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June 2017

Can We Acquire Languages Subconsciously?

Linguist urges the need to “acquire” versus “learn”

Stephen Krashen, a linguist and professor at the University of California, is the progenitor of the Theory of Second Language Acquisition. His theory suggests that language learners ought not emphasise grammar drills if it doesn't suit a student's language learning style. This is good news for a lot of learners, as grammar exercises and rote memorisation are probably the most painful and difficult-to-sustain of activities. Today we’ll take a look at some of the hypotheses behind this theory.

“Acquiring” a new language is better than “learning”

His Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis suggests that language learning is a conscious, active process that teaches the rules of a language, whereas acquisition is a subconscious process more akin to how children learn languages. Apps like LingQ and Rosetta Stone utilize this method, attempting to teach languages via association and exposure, rather than through grammar rules.

Read and listen as much as possible

Exposure is key, according to Krashen’s Input Hypothesis. Students should follow what interests them and read and listen to as much content as possible. Ideally, the material should be slightly above the student's level of comprehension. This is also a very practical approach, as fluency comes from increasing vocabulary and honing listening/speaking skills. The main purpose of language learning, after all, is to communicate well with others.

Don't get granular with language learning

We’ve all been there: There’s a word you might not know, so you look it up. Then you deconstruct every bit of the word and the grammatical context in which you found it. Pretty soon you realize you’ve spent 10 minutes on one word. While this habit offers knowledge depth, it stands in the way of more exposure. Let go when it comes to language learning, and don’t try to overanalyse every phrase. Krashen calls this the Monitor Hypothesis. Welcome those mistakes, learn from them, and move along.

Follow your own practical path

Krashen’s Natural Order Hypothesis recommends that students follow a language learning path that suits their needs, approaching grammatical forms one step at a time. Some forms are more complicated than others. Start with present tense and then slowly move from there, rather than trying to do it all at once.

Take note of your emotions

The Affective Filter Hypothesis deals with the emotions of a student. Krashen suggests that feelings of anxiety and fear are barriers in the language learning process, causing students to filter out input. Have you ever been in a situation when someone said something to you that was simple, but you couldn’t understand because you were too tense? That is an example of how anxiety can cause our brains to find even simple phrases incomprehensible. Learn to relax and take note of your emotions.

Learning without “learning”

Ultimately, Krashen argues that students should eschew boring exercises that attempt to teach rules. He suggests that a more casual, practical, and input-focused method would work better. Still, this doesn’t mean a student can get by being passive. Benny Lewis, the “Irish polyglot” behind the popular language blog Fluent in 3 Months, argues that passive listening is "barely better than nothing". Passive listening means playing audio of a foreign language in the background and hoping to absorb it subconsciously. Unfortunately for all of us, this isn’t very effective.

In other words, learn subconsciously but not too subconsciously.

Do you find Krashen’s methods useful when it comes to your language learning experiences? What has worked best for you? Share your best language tips with other students on our Facebook Page and be sure to “like” TELC English for more articles on language learning tips!