encouragement
of output--and in particular accurate output--is necessary for students
to progress further towards target-like competence. Swain also finds support
for an output hypothesis in the field of psycholinguistics, where researchers
have theorized that the complete processing of syntax is not necessary to
understand messages. Knowledge of context and lexical items can in some
instances enable the understanding of the message content of an utterance
without an understanding of its syntax. On the other hand, complete syntactic
processing is necessary to produce "accurately" (i.e., like native
speakers) because speakers must place vocabulary into a grammatical structure
in creating sentences. Swain feels that in such a context the acquisition
of structures is more likely, since attention must be paid to them.
The Three Functions of Output
To consider in more detail just how output provides opportunity for acquisition,
let's now turn to the three functions of output that Swain discussed in
her talk: noticing, hypothesis testing, and the reflective or metalinguistic
Noticing. Producing language causes learners to notice gaps in
their linguistic knowledge. In other words, learners sometimes come to the
realization that they don't know how to produce certain linguistic forms.
Production, then, stimulates them "to notice what they do not know
or know only partially"(Swain, 1995).
Hypothesis testing. Through noticing this gap in their knowledge,
language learners may reanalyze their knowledge of the language system.
On the basis of this analysis they then generate and test alternative ways
of saying what they want to say. In other words they try to fill the gap
in their knowledge. Noticing the gap thus stimulates hypothesis testing,
the second function of output. Language learners can acquire new structures
through this process, Swain asserted, or strengthen their control over previously
Reflective or metalinguistic function. Reflective or metalinguistic
function refers to the fact that in trying to solve a problem in their output
learners may consciously reflect upon the nature of the language
system. Swain argues that such reflection can aid acquisition. Here hypotheses
aren't simply generated and tested, but language is used to reflect upon
the process. Swain argues that such reflection can aid acquisition in that
it makes the process of noticing and hypothesis testing more explicit to
Before discussing the studies which provide support for Swain's characterization
of the role of output, let's turn to her conceptualization of dialogue,
the construct within which she places output in her most recent work.
In her appraisal of dialogue, Swain spent some time discussing the great
socio-cultural theorist Vygotsky's ideas. Briefly, Vygotsky saw learning,
and indeed human thought processes as a whole, as originating in interaction.
He considered cognitive development as a matter of the appropriation of
dialogue--the internalization of dialogue experienced during interaction
with caregivers, for example.
Dialogue to Vygotsky, then, is a cognitive activity. Language, he believed,
mediates between the individual and knowledge. It is language we put to
good effect as a tool in attaining knowledge. Dialogue with others or internally
is a significant context within which learning takes place.
According to Swain, output and its functions which facilitate language
learning--the noticing of a gap in one's knowledge, hypothesis formation,
testing and evaluation, and reflection upon language--can be profitably
seen as existing within dialogue. Some of Swain's comments at the seminar
reveal very clearly her movement to a position that dialogue is a cognitive
activity in which language learning may be located:
"When I first thought about the metalinguistic function I saw it
as talking about language, but now I see it as reflecting language learning."
"Language is a cognitive activity... in which is embedded actual
"Hypothesis testing is language learning."
"In dialogue we can see language learning in progress."
If dialogue is where learning takes place, the objective for the researcher
and the teacher becomes to structure opportunities for dialogue about language.
Thinking about the language you want to produce, and talking about that
language become key activities where Swain expects to find language learning
taking place. She sets up contexts where dialogue about language occurs
and studies the language produced in those contexts, looking for evidence
of language learning.
In her seminar Swain discussed studies by herself and her colleagues
at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto,
and some undertaken by other researchers, to research whether output or
dialogue lead to language learning.
In a study published in 1995, Swain and Lapkin set out to assess the
effects of output upon the "inner speech"of learners. Eighth grade
immersion students were asked to assume the role of journalists, and to
write a short article on an environmental problem, thinking aloud as they
did so, thus allowing the researchers to see the impact of output upon the
learners' thought processes. The researchers found that each of the students
noticed, and responded to, a language problem in their output an average
of just over ten times. In addition, they found that students analyzed their
knowledge of the language in order to solve their problems. In one example
from the study, a student who had written about how phosphates released
into lakes cause plants to grow to such a great size that they kill the
fish, struggled with how to say "kill the fish." She thought aloud
"et mort (and dies). I don't know. I don't know because
mour. . . mourir les poissons (to die the fish), it's like mourir
is something that you do . It's not something that someone does to you.
So it's more like being murdered and not dying. So uhm . . . et tue
toutes les poissons (and kills all the fish), or something like that."
Here the student notices a gap in her knowledge - she notices that there
is something wrong with "mourir les poissons." Then she
explicitly reflects on the nature of the language system: "mourir
is something that you do. It's not something that someone does to you."As
a result of her reflection, she selects an alternative form to express her
meaning: "so uhm . . . et tue toutes les poissons, or something
like that." The need to produce output, Swain suggested, has either
helped the learner realize the distinction between transitive and intransitive
verbs for the first time, or it has consolidated the learner's knowledge
of this distinction, in that she has applied it to additional forms. Output
led to noticing the gap, additional syntactic processing, the creation of
a more accurate output, and the development of the student's interlanguage
system in the process. The entire process can be considered as an example
of language learning through private speech-an internal dialogue.
Other studies discussed by Swain focus upon the effects of dialogue between
two or more participants, rather than within one learner. To structure contexts
in which learners would communicate about language, Swain and other researchers
turned to various kinds of group composing tasks. Swain's students and colleagues,
Kowal (Kowal & Swain, 1997) and La Pierre (1994) used the dictogloss
in their studies, Swain and Lapkin (in press) used a "picture jigsaw"
story composition task, and Donato (1994) a pre-skit oral task. The selection
of tasks is significant to the researchers in that those that stimulate
dialogue about language and lead to language learning can be earmarked for
further use in the classroom.
In her study, La Pierre had her students listen to a short narrative
about a nightmare delivered at normal speed, take notes, and then reconstruct
the passage in pairs as close as possible to the original -- a dictogloss
task. She found that pairs for whom the researchers modeled the task and
gave metalinguistic explanations for their choices of forms negotiated about
language form an average of almost 15 times. In addition, pairs negotiated
correct solutions for the language problems most of the time, and when doing
so they identified the correct usage for the pertinent form 79% of the time
in a post-test given a week later. This study seems to show that learners
acquired forms when they successfully negotiated form and meaning (if correct
identification in the post-test can be considered a measure of acquisition).
A positive correlation between forms negotiated and post-test scores was
also found by Swain and Lapkin in their "picture jigsaw study."
Additionally, Donato's study in which he had groups of students make notes
as part of their preparation for skits, 75% of the forms negotiated accurately
were used accurately in the skits performed a week later. Swain sees these
studies as support for the hypothesis that dialogue can lead to second language
An example from the Donato study shows the effects of dialogue upon language
learning that are typical of all of the above studies. In this study, the
students create a skit in which a husband and wife are discussing a fur
coat which the husband has bought for his mistress, the wife thinking it
is her anniversary present. While creating the skit, the students produce
and discuss their production; they speak about their language.
Speaker 1: . . . and then I'll say . . . tu as souvenu notre
anniversaire de marriage . . . or should I say mon anniversaire?
Speaker 2: Tu as . . .
Speaker 3: Tu as . . .
Speaker 1: Tu as souvenu . . . 'you remembered?'
Speaker 3: Yeah but isn't that reflexive? Tu t'as . . .
Speaker 1: Ah, tu t'as souvenu.
Speaker 2: Oh, it's tu es
Speaker 3: tu es, tu es, tu . . .
Speaker 1: t'es, tu t'es
Speaker 3: tu t'es
Speaker 1: Tu t'es souvenu
Here the students collectively build a text, and in the process develop
their knowledge of the language. They negotiate the structure of the phrase
"you remembered" in French, going through four stages of discovery:
a)tu as, b) t'as , c) tu es , d)tu t'es. First,
all three speakers mull the initial phrase over in their minds, perhaps
testing it against their intuition: "tu as . . . tu as
. . . tu as souvenu . . . 'you remembered?'" Then speaker 3
suggests that the form might be reflexive-"tu t'as" and
speaker 1 agrees. Then speaker 2 move the discussion up another step towards
the target by noticing that the auxiliary should be etre not avoir - "Oh,
it's tu es" and finally speaker 1 realizes that the new auxiliary
also needs to be given in the reflexive form and so "tu t'es,"
the target structure, is achieved. Due to output, students notices a problem
in output and follows a chain of hypothesis testing which leads to the resolution
of the problem. Here the L1 is used to frame and assess the hypotheses-"or
should I say . . . yeah, but isn't that reflexive? . . . ah," acting
as a cognitive tool to achieve knowledge of the L2. To use Swain's words,
through dialogue, the participants reach a deeper understanding of the language
in context than they would have been able to reach individually. Through
dialogue, knowledge is co-constructed and a degree of language learning
takes place, right there and then.
Swain presented examples from the research where gender, tense, prepositions,
vocabulary, and even register were negotiated by students in the context
of the joint creation of text. Her seminar challenged its participants to
reappraise their understanding of the language acquisition process and to
consider the roles played by output and, in a wider sense, dialogue. Her
seminar presented us with exciting possibilities for developing the accuracy
of our students' production in a communicative context. This seminar has
shown me that I need not be shy of having my students discuss language form,
and I am open to the fact that such an activity, if structured appropriately,
may be a fruitful context for language learning.
Donato, R. (1994). Collective scaffolding in second language
learning. In J.P. Lantolf and G. Appel (Eds.), Vygotskian Approaches
to Second Language Learning. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Kowal, M. and Swain, M. (1997). From semantic to syntactic
processing: How can we promote metalinguistic awareness in the French immersion
classroom? In R. K. Johnson & M. Swain (Eds.), Immersion Education:
International Perspectives (pp. 284-309). Cambridge: Cambridge University
La Pierre, D. (1994). Language output in a cooperative
learning setting: Determining its effects on second language learning. Unpublished
master's thesis, University of Toronto (OISE), Toronto, Canada.
Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language
learning. In G. Cook and B. Seidlhofer (Eds.), Principle and practice
in applied linguistics: Studies in honour of H.G. Widdowson (pp. 125-144).
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Swain, M. (1996). Integrating language and content in immersion
classrooms: Research perspectives. The Canadian Modern Language Review,
Swain, M. & Lapkin, S. (1995). Problems in output and
the cognitive processes they generate: A step towards second language learning.
Applied Linguistics , 16, 371-391.
Swain, M. & Lapkin, S. (1997). Interaction and second
language learning: Two adolescent French immersion students working together.
Toronto: OISE/UT MS (Write to Merrill Swain at the University of Toronto
for a copy or e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>).
© 1998 by the author.
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Last modified: April 20, 1998
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