13 May 2011


One of the most popular figures in language methodology is a certain Stephen Krashen.  People love him.  People quote him.  People even refer to what he does as "research", but Krashen himself has been involved in very little research, and most of the papers he writes cite papers which refer to other papers.  And many of the papers he cites were written by him.

Krashen's view of teaching is massively oversimplistic, and unfortunately that appeals to people.

I've had a pop at Krashen in the past (in the latter part of my post Expository vs Naturalistic language), and I'm not the only one.

The journalist Jill Stewart got stuck into him over a dozen years ago about bilingual education in her Los Angeles Times article Krashen Burn.  In it, she attacked his views on the education of Spanish speakers in the USA as being not only contrary to the evidence from teaching practice, but also diametrically opposed to the principles he professes for adult second language acquisition, even though he suggests adults should learn "like children".

In fact, Krashen's theories are so all-pervasive that Timothy Mason, when working as an English teacher trainer in the Université de Versailles St Quentin, dedicated most of a semester-long degree-level course to deconstructing Krashen's claims and rebutting them with references to real research and other academic opinions.  And he's now put the lectures on-line for all to enjoy. [Edit 2015-07-30: the pages appear to have disappeared from the site, but are available via archive.org's wayback machine.]

As I said, Krashen's theories are popular because their apparent simplicity appeals to both the teacher and the learner.  But more insidiously, Krashen claims there is really no such thing as "learning" a language, saying instead that you "acquire" it.  Now logically, if there's no such thing as "learning", then there can be no such thing as "teaching".  This is particularly appealing for the teacher, because if there's no such thing as "teaching", there is no such thing as "bad teaching"; instead, we have the idea that the teacher gives the student the opportunity to acquire the language, and can't really be blamed if the student doesn't take it.

(Actually, can we still call the language learner a "student"...?  Or even a "language learner"...?  If there is no learning, there is no study, so surely the appropriate word is "acquirer"?  This may seem like a simple game of semantics, but my understanding of the word "student" is someone who actually works at learning.  By continuing to use the term "student", Krashen's followers risk unconsciously passing all the blame for failed learning to the students.)

I understand all this, yet I am still baffled as to how the gaping flaws in Krashen's reason are still so hard to point out to people.

Krashen says we don't learn by production, we learn by listening and understanding.  Yet it is self-evident that this simply isn't enough in the real world.  Think of any immigrants you know.  All over the UK we have had wave after wave of immigration, particularly since the second world war.  There are loads of people who have lived here since the 70s who still haven't "acquired" English to a native-like level, with continued native-language interference.

As Timothy Mason points out, choosing not to correct mistakes "may be seen as a perfectly rational judgement on the part of the learner, who decides that any further investment in perfecting his grasp of the L2 will not pay sufficient dividends in added communicative and social power."

But it's more than this.  Certain errors cost more to fix at a later date than others.  I addressed one of these a few weeks ago: the falling together of phonemes.

Using the same example as in my previous post, we can predict that a French beginner of English will have difficulty distinguishing T from unvoiced TH, and D from voiced TH.  We can intervene and make them see the distinction, but only through production.  There is simply too much redundancy in language to be able to force the student to need to discriminate.  Word pairs such as "this" and "diss" differ so much in usage that discriminating the phonemes is very rarely going to be required to comprehend the sentence.

And as I said in the earlier post, my French friend can pronounce all the phonemes of English (with a bit of an accent) and he can even hear them when he listens for them, but they are missing from his model of the language, and in order to learn to pronounce every word correctly, he would have to relearn all his vocabulary.  He can function perfectly well in English, so learning correctly would certainly not pay "sufficient dividends" compared to the time he would have to invest, so it is "perfectly rational" that he doesn't.

The same goes for many people's grammar.  Little errors like missing the word "to" from "need to" rarely confuse anyone, and so there is no impetus for correction.

Current thinking is that it is sufficient to focus on survival language and "getting the message across" without any concern for accuracy.  Accuracy, they tell us, is an advanced skill for advanced students, and isn't worth the effort for most people, who just want to have a nice holiday.

But accuracy must be an early focus or it will never be achieved.  Grammatical and phonological accuracy is cheap and easy to start with, and gets more difficult and expensive the later it's left. 

So we have to teach, and we have to teach accuracy, or the student will never achieve it.

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