Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Practicing Output

Steve Kaufmann posted an interesting abstract from a study* showing that practicing speech does not appear to improve fluency.

This study investigated whether giving learners an opportunity for oral output has any positive effect on the L2 learners' acquisition of a grammatical form. Twenty-four adult ESL learners were randomly assigned to one of three groups: an output group, which engaged in a picture description task that involved input comprehension and output production; a non-output group, which engaged in a picture sequencing task that required input comprehension only; and a placebo control group. The two treatment groups were exposed to the same aural input for the same amount of time. Learning was assessed by means of a pre-test and a post-test consisting of production and reception parts. The results indicated that, contrary to our expectations, the output group failed to outperform the non-output group. On the contrary, it was the non-output group that showed greater overall gains in learning. A careful post-hoc re-examination of the treatment tasks revealed that the output task failed to engage learners in the syntactic processing that is necessary to trigger L2 learning, while the task for the non-output group appeared to promote better form-meaning mapping.

More and more, I perceive my ability to speak emerging automatically after sufficient listening with understanding. For example, there are certain things my wife says in Thai to my son every day. Having heard them for years, I now also say them, automatically, without thinking or having practiced. The first few times I said them may have been a little awkward, but my speech quickly zeroed in on the sounds I was approximating.

The idea of speech emerging automatically from listening is a radical departure from the way I used to think about language study. Even the way we describe language acquisition in English shows a bias toward practicing speech. When asking whether someone is fluent in another language, we say, "Do you speak French?". Maybe a better question is, "Do you understand French?". If the Comprehension Hypothesis is true, understanding will eventually lead to speech, but speaking doesn't necessarily lead to understanding.

It's very interesting to experiment with this as I study Thai, and I'm sure my ideas about this will continue to change as I read more and gather new experiences.

(*Investigating the Effects of Oral Output on the Learning of Relative Clauses in English: Issues in the Psycholinguistic Requirements for Effective Output Tasks, Canadian Modern Language Review, Yukiko Izumi, MA, Shinichi Izumi, PhD.)


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