How Languages are Really Learned: an Exclusive Interview with Dr. Stephen Krashen
Dr. Stephen Krashen is linguist behind the Input Hypothesis, which revolutionised our understanding of the way languages are learned. If you want to speak a foreign language well then you must become familiar with him and the hypothesis.
Almost everyone tries to learn a foreign language at some point in their lives, but sadly most fail.
In this interview with Dr. Krashen you’ll learn exactly why the grammar based approach to language learning fails to succeed and why an approach focused on reading and listening is what you need to reach fluency
Teacher David: Today I’m speaking with Stephen Krashen, Dr. Stephen Krashen, a renowned linguist in the second language acquisition space and I’m really excited to speak with him today because I’ve read many of his journal articles and I’ve read some of your books as well. And I’m excited to dive deep into what we call the “Input Hypothesis” because this is also something that revolutionized the way that I learn languages. I actually studied it at university as well. So to get to speak with you today is an honor. I could keep talking forever but I think that you would do a better job of introducing yourself so could you please first introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your history as a linguist and some of the work that you’ve done.
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Okay, it’s interesting that I’m described as a linguist. That’s actually technically correct because my degrees are all in linguistics, except my undergraduate degree, which is in music—which is another story. I describe myself as a recovering linguist. I have a Ph.D in Theoretical Linguistics, where I studied with great enthusiasm everything written by Noam Chomsky but my theories and my research all says that conscious knowledge of language is not the key to language acquisition so it goes against everything that I did before. In the old days, we did something called applied linguistics. Applied linguistics means study all the rules, learn the grammar of language, and then apply them to pedagogue. No more. What we now do is language acquisition. And in 1975, when I was already in the field working as an assistant professor in New York, the idea came to me that we don’t acquire language by studying it, we don’t acquire language by conjugating verbs, memorizing lists of vocabulary words, we don’t even acquire language by speaking or writing. We acquire language by listening, by reading, by understanding what people tell us, and understanding what we read. The message. In fact, in the last few years, I’ve become more and more interested in the idea that we acquire language when we’re deeply listening to the message. When we’re not even thinking about whether it’s in another language. When we’re so interested in what we’re reading or listening to that we have no idea it’s in another language, we have no idea what grammatical constructions are used when the input is totally compelling. This all started in the 1970’s, when I was interested in adult second language acquisition because that’s what I was doing. I was the director of an ESL program, English as a Second Language program in New York and we had these adult students. And the original work showed that adults do better when they get comprehensible input, interesting messages. After that, it spread, I discovered to my great delight, that it worked for child second language acquisition too. And then after that, in the 1980’s, it occurred to me that this worked for first language development and then it worked for literacy development. I was influenced in 1985, I think it was, when I read a book called Reading Without Nonsense by Frank Smith. And I found my theory there, I found all my ideas there, written years before I had thought of them from a completely different source of different data and expressed much more clearly than I ever had. Smith had it all worked out, it was beautiful. And that pushed me ahead 10 years. And I should put in a commercial message, I’m still very dependent on Frank Smith, who along with my son, I think is one of the most brilliant people on the planet. He and Kenneth Goodman had this idea that you learn to read by reading. You learn to read by understanding what’s on the page. After that I discovered that the idea of comprehensible input, we acquire language by understanding helped explain bilingual education. Why some bilingual programs were more efficient than others. The good ones gave you background information that made input more comprehensible. About 10 years after that, I got interested in animal language. And I’ve been looking at the research on parrots, on songbirds, on chimpanzees, and guess what, the comprehension hypothesis has something to say about this too. And I actually wrote a paper which people can find on my website, sdkrashen.com, called Cosmo, a parrot that I have actually interviewed and met, along with my grandchildren, in Athens, Georgia, who speaks English pretty well, no kidding.
And comprehensible input gives a very interesting insight into Cosmo. It works not perfectly, but pretty well.
Teacher David: Okay. So, for those of you listening, I want to just give a quick summary of what you’ve said here. So the input hypothesis, just to make it clear, is a theory that says that we learn to read by reading, we learn to listen by listening, and what we need to acquire language is called comprehensible input. Comprehensible input is self-explanatory and it’s when we are able to understand the messages that are being communicated to us. Correct? So could you tell us a little bit about how you discovered this hypothesis or how you discovered this theory that we acquire language in this way? What steps did you go through and what was your epiphany moment, if there was one?
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Yes, there were several epiphanies. What happened was, in the 1970’s, 1975, I was teaching in New York and I had a problem. There was data I couldn’t make sense of. Two different kinds of studies. One was studies that we found of adult second language acquirers have the same order of acquisition as child second language acquirers. This was based on the work of Heidi Dulay and Marina Burt, who had done work in second language in children. And we, my colleagues and I, looked at adults and found very similar patterns, which were very interesting. Carolyn Madden, F. Lee Bailey, and I published several papers on this in the 70’s. The order of acquisition was similar to the difficulty order. What they found easy and what they found hard. But we also found that it only appeared if you gave them a real communicative situation where they weren’t thinking about grammar and they were just communicating. If you had them write and focus on correctness, or gave them a grammar test, the order changed. Most writing stayed the same but if it’s a writing with “make sure this is correct,” then it changed. Things like the third-person singular, which is usually late acquired, jumped up in the order example, it was more accurate. Another study at the same time, based on a student of mine named Pauline Ponn. Let me tell you about Pauline. She took several of my classes, one at Queens College, one at the graduate center. At the time she was in her 40’s and she was an immigrant from China, first language Mandarin. Her written English was phenomenal. She wrote some of the best papers I had ever gotten from a student still, both in form and content. And it was very accurate and well stated. Her spoken English, she had an accent, she occasionally made mistakes. The term paper that we decided on, that she decided to do, was based on herself. Her son was 16, native speaker of English, native level and in their apartment in New York, they left slips of paper around. And every time she made a spoken mistake, her son wrote it down. At the end of semester, we looked at the mistakes. She could self-correct nearly every one. Those two studies combined, those two problems, this was in the epiphany. There was the only way out was to hypothesize that there are two systems going on. There’s a consciously learned grammatical system and there’s a subconscious system naturally acquired, which is similar to what children have. And if you peel away the conscious mind in adults, you see the child subconscious natural mind—I thought that was a very beautiful idea. So what happened to Pauline, when she wrote, she appealed to this conscious grammar. But when she just spoke to her son, she didn’t worry about it, she used her subconscious only. Similarly, in the natural order studies, when people are just talking they use the subconscious system. But then when there’s a grammar test, they superimposed on it this grammatical system, which I hypothesized was used as a conscious monitor. That was the first breakthrough and it was a secondary analysis of older data that did it. It was trying to make sense of old research, which is, as we know in history of science, the way Albert Einstein came up with the theory of relativity based on research done 30 years ago, Maxwell’s research, etc. So this, generally, I found out later what happens in science. The other epiphany happened in a class I was auditing, taught by my colleague Eleanor Oaks, and I was listening to what she said and suddenly it hit me, “My gosh, this is how language is acquired.”
I don’t know what she said but it started me thinking and I tuned out for the next 10 minutes and I started scribbling. And it seemed to me too simple. We acquire language when we hear it and read it and there are aspects of grammar that we haven’t yet acquired. And it seemed to me this was too simple to be true and maybe everybody knew all about it. So I turned to one of my students next to me—I wrote this out, I didn’t disturb the class—Tina Bennet and I said, “Is this how it happens?” She wrote back, “Yeah, probably. No, we didn’t know about it. This is new.” Finally, the third epiphany was happening when I was on the freeway on my way to Riverside, California and it hit me that optimal input, if you give people a lot of comprehensible input, all the grammar rules that people are ready to acquire is already there in the input. We don’t have to teach along the natural order. Just like the balanced diet will give you all the calcium you need, all the iron I need, all the vitamin B-25 that somebody else needs, etc. Not only that, it has all the vitamins that have yet to be discovered, that scientists don’t know about, and they’re recycled in just the right amount, etc. So, those are the three individual breakthroughs that led to the theory. And the fourth one, which was a year-and-a-half ago, is based on the work of my former student Christy Lao, who had a student in her summer class— she teaches a summer Mandarin class, special seminars in Richmond—she had one student who spoke Mandarin as a first language but his English had totally outstripped his Mandarin, which we find in immigrants, and he wanted to drop the class. She gave him a book, said, “You can drop the class but let me give you something to read, you might like it. Here’s a going away present.” It was the stories of Afanti, the graphic novel written in Mandarin, which is popular in Chinese-related language speakers all over the world. He absolutely loved it. It was a little hard for him so he asked his mom to read the stories to him. And she got more of them from Christy. They were so wonderful that he wanted mom to read these stories all day, three or four a day. Finally, he and his mom made a deal, she would read him the stories while he did the dished. It worked out for everybody. This is a 9-year-old kid. His Mandarin got better, and better, and better. At no time did he care about Mandarin. He cared about the stories. This young man, Jack, knew something that we in language education don’t know. Most people don’t care about acquiring languages. Most people care about getting through the day. If they’re kids, they care about going to the mall and skateboarding. If they’re adolescents, they care about what other adolescents think about them. If they’re grown-ups, they care about having a job, making an income, and taking care of their children. Language is not a prime concern, except for crazy people like us. It’s wonderful. And from this, I declared the end, the death of language motivation. Most people are not motivated to acquire language and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t say, “You should learn French because it’s good for you,” “You should learn Spanish, you’ll get a better job,” or “You should improve your English vocabulary.” That doesn’t matter but, “Here’s a good book,” “Here’s a movie,” “Here’s a story,” it happens when you get compelling input. And language acquisition happens as an inevitable by-product. It’s nothing you do on purpose. The secret of getting better in other languages is to find a compelling input. Books that you get lost in where you forget it’s in another language, and you can’t wait to turn the page to see what’s going to happen next. Or good friends who really are interested in you and you have interesting conversations. So that’s the fourth great epiphany. Gee, that could be a good movie, Four Great Epiphanies.
Teacher David: Let’s talk a little bit more about comprehensible input because this is the backbone of the input hypothesis so we learn language when we are interested in the content that we are engaged in, whether it be conversation, movies, books, whatever. So the first thing that comes to my mind, and I’m thinking of a beginner language learner, is that if you say that we can’t do anything about motivation, what we can do is find content that is interesting at the beginning stages of language acquisition. Is it possible to really have that content that is interesting, that is going to hook someone and keep them going, the average learner? [00:15:00]
Dr. Stephen Krashen: I’ve got to tell you the historical basis for your question. Good gossip. My chair, in 1976 when I came back to LA and USC, was my friend Larry Hyman, brilliant phrenologist, and I told him about my work, I said, “Here’s the breakthrough. It’s acquisition, it’s comprehensible input.” So he said just what you said, a question that has been haunting me ever since, “What do we talk about?” What should go on in a beginning class? If it’s through input, what do we talk about? That’s your question. Congratulations, that is the basic question. Let me rephrase the question in several ways. What we want in language classes is language to be comprehensible and interesting, extremely interesting. It’s easy to give students input that’s comprehensible but not interesting—that’s school. It’s easy to get people input that’s interesting but not comprehensible—that’s life outside of school. And most of my colleagues at the university have dedicated their lives to providing us with input that is neither comprehensible nor interesting, in my opinion. Our goal is to do both. We need classes. I love language classes. You will not get the interesting, fascinating, comprehensible input you need if you go to the country and you know nothing about the language. Because people are going to be very reluctant to give you comprehensible input. Language classes are supposed to do that, to bring you to the point where you can go to the country. If you have, say, $1,900 of a well-taught Italian class, then you go to Italy, you can start to get better on your own. You won’t be perfect but you can understand people who want to talk to you and you can understand a little of what you read. So, what’s going on in language teaching today? Language teaching, since the 1970’s, in my opinion, has been an improvement in giving people compelling, comprehensible input. Back in the 60’s, 70’s, 50’s, we had grammar translation, audio lingual, boring, and incomprehensible. Then we had TPR, Total Physical Response. James Asher, wow, what a breakthrough. The guy is a rave genius. My God, so exciting. Where class is now activities, movement, the teacher moves, says, “Stand up,” everybody stands up, says, “Sit down,” everybody sits down. The students get the movement to help them understand the commands. Gradually, the movements get more complicated. TPR can get pretty interesting. It can’t do it all but it can get pretty interesting. If we do, say, a cooking class, where you can actually see it happen, that’s TPR. Dance, my gosh, dance would be wonderful. Martial arts, fighting, martial arts classes. All that stuff, Taekwondo, let’s do that in TPR classes. And then you’re focused on the activity, not on the language, and you absorb a tremendous amount of language and it’s interesting. But there’s limits to what you can do with movement so let’s keep—oh, magic tricks, that’s another good one to do. Second, we can move on up, Tracy Terrell, my old buddy, who unfortunately died in 1990, it just changed my life in so many negative ways. Let me tell you, I’ve still never recovered. Natural approach, all his idea. I got credit, but his idea, where you expand out from the TPR and you can do anything in the class that’s interesting and comprehensible. The next stage, which we’re in now, is a method called TPRS. Homework assignment for everybody listening, Google, TPRS: Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. Invented by a guy named Blaine Ray, former Spanish teacher. Marvellous and it spread very well in North America and it’s making its way slowly across the world. It really began with high school foreign language teaching. TPRS stories, that’s the basis of it, which is why I like it so much. We interpret our lives as narrative. Everybody loves stories, which is one reason why it’s so compelling for children. It’s compelling for adults too. TPR classes are stories and drama co-constructed with the teacher and the student filled with interesting, exciting, personalized, comprehensible input.
It’s about them. So this is amazing. The research—and by the way, the affect, TPRS does the best with affect than any method I’ve ever seen where the TPRS teachers I’ve been in several classes with really master teachers, Jason Fritz, Linda Lee, a whole bunch of—there’s Karen Rowan, they send the message to the students, “This is a good class. I’m enjoying being here. You guys are so clever.” So, opposite of the grammar translation classes, which I think had the opposite effect. So, the method comparisons we’ve done since Asher has shown that these classes really work. They work a lot better than traditional classes. They never lost, in fact, in published method comparisons. So in summary, we want to keep input compelling. Beginners, especially adults, really profit from classes. Everybody does. It’s hard to go to the country and get comprehensible input right away. A good class can really help. The goal of the class is not to make you perfect but to make you intermediate. And classes today, especially TPRS, have been succeeding and they’re making progress all the time. You go to TPRS conferences and there are all these sessions on how to make things even more personalized, more exciting. Bryce Hesterman, a Spanish teacher I know from Colorado, the first month of his Spanish class, is the students getting to know each other and they’re quizzed on each other. Like, “What is Mary Sue’s pet’s name? What does she feed her pet? What does her mother think of this pet? Who are her best friends?” So the kids really get to know each other. It’s topics they want to know, they’re interested, and they create dramas in which they are the protagonist in the plays, etc. So, good news these days to answer the question. You’ve asked the big one. I hope that’s a helpful answer.
Teacher David: Yeah, of course. And the next question that is going to come up is then, what is the relationship between input and output? Does the language go in one way and just come out the other eventually or do we have to take a different approach for output? What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Stephen Krashen: You’ve got it. It goes in and someday it comes out. The ability to speak is the result, not the cause, of language acquisition. It’s the result. We become speakers when we hear lots of comprehensible input and it comes on its own. Generally, people go through a silent period, then they start talking, they make predictable errors—we don’t worry about the errors—we provide more and more input. Similarly, our ability to write with a good, coherent writing styles comes from reading. You can tell when you read one sentence from someone whether they’re a reader or not. You get a note on e-mail, you can tell, even if there are spelling mistakes, you can tell if they’re readers. You can tell by talking to them too because they have a better knowledge of the world, etc. In fact, I think it’s a waste of time to test speaking. It’s a total waste of time to test writing because the correlations between reading and writing tests are very close to 100%. People who have read more write better. Actual writing itself, important footnote, will not make you a better writer. It will not help your syntactic form. Actually, writing itself does something else: it helps you think and solve problems, especially as you revise, as you go from draft to draft. So you can’t test it. And teaching writing is really giving people strategies for solving problems, making them smarter. Please ask me more about reading, especially pleasure reading.
Teacher David: Well, tell me more about pleasure reading.
Dr. Stephen Krashen: This is been on my mind since 1985, since I read Frank Smith’s stuff, reading for pleasure, reading because you want to, self-selected compelling pleasure reading is the most powerful tool of all language education. First language, second language. Those who read more have better vocabulary, better grammar, better writing style, better spelling, more knowledge of the world. Every single study that’s done properly has shown this is true. It is the missing factor in all language programs. For me, pleasure reading is the link between conversational language and what we call academic or more specialized language. If you’ve done years and years of reading for pleasure, junk reading, in my case it was comics, sports stories, and science fiction in high school—that was my curriculum. My high school was pretty much the way Alfie Kohn described his high school. He said he paid attention to everything except the teachers. That pretty much happened to me.[00:25:00]
Anyway, so going into high school, that was my reading. Just hours and hours of reading this stuff. It didn’t give me full academic language but when I got to graduate school, academic language was pretty comprehensible thanks to all the massive amount of pleasure reading I had done. So this is the missing link. If we’re going to do anything at all, the first thing to do is to increase the access to interesting books, increase libraries, make books available, get kids reading for pleasure, simply make it possible and they’ll do it. And then they’ll be ready for the academic stuff. They’ll have far, far fewer problems.
Teacher David: Have there been studies on this? The relationship between—can you tell us a little bit about the studies that have been done?
Dr. Stephen Krashen: My best-selling book, soon to be a major motion picture, The Power of Reading, which was my mother’s favorite, and if I can get 3 people to order copies, I will have doubled my sales for the month. By the way, I haven’t been writing books for the last couple years because nobody can afford them. So I’ve been putting everything free on the website SDKrashen.com. Operators are standing by—no they’re not. S-D, my middle name is David, like yours, SDKrashen.com. Download, download, download. I’m trying my best to put all the articles there I can. And that’s where the research is on reading, etc. on the impact of libraries, overwhelming studies that we’ve been doing on libraries, which I think are among the most important studies that I have ever been connected with. We found in one major study, for example, co-authored with Jeff McQuillan and C.N. Lee, my former students who are still hanging in there after 20 years, it’s great, we found looking at international tests that the biggest predictor of reading ability in kids across the world, of course, is poverty—negative; the biggest positive predictor, libraries. Access to a school library with enough books and that nearly balances the effect of poverty. Nothing else seems to count. Everything else disappears after that. The amount of study you do in school, phonics, is either zero or negative in our studies. It’s the presence of a library that does it and nearly offsets the impact of poverty. Poor kids don’t have access to books. You give them access to books, they get a lot better. So it’s reading itself, lots of research on it. Our current studies are there on SDKrashen.com and also a few of the books that I’ve published. By the way, people interested in finding out the latest, I really believe in the internet. I’m on Twitter, SKrashen on Twitter and please follow me on Twitter. I’m trying now to catch up to Justin Bieber, who I believe is in trouble. He’s dropped down to number 3, behind Katy Perry and Lady Gaga so I think I can catch him. Another 2,850 years and I’ve got it. And also I’m on Facebook, StephenKrashen and StephenDKrashen both on Facebook. And I use these things as a method of sharing research. They’re used for professional reasons, although you see a lot of stuff from my nieces and nephews on Facebook, which is very nice. But most of it I use to announce what is very new and of course to attack the common core, which is dominating the United States, and soon will be on your breakfast table no matter where on Earth you live. The push to test children like crazy and make money for testers and publishers is totally out of control.
Teacher David: Tell us a bit about that. Why is testing so bad for language education and education in general, then?
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Well, testing is okay, it’s just that we want it to be the right kind of testing and we want just the optimal amount. I wrote a paper, also on my website, called NUT, nut, No Necessary Testing. We want to do just enough testing that will do the job and no more. In the States, we are now testing children 20 times more than we did 10 years ago. We’re testing children so much that they are groaning under the weight of these new tests. Children have no time to do anything else. It is highly, highly profitable for the publishers because the tests are now delieverd online, which means every child has to be connected, which means every child has to be connected with an up to date computer, which means have to [AUDIO CUTS OUT 00:29:49] … and every time someone in the computer industry gets a bright idea, we’ve got to change everything. It is a huge boondoggle. There is absolutely no evidence supporting this and there are now plans—I sound paranoid when I say this but it’s really, I feel like Lily Tomlin, American comedian who said, “My cynicism is having a hard time keeping up with the times.” There’s now plans to test every child on the planet. If you Google, “Test the world,” you will find a column written by a colleague who calls herself EduShyster, and you will see all the plans for testing everyone. Not improving their lives, but testing them on every aspect of their lives, rather than taking care of what children really need, and that’s healthcare, diet, and access to books.
Teacher David: In my experience, speaking to language learners from all over the world, and my own experience with taking some language classes as well, I think I speak for many people when I say that the quality of language education in schools is not very good. Most people don’t learn a language to any sort of functional fluency after going through a language course in the school, or your community, or something like that. So my question for you is with theories like yours out there, that have been out there for such a long time, and TPR, for example, why hasn’t it made such a big difference to language education? Or has it? Or why is it so poor still, the education of language?
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Well, I can give you my speculations. I’m not a professional analyst of how ideas are spread but here are my speculations. First of all, every new idea is going to have opponents. Again, I refer to them—I’m being too generous—I refer to them as the loyal opposition. Probably half of them are the loyal opposition, or maybe 40%, and this is good. You get an idea, someone says you’re wrong, and you have to produce counter-evidence, they produce evidence, you go back and forth, and we have progress in science this way. This happens all the time, it’s healthy, and it’s okay. In fact, now, over the last 20 years, there have been articles in the journals defending grammar and producing experiments which, they say, show that grammar works. A parade of articles doing this and I think that’s great. And I have responded to those because it’s the way ideas should be tested. The other thing is that if this is right, if comprehensible input is the way to go, it means an extreme turnaround for the textbook publishing industry. It could mean the industry could go under, which is a multi-billion-dollar disaster for a lot of people and I can’t help that—that’s the way it is. I am not opposed to publishers; far from it. I think that authors like Judy Bloom should be making the money and people who write good graded readers. I like graded readers I think they’re wonderful. I read graded readers all the time in other languages. I think they’ve been very helpful. So I think publishers can still make an honest living if they take a look at the theory and they can change their materials. But that’s a big, big step that they’re reluctant to do. It causes a lot of retooling and it is taking a chance. So I hope they’ll do it. I think that’s most of the reason. That’s probably 60% of the reason. If Chomsky comes up with an idea and says we’ve got this thing called deep structure, and surface structure, and transformations, and universals, and that means that the superficial [UNCLEAR 00:33:50] approach to grammar is wrong. That had a lot of resistance. People we against it but nobody lost any money. I’d say about three dozen scholars had to retool and revaluate, and a lot of graduate programs had to change but nobody went out of business. So this revolution is a lot more dangerous for capitalism in my opinion. Ethical capitalists should welcome it though. In the long run they’ll do better.
Teacher David: Yeah. So do you think that, let’s say, grammar instruction is something that is still very common in language classes. At the moment of recording this interview, I’m actually in Italy at the moment and whenever I speak to Italians, they always tell me about the way they learn languages in schools. They just do translations and they’re not able to speak the language because of this. Do you think that part of the reason could be that it’s easier for teachers to teach grammar rather than taking some of these other approaches? Could this be part of the reason that these methods are still being used in classrooms?[00:35:00]
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Well, before answering that let me say that some grammar is okay. It’s not that I’m opposed to grammar. I would never say, “Teach grammar, go to jail.” It’s putting it in its place. What our research has shown is that it’s difficult to learn grammar rules and it’s hard to apply them. The conditions on using grammar are very, very daunting. You’ve got to know the rule and we know only a tiny portion of it. Teachers know only a part of it, students know even fewer rules. They’re either complex, easy to forget. You need time to apply the rule. In normal conversation, there isn’t that much time. And also, you need to be thinking about rules, rather than thinking about communication. And those conditions are only met when you take a grammar test or you’re editing your writing. And there’s some places that it’s okay. And there have been some nice proposals for including grammar in foreign instruction. I’ll pass them along. Blaine Ray, TPRS, has invented and idea called pop-up grammar, which I think is brilliant.
Teacher David: Tell us about that.
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Yeah, pop-up grammar is neat. In the middle of a lesson—I was taking this Spanish class from Jason Fritz—he stopped the lesson—all the students in the class spoke English—he stopped the lesson, which was all in Spanish, the little play we were putting on, and he said, “Oh, by the way, this little O at the end of the verb, that means past tense.” That was it, it took 10 seconds. So those of us who thought this was interesting made a note of it. In the Mandarin class I was taking from Linda Lee, she paused and said, “By the way, Mandarin doesn’t have any infinitives; we just string the verbs together.” Carol Gobb and I, who are grammarians and love grammar, thought that was one of the most interesting things you could tell anybody. The rest of the class, filled with normal people, just went on their way. I think that’s a great way to do it with younger students. At the university level, the way Tracy Terrell did it in a natural approach, which is very reasonable, when students are more interested in it, it’s done as homework. And you don’t assume that the rules you learned at home you can apply in class. It’s mostly for language appreciation and occasional monitoring. So they can be part of the program, it’s just not all of it. Also, I’m in favor of an intermediate optional class in grammar structure and history of the language, taught in a second language, for those interested. Optional class. Why do teachers teach grammar? I think a lot of them don’t know there’s an alternative, frankly. I think if they went to these seminars, TPRS, and you get in this class, you go to these meetings, you actually can take a 9-hour short course in Mandarin. I always do beginning language in something I don’t know. Then you can take an intermediate class, like in Spanish or Italian, language you know a little more about. And you’re in the class and you get the feel of what it’s like and it’s not that hard to learn. And you’ll find the classes are more interesting and more fun. But right now I don’t blame teachers for not rushing into it because materials aren’t always available. They cannot create the syllabus all by themselves. I would like to pass on Frank’s advice and try to do a little more of what works and a little less of what doesn’t work. Find out about TPRS and do a little bit of it. The beginning stage is to introduce pleasure reading. Graded readers at the beginning and English as a foreign language, there’s lots of good ones. And TPRS has lots of good introductory readers, nice stories in Spanish and French. Linda Lee and I wrote one in Mandarin, as a matter of fact, and I think I’ve sold 10 copies already in only 2 years so it’s moving along.
Teacher David: Could you tell us a little bit about correction? Do you think that someone speaking a language should be corrected or not? Is it helpful? Is it not? Because I’ve heard you speak about this before and I would love to hear you speak about it today.
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Okay. The research—this is a very contentious topic—the research on correction, and I think the person to read on this is a person named John Truscott, in my opinion has done the best, most thoughtful papers and has made sense of a very lively back and forth among the researchers on this. I think it doesn’t work. The studies are like this, look at all the research. One group gets corrected, one group doesn’t—and by the way, what I’m about to say applies for first language, second language, children, teenagers, grown-ups, oral, written, everybody, orthodox, conservative, reform, and reconstruction—thank you for getting that one.[00:40:00]
What is shows is you get one group and they get corrected, the other doesn’t, everything else is the same. Half the studies show absolutely no difference at all. The other half show a tiny difference in favor of the corrected group but it’s small and it is fragile. After a few months they have lost most of it, so it doesn’t work very well. And even to get that small bit, you’ve got to really hit those rules very, very hard and it doesn’t always work. In fact, most of the time, it doesn’t. I think it doesn’t work and the only thing that does work is more comprehensible input, which gets you exposure to the rules you need automatically if you get enough of them. Now, I will add a little bit to that. There are places for all of us in which our knowledge of the language, our competence, is slightly different from the standard. For example, you and me, speakers of English, there are places where our written English is not quite the same as the accepted standard. These are where there is slight individual variation. When we write, it’s got to be perfect. My mistakes, I get a few mistakes I make all the time. I still haven’t acquired the rules. For example, “its” and “it’s,” where does the apostrophe go? About one-third of well-read speakers of English have not acquired this rule. So I think it’s—
Teacher David: That’s a big number, one-third.
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Yeah, it’s a lot of people. I’ve done scientific studies of this, asking people to raise their hands, asking, “How many of you always get this right?” About two-thirds do. I don’t. There are other rules that are just like this, like “there,” “their,” and “they’re.” Does the comma go inside the parentheses or not? Those are reasonable at least to study, to know there’s a problem. And what’s interesting to me is that whenever I’m about to make a mistake, I know it because I’ve acquired it nearly but not quite. It’s a good idea to watch out for those. To use a spellcheck, a grammar checker, etc. because you don’t want to make mistakes in public, we know that. I’m sure that George Bush still hasn’t recovered for misspelling “potato” in public, which I think is unfair—it could have happened to absolutely anybody. So I would say most of grammar correction, I think, is a waste of time but there is a little place for a tiny amount of it.
Teacher David: So what do you think about immigrants who have moved to whichever country, let’s say America or the U.K., and they have been speaking the language for many, many years, but they seem to have some mistakes that have fossilized and they still make them 5 years later, 6 years later. Is it because they’re not reading enough or do you believe that they’re not getting enough comprehensible input? What is your take on that?
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Okay, yes they’re not reading enough. That’s the biggest part. And number two, adult second language acquisition is rarely perfect. In fact, when it is, we never know because we don’t know those people are out there. They’re out there speaking convincing versions of the second language so they are spies among us. We would never know. But a lot of people, still, my second languages, I’m not perfect. I make mistakes here or there, etc. We take them very seriously and they’re nearly always—in fact, they are always—the cosmetic aspects of language that mark you as a member of a social group and never have anything to do with communication. Third-person, singular, regular, past, small aspects of accent, etc. To me, my interpretation is this shows how powerful adult second language acquisition is. Normal people, under non-pathological situations—that is, if they have friends, they interact with people, they read a lot—acquire nearly all of it and they do it very, very well. We get all hung up about the tiny, tiny little differences that they may have, but this is .0001% of their total competence. So it does happen and I think we should stop worrying about it.
Teacher David: I agree we should stop worrying about it. I’m really curious about this and I’ll just ask you one more question on this topic. Do you think that that last, I don’t know, I’m going to throw out 5% or 10% that most people don’t people acquire the perfection, let’s say? Is this a difference in possibly language competence or aptitude, perhaps? Or is it really the reading?
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Yeah, I wrote a paper on this. I’m surprised you haven’t read it because it was published in a collection of articles from Hungary and I think they made 10 copies of it.[00:45:00]
But I posted it on the website. I’m surprised you weren’t there at the conference because it was in Hungary. Anyway, my conjecture on accent, which I think could apply to late phrenology as well—and this is a conjecture. Conjecture means a hypothesis where you really have flimsy evidence. My son told me about this word—he’s a mathematician—they use it in math all the time where you really think you’re taking risk and that allows you to take chances more. So this is a conjecture, could be true. Our accents in other languages are perfect. We just don’t use them because we feel silly. There’s an output filter that prevents us from being absolutely convincing. And here’s the evidence: first of all, our ability to imitate other accents but we don’t do it because we think we’re insulting the other person. You and I can, for example, imitate accents in English. I can try to sound British, you can try to sound American, but we don’t. Because I would think, “He thinks I’m making fun of him,” etc. The odd thing is that probably wouldn’t happen. If you came out with an American accent, I would think it was probably perfectly fine. But it’s our own perception. Our inability to imitate foreign accents, Peter Ustinov said that when he did French in movies, and I’ve seen him do French in movies totally convincing as far as I can tell, but he says he can’t do it in real life. He has a slight accent. We don’t do it because we feel silly. We feel we’re being judged. Earl Stevick, very insightful guy, talked about a class he gave in Swahili. There were three people in the class, foreign service officers. The one in the middle suddenly improved when the best one left the class because there was no more competition. There was no more judgement about what he was doing. So I have a hunch the perfect accent is there. We don’t use it because we don’t feel it’s us. And it’s there for a good reason. If we could swallow a pill, take a class, and get a perfect accent, I don’t know if that’s a good idea. No foreign language accent class, there is no evidence that it has ever worked. In my opinion, I have looked at the methods. You can get an improved an accent when you’re thinking about it, when you’re monitoring, but not in free conversation. Not in an unmonitored situation. But do you really want that other accent? It’s not you. I compare it to clothing. Clothing has two functions: to protect us from the weather and also to mark us as a member of a social group. You will be happy to know, David, that because of my respect for you, I actually put on a shirt. Because when I’m at home, I’m usually just with a T-shirt, and I said, “Well let me be some professional leader,” etc. It marks you as a member of a group. And the interesting thing to me is how uncomfortable we feel if we’re slightly over-dressed or slightly under-dressed because it sends a message. And we have mastered the rules of how to dress and they’re complex. The same thing with accent. It’s there. We don’t quite want to produce it because it’s not quite us. So it’s there for good reasons.
Teacher David: Okay. Okay. I’m curious about knowing about your experience with language learning. Have you learned any other foreign language, and to what degree have you learned them, and you’ve applied the input hypothesis, and what has it done for you?
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Yeah. Sure. Let me begin by saying I’m delighted to answer this question because the nasty accusation has been made that I am monolingual. Oy vey, this isn’t true. Anyway, I did a lot of successes and failures before I hit a theory. By the time I was in graduate school I was already pretty good at German. I had a year in Austria. And I had success and failure with French. I took French in high school. I was getting a passing grade at the end of the class under the condition I never study French again because I was such a terrible student and the instructor didn’t want to ruin my permanent record. I really owe him. But since that time, I’m pretty good in German. It’s good for someone like me to have a high level in some languages—that’s German—reasonable in French, respectable but not perfect, mediocre and struggling, which is where I am in Spanish, and Hebrew, and Yiddish—that doesn’t count because it’s so close to German—and not so good in others, which for me is Amharic, which is an Ethiopian language, and I’m horrible in Mandarin. When I speak Mandarin people just stare at me and then they start to laugh. My stimulus in language, getting better in languages, came about 20 years ago when I was in Hungary and I met a woman named Katherine Lomb Kato. I met her when she was 86, known as the world’s—[00:50:00]
Teacher David: Wow. I read her book, yes.
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Good. The world’s greatest polyglot. 17 languages, working on number 18. Whoa. What an experience that was. I was in Pecs giving a class and I took trips to Budapest just to meet her. I wrote a paper about it, all this. At our last meeting together, 20 years ago, she took my hand when we were saying goodbye, and she said, “Stephen, you’re so young. You’re only 53. So many languages left to acquire, so much time.” Boy, I was feeling sorry for myself with Hungarian because I was having such a hard time. I just plunged into it after that. I had my students give me lessons. I made good progress. Groups of students, we would talk about it during lessons. So I’ve been involved in language acquisition every day since then. Every day I work on languages. And for me that’s pleasure reading. I’m now reading Zorro in Spanish. Isabel Allende, wow. Why didn’t you tell me about her, David? My gosh, she’s so good. It’s so hard to find authors that are just what you want. So I read science fiction in other languages and now I’m going to read complete Isabel Allende when I get all her other stuff. So I do it every single say. I speak languages with people. I talk to people in California in Spanish all the time because Mexican-Americans and Mexicans are so friendly. With Spanish, they’re so easy to talk to. And when I go to another country, I don’t speak German very often, but I’m reading all this stuff all the time so when I go these countries, I meet someone, it’s there. It’s very interesting. So I’ve been experimenting on myself and it’s mostly through reading and listening.
Teacher David: This is interesting to me because I was recently at a polyglot conference and I gave a speech there and I interacted with many polyglots. And some of the conversations that I had went something like this, “You know, linguists come out with all of these theories but often they don’t speak languages and I don’t think you can really talk about the language learning process if you haven’t learned a few languages yourself.” Do you think that there is some sort of truth to that and it is absolutely important for one to learn the languages and match that with a theory? And what do you think about those who are dishing out language learning theories without learning languages themselves?
Dr. Stephen Krashen: They are absolutely right. You have to experience lots of success and lots of failure. You have to have seen it all and we are among the people, the tiny, tiny minority of the human race who thinks this is exciting and interesting. And if we’re going to come out with pious pronouncements and learned hypotheses, we have to have been there.
Teacher David: It’s said that knowledge is power. But I believe that power is released in the application of knowledge. And so what I want from you now, as we close our interview, is for you to tell us, or give us some tips that our listeners can use to apply the knowledge that you have given us today to enhance their own language learning. What are the top tips and advice that you can have for them today?
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Oh, I should pass along an idea I got from a guy names Chris Lonsdale, who discovered a lot of this stuff on his own as a polyglot and living in China and living in Hong Kong. He speaks Mandarin, he speaks Cantonese, he’s really awesome. He wrote a book called The Third Eye, which I thought was interesting. And with Chris, every time I go there I try to have coffee with him, get more ideas. And he’s been in the real world. He and Steve Kaufman, another one, have both done their language acquisition in the real world as business people trying to do stuff. So I have a lot of respect for them. They’ve picked up a lot of knowledge by doing it. Kaufman has been a lumber salesman.
Teacher David: Yeah, I know Kaufman.
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Yeah, I think he’s a very interesting guy. He’s very insightful. Anyway, Lonsdale had this great idea. He put a label on an idea a lot of us have had, which I was thinking about when I saw your essay on working with people who are not the most accomplished.
Teacher David: Oh, you saw that?
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Yeah. I thought of Lonsdale. He had an idea called language parents. [00:55:00]
And I wrote a paper just talking about his idea in a free journal. Let me put in a good word for this free journal. The International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, IJFLT.com. Anyway, that’s where my little paper is there. I’m trying to publish now on free, open-access journals because I don’t have to worry about tenure because I’m tired and all this. We’ve got one ourselves. He says get a language parent. That means someone who is willing to slow down, who knows you’re a language acquirer and wants to be your friend. When he got to China, he was going martial arts and one of his Kung-Fu teachers or colleagues was this kind of person who liked him. They’d beat each other up and have a good time and he would speak easy Mandarin to him. When I was in Austria, my landlady Frau Novak, wow. She was very old, in her 60’s, which now seems very young to me. Frau Novak was perfect. A nice person with lots of interesting stories and she liked repeating them. And we would have tea 3 or 4 times a week. She was my landlady and she was my language parent. She was my transition. After talking to her I found other people easier to talk to after the weeks and months go by. So, yes, get yourself a language class with an interesting teacher. If you’re in the country, try to find someone who thinks you’re an interesting person. And this is hard these days because everybody wants to learn English and wants to be your friend so they can practice English.
Teacher David: Yeah, that has been my experience as well, traveling.
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Oh gosh, everywhere you go, everywhere always struggling with people. So I try, I realized that they have every—a hotel I was in in Paris, in southern France. I was ordering foo—and I do have an accent in French—and the waiter, same hotel, same restaurant, constantly spoke English to me and I answered in French. Finally, I asked him, he said, “Well, look, here’s my problem, I have got to know more English. It’s important for my work,” and told me this story. What could I do? So we switched to English. I always lose these battles. So you have to find other people who are modelling, which means they are probably not middle class and you may not have a lot in common but you make friends with people who are interesting, who want to talk to you. I find a language parent harder and harder these days. But that’s the way to do it. My friend Steve [AUDIO CUTS OUT 00:57:31] supplied language parents. A professor at the University of Utah, he had a project where he would send his students to Czechoslovakia to Prague, and their job was to be an English speaker. They would say to people, “I will be in this café this evening, from 5 to 7. Come on by, we’ll speak English. No charge, no nothing.” But this worked because he got to know a lot of people because people all want to practice English. And through these people, he got to know members of their family who only spoke Czech and were delighted. The secret is older people in my opinion. Other people have come up with this. Find an older person, that means my age or older, who wants to have some company to talk to people. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Young people want responsibility. Old people want credit.” And they will tell you all about their nearly-always fascinating lives. Find a language parent.
Teacher David: I like that. I’m going to try that, give that a go.
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Let me know how it works.
Teacher David: Yeah, will do. Okay, so I think I have got all my questions out today and my final one for you, and you’ve already answered this question inside of our episode, and that is, can you just let our listeners know where they can find the stuff that you have online once again and how anyone can get in contact with you if they would like to do so.
Dr. Stephen Krashen: Okay. No one can get in contact with me. I’m asked to review people’s products all the time, “I’ve got this new idea”—
Teacher David: I have a question. Are there any language learning products out there that you think are really good, that abide by the—no?
Dr. Stephen Krashen: No. There are a lot of them and I will give you a technical term for them, they are pure doo doo. And there are some of them that I think are mediocre. And you can see my opinion of them. And I think that many of them suffer from false advertising. And this is true for Rosetta Stone, this is true of PSYOP. I will make enemies, I don’t care. I can’t be fired. This is true of a number of these. And you can find them on my website, SDKrashen.com where they do not live up to the hype.[01:00:00]
So I don’t have any endorsement of anything, except I do think the publishers have done an excellent job of doing graded readers in English as a foreign language and the TPRS people are starting to do a great job in foreign language readers, in French, Spanish, etc. So I like those a lot. I have no commercial connection to any of them, I just think they’re doing a good job. In terms of recommending actual programs, no. Not at the moment. I don’t think they’re horrible, they’re just not living up to what they should be doing. When they constantly write me— Rosetta Stone did this—where the thing is already done, they say, “Would you look at it,” in other words, “We want a free endorsement.” Someone wrote me yesterday. I get one every 4 days where, “We’re doing this product, it’s done, please tell us and we will send you a free copy.” And look, you guys out there, if you want to develop something from scratch, from zero, and you want to talk about it, that’s a fair request. But not when you’ve already got a product and you just want a rubberstamp endorsement. And I’m not the only one who gets requests like this and my mailbox is full. I also do not appreciate professors who give assignments for their students to interview scholars. “Go out and interview the scholar of your choice,” and I get about 3 a day. And I used to write a form letter and I don’t even have time for this anymore so let’s not do that. And I do a lot of responding to teachers who have requests and all that and I just don’t have time to do all of them, otherwise I can’t get through the day. But, if you would like to be in touch with me the easy way, Twitter: SKrashen. I think Twitter is absolutely wonderful. I think this is a great way of getting information around. Please follow me on Twitter and you can write me back on Twitter and if I possibly can, I will respond. And things I like to respond to. And Facebook as well StephenKrashen, StephenDKrashen. If people want information about something, “Do you know of an article that does blah, blah, blah?” I will do my best. Don’t write me a note on Facebook, just post it because I get too many of the others. So I try to help as much as I can. So three ways, my website: SDKrashen.com. Don’t write to the website, it won’t get to me. Follow me on Facebook and there we can go back and forth, because if you want something, probably someone else does too. And also Twitter, where I don’t mind responding. If you want to know more about the politics of all this and what is happening with the common core, which I think should be of interest to all of us throughout the world because it’s spreading, there is one best source and that is Susan Ohanian, SusanOhanian.org. She wrote a book called Whatever Happened to Recess? which is about school administrators cancelling recess so she would do more test preparation, etc. So this is the number one source for that. And there are other people who are very active and I think do wonderful things like dianeravitch.net if you want to follow her. Lots of people opposing this movement.
Teacher David: Okay, thank you very much for your time today. And I’m happy that we finally got to record the interview. And I think all of the listeners are really going to appreciate the insights that you’ve shared with us today. And have a good day, and thanks once more.
Dr. Stephen Krashen: And let us know how it goes with Italian, your progress. Teacher David: Will do, I will shoot you an e-mail. Thank you very much. Bye-bye.
At the time of writing this review I've been working with David to improve my spoken English for 3 months. Before starting to take lessons with David I tried taking lessons with 3 other teachers but I stopped because I found the conversations very boring. David always chooses interesting topics for each lesson and he pays close attention to all of my mistakes and writes them down. I don't just improve my spoken English when working with David. I also think about the world in a different way thanks to David's interesting questions. I really recommended working with David! I have made great progress with my spoken English during these 3 months and I'm sure I'm going to continue improving.