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Second language learning and acquisition

This is a long, referenced blog which combines all the posts in my earlier series entitled Conscious and Unconscious Language Learning. If you have already read those posts, you should look away now.

Part 1

Throughout the history of the study of language learning and teaching reference has been made to two distinct types of language learning. The first could be characterised as "picking up" a language and normally involves the apparently unconscious acquisition of a language in an informal or natural setting. One thinks of the child who learns their native tongue, or the immigrant who learns the new language without recourse to formal study.

The second type of language learning involves the practice of a language in a formal, systematic way, often in a classroom setting. This has frequently been termed conscious learning.

Such a clear distinction may be controversial and you may already be thinking, quite reasonably, that both types of learning have a role. However, when you read the literature on this it is clear that the dichotomy has often either been hypothesised or taken as axiomatic.

Eric Hawkins (1981) traces the distinction between formal and naturalistic language learning back to John Amos Comenius and John Locke. The latter wrote that learning "by conversation":

    ... is to be prefer'd as the most Expedite, Proper and natural (cited in Hawkins,1981,Ch 4)

By the time of mass education, however, concentration on the written word, rote learning of grammatical rules and forms had long held sway and it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the debate about naturalistic and formal language learning reawakened. The Reform movement began

H.E. Palmer (1922) was well aware of the theoretical problem. He believed that the learning of a foreign language best occurred through a process of "unconscious assimilation". Referring to the learner who has gone beyond the stage of first language acquisition he states:

   The utilisation of his focussed and conscious attention militates against the proper functioning of the natural capacities of assimilation (p.8)

He says, moreover, with regard to older learners:

   By developing their studial powers they simply inhibited the spontaneous powers and effectively stopped them from working well (p.11)

For Palmer, therefore, the distinction between "studial" and "spontaneous" approaches was clear, theoretically at least, since Palmer did not consider pattern practice and question-answer technique to be "studial". Examples of studial learning would have included the setting to memory of grammatical rules or isolated words.

Palmer's focus on unconscious acquisition and inductive learning was following in the footsteps of such teachers as Francke, Jesperson and Vietor. Jesperson (1904) referred to "unconscious mental activity" and postulated that humans acquire language "by virtue of inviolable psychical laws". He also makes the the following point, echoed by a number of contemporary writers:

   We simply cannot avoid thus unconsciously forming types or patterns to go by... as soon as the conditions for these typical formations are at hand (p.117)

In his famous pamphlet entitled Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren, Viëtor (1886) had almost, at a stroke, brought back attention to the value of naturalistic language learning. This work is now seen as the kickstarter of modern methods of language teaching. His commitment to inductive teaching was unequivocal:

   Death to rules and isolated sentences! (quoted in Howatt, 1984)

When Viëtor refers to the role of grammar within his teaching approach, he states that it "grows naturally out of reading the texts themselves".

When you read the literature of this period, you are struck by the eclecticism of the Reformers. Hawkins (1981) associates Palmer with a reaction against the Reform. If this is true, then Henry Sweet (1899) can be considered a bit of a reactionary. Although he is associated with the Reform movement because of the stress he laid on phonetics and ear training, he had little sympathy for naturalistic methods:

   The fundamental objection to the natural method (is that) it puts the adult into the position of an infant, which he is no longer capable of using and, at the same time, does not allow him to make use of his own special advantages... the power of analysis and generalisation - in short, the power of using a grammar and dictionary (p.186)

The Scotsman J.S. Blackie (1845) can also been seen as a precursor to the Reform movement. Blackie's remarks are fascinating for their time, but echo Locke's of a century and a half earlier:

   The more near a method approaches to the method employed by nature, the more near does that method approach perfection (p.175)

Blackie's four elements of successful foreign language teaching have a modern ring and represent good advice to the new teacher:

1.  appeal to the ear, not the eye (some would have reservations on this point)
2.  establish a close relationship between the sound anf the thing signified
3.  make use of repetition and practice
4.  maintain the learner's interest

He adds that "grammar may be introduced, or rather deduced, out of the preceding practice".

Other representatives of inductive methodology include de Feltre, G.H. Cominius, Webbe, Lamy, Marcel, Gouin, Sauveur, Berlitz and de Sauzé.


J.S. Blackie (1845) "On the Teaching of Languages", The Foreign Quarterly Review, Vol. 25 170-87
E. Hawkins (1981) Modern languages in the Curriculum, Cambridge, C.U.P. 
A.P.R. Howatt (1984)  A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford, O.U.P.
O. Jesperson (1904) How to Teach a Foreign Language. London, George Allen and Unwin
H.E. Palmer (1922) The Principles of Language Study. Republished 1964. Oxford, O.U.P.
H. Sweet (1899) The Practical Study of Languages. London, J.M Dent and Sons.
W. Viëtor (1886) Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren. (Republished in 2010, Nabu Press)

Part 2

From Soviet psychology and philosophy of language and language learning I shall pick out references to conscious and unconscious learning in the works of Vygotsky, Belyayev and Leontiev.

Vygotsky (1934) draws a distinction between unconscious acts, like tying a knot, where the attention is on the point of the task as opposed to the means of performing it and, on the other hand, conscious acts where one is aware of the "how" of the act. Referring to the chess player, he says:

    Becoming conscious of our operations and viewing each as a process of a certain kind leads to their mastery (p.91-2)

His own empirical studies led him to the conclusion that the study of grammar, by which, we presume, he meant the explicit, deductive method of grammar learning, was:

   ... of paramount importance for the mental development of the child and would help the child to rise to a higher level of speech development (p.100-101).

To make his point clearer he also criticises the views of Soviet psychologists who chose to separate "development" ("the process of maturation subject to natural laws") from "instruction" (the "utilisation of the opportunities of development"). He states, and this argument is particularly relevant to modern debates about acquisition and learning (notably, the Krashen non-interface hypothesis which claims that consciously learned material cannot become "acquired"), that:

   Typical of this school of thought are its attempts to separate with great care the products of development from those of instruction, supposedly to find them in their pure form. No investigation has yet been able to achieve this (p.93).

Belyayev's (1963) argument also focuses on the conscious/unconscious dichotomy. "Only practice leads to the mastery of a foreign language," he says, but with this should be combined the conscious learning of grammar. The teacher should:

   ... induce students not just to reproduce every possible kind of rule, whilst analysing texts and translating into the native language, but principally to listen, speak, read and write in the foreign language (p.27).

He stresses the direct relationship between conscious learning and real language use. What he says is, once again, relevant to later debates:

   It is, however, possible for genuine knowledge of a foreign language (i.e. knowledge which is... intuitive) to be acquired in school conditions as the result of conscious learning. In this case pupils listen, speak, read and write the language without thinking about the rules or having recourse to the native language... This is genuine knowledge... but it differs greatly from the process of acquiring the language; the latter is conscious, while the knowledge of a language to which it leads is unconscious or intuitive (p.30-31).

To sum up, consciously learned material can be "internalised" and become unconscious knowledge which allows you to understand and speak naturally. In addition, conscious learning need not involve explicit rule formulation. He later adds that the leaner's attention should be focused on meaning rather than form:

   Consciousness... must be concentrated not on the linguistic mould, but on the semantic content (p.105).

Elsewhere he seems to lay the stress on traditional Soviet formal learning:

   When a person wishing to master a foreign language acquires theoretical information about its phonetic, lexical, grammatical and stylistic characteristics, the feeling for language appears much earlier... than when the learner tries to acquire the language by exclusively intuitive means (p.94).

Leontiev's (1981) position reiterates that of Belyayev. He distinguishes between "speech activity" which is not automatic and where the language is concentrating on the form of the utterance and "speech acts" where language is used for the attainment of a goal. Leontiev poses the problem for the language teacher in very similar terms to Belyayev:

   We somehow have to turn speech activity into speech acts and render it automatic(p.24).

He talks of "transition from conscious to fully automated activity" (p.41) and further:

   Such automisation presupposes the conscious grasp, so to speak, of the nuclear or basic material (ibid)


   There is no sharp demarcation line between habit forming and instilling in the learner such habits through appropriate exercises (p.45).

In sum, the Soviet methodologists argue for the exploitation of both conscious and unconscious learning, believe that consciousness raising is important and that what is learned consciously can become automatic, intuitive, tacit knowledge.


B.V. Belyayev (1963) The Psychology of Teaching Foreign Languages. Oxford, Pergamon Press
A.A. Leontiev (1981) Psychology in the Language Learning Process. Oxford, Pergamon Press
L.S. Vygotsky (1962) Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass. M.I.T. Press

Part 3

As we trace the conscious/unconscious distinction through the 20th century when, by the 1970s, it was rechristened the "learning/acquisition" distinction we can agree with Kelly (1969)

   Few theories of language learning are peculiar to the twentieth century, but modern psychological research has given them a point and clarity they had lacked, while clothing them in language that disguises their relationship to older ideas (p.303).

Following the tradition of H.E. Palmer, despite the predominance of grammar-translation approaches in schools worldwide, F.M Hodgson (1955) maintains that the "feeling of what sounds right" cannot be engendered by grammatical study. More precisely, she states that the acquisition of "new linguistic habits":

   ... can only be done by constant practice, not in making statements about language, but in using it meaningfully (Hodgson, 1955)

With his eclectic approach Palmer had not objected to the use of some translation in the classroom, nor did Hodgson discount the possibility of some rule-giving, following oral practice, but the fundamental belief was that language learning was best facilitated by great use of the second language in the classroom, careful selection and grading, and the use of texts rather than isolated words or sentences. The learner was encouraged to use their inductive powers (conscious or unconscious, the distinction was not made clear) in order to "internalise" language. This general approach maintains a strong current in Europe and has been termed, for example,  "rational direct method" (in Krashen, 1982) or more loosely, an "oral approach".

From the 1970s the principal emphasis was as much on the use of meaning rather than form, as on conscious and unconscious learning, although the two are related. This shift of emphasis is associated with what became known as the "communicative" movement, which had its roots in teaching English as a foreign language as well as speech act semantics, discourse analysis and general linguistics.

Butzkamm and Dodson (1980), for example, distinguished between two types of language use, the first stressing conscious manipulation of forms ("medium orientated"), the second where the learner is genuinely interested in expressing a meaning ("message orientated"). They are careful to point out that message and medium do not represent a dichotomy, but the opposite poles of a continuum:

   Medium- and message-orientated communication is not always a clear-cut either-or matter, but a matter of degrees (p.292).

They stress that formal structural practice is a necessary prerequisite to fluency activities and that:

   Methodological substructure is absolutely vital if the learner is to profit from subsequent communicative activities (p. 299). 

Widdowson (1978) drew an analogous, but apparently apparently more watertight distinction between "usage" (where the focus is on conscious, correct grammatical formation) and "use" (where language is used as "appropriate meaningful behaviour" and where conscious attention is moved away from linguistic form (cf. Belyayev and Leontiev, from the previous blog). The implication is that second language learning is more likely to be effective when genuine messages are being communicated, when there is a need to communicate and when language is therefore "embedded in events". As soon as language becomes an abstract symbolic structure, isolated from the real world, it becomes more difficult to apprehend.

It is easy to see, in this context, how the information gap task and task-centred oral work became staples of modern communicative language teaching.

The influence of the philosophers Austin and Searle is also notable in this context. Searle (1969), following Austin, postulated that speech which carries "force", i.e. which carries out a purposeful function as well as having propositional content, is more "serious" and is more likely, some have concluded, to be easily learned. A "speech act" is an utterance which carries force as well as propositional content. The argument runs as follows: "serious" utterances are those which carry an "intention to mean", which actually "do" or "achieve" something and such language is more likely to be internalised. As Hawkins (1981) put it:

   The motor that propels language acquisition seems to be the drive to "do things with words" (p.210).

Hawkins believed that:

   Exchanges in the foreign language classroom... are not uttered with intention to mean(ibid).

To sum up, conscious attention to meaning rather than form will best facilitate second language acquisition. When language is used as a tool it will be learned more quickly. This view is echoed frequently elsewhere:

Hirst (1974), in his book on the school curriculum, writes:

   Learning a concept is like learning to play tennis, not like learning to state the rules and principles that govern play (p.125).

Searle (1969) writes:

   Purely formal study (of language) is necessarily incomplete. It would be as if baseball were studied only as a formal system of rules and not as a game.

Brumfit (1984) adopted a similar position in referring to "accuracy" and "fluency" activities in the classroom. The former aim to develop correct use, whilst the latter aim to develop communicative ability. This is a handy distinction for teachers when they plan their lessons.


J.L. Austin (1962) How to do things with words. Oxford; O.U.P. 

C. Brumfit (1984) Communicative Methodology in Language Teaching. Cambridge: C.U.P
W. Butzkamm and C.J. Dodson (1980) "The Teaching of Communication: from Theory to Practice". I.R.A.L. (p.289-309) 
E.W. Hawkins (1981) Modern Languages in the Curriculum. Cambridge: C.U.P. 

P. Hirst (1974) Knowledge and the CurriculumLondon: Routledge and Paul.
F.M. Hodgson (1955) Learning Modern Languages. Routledge and Kegan paul. Republished 1976 by Portway Education
L.G. Kelly (1969) 25 Centuries of Language Teaching: 500 B.C. - 1969. Rowley, Mass.: Newbery House
S.D. Krashen (1982) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press

J. Searle (1969) Speech Acts. Cambridge: C.U.P
H.G. Widdowson (1980) "Models and Fictions", Applied Linguistics. Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 165-169

Part 4

The findings of post-Bloomfieldian structural linguistics and the fashion for neo-behaviourism in psychology engendered an interest in language teaching based on the automisation of language habits through pattern practice. The success of the "mim-mem" (mimicry and memorisation) courses of the US Army Specialised Training Program also fostered the belief that language could be "stamped in" by induction and generalisation from the repetition and memorisation of sentences and dialogues. Inherent in such audio-lingual approaches was the view that language was best internalised without explicit reference to rules. One assumes that some kind of unconscious learning process was thought to be at work, but in any case, the argument about what was conscious or unconscious was not considered particularly significant since these notions involved introspection (i.e. making claims about unobservable, internal brain processes) and as such were not data of prime interest.

On the other hand, those who allowed a role for conscious learning techniques were still heard despite the flourishing social sciences of linguistics and psychology. Wilga Rivers (1964) questioned over-reliance on audio-lingual, habit-forming techniques which allowed little or no room for genuinely communicative classroom activities:

   Attention should be given to the re-structuring of situations in the classroom whiuch reproduce as closely as possible the real life communicative situations in the native language (p.157).

Rivers (1975) subsequently distinguished between those classroom activities which concentrated on conscious control of structures and accuracy, and those which emphasised the development of communicative skill (cf. Brumfit in the UK). She labelled these skill getting and skill using respectively.

Carroll (1966) wished to swing the balance back towards consciousness. He coined the phrase cognitive code learning to refer to the view that learners should use their powers of analysis and generalisation in order to "acquire conscious control of the language patterns".

Jakobovits (1970) also rejected audio-lingualism in its pure form:

   Practice theory leads to two possible hypotheses about language acquisition: one is that when a child is exposed to a novel grammatical form he imitates it, the other is that by practising this novel form he stamps it in. The evidence available indicates that both hypotheses are false (p.14).

He claims, therefore, that pattern drilling alone does not serve to automise grammatical habits. His evidence for this belief leads us to the most significant influence on later developments in second language learning theory. Jakobovits once more:

  In ordinary speech we use an infinite variety of patterns, and therefore, since the second language learner could not possibly be drilled on an infinite variety of patterns, he could never develop automised speech (p.21).

The idea that language makes infinite use of finite means was not new, but Chomsky (1965), drawing on this and Cartesian ideas of innate ideas, refocused our attention on the role of the creative learner in the language learning process. Since for the first language learner most utterances we produce or hear are novel, and since we have not been explicitly taught any significant number of linguistic rules, von Humboldt (1836, cited in Chomsky, 1965) had concluded that:

   ... one cannot really teach language but can only present the conditions under which it will develop spontaneously in the mind in its own way (p.51).

Chomsky went on to postulate the existence of a faculté de langage which he christened aLanguage Acquisition Device (LAD). This device would process linguistic data in obscure and largely unconscious ways to enable a child to produce and understand new data. Chomsky says: is of course necessary to distinuish carefully between these two functions of external data - the function of initiating or facilitating the operation of innate mechanisms and the function of determining in part the direction that learning will take (Chomsky, 1965, p.57).

It is important to remember that Chomsky, in his discussion of language learning, is referring to the child learning their first language. The question arises, however, to what extent the linguistic input affects the course and rate of second language learning - a vital issue for the teacher.

Brown (1973) found that when children acquiring their first language  learn certain grammatical morphemes they tend to do so in the same order (natural order) and that this order is not related to how often the children hear them or to how often parents reward the children for being correct.

Some researchers attempted to show that this would also hold true for second language acquisition. If so, it might be claimed that how teachers select, grade or order linguistic input is not related to success of language learning.

Dulay and Burt (1974) led the search for innate orders of acquisition among second language learners, hoping to replicate Brown's findings. They claimed to find similar natural orders and stated:

   ...any theory or account of language acquisition... must take into account the independent and central contribution of internal mechanisms to the construction of the new language system (p.77)

Dulay and Burt (1978) labelled these internal mechanisms creative construction and re-christened Chomsky's LAD the cognitive organiser. There was now a basis for a model of second language acquisition where unconscious processes would play a fundamental role.

Interestingly, Dulay and Burt (1978) also noted:

   Given the myriad conscious and unconscious internal factors interacting with input to produce learner speech, it may not be possible to isolate these entirely (p. 68)

To conclude this blog, it is interesting to note how terminology varies according to the theoretical climate of the day. Palmer's subsconscious assimilation (1922) corresponds to what Dulay and Burt mean by creative construction. The latter term was used in the Chomskyan mentalist climate where the learner's internal and creative processes are stressed, whereas Palmer's term was coined in the climate of psychological associations which viewed the person more as a passive receptacle for external stimuli.

To be continued....


R. Brown (1973) A First Language. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 
J.B Carroll (1966) "The Contributions of Psychological Theory and Educational Rsearch to the Teaching of Foreign Languages", in Valdman (ed.) Trends in Language Teaching. New York: McGraw Hill, 93-106.
N. Chomsky (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press 
H. Dulay and M. Burt (1974) "Natural Sequences in Child Second Language." Language Learning, Vol. 24 p. 37-53
H. Dulay and M. Burt (1978) "Some Remarks on Creativity in Language Acquisition". In W.C Ritchie (ed.) Perspectives in Neurolinguistics and Psycholinguistics. New York: Academic Press, 175-183
L.A. Jakobovits (1970) Foreign Language Learning: a Psycholinguistic Analysis of the Issues. Rowley, Mass.: Newbery House 
H.E. Palmer (1922) The Principles of Language Study. Republished 1964. Oxford, O.U.P.
W. Rivers (1975) A Practical Guide to the Teaching of French. London: O.U.P.

Part 5

This part starts to examine Stephen Krashen's influential hypotheses about language learning and acquisition. Krashen continues to be a significant influence in the world of language teaching and the term "comprehensible input", coined by Krashen, can almost be written without quotation marks, such is its currency. What was Krashen saying?

His hypotheses follow a traditional belief about two types of second language learning, although it makes unusually specific predictions and claims to be based on empirical evidence. It is a boldly expressed set of claims, notable for its attractive elegance. Its very clarity and simplicity arouse suspicion!

Acquisition and Learning

For Krashen these two terms are mutually exclusive and are used in a particularly narrow sense. First, acquisition:

   Language acquisition is a subconscious process; language acquirers are not usually aware of the fact they are acquiring language, but are only aware of the fact that they are using the language for communication (Krashen, 1982, p.10)

Elsewhere Krashen states that acquisition occurs through a process of "creative construction" (Krashen, 1978). It closely resembles the way a young child comes to master its first language. Acquisition is enabled by the existence of the innate Language Acquisition Device (LAD) à la Chomsky. He explains that acquired linguistic competence (his term) is also subconscious and that we have an implicit "feel" for correctness.

Learning is described as:

   ... conscious knowledge of a second language, knowing the rules, being aware of them, and being able to talk about them (Krashen, 1978)

Learning, therefore, relates very specifically to explicit grammatical knowledge and to activities, we presume, such as the memorisation of vocabulary lists and rules of grammar. It also clearly refers not just to a process, but to the product, the knowledge that derives from the process.

Krashen makes the huge claim that learners only become proficient at a language through acquisition, not through learning. Learning can only allow a student to monitor their utterances or utterances they hear as being correct. Put simply, people become proficient at a language by hearing or reading messages they understand. Acquisition is unconscious and will occur naturally if the input is meaningful. This is what is termed comprehensible input.

The Input Hypothesis 

Krashen labelled this the Input Hypothesis.  He wrote:

   The Input Hypothesis claims that we acquire language in an amazingly simple way - when we understand messages (Krashen, 1985, p.vii)

More specifically:

   The Input Hypothesis makes the following claim: a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to move from stage i to stage i + 1 is that the acquirer understand input that contains i + 1, where "understand" means that the acquirer is focused on the meaning and not the form of the message (Krashen, 1982, p.21).

The "acquirer" understands the new element (the "+ 1") by using other, non-linguistic information e.g. contextual clues and knowledge of the world. Krashen disagrees with the commonly held view that we acquire structure (i.e. tacit linguistic competence) be learning and practising it.

In sum, the Input Hypothesis relates to acquisition, not learning and we acquire by understanding language that contains language a bit beyond our current level of competence.

So, Krashen claims that learning cannot become acquisition. In other words, what we learn from explicit grammar instruction cannot seep into our naturally acquired competence. He calls this the Non-interface Hypothesis. This means that there may be no point in teaching grammar explicitly as only being exposed to meaningful messages, as a child would be, will cause acquisition to take place.

Krashen's Monitor Hypothesis claims that learning can only help us monitor the accuracy of what we hear or say. It might allow us to correct a mistake we have made, for example.

It is worth adding that by this hypothesis input is much more important than conversation. Conversation is most useful in language acquisition because it is a way of obtaining moreinput. Talk is output, and as such is of little use for further acquisition. Krashen would therefore recommend lessons to contain as many input activities as possible and relatively few output tasks. This is the thinking of the TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Stories) movement, popular with many teachers in North America. This is also why Krashen strongly favours the use of extensive reading.

The Natural Order Hypothesis

Krashen cites Dulay and Burt in claiming that both first and second language acquirers tend to acquire certain grammatical morphemes in a natural, predictable order. The order of acquisition is related to difficulty and is similar in some ways for first and second language acquirers. It follows that:

   Students may be able to learn some structures consciously, but true subconscious acquisition will come only when the students are ready (Dulay, Burt and Krashen, 1982, p.201)

Some writers believed that natural orders could be used to design syllabuses, but Krashen does not take this view. He feels language chosen as input should not be fine-tuned in the traditional way, but rough-tuned.

The Affective Filter Hypothesis

One attractive element of Krashen's hypotheses is that they incorporate affective as well as cognitive domains. Drawing directly from the work of Dulay and Burt (1973, 1974, 1978), he postulates that affective factors relate directly to acquisition, but not learning. Broadly speaking, well-motivated students are predicted by the theory to well at communicative tasks, whereas learners of high aptitude would perform well on grammatical tasks such as cloze tests. Students with poor motivation are said to have strong affective filters (i.e. much of the input will not become intake). So the filter acts as a potential barrier between input and acquired competence.

Other factors which have been held to account for successful acquisition, such as memory, intelligence or language learning aptitude, are thought by Krashen to be good predictors of conscious learning success, but poor predictors of real language acquisition. This claim is supported by the success of first ands second language acquirers in immersion or bilingual environments.


Over the years there has been a fair amount of "Krashen bashin'". Here are some of the criticisms which have been levelled at his hypotheses.

Firstly, the clear-cut distinction between acquisition and learning has been much criticised. Put simply, the distinction between acquisition and learning is impossible to prove. A good model or theory needs to be falsifiable.

Next, critics consider the argument that learning cannot become acquisition questionable. Many language learners feel that language they have learned by conscious application and rote learning can become part of their automised competence.  Learning can become acquisition, one may think. How do we know that what we can say is the result of acquisition and not, in part at least, the product of explicit learning? Krashen's distinction is, as I see it, an attractive but unfalsifiable leap of faith.

Krashen might respond that during explicit practice of patterns and memorisation we are, in fact, being exposed to comprehensible input, but input of a poor quality. Meaning-based acquisition would be more effective. For example, if we do a translation from the target language, we are getting meaningful input, even if it is less efficient than a task where we work with a source text in the target language (getting, in the process, even more input).

The fact is that we cannot be sure that what Krashen says is right and attempts to prove the hypotheses empirically are likely to be unconvincing. How can we design an experiment with two identical, parallel groups of students, with a large enough sample, reproducible, learning by using different methods, with the same teacher, in the same conditions?

As with the acquisition-learning hypothesis, the first criticism of the Input Hypothesissurrounds the lack of a clear definition of comprehensible input; some argue that Krashen never sufficiently explains the values of i or i+1.

More importantly, the input hypothesis focuses on comprehensible input as necessary, although not sufficient, for second language acquisition to the neglect of any possible importance of output. How do we know that output is not also, simultaneously, input? Perhaps through talking students identify gaps in their knowledge and then attend more carefully to relevant input.

As for the Affective Filter Hypothesis, whilst it is attractive to include motivation in a theory of language acquisition (we all know motivation is crucial), how do we know that other, non-affective factors are not just as important? My own experience over many years was that language learning aptitude was a major factor in success and distinguished clearly between pupils of similar motivation in terms of long term proficiency, not just grammar tests. Yes, all students can acquire a new language naturally, but for some it takes much longer.

The Natural Order Hypothesis has come in for criticism. For example, it does not take into account the influence of the first language when students are acquiring a new language. The order of acquisition may be different for the second language acquirer. Others have said that morpheme studies offer no indication that second language learners similarly acquire other linguistic features (phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics) in any predictable sequence let alone in any sequence at all.

In the final blog of this series I shall look at the practical implications of the study of conscious and unconscious language learning for the teacher.

H. Dulay and M. Burt (1973) "Should We Teach Children Syntax", Language Learning Vol. 23
H. Dulay and M. Burt (1974) "natural Sequences in Child Second Language Acquisition", Language Learning Vol. 24, p.37-53
H. Dulay and M. Burt (1978) "Some Remarks on Creativity in Language Acquisition", in W.C. Ritchie (ed.)
H. Dulay, M. Burt and S.D. Krashen (1982) Language Two. New York: O.U.P.
S.D. Krashen (1978) "Individual variation in the Use of the Monitor", in W.C. Ritchie (ed.) 175-183 
S.D. Krashen (1982) Principles and Practice in Sercond Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press (kindly made available online at:
S.D. Krashen (1985) The Input Hypothesis. London: Longman
W.C. Ritchie (1978) Perspectives in Neurolinguistics and Psycholinguistics. New York: Academic Press

Stephen Krashen is making previously published work available online at

Part 6

So far I have looked at the early European Reform movement, Soviet perspectives, the post Reform up to communicative theory in Europe, North American perspectives after audio-lingualism and the work of Stephen Krashen. Writing as a teacher rather than an academic, what can a teacher take from this discussion of theory?

Although Krashen claims that humans acquire languages in one way, by hearing and reading meaningful messages (he may be right, but we cannot be sure), most have argued over the years that we learn second languages in different ways. In some contexts it is primarily through unconscious acquisition processes, where there are large amounts of exposure to the second language and where formal tuition is unavailable. In the context of school second language learning it seems that formal practice and consciousness-raising play a significant role. In all likelihood, learning occurs through a combination of conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious learning.

Perhaps we should think of conscious and unconscious learning not as a dichotomy, but as a continuum running from, on the one hand, the most clear-cut cases of acquisition through mere exposure to, on the other hand, the most clear cut cases of formal learning.

This table shows how various writers have described the two ends of such a continuum:

LEARNING                                    ACQUISITION                    SOURCE
(CONSCIOUS)                              (UNCONSCIOUS)

conscious                                         unconscious                            Palmer, Vygotsky
learning                                            acquisition                             Krashen
explicit                                             implicit                                  McLaughlin, Reber 
rehearsal                                          performance                           Hawkins
classroom                                        naturalistic                              Ellis
formal                                              functional                               Stern
accuracy                                          fluency                                   Brumfit
knowledge                                       task-based                              Bialystok
controlled                                        automatic                                McLaughlin
medium                                           message                                  Dodson
declarative                                       procedural                              Faerch
usage                                               use                                          Widdowson
competence                                     capacity                                   Widdowson
studial                                             spontaneous                             Palmer
synthetic                                         analytic                                   Wilkins
rules                                                procedures                              Ellis
knowing how                                  knowing that                             ?
mechanical                                      active                                     Belyayev
speech activity                                speech acts                             Leontiev
theoretical                                      intuitive                                   Belyayev
output approach                             input approach                         Krashen
form                                               meaning                                     ?
skill getting                                    skill using                                Rivers
cognitive code                                creative construction               Carroll, Dulay and Burt
problem solving                             language specific                      Felix
cognitive structures strategies        cognitive structures tactics        Selinker

Although a continuum lacks the elegance of a qualitative distinction, it may explain the observable facts of language learning more accurately. Littlewood (1984) and Stevick (1984) proposed this kind of continuum. In the classroom it seems to me that various conscious, semi-conscious and subconscious are in operation during a language activity. In a controlled learning activity (such as a graded question-answer sequence) the student will be subconsciously allowing their natural language acquisition capacity to function whilst also focusing on form and comparing with their first language. Who can be sure what precise processes are leading to long term internalised competence?

It is the experience of many secondary teachers that in the early stages of learning a greater emphasis on formal practice is required than for very young learners or advanced students.The latter see their fluency improve rapidly as a result of lots of target language exposure as well as formal practice. As progress is made "learning" becomes less significant and "acquisition" more so. In other words automatic processes come to predominate over controlled ones in most communicative situations. Primary teachers may feel that formal explanations of grammar are less useful in building motivation. The infrequent nature of primary school lessons makes solid progress hard to achieve, whilst even in secondary schools, lack of time and contact slots in the timetable place severe constraints on what can be achieved.

Do different students need different diets? If the aim is long term acquisition, then large amounts of target language may be suitable. If the teacher knows the student will drop the subject after three years, is a different diet appropriate? How would one distniguish between different students in this way whilst allowing for equal opportunity and aspiration for all?

Is a fundamental problem with accounts which stress unconscious learning that older learners must be allowed to bring to bear the cognitive and experiential advantages they have? It is generally (not universally) agreed that language learning ability declines somewhat with age, so should we actually avoid trying to replicate what the young child appears to do so easily?  

In England and Wales the GCSE exam implicitly recognises the role of both the "learning" and "acquisition" ends of the continuum. Perhaps the coming generation of syllabuses, with their inclusion of translation, will push some teachers more towards formal learning and focus on form. On the other hand, many will feel that the current controlled assessment regime has pushed us towards a considerable amount of memory learning and that GCSE has, paradoxically, moved us towards a greater use of "phrase book learning", to the detriment of long term acquisition.

Brian Page wrote:

   There seems to be no evidence, and I certainly have no belief, that we shall ever have a coherent and accurate picture of second language learning (Page, 1985, p.34)

When one looks at all the factors which come in to play with second language acquisition (e.g. Bialystok and Hakuta, 1994) including the mind, age, personality, social function, individual language differences and so on, we are reminded what a complex, hard to pin down area this is.

You can see from this look at the conscious/unconscious debate provides no definitive answers. Indeed, this is only one way of looking at language acquisition. We might be wise to agree with Littlewood (1984) who argues that methodology should be based not so much on the intrinsic adequacy of a theoretical account as on the type of learning environment the teacher is working in. As a general rule, it may be that exploiting the "learning" end of the continuum is sensible for the teacher when there is little additional linguistic input outside the classroom. Of course, this can be achieved whilst providing plenty of "comprehensible input".

Theory is interesting, but teachers may prefer to base their practice on what seems to work, what produces the best outcomes. What works may depend on the age of the learner, school context, timetable, class groupings, intrinsic motivation of pupils, group dynamics, the skill set and personality of the teacher and whether the teacher actually believes in their approach.

I have previously blogged about what Ofsted (the English and Welsh school inspection body) have to say about what works. One senior inspector remarked that what succeeds is "traditional things done well". Indeed, perhaps the goal should not be so much about finding the methods work best, but focusing on what the "done well" means - and this may involve generic teacher qualities as much as specific methodologies. Anyway, here is what Ofsted observed as factors involved in successful practice in classrooms:

  • Well-managed relationships: teachers took care to build up students’ confidence and encourage them to take risks.
  • Teachers’good subject knowledge, including knowledge of the examination syllabus.
  • Clear objectives in lesson plans, ensuring that prior learning was recapped, and that the lesson had a logical structure so that planned outcomes were reached.
  • Effective use of the interactive whiteboard to present and explain new work.
  • Good demonstration of the target language by the teacher to improve students’ listening skills and pronunciation. 
  • Lively and varied lessons which students enjoyed effective, collaborative work in groups and on paired tasks.
  • Careful monitoring of students’ progress.
  • Teachers’ expert use of the target language.
  • Planning that took students through a logical series activities and catered for the needs of all students.
  • Pace and challenge: students were expected to do a lot of work in the lesson thorough practice of new work before students were expected to use it.
  • Very effective use of activities bringing the whole class together to test learning, monitor progress and redirect the lesson if necessary.
  • Intercultural knowledge and understanding built into the lesson.
  • Language learning strategies taught very well to develop students’ understanding of learning the language.
  • Very good deployment of teaching assistants and foreign language assistants in lessons.

So that was the last in this series of blogs. If you read them all, thanks for doing so! I think it's useful for teachers to have some kind of theoretical underpinning to what they do.


E. Bialystok and K. Hakuta (1994) In Other Words: The Science and Psychology of Second language Acquisition. Basic Books.
W.T. Littlewood (1984) Foreign and Second Language Learning. Cambridge: C.U.P. 
B. Page (1985) "Research and the Teacher of Foreign Languages in Secondary Schools", in Second Language Learning Research Problems and Perspectives (ed. Brumfit, Lunt and Trim, C.I.L.T.)
E.W. Stevick (1984) "Memory, Learning and Acquisition", in Universals of Second Language Acquisition (eds. Eckman, Bell and Nelson. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 1984.)


  1. Very well written. Useful too. Thank you.

    Learn to learn. Learn to share. The world would be a better place for all of us.

    BS from India.


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