Studying Versus Learning: How We Acquire Languages
If you’ve ever struggled to learn a foreign language, you’re not alone. A survey found that less than one percent of students who study language in school achieve fluency. So, why do so many people fail? To get a better understanding of why so many, you first have to understand the difference between studying and learning. Here’s a little secret: they’re not the same.
- Studying is a deliberate, conscious effort to get information into your brain.
- Learning is a subconscious, organic process where that knowledge takes root and can be used spontaneously. This is called acquisitional learning.
Both play a role in your language learning efforts. But truly successful language learners put more effort into learning rather than studying. (Specifically, they understand comprehensive input and how vital it is in rapidly gaining fluency instead of running into frustrating obstacles all the time).
What Is the Best Theory for Secondary Language Learning?
Grammar sucks. Anyone who’s ever tried to learn a language easily recalls the times in class spent reading charts on conjugation and trying to understand the functions of a language first. Grammar is useful. Don’t get me wrong. The problem with it is that it’s typically never taught at the right time.
Stephen Krashen is a highly regarded linguist whose theories have made a profound impact on the language learning community. In fact, his work helped reinforce the basis of my own language learning program.
Krashen is quick to point out that we’ve all learned at least one language: our native tongue. Using this as a point of reference, he began watching toddlers, trying to understand what moves them to learn how to communicate.
Speaking isn’t their objective. Toddlers don’t sit down and attempt to master their native language like pint-sized scholars. Instead, their goal is to make sense of their environments, classify everyday objects, and understand the relationships among the people around them. In other words...
They learn the language to survive.
From the beginning, they’re absorbing language long before they say their first words. Talking is simply a byproduct of making friends in daycare or asking for a cup of juice. Grammar or rote recitation is never a part of their language-acquisition experience. Survival is.
As a result of his observations, Krashen proposed one astounding idea: people of all ages can acquire foreign languages just as organically as toddlers.
Traditional Methods of Language Learning Are Mostly Wrong
Most high school/academic language learning programs and the many popular platforms that exist today cling to outdated language learning models. Particularly, they’re based on Noam Chomsky’s research. Thinking that has since been exchanged with better ideas.
Chomsky is a pioneer of linguistic and cognitive sciences, for sure. In his Universal Grammar Theory, he proposes that children inherit a Language Acquisition Device, or LAD, from birth. The theory argues that linguistic structures get imprinted in their brains, and this grammatical hardwiring is the foundation for learning any language. If the LAD is not strengthened and encouraged with continued grammar education, Chomsky believes this innate ability can be lost.
Except, that’s not really accurate.
When first introduced, Krashen’s theory was in stark contrast to Chomsky’s (and in many circles, people continue to see the LAD as gospel). But Krashen argues that “we don’t master languages with hard study and memorization or by producing it. Rather, we acquire languages when we understand what people tell us and what we read.”
But it’s more than just that. Krashen argues that what truly matters is comprehensible input (CI). That “as we get comprehensible input through listening and reading, we acquire (or absorb) the grammar and vocabulary of the second language.”
For those of you against grammar or those who have PTSD from academic language learning classes, you can breathe a sigh of relief.
My own experience and that of my family forces me to side with Krashen as well. My parents, grandparents, most of my extended family, AND hundreds of thousands of ethnic Circassians were fluent in Circassian—all without EVER having any formal grammar instruction. Ever. Circassian lacked a written alphabet until the 1930s. Even then, it was unknown to diaspora like my extended family members.
What Are Krashen’s Five Hypotheses?
Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition revolutionized foreign language instruction. It consists of five hypotheses that are outlined below. And understanding this theory is vital to understanding the role comprehensive input plays in mastering a second language.
The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis:
At odds with traditional methods, Krashen believes that conscious learning is NEVER the result of spontaneous speaking. Trying to learn the rules first prevents meaningful language absorption.
When you take a purely academic approach, you end up with a kind of understanding (or even mastery) of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. However, this isn’t language mastery. It’s the same reason that many people can study a language for years while still struggling to speak it.
Acquisitional learning is different. It’s a subconscious process that springs from the desire to understand others and be understood. It breaks down diverse social and cultural boundaries. It goes beyond proficiency and into knowing how to communicate in any given situation.
“Language,” penned one unknown author, “is the mind’s opposable thumb.” Grasping things with an opposable thumb can’t be taught; it’s an organically acquired skill. Krashen would tell you to set aside the grammar books until you’ve acquired the language. Only then will grammar rules begin to really make any kind of sense.
The Input Hypothesis
How do we acquire language? Krashen and Chomsky agree that learning or acquiring any language requires comprehensible input. And for Krashen, that means spending ample time listening and reading before you ever attempt speaking. You need to saturate yourself in the targeted language. Think toddler: immersed in language every day.
You need the right input though. So, comprehensible input is just one baby step ahead of your ability to understand it. To get technical, he expresses this level of input as i+1. Where “i” represents your interlanguage or your skill level at any time in the learning process. “1” signifies the next stage you’re working towards.
Having comprehensive input is crucial. If the input is too easy, you’ll get bored and won’t learn easily. If it’s too challenging (like trying to master grammar right from the beginning), you’ll slow down, stall, and eventually fail to learn your target language.
The Monitor Hypothesis
Unlike adults, toddlers don’t tend to go back and correct themselves when they violate grammar rules. This is another way that traditional language learning programs fail. Foreign language students tend to be masters of self-analysis, self-editing, and second-guessing, especially if they’re perfectionists.
To successfully learn a language, you have to be willing to communicate. This means you need to stop thinking and focus on trying to communicate. In other words: just spit it out.
Learning from your mistakes is simply part of the process. Make them and move on.
The Natural Order Hypothesis
In any language, we acquire vocabulary and grammar skills in a certain order, no matter who you are. Many academic programs and language learning platforms again fall short with this because they front load these skills. But you have to crawl before you can walk, or even run.
Think about it. What good is it to learn complex grammar structures like possessives and third-person plurals when you’re struggling with basic pronunciation? Grammar structures are known as late-acquired skills for a reason...
You get many strides when studying a foreign language effectively. You’ll be breezing along on early-acquired elements and then, BOOM, you hit a wall. There’s some late-acquired skill you don’t have the understanding yet to overcome. While frustrating, it’s part of the natural process.
Remember: language is a natural, brain-ordered process that goes at its own pace. And you can’t rush the brain.
The Affective Filter Hypothesis
Charles Van Riper had a severe stutter. He dealt with humiliation after humiliation growing up. At one point, he even pretended to be deaf and mute just to get a job as a hired hand on a farm. One day, an old man with a severe stutter came to chat with the farmer.
Van Riper overheard him and worked up the courage to approach him as he was leaving. They had a meaningful talk. Van Riper asked him how he did found the courage to speak. The old man said, “I’m too old and tired to fight myself now, so I just let the words leak out.” He also told Van Riper to relax. He never forgot that.
Van Riper opened a speech clinic in 1936 and became a renowned pioneer of speech therapy. We still use his methods widely today.
What does all this mean?
Anxiety only made the stuttering worse. Van Riper realized that the goal was not to stop stuttering but to communicate well despite the stutter. In other words, stutter fluently.
Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis uses the same approach. No one can learn to speak a foreign language in a negative, stressful environment. Remove fear, anxiety, embarrassment or the desire to impress others, and achieve fluency faster. By reducing this “active filter” you make language learning happen easier.
What’s the TL;DR?
As a non-academic, this is how I interpret the Krashen’s Theories:
- Get lots and lots of exposure to your target language.
- Don’t worry about memorizing.
- Don’t worry about being everything perfect.
- Keep things low-stress, and trust that you’ll eventually figure it out.
- Expose yourself to comprehensive input constantly for success.
And this is why many traditional language learning platforms fail. Academic settings are plagued with high-stress, high anxiety environments where perfection is promoted and mistakes are penalized. They teach out of order, rushing to topics of little significance and without proper exposure. And they fail at comprehensive input, leaving the experience either too boring or too hard to learn anything.
How Do I Choose the Right Comprehensive Input?
Krashen’s theory of learning a language with topics just out of reach is key to avoiding frustration and progressing towards successful language learning. But what is the right comprehensive input?
To begin with, whatever content you use to study your target language needs to be interesting to you. The more interesting the material is, the easier time you’ll have to learn your target language.
Explore books and movies in your targeted language. If you like art, history, religion, food, even anime, use that material in your target language. Expose yourself to it. Keep in mind the “i”+1 concept. Choose material that is complex enough that you understand it with some difficulty, but not too intense that you shut down. And avoid easy. You don’t want to bore yourself.
How Do I Find the Right Balance?
Another key to succeeding in learning a foreign language is having the right language learning program. You want to avoid platforms and strategies that cling to dated methods. YOU WEREN’T A BAD STUDENT. Get that notion out of your head. Those programs were faulty. And while apps like DuoLingo or Memrise can be fun at first, they get boring fast. You need strategies that keep you on course with material that’s interesting and useful.
My parents speak Circassian without having ever opening a grammar book or stepping into a classroom. They’re functionally illiterate in their native language. Yet, fluent. That innate, natural power to master languages rests at the foundation of OptiLingo. It’s a program I designed after teaching myself my native, dying language as a way of helping preserve it.
This program avoids the pitfalls of traditional language learning platforms and academic settings and instead works with your body’s natural ability to learn languages. As a result, it reduces frustration while guiding students to fluency.
If you’re tired of studying languages and want to truly learn one, then check out OptiLingo. Learning another language doesn’t have to be an anxiety-inducing frustration. Yes. It really can be easy. You’ve already learned one after all.