“We acquire languages by understanding messages.” Stephen Krashen
In the 1980s, linguist Stephen Krashen started a heated debate. He said there’s only one way to learn language. And all people do it. Actually, he did not like the word “learn.” Instead, he used the word “acquire.” Learning means study, drills, practice, and grammar books. But when we acquire language, we can use it automatically — without thinking. And we don’t need study, drills practice, and grammar books. We just need input.
Krashen inspired many teachers, and many scholars criticized him. But if you listen to Krashen speak, you can see why people were inspired. The following comes directly from one of his talks, which was removed from Youtube by its owner the BBC for copyright reasons.
We acquire language in only one way (this is the big moment) when we understand messages. That’s it. We’ve tried everything else. We’ve tried teaching grammar. We’ve tried having students memorize vocabulary. We’ve had people memorize dialogues, sit in front of machines. Next we’ll try electric shock. We’ve tried everything. But the only thing that works, the only thing that counts is giving people messages they understand, what we now call comprehensible input.
Krashen exploded the traditional way of teaching English. Even his many critics must agree with the following. Krashen’s bold theories caused many people to do research. They studied his claims. They tried to show he was wrong. And all this helped moved language education forward.
In the end, however, Krashen is generally right about input. Input may not be supreme. But it plays a central role in language acquisition. In the beginning is input. Input comes first. You cannot acquire language without input. But you can acquire a lot of language without output. And when a learner speaks, even his output is “auto-input.” That is, his output comes back in his head as input.
When a learner produces output, he gets feedback — another form of input. The feedback helps him correct mistakes, speak more clearly, and acquire more. Output is a productive activity that also helps develop a learners language ability. See the Section on the Theory of Output. But in the end, input comes first.
As teachers, we can use Krashen’s Input Theory. He says, “We acquire languages by understanding messages.” Here we see two points. First, learners understand messages. As teachers, we need to give our students understandable messages, content, and stories. By the way, extensive reading is one of the best ways to do this! Second, when students understand messages, they begin to acquire language. That is, they get a natural feel for language.
In the following section, we will look at the Theory of Big Data. It reminds us that to acquire language, learners need a great amount of input. But the Theory of Input is basic. It tells us that we need to give our students a wealth of messages that they can enjoy and understand.