September 2003 — Volume 7, Number 2
Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei lectures
Stephen D. Krashen (2003)
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Pp. viii + 96
ISBN 0-325-00554-0 (paper)
Stephen Krashen’s revolution took root in language classrooms, and overthrew the world of language teaching starting in the 1980′s. He can look back on the enormous influence he has had with satisfaction; few people have had such influence in any field. Although to the public, he may be better known for his defense of bilingual education, and to second language acquisitionists, he is scorned for the vagueness of his hypotheses, to classroom teachers, he has irrefutably changed language teaching more in the last thirty years than anyone in history. His five hypotheses of language acquisition are accepted as almost gospel by teachers worldwide; explicit grammar teaching has been dealt an almost-fatal blow; whole language approaches have ridden a strong wave for years; and free reading is considered by many to be the best route to fluency in a new language. While teachers and followers plug the leaks in the frameworks and curricula that his revolution has spawned, Krashen himself has begun looking back at his life and influence, trying to keep the revolution alive, and convince those pesky acquisitionists, who he perhaps hopes will come around if only they can be reminded again of what he feels should, by now, be considered obvious.
His book, Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei lectures, returns our attention to his core hypotheses. The five hypotheses (Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis, Natural Order Hypothesis, Monitor Hypothesis, Input Hypothesis, and Affective Filter Hypothesis) are alive and well, he maintains; free reading is an idea that still works; and the best learners are those who survive both the standard classrooms of today’s educational system and the grammar classrooms of their language classes, so that they can do their real learning inductively, while problem-solving. This small volume has four chapters covering, briefly, the hypotheses, free reading, grammar teaching, and principles of good learning, briefly touching on others’ hypotheses, using the studies of others (many of which were done to refute his ideas) to garner support for his own beliefs, and finally, adding a conclusion and bibliography. [-1-]
Of the five hypotheses, perhaps the Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis has had the greatest effect on teaching, since it justified the dismantling of discrete grammar teaching. Briefly stated, it claims that learning and acquisition of language are separate, and that acquisition is more important. Learning discrete grammar points can affect one’s Monitor, which can occasionally change one’s output, but that is a fairly weak device; acquisition, on the other hand, being subconscious, is responsible for one’s internal construction of language, and does all of the more important work in the creation of a learner’s language. Thus, “consciously learned knowledge can be displayed on tests of consciously learned knowledge,” (p. 44) but doesn’t really help in the more important task of acquiring a language in a communicative sense. He refers to “survivors” of grammar instruction (p. 34) as if true language learners manage to acquire a language in spite of efforts to impede their progress through grammar instruction; he writes off numerous “focus on form” studies (done to demonstrate that grammar instruction has some merit, however limited), and others, by saying that, intentionally or not, most of these studies did focus the attention of the subjects on discrete grammar points, and by giving them the conditions for Monitor use (some instruction in the nature of the rule, adequate time, and focus on the form when using it), set up what he is able to write off as tests of consciously learned knowledge. True acquisition, he maintains, happens when communication is done for authentic purposes, and when learners receive optimal input, and want to understand it for their own purposes. Contrived exercises such as the ones he lists can hope for nothing more than the “consciously learned knowledge” referred to above, and the monitor being a fairly weak device, this to him is of little value.
Similarly, to Krashen the key to reading fluency is simply providing the time and the appropriate materials (at a level defined earlier as i + 1 ) for extensive free reading; acquisition of vocabulary comes naturally to those who read often for pleasure, as numerous studies show. He once (1995) suggested that the solution to the literacy crisis in the U.S. was the elimination of standardized tests and the time students spend preparing for them, in favor of more useful activities, such as free reading. The clear implication is that since extensive reading works, while studying vocabulary lists, for example, does not, all students should simply be put in an acquisition-rich environment and be allowed to read pleasurable materials until they become proficient readers. This idea, and its resulting reliance on indirect, inductive mastery of the language, has probably had greater consequences in first-language education in U.S. public schools than in second-language classrooms.
However, Krashen’s enormous influence can be seen in second language classes worldwide, where many teachers refuse to explain grammar points, let alone teach them, because it’s considered a waste of time if not counterproductive. One teacher once told me that since he as a first-language learner never received grammar instruction (a claim I doubted), he didn’t see why second-language learners should; thus, he never spent class time even answering grammar-related questions. Though I’ve never caught Krashen claiming that first and second language acquisition are the same, the implication that they are is one of the most damaging misapplications of his theories that persists today.
To the classroom teacher, perhaps the most frustrating part of accepting Krashen’s theories completely is facing the constant onslaught, from adult learners, of legitimate grammatical questions, many of which are difficult for the native speaker to explain, and most of which would still be important, even if standardized tests were not in the picture. Does a teacher say that the learner is misguided (or that years of previous training was for naught) for even wanting to ask such a question? That the learner should just return to the mountain of literature or data in hopes of finding enough examples to straighten out the question on his/her own? Such advice ignores what to the teacher is obvious: that most adult language learners actively seek this knowledge almost instinctively, don’t question the notion that it’s invaluable information, and often consider the dispensing of this knowledge to be the teacher’s primary job, if not most valuable function. And, they continue wanting to know such things even after learning, perhaps even believing, that, according to modern theory, they are misguided. I find it surprising that even after all these years, Krashen dogmatically insists on the separation of learning and acquisition, as if they were mutually exclusive, even contradictory activities; I, while accepting the idea that the two are distinct, have come to believe that the former plays an active role in the latter, at least for adults. [-2-]
His mandate to provide rich and appropriate reading materials to all learners has some validity, since it’s clear that learners who read for pleasure acquire vocabulary and language faster, and that, in fact, the most effective learning is by nature inductive, rather than deductive. But he ignores what to teachers is another obvious point: that some learners, given the richest of reading environments, still won’t read much or read well, and, without the carrot-and-stick deductive setup that the traditional classroom provides, may not read anything at all. The entirely whole-language curricula produced legions of learners who read minimally, finding the main points from their friends or in other ways, or read without paying attention to detail, thus neither improving their vocabulary substantially, nor gaining true mastery of language structure. Yet these learners got by, or worse, continued to higher levels, only to flounder at a place where they had no hope of keeping up (the Peter Principle of the language classroom), because a system that defined their success in terms of their ability to respond well to the spoken word allowed them to respond well to a reading in class, without really having mastered it.
Krashen, whose book comes from a series of lectures given in Taipei in November 2001, has changed a little from what most of us have read. These days he deemphasizes i + 1 (perhaps the most maddening and undefinable of concepts); he always frames the Monitor in terms of the conditions that must be met before it is used (I laugh at the constant capitalization of the word, as if it is not only real, by force of his constant reminder, but also alive). He does not have to remind us, though, of his enormous influence, of the fact that, to most language teachers, these ideas are very much alive.
One has to admire Krashen the revolutionary, if only because his revolution succeeded; it reached and thoroughly changed the hearts and minds of millions of teachers worldwide. Whether or not his terms are vague, his view of acquisition rang true to millions of people who witness it actively in their day-to-day professions, and for this reason alone acquisitionists should take him more seriously. Krashen the dogmatic may be miffed that more people don’t see the obvious truths behind his hypotheses; looking back at them and the changes they brought, however, it’s obvious that there was at least enough truth in them to change the world of teaching forever.
Krashen (1995). Free voluntary reading, in Eckman et al., eds., Second Language Acquisition and Pedagogy. Mahwah, N. J.: Erlbaum, pp. 187-202.
Southern Illinois University-Carbondale
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