Language acquisition and the college classroom

Foreign Language Classes Becoming More Scarce

In the 1970s, about the time I was deciding between the baby-blue and the pale-yellow tux for my South-Alabama senior prom, a young linguist named Stephen Krashen at the University of Southern California was in the process of publishing an important series of hypotheses about language acquisition. Research, Krashen, maintained, suggests the following:

1) Language acquisition occurs when one hears and reads large amounts of information in the target language and understands a high percentage of it.  If input is not comprehensible, acquisition doesn’t happen.  The ideal input is just slightly above the competency level of the student, a situation Krashen refers to as “input plus one,” or i+1.

2)  Language acquisition and language learning are distinct and independent mental activities.  Acquisition is natural, subconscious, and intuitive.  It is the result of comprehensible input, and it is responsible for spontaneous, novel language production.  Learning, on the other hand, is the conscious study of the rules of language.  Mastering the rules produces what Krashen calls the Monitor, a body of information which is useful for editing and correcting expression—either before or after the utterance—, but which does not contribute to spontaneous production.  One doesn’t become able to comprehend and communicate in a language by learning its rules.

3)  All people seem to acquire language in roughly the same order.  We don’t understand all the details of this order, and there hasn’t been enough subsequent research for one to, say, build a syllabus around the natural order of second-language acquisition.  But morpheme studies suggest that some verb forms (e.g., -s as a marker of the 3rd person singular in English) are universally acquired much later in the acquisition process than others, and that natural order is a real thing.

4)  Anxiety, distraction, and boredom form an affective filter that interferes with language acquisition (just as they do in any other learning process).  Students acquire language more easily and efficiently in an engaging, low-stress environment that encourages them to communicate.

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Stephen Krashen

Taken together, these four hypotheses have radical implications for the way we teach second languages.  Yet in the decades that followed their publication some were challenged by other linguists and all but the fourth—the Affective Filter hypothesis—were rejected by most university-level pedagogues.  This is because the dominant model of language acquisition in university classrooms—then and to a significant extent now—is that students learn the rules of a language, then practice the rules in written and oral exercises until they internalize them and can incorporate them into production.  Krashen’s learning-acquisition distinction and his insistence on comprehensible input as the sole motor of language acquisition relegate a good deal of what goes on in the typical college language classroom to a very minor role in the acquisition process.  It also makes assessment highly problematic. 

Foreign-language professors at research institutions spend as little time as possible in the language classroom, happy to hand off that duty to graduate students who often have minimal instruction in language acquisition and pedagogy.  In liberal arts colleges, foreign-language professors most often are those same former R-1 graduate students, trained to emulate their graduate professors, with research interests in literature and culture, yet who spend the greater part of their professional time teaching language classes, and are, paradoxically, beholden to an institutional language requirement for the student traffic that justifies their positions.  It’s no wonder foreign-language professors didn’t run headlong to embrace theories suggesting their work as language teachers, which they were never properly trained to do, was largely ineffective and that they needed to re-evaluate their craft from the ground up.

One professional group among whom Krashen’s ideas have indeed been embraced is primary and secondary school foreign-language teachers. As the spouse of a former K-5 Spanish teacher who is now an ESL instructor, and, through her network of professional colleagues, I’ve had a privileged window onto the world of second-language teaching in public schools and for decades have been astounded by the gulf between the pedagogical practices of innovative public-school language teachers and those of university professors.  I’m also always struck by the paucity of opportunity for dialogue between these groups of professionals dedicated to the same goal.

Over the winter break, I read a recent article by linguists Bill VanPatten and Karen Lichtman titled “Was Krashen Right? 40 Years Later,” in which the authors examine the first 3 of Krashen’s hypotheses (i.e., the most controversial) in light of linguistic research over the past 40 years.  They conclude that, with minor modifications, each of the hypotheses has been affirmed by research and that Krashen’s ideas, often unattributed and known by other names, are highly influential in the world of foreign-language teaching.

If we can assume that Lichtman and VanPatten, both respected linguists, are objective and not partisan groupies, and that Krashen has indeed been mostly right for the past 40 years, then his hypotheses have serious and important implications for how we teach foreign languages at Sewanee.  My own department has dedicated a lot of meeting time in the last two years to addressing the fact that as our future majors, minors, and IGS students move from language classes to upper-level ones their command of spoken and written Spanish is often disappointing. We are also frequently frustrated that students’ language learning doesn’t seem to carry over from one semester or step in the language sequence to another.  Students who study the past tenses intensively in 203, for example, give the impression of encountering their forms and uses for the first time when they’re reviewed in 300.  I suspect that this is also the experience of instructors in other foreign-language departments at Sewanee.  If we’re working hard at teaching things that don’t stick, there is a basic flaw somewhere.  As we look for remedies, should we not take a hard look at our methods and practices in the language classroom in the light of linguistic research?    

If I had the answers, I’d publish them and retire on the royalties.  But I do know that these are a few of the issues that Krashen’s hypotheses and current language-acquisition research lead us to consider if we are willing:

  • Textbooks:  None of the textbooks my department has evaluated in the past 5 years has departed from the grammar-and-practice model of language acquisition.  If research suggests that acquisition is solely—or even largely—the result of large amounts of comprehensible input, and if university-level foreign-language textbooks are structured around an acquisition model that doesn’t prioritize input, should we be using textbooks at all?  If we do use them, how might we modify that use to minimize the explicit teaching and practice of rules—Krashen’s language learning—and maximize input-based acquisition?  To give just a tiny example: Does the memorization of vocabulary lists or verb paradigms make pedagogical sense if real acquisition is a function of hearing and reading the target language?
  • Reading:  As a traditional college language instructor, I always felt I didn’t have enough class time to practice adequately the vocabulary and grammar assigned to each textbook chapter.  The first thing to go was usually the short literary reading at the end of the chapter.  If research indicates that reading is one of the richest and most effective modes of the input necessary for language acquisition, how much curricular time are we dedicating to it?
  • Student bias: How do we overcome our own students’ frequent preference for explicit vs. implicit teaching and learning?  When I taught first- and second-semester Spanish without a textbook, some students begged me to give them verb paradigms to memorize.  It’s comfortable and superficially satisfying to be told what to know, then to regurgitate it from short-term memory.   
  • Assessment:  This is a scary one.  Van Patten’s and Lichtman’s article concludes with this: “… The profession needs to engage in serious discussion about whether traditional grading in institutionalized education is even appropriate for language classes if their goal is to foster the acquisition and promote the development of communicative ability. It is easy to assess and assign grades if language is treated like other subject matter (e.g., an emphasis on explicit learning and the testing of what was learned). It is difficult to imagine how we would assess learners when the focus of the classroom involves an input‐rich environment where communicative ability is allowed to evolve, responding to individual differences of learners, and explicit learning is minimized or perhaps absent. Indeed, perhaps new models for language education that are quite different from those for, say, history and math education, are in order; we leave that for the profession to place on an agenda for thoughtful scrutiny.” 

So, the acquisition experts have kicked the can of assessment down our road.  Now might be a good moment for the thoughtful scrutiny they recommend—not only of assessment but of some of the other issues discussed here.  As we look toward a near future in which Sewanee will compete with similar schools for a shrinking pool of applicants, and as we work to identify ways in which we might (or already do) distinguish ourselves from our peer institutions, couldn’t foreign-language study be a facet of that distinction?

Steve Raulston, Department of Spanish and Italian

Further reading:

Lichtman, Karen and VanPatten, Bill.  “Was Krashen Right?  40 Years Later.”  Foreign Language Annals 54: 283-305.  June 2021.

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