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My Debt To - And Argument With - Stephen Krashen
Robert O'Neill Offers a Rebuttal to Krashen's Reply

This is Robert O'Neill's answer to a reply from Stephen Krashen regarding points raised in O'Neill's recently featured ESL MiniConference interview. (Also read Stephen Krashen's new reply.)

Robert O'NeillStephen Krashen's ideas had a profound influence on me in a very formative period of my professional development as a teacher and a text-book author, about twenty years ago. And today I believe his ideas are sometimes neglected, or perhaps just misunderstood. Part of the reason for this unjust neglect is, I believe, his insistence what I think can be called "learning" is really "acquisition". And I suspect the use of the second term leads us away from the real issues.

The Real Issues

The question is NOT "Is comprehensible input useful - even essential ?" I believe it is, just as he does. Nor is the issue about the real or imagined deficits of a formal grammar approach to a foreign language. It undoubtedly fails with many adult learners - and just as undoubtedly works well for at least some others. And the issue is certainly not whether some adults can and do learn one or more foreign languages successfully. Of course they do. But why does even Krashen regard this as an "astounding accomplishment" when nobody would say "It is an astounding achievement for my twelve year old daughter to be able to speak her native language as well as any other twelve-year old"? (I do not think it is that astounding for adults to learn a foreign language well, but it is unusual, especially in societies like Anglophone America and Britain, in which there is no serious tradition of foreign language learning.) This, then, is the main - and real - issue. Why is L1 Acquisition almost always successful when undertaken even by grossly disadvantaged children? And why do so many intelligent and motivated adults fail to learn or "acquire" a foreign language?

There are related issues, such as the following,

- Why do so many adults learning a foreign language fossilise - reach a language plateau far below the level of fluency and accuracy they hope to attain - despite in some cases being surrounded by the foreign language, and despite the fact that they may have been living in that foreign culture for years?

- Why do children not fossilise in their acquisition of their L1 - at least not before they have - without knowing it - acquired a complex, hierarchical system full of intricate case relationships (even when their L1 has no overt or marked cases) , and other distinctions such as tense, aspect, modality, and so on? Even autistic children do this, as do children with gross pathologies. The exceptions to this rule, such as "Genie"1 are victims of equally gross, often criminal neglect. That's what it seems to take to prevent a normal or even far less than normal child from acquiring their L1. And they do this at an age when most of them cannot do long division, drive a car, understand algebra or fill in an income tax form. Yet so many (fortunately not all) adults who have learned to do these things and far more complex things fail to learn even one foreign language in their lives?

Last of all, a real issue is whether or not it helps anybody to insist that when some adults do successfully learn a foreign language, we should use the slightly affected and certainly more specialised word "acquisition" for this "astonishing achievement". What is wrong with saying simply "context-rich and accessible input helps adults to learn far better and with far fewer problems than are encountered in approaches that ignore or minimise the importance of this vital component"? The word "learn" after all has a long and on the whole positive history. Useful insights into how to make the process of foreign language learning easier and more successful (Krashen himself has made a very positive contribution in this respect) stretch back at least 2,500 years or more. And these insights associated with learning were not and have never been exclusively "grammar-bound" in the sense of the formal study of formal rules.

The useful - even essential - distinction between "Learning" and "Acquisition"

I will argue that Krashen's own ideas would be better understood if he talked about learning and not acquisition. Ideas such as comprehensible input are important precisely because L1 Acquisition and Second or Foreign Language Learning are so different, even though there may be a few features they share.

I am sure that the facts about the genetically-triggered and biologically-driven process of L1 acquisition are as well-known to Stephen Krashen as they are to me, so perhaps he will indulge me for a moment while I explain my version of them - and also why I believe what he calls "acquisition" should be understood as "learning". I am not trying to pose here as a neuro-biologist or even as an expert in linguistics. I am using only the evidence of my forty-five years or more of experience as a teacher of English and German, and also my observations as a parent of an autistic child . I am not completely sure of all my facts here - but I am reasonably sure that what I have to say here is generally accepted. I invite Professor Krashen to correct any 'facts' or interpretation of them that he believes are wrong.

1 The stages of L1 development and acquisition are strangely similar and broadly predictable in very different cultures and societies, whereas the stages of development or learning in groups of adults learning a foreign language are not. Krashen argues that adults learn a foreign language in a predictable order that cannot be changed by formal instruction. This may be true if there is any progress at all. But there is something terribly misleading here. Krashen says this as if all adults who start learning a foreign language make the same kind of predictable progress that children make when acquiring their L1. But this, as anybody who has ever taught a group of adults a foreign language knows, is simply not true. Whereas all the members in any group of randomly selected children will all make more or less the same predictable progress in acquiring their L1, only some of the members of most groups learning a foreign language will make any real progress at all. This does not happen in the case of children acquiring their L1. Although of course there will be variations in the kind of vocabulary they acquire, and even in the level of syntactic complexity with which they use their L1, all the children end up as more or less competent speakers of their L1. However, - as we have already noted - it is in Krashen's own words "an astonishing accomplishment" when an adult ends up as a competent speaker and user of a foreign language. Even if we allow for a certain amount of rhetorical exaggeration here (and I hope it is not as astonishing as it seems), it is still true that the amount of progress any individual adult learner will make is often not predictable at all, and that the end result is usually very different, both quantitatively and qualitatively, from the kind and level of progress a child acquiring an L1 will make. This may seem a depressing conclusion for some teachers and learners (I don't find it depressing at all)..

2 One of the explanations for the very predictable progress children make in acquiring their L1 may be that those children are developing cognitively at the same time - and that again, there is something very predictable about the order and rate of this development. When children start using two-word utterances at a predictable time in their L1 development, other equally predictable things are happening in the way their brains are developing. Language development parallels general cognitive development in a child. Both types of development can be explained biologically. No teacher I know of thinks that there is the same kind of parallel biological development in a group of adults learning a foreign language.

3 The immaturity of the child's brain may be an enormous advantage in L1 acquisition. It is a fact of all human languages that they are learned by children. And this helps to explain what makes foreign languages more difficult for adults to learn (and why adults cannot "acquire" them in the same way children acquire their L1) As the researcher in neurobiology and evolutionary biology, Terence Deacon2, says,

"Languages don't just change, they evolve. And children themselves are the rigged game. Languages are under powerful selection pressure to fit children's likely guesses, because children are the vehicle by which a language gets reproduced. Languages have had to adapt to children's spontaneous assumptions about communication, learning, social interaction, and even symbolic reference, because children are the only game in town".

As adults we tend to look for a kind of adult system and logic in a foreign language when, in fact, we should be looking for the kind of logic and system that characterises the way children think, talk and play?

"The structure of a language is under intense selection because in its reproduction from generation to generation, it must pass through a narrow bottleneck: children's minds Language operations that can be learned quickly and easily by children will tend to get passed on to the next generation more effectively and more intact than those that are difficult to learn. So, languages should change through history in ways that tend to conform to children's expectations; those that employ a more kid-friendly logic should come to outnumber and replace those that don't".3

4 Children never refuse to acquire their L1. It may not be as effortless as it sometimes appears, but except in certain instances of gross pathology or parental neglect (as in "Genie's" case), acquisition is always successful. Adults learning a foreign language often refuse or give up. Some get bored. Others get distracted. Some decide that it is just not worth the effort. Have you ever heard of a child who didn't acquire their L1 because they got bored, or distracted - or because they didn't think it was worth the effort?

5 Around or at puberty , this kind of acquisition we see in children no longer appears possible, at least not for the great majority of humans. There is in other words, a critical period for acquisition (as opposed to learning) and also a critical "cut-off" point. You either catch the bus or never get on it at all.

6 In what is (misleadingly, I believe) called "L2 acquisition", the process is not genetically triggered. It is not biologically driven in any way. For a great variety of reasons, adults can and do fail to learn or "acquire" a foreign language. As Chomsky says " you simply cannot teach a language to an adult the way a child learns a language. That's why it's such a hard job".4 And that is why it is often unsuccessful.

7 "Learning" does not have to be conscious. "Learning" and understanding may be and I believe are enhanced in many ways by the kinds of processes and learning strategies Stephen Krashen argues for, but what is going on is no longer a biologically-driven5 process in the sense that L1 Acquisition is. The learners are using their minds and brains in ways that are not identical with the way they acquired their L1. Their brains are now different.

8 After puberty, humans are increasingly expected to use their brains in very different ways, to learn very different things. It is undoubtedly an evolutionary advantage for humans to be able to acquire human language in the way they do in childhood. But it is also a great advantage in life for the adult brain to mature and be able to handle a great many abstract (but not necessarily exclusively "conscious") operations which enable them to think about things far more abstractly than children do. Yet it seems possible - even likely - that as the brain matures in this way, the capacity for 'natural' acquisition of language is either lost entirely or becomes increasingly difficult to recover, at least for the majority of adults Another way of putting it is to say that as adults mature intellectually , they - in Deacon's words

are apt either to assign utility and purpose where there is none, or else to interpret as idiosyncratic or inelegant that for which we cannot recognize a design principle. But languages are far more like living organisms than like mathematical proofs. The most basic principle guiding their design is not communicative utility but reproduction theirs and ours. So, the proper tool for analyzing language structure may not be to discover how best to model them as axiomatic rule systems but rather to study them the way we study organism structure: in evolutionary terms.6

Adults look for 'axiomatic rule systems' (even if they don't know that is what they are called). Children do not. And that is why rules that are easy for children to acquire are so difficult for adults to learn.

The complex network of meanings attached to the word "learn" - and the far more restricted meaning of "acquire"

I would argue that those adults who do better in classes where there is more comprehensible input rather than less are LEARNING more, not ACQUIRING more. For me at least there is nothing about the words LEARN or LEARNING that implies something inferior to "acquisition". And thus again, I would say that adults "learn" rather than "acquire" many complex rules they have never consciously analysed. It seems to me that humans unconsciously learn a great deal, They learn (nobody would say "acquire") scientific knowledge about the world around them, which they cannot consciously explain or even analyse. For example, they learn that the reason things fall down and not up is because there is something called "the law of gravity". But they cannot satisfactorily explain or analyse this any more than they can explain exactly what light is. They learn, often through bitter experience that fire burns, alcohol inebriates and that driving on icy roads is dangerous. They learn to play complex musical instruments and games, the rules and mechanisms of which they often understand only imperfectly.

Many children learn that when people tell lies and want to harm you, they often smile and tell you they only want to protect you. This is almost always unconscious learning. Adults tend on the whole to conceal those things from children - but children still learn them. Nobody says children acquire these things from experience, I myself have learned a great deal indirectly from reading and from the stories and narratives (and lies) people in different culture have told me or which I have encountered in books, many of them written in languages other than my own.

And now, when I read novels or books about evolutionary biology in Spanish, my fifth or sixth foreign language, should I say "this is a good way to learn Spanish"? Or should I say "This is a good way to acquire it"? Why does the first formulation sound much more natural? Why does the second seem mannered, even affected?

So, in other words, although Krashen and I may disagree about the difference between Acquisition and Learning, I don't think he and I differ that much about what is important in a classroom or situation in which he would say someone is "acquiring" a foreign or second language and I would say someone is "learning" it. All right, then, you might ask, "What's the problem? Why bicker over the meaning of a word?"

My answer to that question is that I believe the term "Acquisition" - and the supposed concept behind it - has led to the neglect of the kind of input he and I both agree is so important.

The "nativist" view of L2 Learning or "Acquisition" - where my real quarrel lies

In the last thirty years or so, language teachers - especially native-speaker English teachers - have been deeply influenced by 'nativist' accounts of language- learning, which they call "acquisition". Nativists tend to regard what they call "Acquisition" as something that will come about naturally as the result of tasks and activities that can often be performed by using a very narrow range of language. For example, students are told to work in pairs. One of them has a map. The other does not. The one with the map has to explain to the one without the map how to get from one point to the other. Paul Seedhouse7 , a classroom researcher who has studied published and unpublished transcripts of approximately 330 L2 "task-based" lessons from 14 different countries points out that in such "map-based" tasks as the one I have just described, the language that results from such a task is minimal and does not stretch the learners in any way.

What we often find in practice in task-based interaction is a general tendency to minimize the volume of language learned and to produce only that which is necessary to accomplish the task. Turns tend to be relatively short, with simple syntactic constructions

L1: What?

L2: Stop.

L3: Dot?

L4: Dot?

L5 Point?

L6: Dot?

LL: Point point, yeah,

L5: Small point

L3: Dot.

It is because it is sometimes claimed that such tasks duplicate or replicate the "natural" and "authentic" conditions under which L1 Acquisition takes place that I have come to distrust the word "Acquisition" when used in the context of L2 or Foreign Language Learning. I do not believe that this kind of task-based approach can duplicate or re-create those conditions. And even if they could, such methods force a learning style upon adults that may be appropriate for children but no longer ideal or even as suitable for most adults and older teen-agers. The allegedly "authentic" communication that comes about as a result of these texts is based on an unacceptably high-level of make-believe and pretence. In an "authentic" and normal situation, Student 1 would simply show Student 2 the map and point. There would be no need for any real language at all. It is only the completely artificial requirement that student B must not look at the map that forces student A to produce any language at all.

I believe that especially in the early and even intermediate stages of learning, it is essential for learners to engage regularly with the kind of input that Krashen argues is "one step above" their present level. I do not believe the approach favoured in "Task-Based" learning leads as directly and as "naturally" to this kind of input as the approach advocated by Professor Krashen does. I also believe that contemporary CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) tends to close down and even stigmatise other useful and rich sources of comprehensible input, such as Interactive Teacher-Talk and specially-written materials such as the Longman Readers series, of which I was once the editor. And finally, I believe that both CLT and Task-Based Learning promote a very blinkered, even impoverished view of human language and how it can be learned - or 'acquired' by adults. There are useful insights in both CLT and Task-Based Learning. And there is also a great deal of obfuscation and, I believe, even deceit. Or perhaps it is only wishful thinking and thus self-deception. But that really is the subject of another discourse.

My disagreement with Krashen in other words is not about the process he recommends but what we should call the result or desired product of that process. He may insist that it is "acquisition". But I would say that this word has been hi-jacked by the supporters of an approach or method that minimises the importance of something both Professor Krashen and I regard as essential in what I call language learning and which he prefers to call "acquisition". My point is simply that the term "acquisition" serves only to mystify rather than to clarify the real issues.

In short, I believe that there are principled and compelling reasons for distinguishing between "Acquisition" - a genetically triggered, biologically driven phenomenon that is also a distinguishing characteristic of all humans and something profoundly important in their evolution as humans - and "Learning", which may have something in common with 'Acquisition', at least in optimal cases but which is neither inevitable nor the product of each individual's normal growth in the sense that L1 Acquisition is. I believe that if we recognise that difference, our expectations as learners of foreign languages will become both more rational and more patient. We will not look upon languages as if they were "dial-a-pizza" systems, which is the view of language endorsed by CLT. We will understand that learning a foreign language requires time and application, and that although it may be a long process, it is also a very rewarding one, intellectually as well as socially. If we do this, it is even possible that such deeply "Anglocentric" cultures as Anglophone America and Britain will not think it is an "astonishing accomplishment" for an adult to master at least one foreign language. They will come to regard it as it is regarded in places like Scandinavia, Switzerland, Germany or Holland and many parts of Africa, in which it is more than surprising to find an educated adult (or even an uneducated one) who does not speak at least one foreign language reasonably well. And it is there that my case rests.

Robert O'Neill
Author, Teacher, and Language-Learner

2002 ESL MiniConference Online




1 A well-known case of an adult who "missed the boat" of L1 Acquisition because her father isolated her from all contact with language until she was almost 14. See, for instance "The Seeds of Speech", p 40-41, by Jean Aitchison (Cambridge University Press, 1996) Return to where footnote #1 appears in text

2 See THE SYMBOLIC SPECIES, p109 (Penguin, 1997) Return to where footnote #2 appears in text

3 Ibid, p110 Return to where footnote #3 appears in text

4 Language and Problems of Knowledge, The Managua Lectures, The MIT Press, 1988 page 180 (Discussions after Lecture 5) Return to where footnote #4 appears in text

5 The term "biologically-driven" can be misunderstood to mean a completely automatic and pre-determined process, which L1 Acquisition is not. It is however more a product of "growth" than what is generally understood as "Learning". To fully understand this idea, see for instance Chapter 3: "Acquisition (growth) of language" in "Biolinguistics", by Lyle Jenkins, Cambridge University Press, 2000 Return to where footnote #5 appears in text

6 Ibid. (Deacon, 1997) p 110 Return to where footnote #6 appears in text

7 'Task-based interaction' English Language Teaching Journal, Volume 53/3 July 1999, Oxford University Press Return to where footnote #7 appears in text