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Researcher Biography: Merrill Swain, Ph.D. . ENGL 800 – Introduction to Research November 28, 2010 John C. Hepler. Merrill Swain. Dr. Merrill Swain earned her Ph.D. in 1972 at the University of California, Irvine.

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Researcher Biography: Merrill Swain, Ph.D.

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researcher biography merrill swain ph d

Researcher Biography: Merrill Swain, Ph.D.

ENGL 800 – Introduction to Research

November 28, 2010

John C. Hepler

merrill swain
Merrill Swain
  • Dr. Merrill Swain earned her Ph.D. in 1972 at the University of California, Irvine.
  • For the last 38 years, she has been a professor in the Curriculum, Teaching and Learning department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto (UT).
  • From 1981 to 1990 she was responsible for the Centre for Educational Research on Languages and Literacies (CERLL) at UT.
merrill swain3
Merrill Swain
  • Her interests include bilingual education (particularly French immersion education) and communicative second language learning, teaching and testing.
  • Her present research focuses on the role of collaborative dialogue in second language learning.
  • She was President of the American Association for Applied Linguistics in 1998-1999.
  • More recently she served as Vice President of the International Association of Applied Linguistics (AILA).
merrill swain4
Merrill Swain
  • She taught graduate courses in the Second Language Education Program at the OISE.
  • Her graduate level courses included:
    • Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning
    • Second Language Classroom Research
    • Research Colloquium in Second Language Education (in collaboration with Dr. Sharon Lapkin)
    • Advanced Research Colloquium in Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning
  • Although she retired in 2007, She remains active as Professor Emerita at UT.
    • For the Fall/Winter 2010-2011 semester, she is again teaching Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning
merrill swain5
Merrill Swain
  • She is the author of over 160 articles and book chapters.
  • She has co-edited four books, most recently Researching Pedagogic Tasks: Second Language Learning, Teaching and Testing (co-edited with M. Bygate and P. Skehan), published in 2001.
  • In addition to teaching and research, she has supervised over 50 Ph.D. students to completion.
merrill swain6
Merrill Swain
  • Dr. Swain is well known in second language acquisition studies as the originator of the Comprehensible Output Hypothesis in second language acquisition.
  • She developed this hypothesis in 1985 in response to Dr. Steven Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis (1984).
merrill swain7
Merrill Swain
  • Her hypothesis states that learning takes place when the language learner encounters a gap in his/her linguistic knowledge of the target language.
  • By noticing this gap the learner becomes aware of it and may attempt to modify his/her output.
  • As a result, the language learner may modify his/her interlanguage.
merrill swain8
Merrill Swain

Three Functions of Output

  • Noticing function: Learners encounter gaps between what they want to say and what they are able to say.
    • As a result, they notice what they do not know or only know partially in the target language.
  • Hypothesis-testing function: When learners say something there is always a hypothesis underlying, e.g. about grammar.
    • When speaking, the learners test this hypothesis and receive feedback from an interlocutor.
    • This feedback enables them, if necessary, to reprocess their hypothesis.
  • Metalinguistic function: Learners reflect about the language they learn and hereby the output enables them to control and internalize linguistic knowledge.
merrill swain9
Merrill Swain
  • Dr. Swain did not claim that comprehensible output was solely responsible for all or even most language acquisition.
  • She did claim that under some conditions, comprehensible output facilitated second language learning in ways that differed from and enhanced input due to the mental processes connected with the production of language.
  • Krashen has been critical of her output theory:
    • He maintains that the types of adjustments made to language as described in her theory rarely occur.
    • He also maintains that the act of speaking for many language learners is very stressful.
    • He maintains that the stress-induced affective filter would impede any actual language acquisition.
merrill swain10
Merrill Swain
  • She is also known for her work with Dr. Michael Canale.
  • They developed of the theory of Communicative Competence (1980).
    • They expanded on the work of Dell Hymes from 1966.
      • Ethnography of Communication
        • A Method of Discourse Analysis focused on both language and culture
merrill swain11
Merrill Swain
  • Canale and Swain defined communicative competence in terms of three components:
    • Grammatical competence: words and rules
    • Sociolinguistic competence: appropriateness
    • Strategic competence: appropriate use of communication strategies
merrill swain12
Merrill Swain

Other Collaborators

  • Her most frequent research collaborator is Dr. Sharon Larkin, also at the OISE.
    • They have published together since the 1970s.
  • Dr. Henri C. Barik was a frequent collaborator in studies on bilingualism and immersion in Canadian schools in the 1970s.
merrill swain13
Merrill Swain

Awards & Recognition

  • In 2003, Dr. Swain was the recipient of the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers’ Le Prix Robert Roy.
    • This annual award is presented to a distinguished educator in honor of outstanding contributions in the field of Second Language Education (SLE).
  • The following year, she was the recipient of the American Association for Applied Linguistics’ Distinguished Scholarship and Service Award.
  • In 2006, she was the recipient of Language Learning’s Distinguished Scholar in Residence Award at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
merrill swain14
Merrill Swain

Workshops and Institutes

  • In 2006 she was a visiting professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
  • Also in 2006, She taught a course on Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning at the University of Victoria at Wellington, New Zealand.
  • In 2009 she taught at the Summer Institute in Applied Linguistics at Penn State University.
merrill swain15
Merrill Swain

Current Activities

  • According to her profile on the OISE website, Dr. Swain is currently conducting a three-year research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) with her colleague, Dr. Sharon Lapkin.
  • Their research project is entitled “Extending the Output Hypothesis: The Role of Collaborative Dialogue and Metatalk in Second Language Learning.”
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Merrill Swain

Current Activities

  • In this research, they are :
    • continuing their exploration of the roles played by output (speaking and writing) in L2 learning,
    • attempting to extend their theoretical perspective beyond output to the construct of collaborative dialogue, and
    • continuing to inform pedagogical practices leading to improved L2 speaking and writing skills among immersion students.
personal thoughts
Personal Thoughts
  • As a second language learner, I believe there is merit in Dr. Swain’s comprehensible output theory.
  • According to Krashen, I should have been able to acquire French simply sitting in my university classroom and listening to my professor.
  • But it wasn’t until I was living in France and forced to communicate on my own outside of the classroom, testing and trying the language as I interacted with native speakers, that my target language production became more automatic and original.
  • Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) (2004). 2004 Immersion Conference: Pathways to Bilingualism Featured Speaker. Minneapolis, MN October 21-23, 2004. Retrieved from
  • Foreign Language Acquisition Research & Education (FLARE) (2005). Collaborative Dialogue and Second Language Learning. University of Iowa. April 22, 2005. Retrieved from
  • Krashen, S. (1994). The Input Hypothesis and Its Rivals. In N. Ellis (Ed.), Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages (pp.45-77). London, UK: Academic Press.
  • Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (n.d.) Faculty Profile: Dr. Merrill Swain, Ph.D. Retrieved from
  • Swain, M. (2004). The output hypothesis: Its history and its future. [Presentation] National Research Center for Foreign Language Education of Beijing Foreign Studies University. Retrieved from
  • Turnbull, M. (2003). Presentation: CASLT Prix Robert Roy. Retrieved from