Part II – The Natural Order Hypothesis

(For an explanation of this series on the second language acquisition theories of Stephen Krashen, see this post. Also, I went straight to the horse’s mouth and got the information from “Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition,” which is freely available on Krashen’s website.)

When you’re learning a new language, you can guess what kind of grammar you’re going to learn first.

I’ll use Spanish as an example, since it’s on my mind with being in the middle of my Spanish project and all. I can remember the grammatical rules I’ve learned, and the order in which I learned them (roughly):

  1. Masculine and feminine words: casa, perro, edificios, <—- house (feminine), dog (masculine), buildings (masculine)
  2. The different definite articles: el, la, los, la <— “the”
  3. Present tense verb conjugation: quiero, quieres, queremos, quiere, quieren <— I want, you want, we want, he wants, they want
  4. Reflexive verbs: me gusta, se queda  <– I like (it pleases me), she stays
  5. Present perfect: he tenido, has visto <— I have had, you have seen

…and on and on.

A South African warrior
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But did I learn those grammatical constructions first because my brain is cued in to learn certain grammatical rules before I learn other?

That’s what Stephen Krashen believes is going on. He promotes something called the Natural Order Hypothesis, which means that we acquire grammatical patterns in a predictable order.


It’s a little tricky to think about why this is important, unless you put it in the context of Krashen’s other hypotheses.

If acquisition is a subconscious process (which we discussed in Part One of the series) then all we have to do is expose ourselves to comprehensible input: foreign language materials to listen to and read, which we can mostly (but not completely) understand. The natural order in which we learn grammar occurs, well, naturally. What I mean is, we don’t have to set out and learn it and teachers don’t have to worry about teaching it in a particular order.

This hypothesis is important in helping us select comprehensible input.

Krashen suggests that a language learner finds a text that is only one level above where she is at currently. With the Natural Order hypothesis, we have an idea about which grammar a learner is likely to pick up first, and can therefore select texts that use those basic grammatical structures.

My Take

I’d love to able to say with absolute certainty whether this is right or wrong, but I haven’t studied or even looked at the morpheme studies Krashen used to come up with this hypothesis. And honestly, this stuff is out of my league.

I’ve read both criticisms and mixed reviews of the Natural Order hypothesis from scientists, and have decided to let the academics handle the academic debate of this.

But does this hypothesis more or less match up with what I’ve noticed, personally?


A market in Beijing
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I mean, the hypothesis sounds like it has merit. If I look at my kindergarten-aged son, I can remember that he went from single-word utterances (Mama! Dada! Water!) to simple sentences (I want it!) to less simple sentence (I don’t like this show). Lately he’s been saying stuff like, “Actually, we didn’t read this book in school today,” which cracks me up because he’s trying out more complex sentence structures, and to me it comes across like a kid wearing his daddy’s shoes.

What about for adults? Well, as for the Spanish grammar constructions I talked about earlier, I have a feeling I learned those first not because my brain had a preference for simpler constructions or anything like that, but because my Spanish courses taught me that material in that order.

I have a feeling, in fact, that my brain doesn’t necessarily prefer simple grammar anymore, because it’s been exposed to a lifetime of more complex English grammar. I don’t know why I would revert back to complete infancy when I began learning the new language.

Wrapping Up

The Natural Order hypothesis may or may not be sound, from a scientific perspective. But even if it were 100% correct, I’m just not sure if there’s enough information out there to help us apply this hypothesis to language learning.

What I think might be more useful for language learners is to identify the most common grammatical structures used in communication–not necessarily the grammatical structures that Krashen believes our minds prefer to learn first–and teaching those and really drilling those in.