stephen krashen: what can we learn from his theory?

There are lots of theories when it comes to how we learn language. In fact, the world of linguistics was rocked recently with the overturning Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar Theory.

Focus on grammar

The theory claimed that the human brain has an innate ability to learn grammar. New research has discovered, however, that instead of being hardwired to understand the patterns of grammar, children actually use skills not specifically related to language learning to pick up their mother tongue, like the ability to classify and understand the relationships between people and objects. Fascinating stuff, especially for language nerds like us here at LingQ.

One language learning theory that is still widely accepted is that of linguist and University of California professor Stephen Krashen. It’s called the Theory of Second Language Acquisition and you might be happy to know – depending on your language learning style – that it doesn’t place any emphasis on boring grammar drills.

Krashen’s theory is made up of five hypotheses. Is there anything a language learner like you from take from them? Let’s find out.

 

English not your first language? Import and read this post on LingQ instead.

The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis

girl-reading-book

According to Krashen, humans become fluent in a language in one of two ways: by acquiring it or by learning it. Acquiring language is a “subconscious process identical in all important ways to the process children utilize in acquiring their first language.” Learning a language, on the other hand, is “a conscious process that results in ‘knowing about’ [the rules of] language.”

You won’t be surprised to know which way Krashen claims is the most effective. I mean, how much easier was it to acquire your native language than to learn any other language after it? Krashen believes that when we consciously learn language, like drilling grammar rules for example, we don’t absorb the language into our subconscious. This makes remembering what we’ve learned extremely difficult. It is much better, the linguist suggests, to learn language subconsciously. How is that done? That’s where the next hypothesis comes in.

Takeaway – Lay off those grammar rules. When you consciously try to cram knowledge into your brain, it generally doesn’t stick. Focus more on spending time with the language and move on to the grammar rules later, when you’re more likely to pick them up naturally.  

The Input Hypothesis

Woman reading on the shoreline

In order to create meaningful output, you need to have exposed yourself to enough input (reading and listening). Krashen believes that comprehensible input is the most effective kind. For material to be comprehensible, it needs to be slightly beyond your level of competence. In other words, not so easy that you get bored, but not so difficult that you get frustrated – you need to hit that input sweet spot.

Krashen also believes that this comprehensible input should appeal to your individual interests. It’s all good and well finding a science fiction novel that fits the bill, but if you’re more of a crime drama person, do yourself a favour and pick up an Agatha Christie instead. You also need to make sure you’re exposed to a lot of this comprehensible input – every day, just like we are as children with our native language.

Takeaway – Get reading and listening. A lot of us start learning a language because we want to speak, then we get frustrated and put off when we can’t speak early on. You will be able to speak eventually, especially with enough input. In the words of LingQ’s Steve Kaufmann “People who read well and understand well when listening are eventually going to be able to speak well.”  

The Monitor Hypothesis

Woman-thinking

Adults are so analytical. Some have a tendency to overanalyze, to second guess and edit in real time. This trait is useful in many areas of life, but in language learning it can actually hold us back.

When many adults learn languages, their analytical tendencies kick in and they try to correct all perceived errors. This is unhelpful as it gets in the way of acquiring the language naturally, and so Krashen believes it should play a minor role in the acquisition of a language. The major role should go to acquiring comprehensible input and becoming comfortable in the language before trying to tear every construction apart.

Takeaway – Don’t overthink it. This will require some training, especially if you’re a bit of a perfectionist. You will be happy you spent the time breaking the habit of self-editing, though. Sure, you’ll make more mistakes, but that’s exactly what you should be doing. That’s how you’ll improve. As long as the person you’re speaking to understands the gist of what you’re saying, they aren’t going to be too bothered if you used the wrong verb ending (and if they are, they aren’t worth talking to in any language).

The Natural Order Hypothesis

pen-writing-notes-studying

This hypothesis outlines the way in which grammar is acquired. Krashen believes that there is a natural sequence of acquisition and that we pick up certain rules of grammar before others. For example, English language learners pick up how to use the present tense (-ing), as in “She likes swimming” before the possessive ‘s’, like in “Fumiko’s swim cap is red”.

Takeaway – Take it one step at a time. Sometimes it feels like you’re making lots of progress, other times it feels as though you’ve been stuck at the same point for months. The Natural Order Hypothesis reminds us that, though we can help ourselves along with the right attitude and commitment, sometimes parts of the target language will just take a little time for our brains to process.

The Affective Filter Hypothesis

don't-worry

Everyone learns better when they are feeling relaxed and comfortable, and language learning is no different. Krashen believes when learners are feeling anxious, that emotion filters the comprehensible input they are learning and makes it more difficult to acquire the language.

This makes sense. We all have memories from school of shrinking into our chairs to avoid catching the eye of our language teacher. If singled out to speak, we might have had to come up with a canned response to a question like “what did you do at the weekend?”, our shaky pronunciation corrected in front of our peers. Not exactly an environment conducive to a positive filtering of the language.

Takeaway – Relax. If your language learning environment is making you anxious, bored or under stimulated, change it for one that works for you. Record yourself speaking and put it online for people to help you with if speaking on front of others terrifies you. The subreddit /r/languagelearning is a good place to get constructive feedback. Go join a conversation group if you’re bored of watching YouTube videos. Do what makes you feel good.

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