Speaking-to-Learn: How speaking promotes acquisition

I’ve been wanting to write about the crucial role of spoken output in language learning for a while. While exposure to the target language – especially in the form of comprehensible oral input – is definitely the sine qua non of language acquisition, I would argue that output is as indispensable as input. If you have been teaching a foreign language for a while, your experience alone tells you that the more your students speak in the target language, the better they get at communicating in it. You don’t need much more empirical evidence than this.

Input Is Not Enough

However, we all have colleagues who stubbornly defend a heavily input-based teaching philosophy, and who delay engaging learners in meaningful speaking tasks until they have “learned” more of the language and are therefore more “ready” to use it. Because this whole blog is about increasing speaking practice, I thought it was about time to list a few arguments on the relevance of speaking for language acquisition. They may come in handy next time someone tries to convince you that output isn’t that important.

Benefits of Speaking for Language Acquisition

  • Speaking provides an opportunity for monitoring, that is, paying attention to how our own linguistic production resembles of differs from the linguistic models we have been exposed to though input. At the beginning level, the input is fairly simple, but it still provides a valid model that learners can try to approximate in their output. As students are able to comprehend more complex input, they’ll also be able to engage in and monitor more complex output.
  • While monitoring our output, we may notice errors and try to correct them, or not. The very process of noticing and correcting errors on our own, not just when prompted by someone else, has a powerful effect on long-term storage of linguistic knowledge, thus promoting language acquisition (Robinson, 1995).
  • If we notice, but can’t correct our errors, we are still learning. When contrasting our own output to the linguistic knowledge we have formed from input, we can notice the gaps in that knowledge (Schmidt, 1990, 1993). In other words, we realize that we lack the resources to express a particular meaning in the target language, which can motivate us to learn those elements of the language.
  • Talk is the representation of thinking, because thinking occurs as we use language (Vygotsky, 1962). And when thinking develops, learning happens. When teachers take over most of the speaking that goes on in the classroom, the cognitive processes that enable student learning are hindered. That’s in part why the more students speak in the target language, the better they get at it (or the reversal: the less they speak, the less they progress).
Again, if you’ve been teaching a foreign language for a while, you don’t need me to tell you that speaking is essential for acquisition. After reading this post, though, you also know a bit more about how it is that acquisition is promoted through speaking. Robinson, P. (1995). Attention, memory and the “noticing” hypothesis. Language Learning, 45, 283–331. Schmidt, R. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, 129–158. Schmidt, R. (1993). Awareness and second language acquisition. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 13, 206–226. Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.