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Second Language Acquisition: Swain's Output Vs Krashen's Input

by Luis PW, Aug 27, 2016 English as a Second Language (ESL) 20291 Views

1. Introduction: Input versus Output. A general overview

In order to assess how compatible Krashen's and Swain's views are, it is
essential to first outline the basics of each view, that is, the main tenets of
their hypotheses.
As part of his Monitor Model, Krashen (1981, 1982, and 1985) formulated
the Input Hypothesis, which claims that language input (listening and reading
comprehension) constitutes the main communicative process through which
we acquire a second language. Krashen believes that fluency in speaking or
writing in a second language will naturally come about after learners have
built up sufficient competence through comprehending input. However, it is
not just any kind of input that is appropriate or effective, or as Krashen puts
it, not all input will produce intake. The term "intake" is closely linked to how
affective factors affect second language acquisition (SLA from now on), and
this is how this author refers to the amount of input that is effectively
assimilated by the learner. In such direction, he stated that it was only
"comprehensible input" which would be effective for SLA. Such input is the
one which is only slightly above the current level of the learner's competence,
which he represented with the simple formula I + 1, where I = input.
This input is made comprehensible because of the help provided by the
context. Thus, if the learner receives understandable input, language
structures will be naturally acquired, according to Krashen. Therefore, the
ability to communicate in a second language will emerge as a consequence
of comprehensible input. Moreover, as part of his Affective Filter Hypothesis,
previously put forward by Dulay and Burt (1977), Krashen argues that
learners are not to be forced to produce language, as this would bring about
a considerable amount of anxiety, which would cause them to develop a high
affective filter that would prevent them from acquiring the target language
In opposition to Krashen's Input Hypothesis lies the Output Hypothesis,
issued by Swain (1985). In contrast to the former, Swain's hypothesis
proposes that it is through language production (written or spoken) that SLA
may be more likely to occur. This is so because, as claimed by its author, it
is during language production stages that learners realise what they know
and what they don't. This may happen when a learner is trying to convey a
message but his or her linguistic knowledge of the second language is
insufficient to do so. It is then that the learner realises that s/he ignores some
useful language structures and/or words needed to express a desired
This issue is what Swain refers to as the "gap" between what one can say
and what one would like to be able to say. And it would be on realizing this
gap, that learners are motivated towards modifying their output in order to
learn something new about the target language. Besides, this hypothesis
asserts that language production aids learners in four different ways (Swain,
1993). The first derives from the fact that language production provides
opportunities for meaningful practice, allowing the development of automatic
linguistic behaviours. The second is related to that which forces the learner
to switch from semantic mental processes to syntactic ones.
As Krashen (1982) suggested: "In many cases, we do not utilize syntax in
understanding, we often get the message with a combination of vocabulary,
or lexical information plus extra-linguistic information". Whereas in an
understanding process the use of syntax may not be essential, it is in the
production stages that learners are forced to consider syntactic aspects of
the target language.
The third way in which language production helps learners in acquiring a L2
is through testing hypotheses, since output provides students with the
opportunity to test their own hypotheses, and withdraw their own
conclusions. This third aspect is closely related to the fourth one, which deals
with the responses of other speakers of the language, especially native ones,
which can give learners information on how comprehensible or well-formed
their utterances are.
It must be said that, despite all emphasis being laid on output, Swain admits
that output is not solely responsible for SLA.
To sum up, where Krashen sees input hugely responsible for language
acquisition, Swain considers output; where the latter claims language
production to be of utter importance, the former regards it as not necessary,
as something that should not be forced, since it will appear naturally after a
certain amount of comprehensible input.
Before continuing with this article, it must be noted that no distinction
between the terms "learning" and "acquisition" is being made, as most
authors do not consider it amongst their theories of SLA.
2. Input and Output: rejecting or complementing each other?
In this section we will be looking at how the terms input and output have been
dealt with by other authors, and whether these support either Krashen's or
Swain's views of SLA, and in what ways they do so. We will also consider if
these two concepts are opposites or simply two sides of the same coin.
Originated by the work of Chomsky (1957), the Generative Paradigm arose
as a clear opposition to the structural approach to linguistics. And, although
this paradigm did not deal with how languages were learned, it did however
consider the term output within one of its main features, given the importance
of the creative nature of language use within this paradigm. It is here where
output is first remotely considered, as creativity calls for production and this
may be understood as the very core of output.
Moreover, according to Chomsky, creativity has to come hand in hand with
compliance to rules, as any type of creation ought to take part within a
framework governed by a set of rules. It is here where Swain's hypothesis
may receive support, since she believes that production leads learners to
consider syntax as such, which can be considered as that set of rules which
governs a particular communicative framework.
Moving now towards the field of SLA specifically, we find three different
theories that aim at explaining how language is acquired, and these are the
behaviourist, nativist and interactionist theories. We will focus firstly on
behaviourist and nativist views.
As far as behaviourism is concerned, a language is learned by the creation
of a series of habits which are acquired by imitation. Thus, we can find both
input and output in this theory, since learners imitate (output) something that
has previously been assimilated (input). As regards nativist theories, while
learning a language, learners are constantly forming hypotheses based on
the information received (input). However, they also test these hypotheses
through speech (output) and comprehension (input).
So we can see how, within behaviourist theories, output is considered as
imitation, which accounts for Swain's argument related to the creation of
automatic linguistic behaviours. From a nativist point of view, the Output
Hypothesis is also backed, since it would be through speech that learners
test what they know and what they don't. In the same way, both behaviourist
and nativist theories stand beside Krashen's Input Hypothesis, as they both
explicitly consider output to be a natural consequence of input. So it is at this
point that we can see how these two seemingly opposite hypotheses start
complementing rather than denying each other's validity.
Insofar as interactionist theories are concerned, they regard the acquisition
of a language as the result of the interaction between the learner's mental
process and the linguistic environment (Arzamendi, Palacios and Ball, 2012,
p.39). It is here where we can also appreciate a combination of both input
and output, working as one. Interactionist theories believe in interaction as
the main reason of language acquisition. It is therefore a clear example of
the validity of both input and output hypotheses.
The importance of interaction as the cause of language learning is supported
by a study carried out by Pica, Young and Doughty (1987), which proved up
to a certain point that Krashen's comprehensible input was less effective than
interaction, which implies not only input but also output.
In the same direction, Ellis (1985), defined an "optimal learning
environment", to which he bestowed several features related to output as
well as input. He talked about the importance of exposure to a great deal of
input, which comes hand in hand with Krashen's Input Hypothesis, but he
also stressed the significance of output. He does so by highlighting the need
for learners to perceive L2 communication as something useful (meaningful
communication, as Swain puts it).
Besides, the opportunity for uninhibited practice in order to experiment is
also stressed by this author. In this last statement we can see not only
Swain's view of output as a means of language hypothesis testing, but also
Krashen's importance of a low affective filter, since inhibition would clearly
restrain a learner's linguistic performance. In this way, not only Swain's and
Krashen's hypothesis look more alike, but they start needing each other in
order to exist flawlessly.
Within sociolinguistic models of SLA, input is clearly dealt with, especially
within the Nativisation Model (Andersen, 1979). This model emphasises the
importance of input and how learners internalise the L2 system. According
to this model, learners interact with input in two ways, they adapt input to
their view of the L2 and they adjust their internal linguistic system to suit that
particular input, in order to acquire L2 form features. This theory clearly
matches the importance Krashen gives to input as the means of acquiring a
If we move onto linguistic models of SLA, we will find that Hatch (1978) deals
with the importance of both input and output in his Discourse Theory. Hatch
places meaning negotiation at the core of his theory. In this way, input gains
importance, as L2 advanced or native speakers adjust their speech when
addressing an L2 learner. Thus, input becomes comprehensible for the
learner, which is a key factor in Krashen's hypothesis.
However, this theory also states that the natural way of acquiring a language
is a consequence of learning how to hold conversations. And it is in this
sense that output becomes important too, since in order to engage in
conversation, which involves language production, it is as essential as
understanding. Also, and according to this SLA theory, the learner uses
vertical structures to construct sentences, which implies borrowing chunks
of language from preceding discourse to which s/he adds elements of his or
her own. In this way, learners are experimenting and testing their hypotheses
on the language, which is one of the ways in which output leads to SLA,
according to Swain (1985, 1993).
And this is how we arrive at Swain's Output Hypothesis, which is a linguistic
model, and Krashen's Input Hypothesis, which constitutes a cognitive model
for SLA. Although the main tenets of one seem to reject those of the other,
we have seen how, far from opposing, they complement each other.
3. Reconciling Krashen's input and Swain's output views
It is time now to tackle the main purpose of this assignment, reconciling
Swain's and Krashen's views. In order to do so, we will see how both
hypotheses are right but incomplete at the same time.
The Input Hypothesis claims that fluency in speaking or writing in the L2 will
naturally emerge after learners have achieved sufficient competence through
comprehensible input (Wang and Castro, 2010). However, the studies of
Tanaka (1991) and Yamakazi (1991), in Wang and Castro (2010), reveal that
although input facilitates greatly the acquisition of vocabulary in the target
language, it does not cater for the acquisition of many syntactic structures.
Therefore, comprehensible input is essential but not sufficient in achieving
It is the Output Hypothesis that takes care of this flaw. According to Swain
(1993), producing language would force learners to recognise what they do
not know or know only partially, which she calls the "gap" between what
learners can say and what they want to be able to say. In her opinion, when
encountered with such gap, learners can react in three different ways. One
would be to ignore it.
Another to search in their own linguistic knowledge to find or construct the
answer; and the last one is to identify what the gap is about and then pay
attention to relevant input which may cater for this lack of knowledge. This
third response establishes a relationship between input and output that
benefits SLA. As a result of this, learners are more likely to enhance their
input processing capability because their output has focused their attention
on the need to do so. (Swain, 1993)
We can see now how Swain's Output Hypothesis accepts input as an
important part of SLA, whereas Krashen's view is slightly more slanted. In
his work Comprehensible Output (1998), in which he assesses the
effectiveness of comprehensible output (CO), Krashen criticizes CO as a
means of acquiring a L2. Amongst other issues or flaws in Swain's
hypothesis, he argues that being forced to speak, as part of CO, leads to
discomfort, that is to say, to anxiety on the part of the learner.
According to Young (1990) and Laughrin-Sacco (1992), in Krashen (1998),
foreign language students find speaking to be the highest anxiety-causing
activity. Moreover, he puts forward what Price (1991) stated, that not being
able to communicate effectively leads to a great deal of frustration.
These two arguments clearly support Krashen's Affective Filter Hypothesis.
Anxiety and frustration may cause low motivation and little self-confidence,
which may provoke high affective filters on the part of the student and, hence,
little intake may take place.
Although Krashen has made a good point on how CO may have less
advantages than it seems to, he also grants it a place in his Monitor Model,
as part of his Monitor Hypothesis. According to Krashen (1985) the "monitor"
is an internal editing device that may work before or after output taking place.
In order to do so, the learner has to know the appropriate rules of speech.
Despite the lack of supportive research evidence for this hypothesis, if we
take Krashen word by word, we understand that we edit or correct what we
utter before or after we do so.
In this way, if we do it before, we are using inner knowledge in order to edit
something we are about to produce; if we do it after, we are correcting a
mistake, which is basically testing a hypothesis that has proven to be wrong.
After doing so, we can re-arrange it in our head to correct it or simply focus
our attention on the knowledge we need to acquire to be able to produce a
hypothesis which turns out to be right. It is here where we see two of the
advantages of output mentioned by Swain: testing a hypothesis and
recognising what one does not know but needs to.
It is clear by now that both hypotheses are neither wrong nor complete. In
any case, they can complement each other in order to produce a more
integral hypothesis.
As a final conclusion, one might propose certain guidelines so as to put an
end to this unsettling disagreement.
Firstly, a certain amount of comprehensible input is necessary before
producing any kind of output whatsoever. This might be more important with
young learners than with adults, since the latter have a better control over
affective issues. Young learners however, apart from not having enough
linguistic knowledge so as to reflect on their own output, they might become
more anxious by being forced to speak, if it is not done in a careful way.
Secondly, the use of either input or output may vary according to the type of
language acquisition we are trying to achieve. If the focus is on syntax, we
shall use output strategies, which allow for a greater amount of reflection and
self-correction. However, if we are working on vocabulary acquisition, an
input approach will probably prove to be more effective.
Finally, learners ought to make use feedback that they can obtain from other
speakers of the language, and this is achieved only through language
production. Other speakers' responses will provide learners with informative
feedback on the comprehensibility and/or accuracy of their utterances. In a
language learning environment, this feedback may come from the teacher or
from other learners.
If we follow these guidelines, drawn from both Krashen's and Swain's
arguments, the ability to produce the language will not only be the result of
language acquisition, as the former argues, but also the cause, as Swain


 Arzamendi, J., Palacios, I. and Ball, P. (Eds.) (2012). Second Language Acquisition. FUNIBER.
 Krashen, S.D. (1981). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford:
 Krashen, S.D. (1985). The Input Hypothesis. Issues and Implications. New York: Longman.
 Ellis, R. (1985). Classroom Second Language Development. A Study of Classroom Interaction
and Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press.


 Krashen, S.D. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford:
 Krashen, S.D. (1998, June). Comprehensible Output. System, 26(2), 175-182. Obtained on
11th February 2013, from
 Swain, M. (1993, October). The Output Hypothesis: Just Speaking and Writing Aren't Enough.
The Canadian Modern Language Review, 50(1), 158-164.
 Wang, Q. and Castro, C.D. (2010, June). Classroom Interaction and Language Output. English
Language Teaching, 3(2), 175-186.

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