Open Letter No. 2 to Stephen Krashen
Let me begin by saying that I think you’re right about a lot of important issues. It is now generally agreed that most language learning is unconscious, that comprehensible input is vital for learning and that a teacher’s most important job is to provide that input. Whether or not because of what you say about an affective filter, it’s also generally recognised that affective barriers can prevent successful SLA and that a teacher should make every effort to lower those barriers.
In this post, I want to outline the main criticisms I have of your theory, making frequent references to Gregg (1984), who isn’t of course responsible for how I interpret his paper. I’ll then wait for you to response, and after that I’ll try to deal with all the responses you’ve made recently, and to bring the threads of this discussion together. My intention will be to present your theory in its best possible form and to compare it with other current theories of SLA. Readers might want to check my summary of your Monitor Model (scroll down from here to the post “Newsflash: Krashen Well …..”) before proceeding.
Acquisition versus Learning
The Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis “states that adults have two distinct and independent ways of developing competence in a second language” (Krashen, 1982:10): acquisition, which is “subconscious”, and learning, which is conscious.
First, what makes you posit that two completely separate systems (presumably each with its own neuro-physiological basis) are used for language learning? This offends Occam’s razor and is generally implausible.
Second, you claim that adults can access the same natural language acquisition device that children use (1982:10), but your language acquisition device seems to operate in a different way to Chomsky’s language acquisition devise (LAD). As Gregg (1984) argues, the language acquisition device you talk about seems to equate with unconscious acquisition of any sort, whereas for Chomsky the mind is modular and the LAD is but one of various ‘mental organs’ that interact with each other and with input data to produce linguistic competence. Furthermore, Chomsky’s LAD is intended to describe the child’s initial state, before being presented with primary linguistic data, and is constrained by UG. So please could you explain how “your” language acquisition device operates, and how it differs from Chomsky’s LAD.
Third, if adults use the same device to acquire a second language as children use in L1 acquisition, one would expect adults to acquire a second language as successfully as children acquire language. Your explanation for why they don’t is as follows:
The filter hypothesis explains why it is possible for an acquirer to obtain a great deal of comprehensible input, and yet stop short (and sometimes quite short) of the native speaker level… When this occurs, it is due to the affective filter.. .. Child-adult differences in attainment are not due to any change in the “language acquisition device” (LAD) but are due to the filter… (Krashen, 1982:32, 45).
This implies that provided adults acquiring a second language get enough of the right kind of input, they should become as competent as children become, and if they don’t, it’s because they have some affective difficulty: lack of motivation, dislike of the culture of the target language’s speakers, whatever. One can readily accept that affective factors play an important role in SLA, but it’s hard to accept that the Affective Filter provides a complete explanation for differences in child and adult language acquisition. I suggest that children’s L1 Acquisition is very different to adult SLA, that your distinction between acquisition and learning is wrong, and that the Affective Filter Hypothesis (discussed below) is an ad hoc hypothesis, bolted on to rescue the important Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis and the Input Hypothesis from criticism.
Forth, in Krashen 1981,1982,1983, 1985, you claim that “learning” cannot become “acquisition”. This is informally challenged by just about everybody who has learnt a second language. Reports by Gregg (1984), Schmidt (1990), and Thornbury (2013), among many, support the claim that the conscious learning of rules, and the presentation of rules, explanation, corrective feedback, etc., can facilitate the acquisition of a second language, as do studies by Ellis (1994a; 1994b), Fotos (1994); Hulstijn (2005), Lyster and Saito (2010), to mention just a few. So, the burden is on you to disprove the intuitively obvious proposition that learning can become acquisition. Are you able to do so?
Fifth, many critics, including Gregg (1984) and McLaughlin (1978) say that you don’t clarify what you mean by “conscious” and “subconscious”. Specifically, does “subconscious” mean “not accessible to the conscious”, or simply “not conscious at a given moment”? Does “conscious” entail “incapable of becoming unconscious”? If you define the “subconscious” as inaccessible, and conscious “learning” as always accessible, then the claim that learning does not become acquisition is of course true, but only trivially so because you make it so. But if (some) unconscious knowledge can be brought to consciousness, and if conscious knowledge is capable of becoming unconscious, then unless you offer evidence, which you don’t, there’s no reason to accept your claim.
Finally, you say that acquisition “always (sic) requires large amounts of time and input data”, but you don’t give any evidence for this claim. There are many examples (see Gregg, 1984 for some) of acquistion which is fast and requires little input data.
In your 1982 work you say “Learning has only one function, and that is as a Monitor, or editor”. In Krashen 1981,1982,1983, 1985, you clearly state that the Monitor Hypothesis claims that “learning” is available only for use in production, not in comprehension. Last week in our exchange on this blog, I asked you “Is it right to say that the Monitor hypothesis claims that learning is available for use in production, but not in comprehension?” You replied “NO. It is available as a Monitor, but it is possible that conscious knowledge can make input more comprehensible. There has been no investigation of this possibility, to my knowledge”. I don’t get this and I hope you’ll address it in a reply. For the moment let me say that, in my opinion, the claim made for the Monitor (as I still understand it from re-reading your work) is an extraordinary one for which you offer no evidence. We may note that McLaughlin (1978) makes the same point, and that you don’t deal with it in your reply (1979) to him.
Gregg gives this example as evidence against your claim:
“The other day while listening to the radio, I heard the announcer announce wagunaa no kageki, kamigami no kasoware. Knowing that kageki = ‘opera’ and that kami = either ‘god’ or ‘hair’ or ‘paper’, and knowing that there is a (fairly unproductive) rule in Japanese for pluralizing by reduplication, I concluded that kamigami must be the plural of kami ‘god’, that therefore wagunaa must be Wagner and kasoware must mean ‘twilight,’ and that I as in danger of hearing Die Gotterdammerung. Of course I was not quite right: there is no word kasoware, it’s tasogare. But the point is that I was using a rule that I had ‘learned’ (and never used productively), and using that rule consciously (and quickly enough to turn the radio off in time). … Of course I was using acquired knowledge, but I was also consciously making use of rules that I had “learned”. Which suggests that “learning” can indeed be used in comprehension, as no one before Krashen would have doubted.”
Do you insist that learning cannot be used in comprehension?
The extreme conditions you impose on Monitor use means that, as you say “for most people, even university students, it takes a real discrete-point grammar-type test to meet all three conditions for Monitor use .. .’ (1982:18). This suggests that under normal conditions, the Monitor isn’t used, which, coupled with the fact that the Input Hypothesis claims that we learn a language through comprehension, throws doubt on the Acquisition / Learning distinction. The “two distinct and independent ways” adults have of developing competence in a second language are extremely lop-sided: “learning” in your model accounts for very little indeed of the SLA process.
The Natural Order Hypothesis
The Natural Order Hypothesis suggests that “Second language acquirers acquire (not learn) grammatical structures in a predictable order” (Krashen 1980:169). Your case is based mainly on results of morpheme studies, but, as Gregg (1984) and Wode et.al.(1978) point out, the acquisition of morphemes in the same order doesn’t entail that the acquisition of, for example, relative pronouns, indirect object placement, or epistemic modals is ordered, either in respect to those grammatical morphemes, or in respect to each other. In recognition of this objection, you say in a footnote “Wode et al (1978) note that ordering studies might be overly concerned with determining relative order of acquisition of items that are formally quite different’ (1981:63).
If we took a simple view of the Natural Order Hypothesis we would suppose that the learner acquiring the thousands of structures of English does so by progressing from the first to the latest, starting from Structure 1 and reaching, let’s say, Structure 1,678. You say that “a strictly linear view of the natural order hypothesis, that there is only one stream of progress that acquirers follow in strict sequence” is incorrect. Rather, “several streams of development are taking place at the same time” (1982:53-4). But you give no explanation of what a “stream of development” could be, or set any limit on the number of such “streams”. Let me quote Gregg (1984) again:
If the structures of English are divided into varying numbers of ordered sets, the number of sets varying according to the individual, then it makes little sense to talk about a ‘natural order’. If the number of sets varies from individual to individual; then the membership of any given set will also vary, which makes it very difficult to compare individuals, especially since the content of these sets is virtually completely unknown. If the set of sets of structures is claimed to be invariant across individual – that is, if it is claimed that there is one (unknown) fixed number of ‘streams of development’ – the problem of comparability would be removed, but the problem of empirical support for the hypothesis remains; in fact it becomes even greater. If on the other hand one rejects the criterion of comparability across individuals, the Natural Order Hypothesis has no empirical content: for any individual it would claim that the acquisition of structure n+ 1 was the next structure to be acquired, and this would be true ex hypothesis, but it would be impossible to prove it or falsify it.
Another issue is the utility of this hypothesis. What is it for? The hypothesis can hardly be used to organize a syllabus which coincides with the natural order because nobody knows what this natural order is. And in any case, you have always rejected grammatical sequencing as an organising principle for an ELT syllabus. By the way, the fact that nobody knows what the natural order of English structures is (plus the fact that nobody knows when the monitor is working and when it’s not) makes “finding a natural accuracy order in a highly monitored situation, or finding an unnatural accuracy order in a spontaneous unmonitored situation” impossible. The attempt to “show a change in the natural order related to affect” is similarly bound to fail. These were 2 examples you gave in reply to my request for a conterexample which would falsify your hypotheses.
The Input Hypothesis
The Input Hypothesis claims that we acquire by understanding language that contains structure a bit beyond our current level of competence (i+ 1). This is done with the help of context or extra-linguistic information. When communication is successful, when the input is understood and there is enough of it, i+1 will be provided automatically.
One claim which comes from this hypothesis is that output does not help acquisition, except indirectly. Where is the evidence for this surprising claim, which contradicts the common opinion (which may of course be totally unfounded) that practice is necessary for second language acquisition? Why do you assume that learners can’t learn from their own utterances?
A second claim is that we acquire a previously unacquired structure if and only if that structure is present in input that we understand; that structure is ‘due’ to be acquired next; and that structure is presented (in understood input) sufficiently often. Since we don’t know when a structure is ready to be acquired, and since you give no definition of “ready”, this claim can’t be either supported or challenged by empirical evidence.
In general, what evidence supports the assertion that acquisition is caused by understanding comprehensible input? What theory explains how we go from understanding to acquisition? Without addressing these issues, the Input Hypothesis has no explanatory power.
The Affective Filter Hypothesis
The Affective Filter Hypothesis claims that there is such a thing as an affective filter, which is ‘that part of the internal processing system that subconsciously screens incoming language based on… the learner’s motives, needs, attitudes, and emotional states’ (Dulay, Burt, and Krashen 1 982:46). The hypothesis also claims that ‘the effect of affect is “outside” the language acquisition device proper’ (Krashen 1982:32).
As mentioned above, the Affective Filter is supposed to explain incomplete mastery of a second language by adults, and so the question arises why doesn’t the Filter work in children? You’ve said that that “significant Monitor use is only possible after the acquirer has undergone formal operations a stage in cognitive development that generally occurs at about puberty” and that “Having reached this stage, the adolescent now has a meta-awareness of his ideas and can use abstract rules to solve a whole class of problems at one time. It is thus plausible that the ability to use a conscious grammar … comes as a result of formal operations” (1981:35). Crucial to this otherwise very unconvincing account are “formal operations”. What are they?
You say the Filter determines which parts of the language will be attended to first. What does “part of a language” mean? How does the Filter recognize different “parts of a language”?
In general, you don’t explain either the growth or function of the Affective Filter, or provide any evidence for its existence.
A theory of language
Gregg (1984) insists that “a theory of second language acquisition must include a linguistic theory if it is to have any value as a theory”. He says: “Aside from throwing out a reference to ‘LAD’ from time to time, Krashen has no such theory, and this is what makes him unable to interpret the morpheme studies, or to present a coherent account of what ‘i+ 1′ could mean. As Chomsky says, ‘It is absolutely suicidal for a field to define itself the way psychology of language almost invariably does, as dealing with processes but not with the structures that might enter into them, or to deal with the observed stages of growth and development, but not with the systems that underlie them’ (Chomsky 1982:69)”.
A theory of SLA
Here, I repeat the criticisms I made in my original post. Firstly, most of the propositions in your theory are not capable of being subjected to an empirical test. There is no way of testing the Acquisition-Learning hypothesis since you give no evidence to support the claim that two distinct systems exist, or any means of determining whether they are, or are not, separate. Similarly, there is no way of testing the Monitor hypothesis: with no way to determine whether the Monitor is in operation or not, it is impossible to determine the validity of its claims. The Input Hypothesis is equally incapable of being tested: the levels of knowledge are nowhere defined and so it is impossible to know whether i + 1 is present in input, and, if it is, whether or not the learner moves on to the next level as a result.
Secondly, you provide no causal explanation. At the heart of the hypotheses is the Acquisition-Leaning Hypothesis which simply states that L2 competence is picked up through comprehensible input in a staged, systematic way, without giving any explanation of the process by which comprehensible input leads to acquisition. Similarly, you give no account of how the Affective Filter works, of how input is filtered out by an unmotivated learner.
Thirdly, your use of key terms, such as “acquisition and learning”, and “subconscious and conscious”, is vague, confusing, and not always consistent.
Fourthly, I think the theory is contained in the Input Hypothesis and the Monitor Hypothesis, and that the other hypotheses serve to rescue these two hypotheses from criticism. This implies that the theory offends the principle of Occam’s Razor, which expects theories to use the simplest possible formula and to postulate the fewest number of basic types of entity.
Finally, I should mention your response to one of my questions to you last week. You said:
According to a pure Popperian view the hundreds of confirmations of the hypotheses count for nothing – but I think they are good evidence supporting the hypotheses. EG: More comprehensible input consistently results in better competence in adult second language, child second language, native language, literacy. Comprehension-based methods have won EVERY method-comparison study ever done, for beginners and intermediates, sustained silent reading is a steady winner in L1 and L2 studies over traditional literacy instruction (in some short term studies, there is no difference, which makes sense, it takes a while for students to find a book), in multivariate studies self-selected reading is always a strong predictor of competence on several tests while instruction does poorly. There are no exceptions. Any exception would be serious counter-evidence to the comprehension hypothesis.
I agree entirely that supporting evidence is extremely inportant when assessing a hypothesis or theory (and I thus expect you to give evidence in support of the assertions made in your theory). Of course, Popper himself did not dismiss the need for supporting evidence, and, furthermore, very few scholars in the field of the philosophy of science today accept the original strong version of the Falsifiability hypothesis. Pace Popper, scientific theories rely as much on inference (inference to the best explanation) as they do on deduction and testing for counter evidence. But we need more information in order to judge for ourselves whether the examples you give of confirmations of your hypotheses are robust. So, for example, when you say “More comprehensible input consistently results in better competence in adult second language, child second language, native language, literacy”, we need to know how you ensured that the input was comprehensible, how you measured “competence” before and after the trial, how strong the correlation was and how you are sure that the comprehensible input caused the increased competence.
There it is: “casi nada” as they say here. I look forward to your response.
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