Don’t Freak out About Output (You know more than you think)

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-native-like 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!

“Rules” For Learning to Speak Mandarin

Some folks love rules, so here they are. Below are three rules for learning to speak Mandarin Chinese.

Rule #1: Don’t force yourself to talk. The same rule goes for parents of children who are learning Mandarin Chinese. Many students (and parents) believe that students should try to repeat what the teacher says. There really is not any reason to do that. At best, students end up feeling like they are doing something that resembles learning. Having positive feelings about language learning is a good thing, but they don’t directly lead to language acquisition.

It is perfectly normal and expected to go through a “silent stage” in learning a new language. There is also a tremendous amount of variation in how long this silent stage lasts. It depends on both the learner, and also how much input the student gets. Adult students often will try to talk, but young children do not do the same. It could easily be months before a student says anything in Mandarin Chinese.

Rule #2: Speaking in full sentences does not matter. Many students (and parents) have it in their heads that students need to start speaking Mandarin Chinese in complete sentences. Just like forced speech, I think that this comes from the mindset that students need to be doing something that looks like learning. Speaking in a complete sentence is not really necessary, however.

To begin with, that speaking in a complete sentence is not how we talk normally. Sometimes we respond with one word. Sometimes we respond with a rambling run-on sentence of sorts. One thing should be clear from the blog by now. That is, we learn to speak by listening and not by speaking. Since speaking is not something that we learn by doing, there is no need to force speaking in a certain way, e.g. in complete sentences.

Rule #3: Speaking is useful, but probably not in the way that you think it is. Although we learn to speak through listening, speaking can be useful to language learners in a narrow sense. When a learner talks to someone who is not the teacher in Mandarin Chinese, the learner’s speech can help the new person realize that she needs to slow down and use simpler words.

The type of speech that we hear from beginner and intermediate learners (stilted, single words, lots of errors) is a good reminder for native speakers to slow down. Slowing down is often the most useful thing that a native speaker can do to make it easier for a language learner to understand them.

More on learning to speak Chinese:

Are There Four Skills in Language Learning?

Speaking Practice Does Not Help Students Gain Fluency

It is Okay to Just Listen

Some of my students start classes with me with some bad habits. One of these habits is a tendency to just repeat whatever I say. Many of these students do not realize that we are supposed to be having a conversation (limited as it may be). They’re not supposed to just parrot back to me what I say. Real listening is so important and just parroting back words is not something that students should spend their time doing.

We learn languages through communicatively-embedded input. Listening to a teacher and then repeating exactly what she says is not communication. I’m not sure what it is, but it is not communication. What is communication? Communication is the expression, interpretation and sometimes negotiation of meaning in a given context. When students just repeat stuff, they’re not getting any meaning. It is not real communication and students won’t really learn much from this type of interaction. It is also pretty boring.

Since it is a waste of time to be just repeating whatever the teacher says, what else should students do? It really is okay to just listen. Many people want to “see” some evidence of learning. They want to know if the classes are working or not. There are ways to get an idea if students are learning without forcing them to talk. Students can show their comprehension through pointing, nodding, following directions, laughing, drawing.. the list goes on. A good lesson plan for students, especially beginner, will have lots of opportunities for students to show what they know.


Why My MIL is a Good Language Teacher

How Do You Teach Languages?

My mother-in-law, Tere Fuentes, is a great Spanish teacher. Why? Because she talks to me in Spanish. She also talks slowly and uses gestures, pointing and rephrasing when I don’t understand. That is it really. I did not know any Spanish when I met her son in 2014. I’d never taken any Spanish classes. I’ve learned all the Spanish that I know in the past through year through listening to people speak Spanish.*

photo of me, husband and MIL
I’ve learned a lot of Spanish from my MIL

Learning a Second Language Vs. Learning A First

Learning a second language is very similar to learning your first. How did you learn your first language? Your parents talked to you. Maybe other adults or older children talked to you too. You learned to say a few words within two years, and were reasonably fluent within five years. No one sat you down at a tiny chalkboard to teach you how to conjugate verbs. Sure, some parents spend their money on flashcards. Millions of children, however, seem to learn words perfectly well without any flashcards.

My mother-in-law taught three kids how to speak Spanish. Now she is teaching me using pretty much the same method. She just talks to me. She doesn’t get annoyed when I answer with one word, or in English. Like all other learners, I will learn Spanish through hearing and reading it.

Letting Mistakes Slide

My mother-in-law has another great teaching habit that helps language learning. She does not explicitly correct my mistakes. If I make a mistake in Spanish, she either uses the correct wording in her response to me or she just ignores it. This is effective because explicit error correction does not help students learn a language. If anything, it hurts the language learning process by raising a student’s affective filter.

While she is not a language teacher by training, Tere is a teacher. She has owned her own dance school in Monterrey for forty years. Although not every teacher is a great language teacher, and not every person who speaks a language can be a teacher, I do think that her experience has been useful to her. As evidenced by her willingness to speak slowly and use words that I know, she is very patient.

*I took one 8 week Spanish class three years ago. I’ve written elsewhere that the only thing I learned was “El mono es curioso.”

Pushing Back When the Dr. Repeats Language Myths

When the Person Pushing a Language Myth is your Pediatrician

A over a month ago, I was talking to a parent of a toddler and she told me that she “knew” from her pediatrician’s office that bilingualism causes speech delays. She then went on to say that she wanted her son to know more than one language anyway, so she was pursuing language classes for him. Two things about this conversation struck me. Firstly, the myth that bilingualism causes speech delays still is not dead yet. Secondly, I was impressed that this parent was willing to risk the disapproval of her pediatrician to do something that she believed was beneficial for her son.

photo of toddler pulling his hat down
I don’t to hear any more myths about bilingualism and speech delays!

Survey Results

It is surprising to me to hear that there are still people who work in pediatrics who repeat this myth about bilingualism and speech delays to anxious parents. I wanted to learn more about this phenomenon, so I decided to ask people. Through a survey on Google Forms, I asked parents in bilingual (or multilingual) families about this topic. I learned that there are a lot of educated people in my network. Of all respondents, 46.2% had a master’s degree, almost 8% had a phD. I also found out that even these highly educated people hear the myth about bilingualism and speech delays from medical professionals. Almost a quarter of respondents said that they had heard that bilingualism causes speech delays from a medical professional.

screen shot of parent education levels from survey
The parents who responded to my survey about raising bilingual children are an educated group!

So many of the people who responded to my survey are so educated. The languages that they speak also skew towards high status (e.g. French and Japanese). I wonder if the how the results would be different for parents with less education. Or if they would be different for parents who speak languages that are less high-status in the US, such as Spanish or Yoruba.

photo of pie chart
Percentage of parents in blue who have heard from a medical professional directly involved in their child’s care that bilingualism causes speech delays

How to Move Forward

It is really sad to hear that parents are making choices about how they raise their children and what educational opportunities they pursue based on misinformation. The parent I mentioned in the beginning of this post is my inspiration. Hopefully more parents in the future will push back (gently) when they hear someone repeat the myth that bilingualism causes speech delays. Sometimes I fear that the pro-bilingual crowd can come across as a little smug. I can see how an endless list of articles and social media posts about how bilingual children and smarter, etc can be off-putting.

In the future, I hope that all parents have access to the same, high quality information about language learning. Until then, may those of us who do have access to the latest research on bilingualism be able to push back against myths.  Hopefully in a nice way! In that way, we can bring people over to our side instead of ruffling feathers.

More information about speech development and bilingualism:

Late Blooming or Language Problem?

Expert Advice from a Speech Therapist

More on Language Myths:

Myth of Chinese as Too Hard Even for Chinese People

Myths and False Beliefs that Hold Students Back

Interesting in helping your child become bilingual? Get in touch via the contact page.