May 16, 2019
Terry Waltz

Is there any role for learning in the language classroom? We know that language is acquired—not learned—by means of Comprehensible Input, and that everyone in the world acquires their first language without any effortful learning at all.

If being a native speaker means you’ve acquired the language perfectly, and can use it correctly without having to think about it, there shouldn’t be any hesitations, errors, or just plain poorly phrased speech coming out. But of course all of those things are everywhere. People are people, and they make mistakes.

Then, there are the things that just can’t be acquired, because they are not really part of natural language. Almost anything to do with literacy is a good example. Written language, whether receptive or productive, isn’t acquired in the same way spoken language is. It takes work. In cultures with a written language, some people are very literate and others, not so much. Some can spot a misspelled word a mile away, while others really can’t write a coherent sentence. All of this is true in spite of the fact that all of these people are native speakers of the language and can all produce correct sentences unconsciously.

Obviously there are aspects of language in the real world that require more than just acquisition. Krashen’s Monitor hypothesis addresses this quite neatly. It talks about a watcher that functions in language use, helping to keep everything neat and tidy. Just as a hall monitor watches students in the corridors of learning, and a TV monitor allows us to keep an eye on what’s happening in another place, the Monitor keeps tabs on language coming out.

In fact, the Monitor does more than just watch: it’s the bridge between learning and acquisition.

What actually happens during acquisition is that the brain works out the rules of the language it’s hearing or reading. That process is unconscious. People are focused on the message, not the form. And the brain likes it just fine that way, not being disturbed by conscious analysis.

Rules are important. All language is made up of rules, and the brain being able to figure them out without any help is why we can all speak our first language perfectly. The magic of language is that an unlimited number of unique sentences can be generated from a finite number of rules. You can make a sentence like “The pink curly ideas chirped about the setback” and (while it makes little sense) all native speakers of English can understand it, even though most likely it has never been said before in the history of man (and probably never will be again!).

Because rules are so productive, once people figured out that there was a finite set of rules underlying each language, they started to try to learn languages by memorizing rules. Since those with leisure time and wealth enough to do this enjoyed prestige, those who simply “picked up” their languages were viewed as somehow less. They couldn’t tell you why a form was correct—they just knew that using it would get their transaction concluded successfully, or get their point across. They didn’t consciously know the rules. In modern terms, “rigor” was lacking.

Acquired language just “falls out of the mouth,” but people who painfully learn their second language by studying rules usually can’t make that happen. Their language isn’t hardwired to come out correctly without effort. They have to work for it. They need to consciously remember and apply rules while speaking or writing.

Compared to letting acquired language fall out of your mouth, using rules to produce language is time-consuming and difficult. Instead of saying what you mean automatically, you stop, recall the rules for how you’re going to express your meaning, and plug in the right vocabulary. There may be dozens of rules for a simple sentence. Then there are rules governing the sounds of the language, how they combine, social norms, the writing system, and more.

Efficient speakers use (mostly) acquired language plus (some) Monitor. The Monitor only “polishes.” If a speaker has little acquired language but is very familiar with vocabulary and the rules, they still might be able to do this fairly quickly, maybe even before the person whose question they’re answering gives up and walks away!

For a beginner, or someone not so familiar with those rules, applying rule after rule can be so time-consuming as to make communication impossible. Without a lot of acquired language, just about all the work of outputting any language at all falls to the Monitor. This is what we see in people who “learned” their languages. Some of them can be very accurate, and even fluent, but this is thanks to an unusually fast processing ability, and these people are few and far between. Most people who go through “traditional” language training, where they study the rules of the language rather than acquiring language, end up with a Monitor so overloaded as to be useless in a practical sense. There just isn’t enough processing power to apply all the rules of grammar, sound, usage, and politeness, select the right words, deal with idioms, sarcasm, and do it all quickly enough to make it worthwhile. Those people tend to just give up, or output a bare minimum of language—often single words or memorized phrases.

The Monitor, left on his own, gets grumpy, because his job without much acquired language to lean on is daunting. Either the communication “times out,” or some of the rules go unused or get used incorrectly, or are recalled incorrectly. Or all of the above! Of course, the Monitor can only apply the rules the student has memorized. It’s not a very efficient way to speak or write, but if the language hasn’t been acquired, using rules is the only option. Forget about understanding things that aren’t familiar, because if it’s in speech, there probably isn’t time to stop and analyze.

Even acquired language can just “come out wrong” sometimes. We’ve all had the experience where we just misspeak. We know perfectly well what comes out of our mouths is not correct grammar, or isn’t the word we intended to say, but for some reason, the wrong language comes out. So there needs to be a cleanup crew to jump in and fix these bloopers, lest we accidentally start a war or get the wrong entrée at the restaurant or accidentally lend Bob $100 instead of borrowing $100 from him.

In ideal circumstances, the Monitor just takes care of the little details of language that often aren’t even really the language itself, but rather things like judgments of which of two words is more appropriate to a situation, or how to spell a word. In an ideal language use situation, the actual language is already acquired, so the Monitor isn’t being used to apply rules to produce low-level language. It’s just keeping an eye on things, correcting the occasional accidental error and helping out with the stuff that can’t be acquired in the first place—stuff that is appropriately memorized and used when needed.

You can feel how this works if you think about how you speak your own native language in different situations. When you’re relaxed and just chatting with friends, the Monitor isn’t very active. It will correct you if you accidentally come out with a wrong word, or misspeak. But for the most part, it’s quiet. Now imagine you’re suddenly ready for an audience with the Queen. The Monitor will be much more active since this is a specific situation requiring the application of more rules (special forms of address, politeness, and so on) than just chatting with someone you know well. While most of us acquire the words “your Majesty” in English, we don’t usually feel comfortable seriously addressing someone that way, or might slip up and forget to do it.

The same sort of thing happens with fluent non-native speakers of Spanish or French, or any language where there are polite forms. The speaker may be proficient and able to easily produce the correct forms, but there needs to be some conscious thought going on as to when the familiar or the formal “you” should be used, and to remain consistently in the formal form if you’re accustomed to using and hearing the informal most of the time. Monitor to the rescue!

Krashen’s Monitor theory suggests that people vary in how much they use the Monitor. Even for people with lots of acquired language, if too much “overthinking” occurs, communication can become hesitant. Taking too long to speak because of the Monitor can make students believe they are “bad” at language, when really their Monitor is working hard to do the best it can. Luckily, there’s a solution: input to take some of the load off the Monitor’s shoulders and give them confidence that they don’t need to think so much.

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.

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