Stephen Krashen on Language Acquisition [Transcript]

I recently found an amazing speech by linguist and educational researcher Stephen Krashen, an award-winning professor at the University of Southern California.

Unfortunately, the audio of the speech is very bad, so I did my best to transcribe his message here, so you don’t have to torture your ears like I did with mine.

I have summarized one story he tells here.

An Outrageous Statement

I’d like to begin my presentation this afternoon by talking about what I think is** the most important issue in language education**, the most important question. And that is how do we acquire language?

And I’d like to begin this discussion, this presentation with an outrageous statement:

In my opinion we all acquire language the same way.

The reason this is an outrageous thing to say is that these days in education, we’re living in an age of individual variation. We’re very concerned about how our students are different, not how our students are the same.

  • All those who’ve been around in the field for a while remember all about how 15-20 years ago, people were very concerned about something called field dependent learners and field independent learners. Give people certain tests, and one group gets this treatment and one gets the other.
  • Then about 15 years ago it was** left side of the brain, right side of the brain**. Some people are left hemisphere thinkers some people are right hemisphere.
  • Then about ten years ago cognitive style: the cognitive style of home culture differs from the cognitive style of the school culture, we have a clash etc.

Well, each of these examples I gave you is probably correct. There is individual variation and there’s quite a bit of it. Nevertheless there are some things we all do the same.

Let me give you some examples.

  • Digestion: We all digest the same. No significant individual variation. First you put it in your mouth, then you chew it up, then it goes down your throat, then into your stomach. That’s how it’s done everywhere. That’s how it’s done in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa. That’s how it’s done everywhere in the world.
  • The visual system is the same everywhere. It’s always the occipital lobe in the back in the brain. It’s never on the side of the brain, it’s never on the front of the brain, it’s never in the elbow. It’s done exactly the same everywhere you go.
  • By the way, I used to use sex as an example of things everyone does the same, but some counterexamples have been pointed out to me recently. Actually I saw this movie, if you really want to know the truth. 😉

Two Sample German Lessons

Anyway we all acquire language the same and rather just talk about it, I’d like to show you, I’d like to take just a couple of minutes and give you some sample language lessons. A usual language that I’m sure you’ve heard before and maybe some of you speak and you can tell me which these two very brief lessons you like better.

Stephen krashen laughing

Here’s lesson number one: Wir werden jetzt anfangen, Deutsch zu lernen. Und ich möchte im Voraus sagen, das nach meiner Meinung: Deutsch ist eine sehr schöne Sprache. Und ich hoffe, dass Sie alle sehr viel Erfolg mit Deutsch haben werden.

What do you think of the lesson so far?

  • Do you think that if I kept talking to you like that, you pick up German? Not very likely.
  • How about if I repeated it, would that help? Probably not.
  • What if I said it louder, would that help? Probably not.
  • How about if I said and you repeated it back? Again I don’t think that would help.
  • How about if I wrote it out for you and you could see it on your television screen? That wouldn’t help either.
  • How about if I read it out for you and you copied it down?
  • How about if I wrote it out for you and deleted every fifth word and you try to guess what the word is?

The truth is that none that none of these things help, none of these things mean anything and I hope you can see that now.

Here’s lesson number two (@3:19) and for this you have to watch me carefully.

  • Das ist meine Hand. Verstehen Sie das, Hand? Everyone say “Ja!” I can hear you, even those in the TV audience. Good!
  • Kopf. Das ist mein Kopf. Verstehen Sie Kopf, ja? Gut. Kopf. And here, I’ll draw a picture here. Kopf. Ist gut, ja? Schön. Kopf. Das ist Mr. Spock, ja?
  • Mr. Spock hat zwei Ohren. Ohren. Verstehen Sie, Ohren? Er hat zwei Ohren. Ok, Mr. Spock. Ja, ach, nein! ‘Tschuldigung. Ok.
  • Augen. Verstehen Sie, Augen? Augen. Wie viele Augen? Eins, zwei, drei Augen. Drei Augen. Ist das richtig, drei Augen? Nein. Wir haben nur zwei Augen.
  • Mund, verstehen Sie Mund?
  • Und dann: Hier ist eine Zigarette, ja? Nein! Zigaretten sind nicht gut.

If you understood lesson number two, not every word but more or less, I did everything necessary to teach you German.

The Best Kept Secret in Language Education

And now I’m gonna share with you the most important thing I have learned about language, probably the best kept secret in the profession:

We acquire language in one way and only one way. When we understand messages.

We call this comprehensible input. We acquire language when we understand what people tell us, not how they say it but what they say. Or when we understand what we read. Comprehensible input in my opinion has been the last resort of the language teaching profession. We’ve tried everything else: We’ve tried grammar teaching, drills and exercises, computers etc.

But the only thing that seems to count is getting messages you understand, comprehensible input. Now one of the reasons lesson number two was better than lesson number one is we had Mr. Spock to help us out. So anything that helps make input comprehensible (pictures, knowledge of the world, realia etc.) helps language acquisition.

If comprehensible input is true, what we call the input hypothesis is true, other things follow from it and a very important corollary to the input hypothesis is this - and this may come as a bit of a surprise to some of you, certainly came as a surprise to me: Talking is not practicing.

Talking is not practicing - what does this mean? It means if you want to improve your Spanish, you will not help you to speak Spanish out loud in the car as you drive to work in the morning. You will not help you to go to the bathroom, close the door and speak Spanish to the mirror. I used to think those things help, now I think they don’t.

On the other hand, if we were a German class and we could hang together for a couple of weeks, say an hour a day of German, and I could keep the input light and lively as in the second example, you’d start to acquire German. It would come on its own and eventually you’d start to talk. Your speaking ability would emerge gradually. Now, we have a lot of evidence that this is true and the evidence is in the professional literature, in books and journal papers etc. and if you’re an insomniac you’re welcome to look at all that.

But rather than go through that, I’d like instead to tell you a story that illustrates the same point. I’ve used the story for a long time so those of you who have heard it before… I’ve been using this for about 15 years and the reason I stay with it is that it makes the point very well and I’ve discovered it’s just about a universal experience. What has happened to me has certainly happened to you. And bear in mind if you’ve heard it before and you’re tired of hearing it, think how I feel.

How Little Itomi Learned English

My experience took place in 1974 when I was briefly living in exile from California working at the City University of New York at Queens College as director of English as a second language. And like everyone else in New York, we lived in a big apartment building. And the apartment next door to us was owned by a Japanese company and every year there’d be a new family in the apartment. And every year there were the children who couldn’t speak English.

And there I was: director of English as a second language. I will teach English to these children and brag about it to my friends. So I remember going up to the little girl next door. She was four years old, her name was Itomi, and I didn’t know about this material on language acquisition then, nobody did. And I thought then the way you get people to acquire language is you get them to practice talking.

So I’d try to get her to talk.

  • I’d say, “Itomi, talk to me. Say good morning, say hi!”
    No response.
  • Well, clearly I decided I gotta make this more concrete. “Itomi, say ball!” No response.
  • Well, obviously I’ve gotta break it down into its component parts. Let’s work on initial consonants. “Say ba! Look at my lips.” Again, no response.
  • There was a theory going around then, that a lot of people still believe, that children don’t really wanna acquire a language, you have to kind of force it out of them so I tried that: “I won’t give you the ball until you say ball.” That didn’t work either.

No matter what I said, Itomi wouldn’t speak.

She didn’t say anything the first week, she didn’t say anything the second week, the first month, the second month. Five months until she started to speak!

Actually that’s not entirely true. Children during this stage do pick up certain expressions from the other children in the neighborhood. It’s not real language, they understand approximately what they mean. Again, it’s not real language, they have a rough idea what it means. They use it in roughly appropriate situations: things like “leave me alone”, “get outta here”. In fact one child I knew, the only thing he could say was “I’ll kick your ass”. He said it everywhere, wasn’t quite sure what it meant.

After about five months Itomi started to speak and several things were interesting about her language.

  1. First: It looked a lot like first language acquisition. The same process our children went through: one word, two words, gradually getting more complicated.
  2. Second: It came quickly. By the time Itomi and her family went back to Japan at the end of the year, her English was closing in on the way the other children in the neighborhood were talking

The question is this: What was going on during those five months? She was listening. She was picking out comprehensible input.

When she started to speak, it was not the beginning of her language acquisition. Let me repeat that:

When she started to speak it was not the beginning of her language acquisition. It was the result of all the comprehensible input she had gotten over those five months.

Now a silent period for a child in a situation like this is not pathological, it’s normal. It’s what you’d expect.

The Perfect German Class

You’d like to have a silent period, wouldn’t you? How would it be if you had to study another language, but you went to a class were you didn’t have to say anything. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? You can talk all you want, you can raise your hand, you can volunteer. But no one’s gonna call on you, no one’s gonna put you on the spot.

Also in this perfect class if the input is incomprehensible, it’s the teachers fault, not yours. That’s how we’re doing it now and the results we’re getting aren’t a little better than other methods - they’re actually much, much better.

Before I leave this topic let me put in a brief commercial message for speaking. I’m not opposed to speaking, I think when students speak it’s fine. But what counts in speaking is not what you say, but what the other person says to you. In other words, when you get involved in conversation, what counts is the input that you can stimulate from other people. So I’m in favor of student speaking, but we have to understand it makes an indirect - a helpful - but indirect contribution to language acquisition.

The Affective Filter Hypothesis

Language acquisition diagram by stephen krashen

I’d like to discuss one more hypothesis before we move on to literacy; and this is a very important one, called the affective filter hypothesis. Our research in language acquisition has concluded that there are several factors that relate to success in language acquisition and I’m going to list them here on your screen.

  1. One factor is motivation. Students who are more motivated do better in language acquisition. Those of you who study this know that’s a little more complicated than this but this is a good approximation.
  2. Second: self-esteem. Probably the dominant concept today in popular psychology. Students with more self-esteem, more self-confidence to better in language acquisition.
  3. Third: anxiety. And here the correlations are negative: the lower the anxiety, the better the language acquisition. In fact my hypothesis is for language acquisition to really succeed, anxiety should be zero.

This has happened to you: Have you ever been in the situation speaking the language that you may not speak very well when the conversation gets so interesting you temporarily forget that you’re using another language? If this is happening to you, that’s when you’re acquiring. When your focus is completely on the message, what the other person is saying and your anxiety is temporarily gone.

By the way, as an important footnote to this (I guess today we say sidebar), as a sidebar to all this: I’m not sure that 0 anxiety is right for everything. I’m sure it’s good for a lot of things. But I’m not quite sure how far to push this. Speaking to you as a college teacher, speaking to you as a parent, I’m not all that free and easy. I think they’re certain things in school children absolutely must learn. I think my students at the University of Southern California should suffer. We have hard classes, tough requirements, you don’t do the work you’re out.

I finally learned what they tried to teachers and educational psychology: The amount of drive or anxiety necessary to accomplish a task depends on the task. Sometimes what we call facilitated anxiety is OK. I don’t believe in torture, but sometimes a little anxiety is OK. Language acquisition though, is different.

For language acquisition to succeed, anxiety has to be directed somewhere else, not at the language.

Frank Smith put it this way: For the child to develop literacy, the child has to assume that she’s going to be successful. The way we integrate this into the theory is like this: If a student

  • isn’t motivated,
  • if self esteem is low,
  • if anxiety is high,
  • if the student is on the defensive,
  • if the student thinks the language class is a place where his weaknesses will be revealed,

he may understand the input but it won’t penetrate. It won’t reach those parts of the brain that do language acquisition. A block keeps it out.

We call this block the affective filter. Here’s how it works: somewhere in the brain, Chomsky tells us, is a language acquisition device. Our job is to get input into the device. So that’s input here. Low motivation, low self esteem, high anxiety: the block goes up, the filter goes up and the input cannot get in. This explains how it can be that we can have two children in the same class, both getting comprehensible input. One makes progress, the other doesn’t . One is open to the input, the other is closed.


Let me now try to summarize everything I’ve said in the last 10-15 minutes or so and I’ll summarize it in one sentence and you will wonder why it took me that long.

We acquire language in one way and only one way: when we get comprehensible input in a low anxiety environment.

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