So we’ve talked about how Krashen believes there’s a difference between acquisition and learning, with acquisition being the key to becoming competent in a language. In fact, Krashen believes that the subconscious acquisition system in our brain is completely separate from our conscious learning system.
Well, the Monitor hypothesis states that with language, learning functions only as a monitor. It corrects our speech, either before or after we write or say something. So if you are inclined to say, “I ain’t going to the store” because you’ve picked up that kind of speech from your friends, your learning system–your monitor–would hop in and make you say, “I’m not going to the store” instead.
(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.)
Krashen says that the strength of the monitor varies in people. Some people monitor a lot, some people monitor a little, and some people monitor just right. He also says that there are some very skilled linguists who monitor all the time during conversation, but they’re rare.
The Monitor hypothesis implies that language “learning” can never take the place of language acquisition. You won’t be able to spontaneously produce speech with learned knowledge. In simpler terms, if you monitor all the time, your conversations will stink.
You’ll speak too slowly because you’re trying to think of the rules, and you’ll be so focused on your form that you won’t pay attention to the content.
Furthermore, the handful of grammatical rules you learned from a textbook will just be the tip of the iceberg of all the rules in a language. There is no way you can learn all these rules consciously by, say, memorizing conjugation charts. So you’re going to make weird mistakes, like this awesome example from engrish.com:
That questionable text might be the result of a computerized translation program. But when I was a young language student, I created sentences that were just as bad by trying to use the grammar rules I “learned” in class. It is not uncommon to see sentences like that from people who are new to a language.
The basic question here is this: Does studying grammar have any benefit in our developing a subconscious understanding of a language?
I think it can, but only if the grammar is taught correctly.
Language, as an entity, might follow logical patterns. But most people don’t pick up a language by identifying those patterns logically. Instead, we “feel” the correct answer.
So with that in mind, I do agree with Krashen that our processing and production of language is a largely subconscious activity. And I’ve also noticed that if you learn a grammatical rule from a book without seeing or hearing it in a text, you’ll produce some disastrous sentences.
Yet I still have some reservations about throwing away the textbooks altogether. I’ve mentioned this in my other posts in this series, but I have to mention it again: I don’t believe that learning and acquisition are completely and 100% separate. I believe that information we learn consciously can become acquired information we know subconsciously.
No, I don’t see very much value in a language student learning formal, prescriptive grammar. But I also don’t see anything wrong with helping a student consciously identify patterns in a language.
Here’s a personal example. I’ve been reading a lot of Spanish for the last few months. When I first began reading fiction, which often describes events having taken place in the past, I had a little difficulty understanding some texts that freely used the past perfect tense (like “I had gone,” or “he had studied”). I hadn’t learned that sentence structure, so I had trouble identifying it in the text.
But when I learned the basic conjugation pattern for past perfect sentences from an exercise in Duolingo, it was like a lightbulb went off. I was able to read the same texts and understand quite a bit more. The text went from incomprehensible to comprehensible, which meant that now I was really getting something out of reading it.
I know what it feels like when the “monitor” in me takes over. It’s what keeps me from talking with my coworkers the way I do with my friends (and therefore keeps me from getting fired).
But I just don’t think the monitor is this distinct entity, separate from “real” language. I’m always monitoring. I monitor so much that it seems like it’s an integral, inherent part of my speech, a dial knob that plays a role in my language as much as anything else. At the grocery store, I can switch effortlessly from talking to my 5-year-old son, to talking to my wife, to talking to my friend on the phone, to talking to the employee, and that ability to switch feels as subconsciously acquired as any other language skill I’ve developed.
What I think, then, is that when you’re leaning a language, you should train your monitor just as much as you do anything else. If you never work it out, it won’t get better, and your language skills won’t improve as much as they could.