June 17, 2019
Terry Waltz

Of the four hypotheses for which Krashen is best known, probably the most important for the language teacher is the Acquisition Hypothesis. The distinction between acquisition and learning is the basic fork in the road that defines whether our outcome is all the students coming away with competence in the language, or what I call the “Walmart Effect”: people who come out of several years of a world language class unable to say more than one memorized phrase if you tap them on the shoulder in the checkout line and ask. (OK, that’s a little creepy, but you get the point.)

What is learning? Simple: it’s putting your mind to remembering something, usually with the goal of returning it to the teacher on some sort of assessment. Most people have had experience with learning in school as students. They’ve crammed for that big test, or used flash cards to memorize. We all know that some people “just aren’t good at learning.” Not everyone gets an “A” (or even a “B”) in every class. In fact, if that happened, the school administrators would probably hold a meeting to tell everyone that the grade inflation has to stop, because everybody knows that not every student is an “A” student.

There’s another reason why not everyone gets an “A” when it comes to learning. Even someone who’s “smart” and has the ability to learn new information (of course people can also learn skills, but for the moment let’s just think about an academic class) sometimes just doesn’t care enough to make an effort. We’ve all had students who disappointed us because they “could have been great,” but for whatever reason, they didn’t do the work, didn’t turn in the assignments, or didn’t study. Obviously, in that case, it’s the student’s fault they didn’t come out with fluent German, right?

This widespread belief—that it is a lack of student effort that explains why most students (let’s be honest here!) in U.S. high schools do not become proficient in a second language before graduation—extends into an enormous inequity in our classrooms. Students with the best conditions to be “good students” (stable homes, higher economic status, no need to work, no insecurity about food or basic needs, no emotional issues, no learning disabilities, the list goes on and on) succeed; others, who make up the majority of students, fail. Maybe they don’t actually fail the class. They might scrape by with a “C” so they can graduate. But they’re not coming out with a practical ability to use the language they spent so many hours memorizing. They also believe they’re failures and “can’t” handle new languages. For students working on an endangered language, this is tragic, since it further reduces the pool of speakers and pushes the language one step closer to extinction, as well as influencing the attitudes of these students toward language for their own children in the future.

So learning is a bit grim, really. You need to be smart, and you need to put in effort—sometimes a lot of effort. After all, they don’t talk about the “learning curve” for nothing! Here’s a fun fact: most people who become teachers are good at learning. We have to be, with all the requirements out there to get licensed or to snag a teaching job, not to mention all the professional development on our plates. Also, maybe because we are pretty good at it, most of us actually like learning, certainly when it relates to our teaching languages. We will pick up a grammar book and page through it for fun, or memorize new words just for the pleasure of it.

The good news is, learning in the world language classroom is passé. In the old days learning a language in school was only for the rich, because they were the only ones who could afford to have their kids not working long enough to memorize those Latin declensions, and also have some hope of being able to eat for the rest of their lives without learning a trade. But outside those classroom walls were lots of uneducated people who managed to “pick up” two or three or sometimes more languages, just through being in contact with others who spoke them. Of course that kind of ability wasn’t viewed as “learning” or “education”—it was just something that happened.

And that’s what acquisition is. It’s just something that happens.

Acquisition is when the wonderful brain gets to work, all on its own, and magically figures out how a language works. It does this without any sort of instruction. It doesn’t need grammar rules, word root drills, pair work, an “essential question” on the wall, higher-order thinking, or a fancy theme. No, all the amazing brain needs to “pick up” a language to the point where its fortunate owner becomes a native speaker is incoming language that it can understand. Language and meaning, with a match between them, is all that’s required to make someone perfectly fluent in a language.

Think about it. When’s the last time you saw a baby practicing verb conjugations? Practice is learning, not just understanding incoming language. Yet all babies master conjugations perfectly without effort. Ever heard a mother earnestly coaching her infant, “Yes, that’s right. Now change the doer of the verb to ‘he.’ Don’t forget to add an ‘s’ to the end of that, because it’s the third person singular”? It just doesn’t happen. Yet, by the time they start school, all children who have grown up around fluent speakers, just hearing language, will have a native ability to understand and output that language—or languages. They may not speak like college professors, but they have a perfect, unconscious command of and ability to correctly use every grammar rule in the language, without ever having studied them!

As teachers in a classroom, obviously we don’t have the same exact conditions that a baby enjoys when acquiring his first language. Babies have 24 hours a day to let it all sink in, with no conflicting responsibilities, no pressures, and little judgment other than positive reinforcement. Parents don’t dwell on the missing definite article when their offspring manages “gimme ball”—they’re too busy having a little party celebrating how brilliant Junior is to have uttered this, and repeating it back to him, slowly and clearly, with big smiles on their faces. We don’t have the whole day to teach, and we often don’t even get part of the day every day. We share our students with many other people, most of whom might not put a second language as top priority.

But we also have a few things going for us. That wonderful brain is still there, and it’s still willing to work for us. All we have to do is make sure it gets the fuel it needs to do its job—incoming language it can understand. If it gets that, and gets enough of it, it will acquire. Think about that. All the brain needs is incoming language that it understands. If there are enough matches between incoming language and meaning, the brain will acquire the language—not just individual words, but the whole fabric of the language, including subtle grammar points you might not even know how to explain. Quick, if you’ve never taught English—when do you have to use “the”? It’s not easy to explain, and the rules are complicated, yet if you listen to those kids just starting kindergarten, they get it right every time. No one ever explains what the word “the” means. People just “get it”—acquire it—through repeated input.

The evidence supporting the Acquisition Hypothesis is everywhere. Every single human being in every society with spoken language acquires that language perfectly without instruction at a very early age. (In Deaf communities, small children acquire sign language in the same way.) Sometimes fluent people claim, “I learned my language. I never had comprehensible input. That wasn’t around in those days!” But it was. It’s always been around, and if we begin to ask questions, generally we will find that the fluent person had opportunities to be around speakers and interact in a meaningful way, matching meaning and language without thinking about it.

Meaning is the key. There must be meaning to match, and “meaningfulness” is what keeps students listening or reading. To make the best use of the Acquisition Hypothesis, we have to provide students with language they want to match with meaning. Since the matches are unconscious, that really means “things they want to listen to or read because they’re interesting.”

We need to teach with our hearts on fire (with interesting messages) and our minds on ice (keeping in mind what the brain needs to acquire). Wouldn’t it be great if we turned out thousands of kids who really “got”—and kept—language simply because they were interested enough to listen?

With acquisition, we can.

Terry Waltz

Terry Waltz can get herself into trouble in a dozen or so languages and back out of trouble again (with luck) in three. You can find more of her writings on CI at terrywaltz.com, and you can get several of her posters and games at Teacher’s Discovery.

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