Stephen Krashen on Language Acquisition

[I’d like] to begin my presentation this afternoon by talking about what I think is the most important issue in language education The most important question, and that is: how do we acquire language? And I’d like to begin this discussion, this presentation, with an outrageous statement. In my opinion we all acquire language the same way. The reason this is an outrageous thing to say, is that these days in education, we’re living in an age of individual variation. We’re very concerned about how our students are different, not how our students are the same. Those who’ve been around in the field for a while, remember: about 15-20 years ago, people were very concerned about something called field dependent learners and field independent learners. You give people a certain test and one group gets this treatment, one group gets the other. Then, about 15 years ago, it was left side of the brain, right side of the brain. Some people are left hemisphere thinkers, some people are right hemisphere. Then, about 10 years ago: cognitive style. The cognitive style of the home culture differs from the cognitive style of the school culture. We have a clash, etc. Well, each of the examples I gave you is probably correct. There is individual variation, and there is quite a bit of it. Nevertheless, there are some things we all do the same. Let me give you some examples. Digestion: we all digest food the same. No significant individual variation. First you put it in your mouth, then you chew it up, then it goes down your throat, then into your stomach. That’s how it’s done everywhere. That’s how it’s done in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa. That’s how it’s done everywhere in the world. The visual system is the same everywhere. It’s always the occipital lobe in the back of the brain. It’s never in the side of the brain. It’s never in the front of the brain. It’s never in the elbow. It’s done exactly the same everywhere you go. By the way, I used to use sex as an example of things everyone does the same, but some counter examples have been pointed out to me recently. Actually, I saw this movie, if you really want to know the truth. Anyway… We all require language the same. And rather than just talk about it, I’d like to show you. I’d like to take just a couple of minutes and give you some sample language lessons. I’ll use a language that I’m sure you’ve heard before and maybe some of you speak. And you can tell me, which of these two, very brief lessons you like better. Here’s lesson number one: Wir werden jetzt anfangen, Deutsch zu lernen. Und ich möchte im Voraus sagen, das nach meiner Meinung: Deutsch ist eine sehr schöne Sprache. Und ich hoffe, dass Sie alle sehr viel Erfolg mit Deutsch haben werden. What do you think? Good lesson so far? Do you think if I kept talking to you like that, you’d pick up German? Not very likely. How about if I repeated it? Would that help? Probably not. How about if I said it louder, would that help? Probably not. How about if I said it and you repeated it back? Again, I don’t think that would help. How about if I wrote it out for you, and you could see it on your television screen? That wouldn’t help either. How about if I wrote it out for you, and you copied it down? How about if I read it out for you, and deleted every fifth word, and you try to guess what the word is? The truth is that none of these things help, none of these things mean anything. And I hope you can see that now. Here’s lesson number two: And for this, you have to watch me carefully! Das ist meine Hand. Verstehen Sie das, Hand? Everyone say “Ja!”. I can hear you even though it’s a TV audience. Good! Kopf. Das ist mein Kopf. Verstehen Sie Kopf? Ja? Gut! Kopf. And here I’ll draw a picture now. Kopf. Ist gut, ja? Schön. Kopf. Das ist Mr. Spock. Ja? Mr. Spock hat zwei Ohren. Ohren, verstehen Sie Ohren? Er hat zwei Ohren. Ok, Mr. Spock, ja ach nein, Entschuldigung. Augen. Verstehen Sie Augen? Augen. Wie viele Augen? Eins, zwei, drei Augen. Drei Augen. Ist das richtig, drei Augen? Nein! Wir haben nur zwei Augen. Mund. Verstehen Sie Mund? Und dann: hier ist eine Zigarette, ja? Nein! Zigaretten sind nicht gut. If you understood lesson number two, not every word, but more or less, I did everything necessary to teach you German. And now, I’m going to share with you the most important thing I have learned about language Probably the best-kept secret in the profession. We acquire language in one way and only one way: when we understand messages. We call this comprehensible input. We acquire language when we understand what people tell us. Not how they say it, but what they say. Or when we understand what we read. Comprehensible input, in my opinion, has been the last resort of the language teaching profession. We’ve tried everything else. We’ve tried grammar teaching, drills and exercises, computers, etc. But the only thing that seems to count, is getting messages you understand: comprehensible input. Now, one of the reasons lesson number two is better than lesson number one is: we had Mr. Spock to help us out. So anything that helps make input comprehensible, pictures, knowledge of the world, realia, etc., helps language acquisition. If comprehensible input is true, what we call the Input Hypothesis is true, other things follow from it. And a very important corollary to the input hypothesis is this: and this may come as a bit of a surprise to some of you, certainly came as a surprise to me, talking is not practicing. “Talking is not practicing”, what does this mean? It means if you want to improve your Spanish, it will not help you to speak Spanish out loud in the car, as you drive to work in the morning. It will not help you to go to the bathroom, close the door, and speak Spanish to the mirror. I used to think those things help, now I think they don’t. On the other hand, if we were in a German class and we could hang together for a couple of weeks, say an hour a day of German, and I could keep the input light and lively, as in the second example, you’d start to acquire German It would come on its own. And eventually you’d start to talk, your speaking ability would emerge gradually. Now, we have a lot of evidence that this is true. And the evidence is in the professional literature, in books, in journal papers, etc. And if you’re an insomniac, you’re welcome to look at all that. But rather than go through that, I’d like instead to tell you a story that illustrates the same point. I’ve used this story for a long time, so those who’ve heard it before, I’ve been using this for about 15 years, and the reason I keep staying with it, is that it makes the point very well. And I’ve decided, I’ve discovered, it’s just about a universal experience. What has happened to me has certainly happened to you. And bear in mind, if you’ve heard it before, and you’re tired of hearing it: think how I feel. My experience took place in 1974, when I was briefly living in exile from California, working at the City University of New York at Queens College, as director of English as a second language. And like everyone else in New York, we lived in a big apartment building. And the apartment next door to us was owned by a Japanese company. And every year there would be a new family in the apartment. And every year there were the children who couldn’t speak English. And there I was: director of English as a second language. I will teach English to these children and brag about it to my friends. So I remember going up to the little girl next door, she was four years old, her name was Itomi. And I didn’t know about this material on language acquisition then. Nobody did. And I thought then, the way you get people to acquire language, is you get them to practice talking So I tried to get her to talk. I’d say: “Itomi, talk to me!”, “Say good morning” , “Say hi!” No response. Well, clearly, I’ve decided, I’ve got to make this more concrete. “Itomi, say ball!” No response. Well, obviously, I’ve got to break it down into its component parts. Let’s work on initial consonants! “Say bah! Look at my lips!” Again, no response. There was a theory going around then, that a lot of people still believe, that children don’t really want to acquire language, you have to kind of force it out of them. So I tried that: “I won’t give you the ball until you say ball!” That didn’t work either. No matter what I said, Itomi wouldn’t speak. She didn’t say anything the first week, she didn’t say anything the second week, the first month, the second month, five months until she started to speak. Actually, that’s not entirely true, children during this stage do pick up certain expressions from the other children in the neighborhood. It’s not real language. They understand approximately what they mean. Again, it’s not real language. They have a rough idea what it means, they use it in roughly appropriate situations. Things like: “Leave me alone!”, “Get out of here!” In fact one child I knew, the only thing he could say was “I kick your ass”, said it everywhere He wasn’t quite sure what it meant. After about five months, Itomi started to speak, and several things were interesting about her language. First, it looked a lot like first language acquisition, the same process our children went through. One word, two words, gradually getting more complicated. Second, it came quickly. By the time Itomi and her family went back to Japan, at the end of the year her English was closing in on the way the other children in the neighborhood were talking. The question is this: what was going on during those five months? She was listening. She was picking out comprehensible input. When she started to speak, it was not the beginning of her language acquisition. Let me repeat that: when she started to speak, it was not the beginning of her language acquisition. It was the result of all the comprehensible input she had gotten over those five months. Now, a silent period for a child in a situation like this, is not pathological, it’s normal. It’s what you’d expect. You’d like to have a silent period, wouldn’t you? How would it be, if you had to study another language, but you went to a class, where you didn’t have to say anything? Doesn’t that sound wonderful? You can talk all you want, you can raise your hand, you can volunteer, but no one is going to call on you, no one is going to put you on the spot. Also, in this perfect class, if the input is incomprehensible, it’s the teacher’s fault, not yours? That’s how we’re doing it now, and the results we’re getting aren’t a little better than other methods, they’re actually much, much better. Before I leave this topic, let me put in a brief commercial message for speaking. I’m not opposed to speaking, I think when students speak it’s fine. But what counts in speaking is not what you say, but what the other person says to you. In other words when you get involved in conversation, what counts is the input that you can stimulate from other people. So I’m in favor of students speaking, but we have to understand it makes an indirect; a helpful, but indirect contribution to language acquisition. I’d like to discuss one more hypothesis before we move on to literacy, and this is a very important one, called the Affective Filter Hypothesis. Our research in language acquisition has concluded that there are several factors that relate to success in language acquisition, and I’m going to list them here on your screen. One factor is motivation. Students, who are more motivated, do better in language acquisition. Of those of you who study this, know that it’s a little more complicated than this, but this is a good approximation. Second: self-esteem. Probably the dominant concept today in popular psychology. Students with more self-esteem, more self-confidence do better in language acquisition. Third: anxiety. And here, the correlations are negative: the lower the anxiety, the better the language acquisition. In fact my hypothesis is, for language acquisition to really succeed, anxiety should be zero. This has happened to you. Have you ever been in a situation, speaking a language that you may not speak very well, when the conversation gets so interesting, you temporarily forget that you’re using another language. If this is happening to you, that’s when you’re acquiring. When your focus is completely on the message, what the other person is saying, and your anxiety is temporarily gone. By the way as an important footnote to this – I guess today we say sidebar. As a sidebar to all this: I’m not sure that zero anxiety is right for everything. I’m sure it’s good for a lot of things, but I’m not quite sure how far to push this. Speaking to you as a college teacher, speaking to you as a parent, I’m not all that free and easy. I think there are certain things in school, children absolutely must learn. I think my students at the University of Southern California should suffer. We have hard classes. Tough requirements. You don’t do the work, you’re out. I finally learned what they tried to teach us in educational psychology: the amount of drive or anxiety necessary to accomplish a task, depends on the task. Sometimes what we call facilitative anxiety is okay. I don’t believe in torture, but sometimes a little anxiety is okay. Language acquisition though, is different. For language acquisition to succeed, anxiety has to be directed somewhere else, not at the language. Frank Smith puts it this way: for the child to develop literacy, the child has to assume that she’s going to be successful. The way we integrate this into the theory is like this: if the student isn’t motivated, if self-esteem is low, if anxiety is high, if the student is on the defensive, if the student thinks the language class is a place where his weaknesses will be revealed, he may understand the input, but it won’t penetrate. It won’t reach those parts of the brain that do language acquisition. A block keeps it out. We call this block the affective filter. Here’s how it works: somewhere in the brain, Chomsky tells us, is a Language Acquisition Device. Our job is to get input into the device. So that’s input here. Low motivation, low self-esteem, high anxiety: the block goes up, the filter goes up, and the input cannot get in. This explains how it can be that we can have two children in the same class, both getting comprehensible input, one makes progress, the other doesn’t. One is open to the input, the other is closed. Let me now try to summarize everything I’ve said in the last 10-15 minutes or so. And I’ll summarize it in one sentence. And we’ll wonder why it took me that long. We acquire language in one way, and only one way. When we get comprehensible input, in a low anxiety environment.

100 thoughts on “Stephen Krashen on Language Acquisition”

  1. When an absolute expert in one area tries to talk about an area in which they are not an expert: "We all DIgest the same way" [describes INgestion]

  2. I am German and I had 7 years of english in school. And after that, it was about 1983, i wanted to read a novel in english(Kurt Vonneguts 'Cats cradle'). I was shocked, how little i understood. Then I sat down one evening with a paperbook dictionary and started to go through. Iooked up every word that i didnt understand. That took quite a while. For the first 2 pages i needed 4 hours. The next day i made 4 pages in 4 hours. I finished the book(about 200 pages) after 3 weeks. I think thats the motivation of what stephen is talking about.
    My next book in english( 'Shibumi' by Trevanian) i read without a dictionary. I didn't understand every word, but i understood very well the plot.

  3. This approach goes well beyond language acquisition and would seem to apply broadly within pedagogy. Everything we are taught with language is simply another layer of language, albeit not always expressed in such a fashion. Math is the most obvious 'translation'. But even conceptual understandings within anatomy, physics, chemistry, and law apply as well. It appears that this approach is simply stumbled upon, happenstance, by a great many instructors in the modern United States.
    I haven't the experience abroad to confirm, but I imagine it is a mistake made more often than not, even outside the U.S., to simply front-load topics, or over-simplify them, and expect repetition (translated as 'studying') to make up the difference, thereby leaning more heavily upon individual predispositions of motivation and dedication, and widening the apparent success gap.

  4. Him: you need motivation to learn a language
    Me: crap
    Him: you need self esteem
    Me: shit
    Him: you can't have anxiety

  5. Yas dr krashen discourse has not change. If you see one of his last interviews the same points are made. He is the best

  6. His German sucks. Wow! As a famous international linguist he should have awesome skills and pronunciation in German, French & Spanish. At least!

  7. I watched this cause I didn't understand the course but now I feel the one who put the course he lied to us about Krashen's theories, it's not the same in the book 😭💔

  8. Why couldn't this be extended (similarly) to other sciences like Mathematics or other sciences deemed as "languages"? It is true that many things can be interpreted as a language but people seem to refrain methodological intuitiveness. It always bothers me why educational institutions don't seem to care about that. A reply is greatly appreciated.

  9. I’m not trying to disprove anything, but trying to learn more—what about output? Wouldn’t this help students practice the patterns they picked up through continuous comprehensible input? This could also allow them to pick up their own voice for a language.

    I’m not trying to disprove anything and have not done research myself, and I indeed liked Krashen’s talk. I’m thinking about doing some research on acquisition in a research course, and I’m trying to learn more about the field.

  10. He is a scientist. He has contributed so much to bringing us back to the science of language acquisition when so much of the language teaching pedagogy was focusing on individual learning traits as in the concept of learner centeredness but, I think he does tend to paint a picture of the learner as being at the mercy of their own learning process.

  11. Can someone tell me how you apply this logic to increasing the language ability of someone going from medium to high level ???

  12. Watching this video in 2019 with a big smile on my face… Tons of dope, knowledge, lived truth in a single video.

    I'm leaning German this year and I get impressed with the way I could understand German 😮🤐🤐

  13. Sooo SLA is all about drawing and TPR and it works exactly the same for every single individual. No wonder Krashen received so much criticism out of his Paradigm.

  14. Music helps too. RAMMS+EIN & Einstürzende Neubaten are bands who really interest me, listening to their music, reading the lyrics somehow helped me. I also went to Deutsch Für Euch & GetGermanized, these sites helped a bit too.

  15. Just amazing!! If he lectured this way in German, unlike in my boring classes I'd eagerly listen for long periods and maybe, start speaking like Itomi within 6 months….

  16. Anyone who is interested more, I recommend another video.
    An american guy tries to learn Arabic which for English speakers is considered to be the most difficult languages along with Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. The last 13 mintues of the video is worth enough to watch.

  17. Brilliant! Despite this, what do most schools use? Everything he mentioned does not work? They must want to make English seem difficult. "All mighty" English has to be so much tougher to learn or else these people wouldn't be "Elite." I'm catching on, but I'll do what it takes to hook my students up.

  18. If you want to learn any language, just focus on what Stephen Krashen said; “ We acquire a language in one way and only one way, when we get more comprehensible input in a low anxiety environment” Thanks Stephen 🙏🏽

  19. Phenomenal! He basically summarized all the necessary approaches to language learning in 15 minutes. Guys this video has everything you have to understand if you want to learn any language. (Only those who acquired a language to full extent will understand the true merit and value of this video)

  20. I should send it to my language teacher. He exactly explained why her way dos not work. She refuses any gramatical explanations, but at the same time she talks to us as if we were natives. And she forcese us to talk. Useless. She is incomprehensible to us at this moment. She would not admitted it. Though.
    Great talk.

  21. Bravo! It all makes perfect sense to me! I wish I'd heard this 30 years ago – at the beginning of my teaching career. My poor former students! I have pity for them.

  22. As a Chinese, I have lived in Germany for 3 years, and without working so hard to learn German, I don't think I could speak German at all.
    However, I didn't live in Korea but studied 6 months of Korean and Japanese (at the same time), I could speak Korea and Japanese fluently right the way.
    So I think if my native language is an European language, I would pick up German much faster than what I expected.

  23. it felt so exiting to watch him teach German i wish all teaching was that easy and the sad thing is it probably is

  24. We speak English around 730 days old. After hearing it. We make "d" and "g" sounds before speaking english words. We should go back there for every new language.
    Meet some ESL, in target language. Use pictures.

  25. He counterviewed so many well known people. Man 🤣🙈Literally, he destroyed Skinner etc that well. 🤣

  26. I never thought that my idol in my years at BA in ELT …Stephen Krashen …would be so alike to Woody Allen in so many ways …unbelievable

  27. This theory is one of the most brilliant theories I ever heard about language acquisition theory.

  28. After 5 minutes looking and listening to this guy I could feel my anxiety rising by the minute! This was not an enjoyable lesson.

  29. This is great!!! Thank you! I will be a 1st year elementary school teacher soon. As an Adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK), my heart goes out to English Language Learners, whether they were born in the U.S. or not, as well as their parents and other family members. I spent 2 months working as an Assistant English Teacher in Japan. It was an amazing experience, and I wish I could have stayed longer. However, culture shock is real, and it takes time & practice to learn culture, language:spoken & written. I want to be patient with all my students, ELLs, in SPED, GT… like people have been patient and helpful to me! Being genuinely caring in the way you interact with people goes a long way. Best practices based on proven research is another important piece. I"m also learning that kids coming from poverty need more supports to help them succeed with academic language…experiences going to the library, to the zoo, parents who are well educated and have time to spend with kids, not just work 2-3 jobs to pay the bills…

  30. My school French teacher would often speak to us in French, using words he never taught us, and expect us to just vaguely figure out what he meant. If it wasn't immediately obvious what the words precisely mean, or even sound like, over time through repeating the same sort of things it began to become clearer.

  31. Basically how many kids around the globe learned perfect english, starting from video games and then moving on to tv and books. And you can always tell who these people are because they use english at random points in a sentence and when you ask them what they meant they can't, for the life of them, come up with the term in their native tongue 😛

  32. Hello, Mr Krashen, thank you so much for all the info you have shared on this video. I just have a question and I hope you reply back to me.

    The question is: Can the natural approach method be used to teach all languages tenses or does it have a limit in which the students must study Grammar?

    Good regards

    I am from Nicaragua.

  33. What a load of bullshit. Nobody can learn a foreign language without inborn talent, talent that 99% of all people lack.

  34. Comprehensible input still means that I can't learn a foreign language, because I comprehend almost nothing of any language other than English.

  35. fundamental principles, including 1) visualization, 2) contextualization, 3) meaningful repetition, 4) mental association.

  36. Ever since I learned German while traveling in Europe, and found that it's far easier to learn using these methods, I've been looking for a way to quickly acquire languages. However, I prefer to learn in a classroom setting, and I have yet to find any college or school that teaches using this method. Is there a school in the DC area that uses this method to teach language?

  37. Idioten persönlichkeit and gritty, annoying man but CI and low anxiety are solid departures. SLA is significantly more complex, however. Criticism of Krashen's 5 points should be noted.

  38. Wow! In a 15-minute video, he summed up the problem with how we are teaching second (etc.) languages and quite clearly showed how to correct it! Genial!

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