What is output?
Output is generally speaking and writing. Many adult learners measure their progress in terms of output: “I can’t even ask where the bathroom is yet.” Parents also tend to think of their children’s progress in terms of output. They often like to ask, “how do you say X in Chinese?” If the goal of many language learners is to eventually communicate with native speakers of that language, then output is obviously important. But an obsessive focus on output is not helpful in a language class. We need to take a closer look at what output is and what it isn’t so we don’t waste time with goals that are counter-productive.
So, that’s how we say speaking and writing in language teacher jargon?
We will look at speaking today. I will tackle writing in another post. Checking to see what a person can say in Mandarin Chinese is a good way to check how well they know that language, right? Well, it is complicated. In the earliest stages of language learning, we fully expect a silent period. Reasonable teachers in an immersion environment expect a silent period of a few months before students start speaking. That silent period could be shorter or longer depending on the child and many other factors. Throughout the language learning journey, learners will always be able to understand more than they can say. The words that a learner can say are an indicator of how much they know, but they are certainly not the full picture.
A caveat if you’re really loving that app right now
Speaking can also be a false positive of sorts. Sometimes, especially in a testing situation, students memorize words and give the appearance of knowing them. Of course, ask them a few months later what 小丑 means and they won’t know.
Beginners make a lot of mistakes, right?
Non-nativelike utterances are also tricky. These are often called mistakes. But a mistake implies that the learner did something wrong. That is not really what is going on. Instead, they are just not there yet. They need more input. The easy reaction to a non-nativelike utterance is to call it a mistake, maybe cross it out, and think about it as evidence about what a learner does not know.
This is the wrong approach. Output that is non-nativelike actually can tell us a lot about what the learner actually knows about Mandarin Chinese. If a teacher asks a question like “where did you eat lunch?” and the student responds “我吃饭了在Luby’s了,” (think a response like: I at Luby’s ated) we can infer a great deal. Since the learner responds appropriately to the question we know they have understood it! Yay! That is great. Understanding is the key to everything and here we have evidence that the learner understands. High five!
It all gets back to input
We also see that the learner has put the location after the action. This is not the nativelike word order in Chinese. So we know the learner has not had enough input for their brain to automatically place location before action. Also, we see the use of 了 for a completed action. It is too much, however. Again, this shows that the need more input in order to understand implicitly how 了 works.
A lot of teachers hear things like the word order issue or the overuse of 了，make a correction and move on. Correcting the student is not really that helpful, and may even be counterproductive. But the main takeaway from these non-nativelike utterances is that the learner needs more input in order to build a more complete implicit system in their head. Are you sensing a theme here?
What is with all those presentations?
Traditional language classes also tend to focus on presentational speeches. You know, like when you get up in front of the class and talk about your favorite dog breed or whatever. How often do people need get up in front of a group and give a speech? Not often… unless you’re a teacher. Maybe this is why teachers love having students give presentations! Most of the time we just want to have conversations with other people. Speeches are great, but it is an odd thing to spend so much time practicing.
You know more than you think you know
Output also always represents less than the total of what a learner can understand. The glass half full version of this is: “wow, Learner can say X, Y and Z now! This is evidence that she knows a lot of Chinese!” Unfortunately, most people see the glass half empty. They hear X, Y and Z and say “Learner has been studying Chinese for weeks/months/years and can only say X, Y and Z. Waaaaaaaaa!”
There are many ways to still evaluate a learner’s Chinese language level without relying on output in Chinese. You can check for comprehension in many ways. For example, an appropriate reply in English tells the teacher than the learner at least understood the question. That is huge!
In addition to giving clues (but not a full picture) about what a learner knows about a language, output can be useful in other ways. Nonnative-like utterances are an important signal to native speakers (if our hypothetical learner is out in the world interacting with native speakers) to SLOW DOWN. Hopefully, the native speaker will use shorter, simpler sentences too. This creates a virtuous circle in which the learner gets more input in the language and can speak more later!