How We Learn Languages

Since languages are not really an option any more, and since they are connected to our national security, things must change in our nation’s foreign language classrooms.

Please take a moment to look over the following brief descriptions of the work of Stephen Krashen and Bill Van Patten on how we acquire languages. Both researchers are of gigantic importance in the world of foreign language acquisition.

If school officials were to familiarize themselves with their work, along with ACTFL, which is the national parent organization for all foreign language teachers regardless of level (>, would also be a prudent move in the current national discussion.

I have been astounded on more than one occasion to find that there are a significant number of teachers working in classrooms nationally who have never heard of Krashen or VanPatten or ACTFL. This will change.

Stephen Krashen

If one takes a close look at them, it is clear that many of Krashen’s hypotheses fully support communicative activities in the classroom. They imply that reaching kids, and not just teaching kids from a book, is a key factor in building fluency:

1. Communicative Competence, for example, is defined in sociocultural terms, meaning that interacting in L2 is more than just a mental exercise, but a participatory, social one. Robots cannot converse.

2. The Affective Filter Hypothesis states there is a “filter” or “mental block” that keeps L2 from “getting in” – the lower the filter, the easier it is to learn L2. Thus, human contact of a relaxed nature, i.e. reaching kids in a way that is meaningful to them, increases acquisition of L2.

3. The Affective Hypothesis states that factors of motivation, interpersonal acceptance, and self-esteem deeply affect learning L2. Thus, we reach students by focusing on them and valuing them as human beings in our classes.

4. The Comprehensible Input Hypothesis states that the learner can only acquire language by connecting it to prior knowledge. Language that is not understood is just L2 noise. Thus, we cannot just teach students, we must reach them by making sure that we speak to them in a way that they can understand us.

5. The Monitor Hypothesis states that the learner unconsciously corrects his or her speech to conform to the correct spoken and written speech of fluent speakers. Thus, we reach students by speaking to them in the target language, not by speaking to them in English. By speaking to them in L2 in ways that carry meaning and interest to them, we reach them.

6. The Natural Order of Acquisition Hypothesis states that structures of L2 emerge in much the same order as they do in L1, an order that cannot be re-arranged. This implies that the mind is selective and learns what features of a language it wants to learn when it wants to learn it, as it hears L2 on a daily basis. This calls into question the “grammar syllabus.” Thus, we reach students by offering them the target language in forms that it can grasp, and not in ways that confuse them.

Bill Van Patten

Bill Van Patten’s main point is that in order for input to be successful in teaching languages it must be of a communicative nature, which means that the focus must be on meaning. In this sense, he supports Krashen’s concept of comprehensible input. Another major aspect of Van Patten’s message is that language acquisition is different from any other kind of learning. Van Patten suggests that the brain treats language differently from normal human cognition and therefore should not be studied cognitively, which is how it is typically taught.

California Is Leading The Way

The State of California is leading the way in this change. The California Board of Education has recently passed legislation clearly stating what it wants from their language teachers. This legislation includes an amazing statement, one that needs to be read carefully by all administrators so that they are not left out of the loop of the coming changes:

“We can no longer afford to simply LEARN ABOUT LANGUAGES and cultures but rather, we must provide students with opportunities to LEARN LANGUAGES and cultures by participating in communicative interactions that prepare for real-world language use and global citizenship.” [upper case text above is in lower case but is bolded in the original document]

Links to the entire document, which was provided by Robert Harrell, can be found at my site – search the blog for “California World Language Standards”. California is the first, but certainly won’t be the last, state to DEMAND that its teachers address in their teaching the proficiency outcomes defined by ACTFL and that memorizing lists of vocabulary and grammar rules is no longer going to cut it.

TPRS Aligns With The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines

ACTFL has been supporting the kind of teaching that TPRS represents since 1985, even before TPRS was invented by Blaine Ray. The guidelines are built around proficiency outcomes and don’t mention a word of grammar or the memorization of words in the form of lists.

Thank you for taking the time to look into this further. It will be time well spent. Thank you for being open to the idea that the young teacher now struggling with TPRS in your building doesn’t need to be attacked, but supported.

Things are changing, very rapidly, in the direction of honest and thorough alignment with the national ACTFL proficiency guidelines, and a lot of traditional teaching is being exposed for what it really is – bad for America..


Ben Slavic
Littleton, CO