Tale of two hypotheses

Thomas Leverett, April 2008


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I've written quite a bit about Krashen and his theories, and I haven't changed my mind about any of them. As I've said before, he was interesting: he watched people, he based what he said on what he saw and knew to be true. And he's still doing it, as far as I know, though he's been sucked into the bilingual ed controversy, at the expense of perhaps seeing his acquisition theories more carefully grounded and explained. His influence in the world of teaching continues to be enormous, even in adult ed, somewhat removed from the public schools where he has perhaps made his biggest name. But of his five hypotheses, two stand out in particular as meriting comment, as I am still hearing about them almost daily.

The first is perhaps the most basic: the learning/acquisition distinction. I have made these points before: that this struck such a strong chord among practiced teachers that they have considered Krashen somewhat of a god ever since he verbalized the theory. In retrospect, it seems to me somewhat obvious. Students learn something, then, it takes them a little while, then, they choose of their own accord to put it into their active production system, then, they gingerly try it out, misuse it a little, and then, finally, they begin using it properly, habitually, as a matter of course.

Ah, but there's the rub. Krashen came up at a time when words like "habitually" weren't spoken in polite company, or in company dominated by the works and ideas of Chomsky. Chomsky and his followers, scared to death of the power of manipulation, perception and habit, had, from associating Hitler, Milgram, and B.F. Skinner with each other, vowed and determined to prove that language was, at its core, genetic, a property humans had inherited, complete with universals and apparati built into our brains, one of which he called the "language acquisition device." Krashen handled this with respect, which one had to do at that time, but Krashen's acquisition/learning distinction to me said it fairly boldly: it's not what you know, or what you learn, it's what you make into habit. Language is basically a set of habits- not that we follow our habits religiously, or walk around unwilling to change them- but, if Krashen were able to say it, he might have said, look, acquisition is when you make it a habit, and put it into your system.

I think time has been a lot harder on Chomsky's theories than it has on Krashen's. After the complete decoding of the human genome, one of the most startling discoveries was that there really wasn't a whole lot of genes- that in fact, if we think everything is genetic, we've been looking under the wrong rock. Not that thirty years of futile searching for "universals" would have swayed anyone away from Chomsky's camp: he had, or has, what could be called a compelling intellect, a magnetic personality. And a thoroughly overpowering tendency to bully those who would point out, repeatedly, that almost anything anyone ever thought was universal about language, simply wasn't. Language is like a number of passageways through a forest. There are simply too many of them to say that anyone who ever stepped on a stick, also stepped on a leaf. It's just simply not true.

On Krashen's behalf, he was badly maligned by language acquisition theorists; the learning/acquisition distinction was unprovable, had no validity, how could one take so seriously such a slippery and undefinable concept? I think they smelled behaviorism right under the surface and applied the same kind of rabid attack strategies, to no avail. The world of teachers loved that part of Krashen. One day, when teaching, I finished teaching question order: what are we going to do? What are you going to do? Etcetera. When class was finished, one of my more conversant students simply asked, "What we are going to do tomorrow?" I realized at that moment that Krashen was right. You could teach something, and they could learn it, and they could know it, and if you asked them what was right, a, b, c or d, they'd all get it right. But when it came to what they'd actually say, they'd use the habits they'd developed over time. And they'd only change those, under certain conditions, that hadn't yet been met. So it was possible for a student then to use the wrong grammar, virtually right on top of the lesson that had supposedly taught him the right grammar. And I knew, on that day at least, that it wasn't my teaching that was at fault. I knew that experientially.

Another of Krashen's theories that resonates completely with teachers is i + 1...ah, but this one bothers me. It took me years to figure out what bothered me about it. I had to do some serious reminiscing on my own college days, and my own language learning, to truly figure it out.

I think it's a natural tendency of all good teachers to aim slightly over the learner's head, to hit that optimal point where the learner knows enough to stay engaged, and yet is pushed as much as possible to learn just the next thing, just the appropriate and maximal thing that will make learning efficient, useful and fun. This I'm sure is true in all fields and no less in language teaching. So, all these years, I've been faithfully practicing the concept with no trouble at all, though I was bothered with the idea that somehow Krashen had invented it. No, I don't think so. But there's something else fishy about it. What exactly is I? By this question I mean to ask whether language is really a gigantic house of conceptual cards, a card castle: you have to balance the first three or four floors of them, before you can seriously build anything on the fifth floor? Is this I a complex scaffold of theoretical understanding that one must have before one takes on, say, relative clauses? I don't think so. Language, I believe, is basically very simple, and the learner simply has to understand the situation, and the meaning of the words, to begin to get the hang of what is being said. I really don't believe there is that much theoretical understanding involved. "Put the verb at the end of the sentence" has more in common with "Put your foot on the pedal" than it does with, say, "Use this theory to factor out x + y". And that's where I feel Krashen's use of algebraic letters set us off on the wrong track. Right as he was about the nature of learning, he was wrong about the nature of language.

As proof I offer my college years, spent at a place called Cornell College, Mt. Vernon Iowa, which had changed to the block plan a while before I arrived. In the block plan students spend an entire month taking what in essence is a semester class, in my case Russian. In fact I took a year's worth of Russian (language) over the course of one very brutal December-January, brutal in terms of Iowa winter that is. Now I don't remember those two months of study as being better, overall, than it would have been, had it been spread out, an hour a day, over nine months as it would have been in a standard university. But, totally absorbed in Russian as I was, studying almost four hours a day in class, another four in homework, we were on our way to War and Peace. And I got into a conversation with my friend the Chemistry teacher one day, who told me, yes, you language people love the block plan, but we science teachers hate it. Why? Because you have to absorb concepts, and it takes a couple of days, and you don't have a couple of days. A couple of days later is a couple of weeks in the block plan. So, in science, and in math too by the way, we lay these concepts on the table, and we can't expect students to use them right away. They just haven't sunk in.

We didn't really have that problem in the language classes, I had to admit. I wasn't having any conceptual trouble with the fact that Russian verbs were divided into maddening sets of endings and versions based on tense, aspect, etc. But understanding why it would have a different form for subjects than for objects was not particularly difficult. I felt like I was learning a lot- about the Russian mind, the Russian culture, the Russian way of thinking and ordering its vast and frozen world. But I wasn't doing it through concepts that were hard to absorb and sink in, that took days to understand.

As a sidelight, I'll say that I have no idea whether his comments were proven- whether it had been studied in any way, or where I might go to find that; in fact, I'd be interested in knowing. Knowing both whether it was better learning the language 8 hours a day for two months, versus one hour/day for nine months; and whether language students in general survived the block plan, or succeeded more, under it, on achievement tests, say, than Chemistry students; how would I determine this? It's an open question.

But, I am led back to a spot that I'm not sure if, or where, I have verbalized. This is an essential truth of grammar: it's not based on complex mathematical formulae, equations with basic universal yet mysterious nature yet to be formalized. Grammar is shared by a people, some of whom are quite dumb, and most of whom are quite busy. So it tends toward the simple, the understandable, the mutually obvious; the rule that you think you've observed, is probably the rule. And the people, out there speaking and writing, are following what they perceive as the rule, even if it isn't. They are assuming that it is the way it appears to be. By virtue of thousands of people acting that way, it becomes that way. Grammar is more like a path through the forest, than a corn maze, the solution to which can only be mastered by a wizard, with access to the magic book.

Good night.


Leverett, T. (2003). Review of Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei Lectures, by Stephen Krashen, TESL-EJ, vol. 7, no. 2, Sept.

Note: The following was posted at http://www.siu.edu/~cesl/teachers/pd/k2me3.html in 2008, and was restored here in 2011.