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What is the natural order hypothesis?

The natural order hypothesis states that all learners acquire a language in roughly the same order. This applies to both first and second language acquisition. This order is not dependent on the ease with which a particular language feature can be taught; in English, some features, such as third-person "-s" ("he runs") are easy to teach in a classroom setting, but are not typically fully acquired until the later stages of language acquisition. The hypothesis was based on morpheme studies by Heidi Dulay and Marina Burt, which found that certain morphemes were predictably learned before others during the course of second language acquisition. The hypothesis was picked up by Stephen Krashen who incorporated it in his very well known input model of second language learning.

Furthermore, according to the natural order hypothesis, the order of acquisition remains the same regardless of the teacher's explicit instruction; in other words, explicit teaching and learning cannot change the natural order of acquisition. Put simply, what you teach is not what students acquire.

Does this hold water?

One problem is that the natural order hypothesis fails to take into account the influence of the first language on the acquisition of a second language; in fact some studies suggest that second language learners acquire a second language in different orders depending on their native language. Therefore, second language learners do not necessarily acquire grammatical structures in a predictable sequence.

There is no agreement about, for example, the order an English native speaker would naturally acquire French grammar without instruction. This means that you cannot organise a grammatical syllabus based on natural orders. No one has been able to do this.

Acknowledging this, supporters of the hypothesis argue that you should not organise teaching by grammar sequencing at all. They argue, as we have seen, that grammar is simply not teachable, since teachers cannot control what a student will naturally acquire. So proponents of this view argue for teaching through comprehensible input with minimal reference to grammar. This would, for example, be the position of TPRS practitioners (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling). Learners will pick up grammar only through meaningful exposure to the second language, not by explicit instruction and practice. Grammar might be occasionally explained, but more to satisfy the curiosity of students than to help with its acquisition.

If you find this far-fetched, bear in mind that this view hangs on the assumption that learning a second language is seen as very similar or identical to learning the mother tongue. Just as we cannot dictate the order a young child masters grammar, so we cannot force feed grammar down the throats of second language learners. It might also chime with the feeling you get that, even after teaching the same structure umpteen times, some students don't seem to pick it up and use it spontaneously.

So is it possible that we cannot "teach grammar"? Can we not control what students will both learn and use creatively?

I have serious doubts about this. My experience of teaching French over many years is that the traditional PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production) approach not only allowed students to explain rules and use new syntax in very controlled contexts, it also led to some of them, pretty quickly, to being able to apply the rules themselves, independently, in freer language production. This is in line with the skill-acquisition model of second language learning.

The objection to that claim would be that those students who can apparently use new patterns spontaneously do so not because of any explicit teacher instruction, but because their natural, in-built language acquisition capability produced that language at an unconscious level.

The truth is, of course, that we cannot know for sure if that spontaneous use of language came from instruction and practice or through an unconscious process. When we hear our advanced students using the language quite fluently, how do we know to what extent this has occurred naturally or as a result of instruction and practice?

For me, it is certainly true that being able to go from instruction and practice to spontaneous use only worked with a minority of students of higher aptitude, but, as far as I can tell, teaching grammar in a sequence did allow some students to apply their new knowledge in that same sequence. In short, my experience is that you can "teach grammar" and have some students apply it in the order you taught it. The claim that grammar is unteachable seems too strong to me. If it did not work for many pupils, perhaps it was that there was just not enough time and practice to make it happen. Language learning is hard and takes time.

If you are happy to assume that sequencing grammar is worthwhile, deciding on the sequence then becomes a question of proceeding from simpler to harder, less useful to more useful, bearing in mind the effects of interference from the first language. An example of where interference of this type makes acquisition slower would be object pronouns in French. These are easy to explain, but hard for student to use in spontaneous speech principally because of the fundamental word-order difference from English, e.g. I bought it versus Je l'ai acheté ("I it bought"). Should you teach direct object pronouns early (they are useful) or late (they are hard to acquire)?

In sum, whilst natural orders clearly exist when acquiring a first language, they are are much more problematic in second language learning. This need not be, however, a reason for abandoning the sensible sequencing of grammar in modern language lessons. It is still quite possible that some students at least will pick up new grammar in the order you choose to teach it. If they do not, this may be because they do not get enough input and practice to allow it to happen.

References

Heidi C. Dulay and Marina K.Burt (1974). “Natural sequences in child second language acquisition.” Language Learning, 24(1):37–53.
Krashen, S.D. (1981)Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.
Krashen, S.D. (1982).Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon.

(both available free online at sdkrashen.com)

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