Series Introduction: Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition

In the world of language learning, Stephen Krashen has been one of the most influential figures in the last several decades.

Dr. Krashen is a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California. He studied, researched, and taught linguistics–applied linguistics in particular. Not sure what the difference is? Linguistics is the scientific study of language, and as a science its practitioners strive to observe truth and formulate theories. Applied linguistics is a subset of linguistics that focuses on finding solutions to real-world problems.

Linguistics is a science, but one that doesn’t usually require a lab coat.
Image Source

Krashen has popularized several terms that you have probably come across if you’re a language enthusiast, such as “second language acquisition,” “comprehensible input,” and “free voluntary reading.”

Unlike some people in the language learning community, I don’t accept all of Krashen’s ideas unchallenged, and I disagree with certain claims he’s made. But that doesn’t mean I reject his ideas outright either.

I think that Krashen is more right than wrong.  You could definitely do worse than basing your own language development program off of Krashen’s principles.

In the following posts, I’m going to discuss the five hypotheses that make up Krashen’s theory of second language acquisition:

In each of these posts, I’m going to explain the hypothesis, and then I’m going to present my opinion.

Here’s the deal. I’m taking on a giant here. Krashen has forgotten more about linguistics than I know, mainly because I’m not a linguist. Also, as a scientist he has had a very successful career paying strict attention to data, including data he’s collected himself and data collected by his colleagues that has been peer reviewed and published.

He’s intelligent, knowledgeable, and disciplined enough to make conclusions based on the science. So what qualifies me to give my opinion on anything he’s published?

Here’s the best way to explain it. When you’re trying to learn an athletic skill–such as basketball, for example–you have three sources to take advice from:

  • The athlete
  • The coach
  • The sports scientist

All three have something to offer. The athlete has plenty of firsthand experience about what it takes to do well. The coach has had plenty of opportunity to observe dozens or hundreds of athletes and therefore has an intuitive sense of what works and what doesn’t, as well as how to explain that. The sports scientists understands the nuts and bolts of things and can provide some specific, logical advice.

All three lack something too. The athlete might be great at a skill, but not understand exactly what they’re doing–it might be pure instinct. The coach might have sense of what works, but not really know the logical intricacies of everything. The sports scientist might know the nuts and bolts, but might not be able to marry theory up with the real world.

Well, learning a language isn’t a sport, but it is a skill, so the same principles apply. I’ve been a professional language student and a translator, so I have the “athlete” perspective. I also tutored students in both writing and Arabic, so I have the “coach” perspective.

I’m definitely not a linguist or a scientist, but I do have my own observations about what works and what doesn’t. All I’m trying to do in this series of articles is compare what I’ve seen and experienced myself with what Krashen has written.

After all, in the end, our goal isn’t to be “right” or “wrong” about a theory. It’s to learn languages better. This is just another way to kick around ideas.

(UPDATE: The links to the rest of these articles in this series are are listed above.)