How do I learn a language?

Stephen Krashen’s Theory and What It Means for Language Education

For eight years I had French lessons four hours a week. The result: an aversion to learning languages, fear of speaking the language and – let’s be honest – a poor level of French. I am pretty sure I’m not the only one. But what if those four hours a week were filled differently? With our favourite films, series and music in French or with conversations with French speakers, for example?

The French grammar lessons are etched in my memory. The way, not the grammar rules, just to be clear! A list of rules, exceptions to those rules, and exceptions to those exceptions were written on the board and transcribed diligently by us. We then had to study it at home and reproduce it the next day. I really don’t remember anything about it. I only got a dégoût (Look, a French word…) for learning languages. It is only in recent years that this aversion has worn off, mainly due to advancing insight into how things should be done.

Grammar as a basis?

What I didn’t know then was that my language teachers (or the authors of textbooks) based themselves on Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar theory: “the human brain has the innate ability to learn grammar.” Now, thanks to extensive research, we know that nothing could be further from the truth. There is no evidence whatsoever for this theory. On the contrary.

The “theory of second language acquisition” by American linguistics professor Stephen Krashen goes to the heart of the matter and is generally accepted. Strangely enough, that theory has apparently not yet penetrated too deeply into the catacombs of our language education. Workbooks, smartboards (and here and there chalkboards) are still full of grammar rules in many classrooms and far too little is spent on things that do ensure that you learn a language.

What can we learn from Stephen Krashen’s theory?

Krashen’s theory consists of five hypotheses, each of which is supported by extensive research. Research that has been (and still is) done not only by Krashen, but also by many other linguists, polyglots and language experts worldwide.

1. The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis

People can become fluent in a language in two ways: by acquisition or by learning. Language acquisition, according to Krashen, is a ‘subconscious process that is identical in all important ways to the process children use when acquiring their first language.’ Learning a language is ‘a conscious process that results in knowledge of the rules of a language’.

Krashen shows that when we consciously learn language, such as practicing grammar rules, we do not absorb the language into our subconscious mind. This makes remembering what we have learned extremely difficult. It is much better, he suggests, to learn language unconsciously. You can read how this works in hypothesis 2.

When you consciously try to cram knowledge into your brain, it usually doesn’t stick. Therefore, focus more on spending time with the language and only turn to the grammar rules later, when you will absorb them more easily. First immersion in the language, then the rules!

Conclusion 1: Stay away from those grammar rules

 

2. The Input Hypothesis

In order to say or write something meaningful, you must first expose yourself to enough comprehensible input by reading and listening. Comprehensible input is a concept introduced by Krashen and is most effective according to him. That means the content goes just a little bit further than your competency level. In other words, not so easy that you get bored, but not so hard that you get frustrated. Finding that balance often happens automatically in a conversation, provided that neither of them gives up, but perseveres. Both conversation partners should try to understand the other and try to use understandable language themselves. That’s an often difficult balancing act that can be frustrating at times, but it’s persistence that wins.

Understandable input should also match your interests. Do you like Harry Potter? Then read a book by this bespectacled wizard in the language you want to learn. Do you find model airplanes very interesting? Then talk about it with someone who is crazy about it too. And make sure you are exposed to a lot of this understandable input. Every day, just as we as children are immersed in our mother tongue.

Learning a language is especially difficult in the beginning. We want to start talking right away, but we can’t. Then we get frustrated and give up. Remember that you will eventually be able to speak if you have received enough input first. During conversations, therefore, in the beginning, it will mainly be the native speaker who will do the talking. This is a very important phase that will lead to more balanced conversations over time.

Conclusion 2: Read and listen

 

3. The Monitor Hypothesis

Adults are very analytical. This quality is useful in many aspects of life, but it slows us down when learning languages. When we learn languages, it is often our natural reflex to correct mistakes. This is useless because it gets in the way of natural language (which is rarely perfect). Therefore, correcting mistakes should play a minor role in language acquisition. Comprehensible input and familiarization with the language are far more important than tearing apart each construction.

For many it is difficult not to analyse language, especially for language teachers. This requires some training, but it does pay off. Sure, you’ll make more mistakes, but that’s exactly what you should be doing. That’s how people learn. As long as the person you’re speaking to gets the gist of what you’re saying, they won’t be too bothered if you conjugate a verb wrong. The following hypothesis shows that that understanding will follow and that you will master the language better and better.

Conclusion 3: Making mistakes is allowed/a must

 

 4. The Natural Order Hypothesis

This hypothesis outlines the way grammar is acquired. Krashen shows that there is a natural order of language acquisition and that we put certain grammar rules before others. For example, Dutch-speaking children first learn that there is a past participle, such as ‘gewerkt’, and only afterwards that it is ‘gelachen’ and not ‘gelacht’. They learn this because older children and adults use the correct conjugation in their environment, not because someone explains to them in detail that ‘lachen’ in the past participle has a strong conjugation and therefore does not follow the general rules. A five-year-old who says: ‘Mijn tekening is goeder dan die van jou’ shows that it already understands the basic rules very well. After all, it is normal for a comparative adjective to paste ‘er’ after the keyword and ‘st’ in the superlative. Thus it is ‘hard-harder-hardst’ and ‘sterk-sterker-sterkst’. So it will also be ‘goed-goeder-goedst’, the child has unconsciously learned. By using the words themselves correctly and answering: Waarom vind je jouw tekening beter?’ you help the child acquire this vocabulary.

Sometimes it feels like you’re making a lot of progress, sometimes it feels like you’ve been stuck at the same point for months. The natural sequence hypothesis reminds us that while we can help ourselves with the right attitude and dedication, it sometimes takes a while for our brains to process certain parts of the target language.

Conclusion 4: Take step by step

 

5. The Affective Filter Hypothesis

You learn better when you feel relaxed and comfortable. It is no different for language learning. When students are anxious, that emotion filters the understandable input and makes it more difficult to learn. We have all slumped in our chairs to avoid attracting the attention of the French teacher. Otherwise we might have to read a text or give an answer in French to some question. Learning goes much more smoothly in a safe environment, in one-on-one conversations, with someone who wants to make time for you.

Create a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere and enjoy the conversations.

Conclusion 5: Relax!

 

Parlangi is an answer

Parlangi is built on these five pillars. The foundations of Parlangi consist of meaningful social contacts: pleasant conversations with people across boundaries of generation, language, culture and nationality. Why? Because social contact is necessary for learning and because it is the most important factor for a healthy life.

Via the Parlangi app you will find discussion partners who are looking for what you offer and vice versa. Making mistakes is allowed. They are not punished. There is no classical lesson, but you have fun and interesting conversations.

You speak Dutch fluently, would like to learn French and love to cook? Then you will be able to find a conversation partner who matches you: someone who wants to learn your language and who speaks French if possible and is also interested in cooking. There is a good chance that meaningful conversations will result and that you will learn from each other too. And that’s what Parlangi stands for: connect and learn!

 

sources:

  • Applying the Comprehension Hypothesis: Some Suggestions Stephen Krashen Presented at 13th International Symposium and Book Fair on Language Teaching (English Teachers Association of the Republic of China), Taipei, Taiwan, November, 13, 2004.
  • Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1991, Linguistics and language pedagogy: The state of the art, James E. Alatis, Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C., 1991
  • Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1994, Linguistics and language pedagogy: The state of the art, James E. Alatis, Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C., 1994
  • Developing Academic Language: Some Hypotheses by Stephen Krashen, Presented at the KAPEE Conference (Korea Association of Primary English Development) , Busan Korea, January, 2012
  • The Comprehension Hypothesis Extended Stephen Krashen In T. Piske and M. Young-Scholten (Eds.) Input Matters in SLA. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. pp. 81-94.
  • We Acquire Vocabulary and Spelling by Reading: Additional Evidence for the Input Hypothesis, Stephen Krashen, 1989
  • English Teachers’ Journal, 1997, Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, Jerusalem (Israel). English Inspectorate. 1997.
  • The handbook of psycholinguistic and cognitive processes, perspectives in Communication Disorders, Jackie Guendouzi, Filip Loncke, Mandy J. Williams, 2011