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What We Use in China


Section I: Teaching English in China continued—China TEFL Primer

Krashen's Second Language Acquisition Theory

Whether one is an advanced degree student in education or linguistics, or simply attending a four-week program in teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL), he or she will be exposed to Stephen Krashen's theories and hypotheses about how people acquire a second language. They are, by far, the most influential and predominant theories in use today—despite the fact that his theories have come under considerable academic criticism over the years.

Stephen Krashen, PhD Stephen D. Krashen, PhD
Professor Emeritus, USC

The major criticism of Krashen's theories essentially consists of two main points. First, most of them are not based on or have ever been subjected to empirical research. Hence, they have not been "scientifically proven." Apropos to this criticism is the story behind California's bilingual education program during the 1990s, of which Krashen was the chief architect. In what was referred to as the "whole language program," teachers were forbidden from teaching grammar, writing, phonics, or using other traditional tools of academia. Essentially, the program proved to be a dismal failure and was challenged in a massive grassroots movement through the landslide approval of California Proposition 227 in 1998, which allowed parents the right to petition the schools to end it, (see, for example: Stewart, 1998; Crawford, 1999).

The second and related criticism, is that many of his terms are loosely and very broadly defined and, thus, may actually defy verification through use of the scientific method altogether (Gregg, 1984). For example, how does one measure (or operationally define) "subconscious process," which Krashen claims is critical to second language acquisition?

Despite academic criticism from a few corners and the scandal surrounding California's bilingual education program during the 1990s, Dr. Krashen's theories are widely and enthusiastically embraced by the TEFL community-at-large primarily because they feel intuitively correct. In addition, the absence of empirical research does not necessarily invalidate the accuracy or reliability of a theory: It simply means it remains scientifically unproven and will be regarded with far greater skepticism by some.

Input Hypothesis

Second language acquisition theories tend to fall under two broad categories: Those that can be classified as naturalistic or innate and those that can be classified as environmental or interactional, i.e., requiring interaction with the proper environment . For example, Noam Chomsky's Universal Hypothesis holds there is an inborn or innate neurological faculty for learning language that he refers to as the Learning Acquisition Device (LAD): this would be an example of the first type of theory (Shannon, 2005). Krashen's Input Hypothesis (originally referred to as the Monitor Model) consists of five correlates or sub-hypotheses and would be broadly classified as an interactional or environmental model.

Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis

This hypothesis, which is the most fundamental of the five, draws a clear distinction between language learning and language acquisition. Krashen argues that language learning alone does not lead to the acquisition or functional use of a language. Thus one can be an expert in English grammar and syntax, i.e., have a great deal of knowledge about a language, but still not be able to use the language with which to effectively communicate with others: herein lies the greatest criticism of China's foreign language program (Fabisz, 1998).

Chinese English teachers teach English almost exclusively in Chinese as if it was a course in math or science. Typically what they will do is write a complex sentence in English on the blackboard and then spend 15 minutes analyzing and discussing the sentence structure, i.e., parts of speech, structure and syntax, completely in Chinese. Thus, most Chinese students have an excellent academic understanding of the English language and most are far more aware of the mechanics of the language than are their Western counterparts: The problem is, they rarely acquire a functional use of the language, especially in regard to listening and speaking skills. Most college-educated Chinese, however, can read and understand simple English sentences because that is what they practiced doing for so many years in school.

Monitor Hypothesis

The monitor hypothesis attempts to bridge the schism between language learning and language acquisition by illustrating the relationship between them and it parallels how children naturally acquire their first language (L1). Obviously, children learn how to speak years before they ever attend school and this is where they will then learn about the language, i.e., acquisition precedes learning.

As the child learns about the form and rules of the language over time, he or she then begins to self-monitor speech productions that are checked against this "knowledge base" of rules and form. That is, even native speakers will occasionally make a grammatical error or produce a "slip of the tongue" in speech now and then but, if they are aware of the proper form or rule, they will usually catch the error and correct themselves immediately afterwards. This would be evidence of the Monitor (ibid).

However, a considerable fear of making a mistake or the absence of proper language acquisition to begin with can result in what Krashen refers to as a "type one performer," that is, someone who overuses the Monitor. This results in speech production that is unnatural and far too controlled or measured. Chinese EFL students are notorious "type one performers" and, as will be discussed in the next unit, your greatest and most difficult task as a foreign English teacher will be to get them to relax and not worry so much about making a mistake in front of you or their peers, i.e., you will need to temporarily neutralize or suspend their fear of losing face.

Natural Order Hypothesis

This hypothesis simply states that grammatical structures are acquired in a natural or predictable order in English as a second language. For example, EFL students will acquire mastery of the progressive verb tense well before the use of the possessive noun form, which typically comes last (if at all).

It is not a coincidence therefore that the Chinese have considerable difficulty with the use of possessives as discussed in the previous unit. Even most well-educated Chinese English teachers and professors will write out "the bicycle of Mike is in the garage of the house of Emily" instead of more naturally and simplistically writing, "Mike's bicycle is in Emily's garage." In fact, this is the only hypothesis for which there is clear and compelling empirical research evidence derived from morpheme studies conducted with both children and adults (Krashen and Terrell 1983:29).

Input Hypothesis

The input hypothesis seeks to directly answer the question "How do learners actually acquire a second language?" Simply stated, the answer is that they acquire a second language by receiving input in the target language that is just slightly above their current level of acquired understanding. Krashen illustrates this as i + 1, with "i" representing the current level of acquired understanding and "1" being equal to the next level of input that is just above the students' current level. It needs to be emphasized here that the input hypothesis addresses itself to acquired meaning in communication, and not to classroom language learning in the traditional sense. That is "understanding" here is not used to refer to an intellectual understanding of the correct rules of grammar or form, but an understanding of what was originally intended in meaning (Krashen, 1981, p. 103).

If there is any validity to the input hypothesis, then it is a theoretical justification for the abundant use of activities and games for facilitating the acquisition of a foreign language—assuming that the level of input required by the task is just slightly above the current acquired level of understanding. However, it is doubtful that showing entire Western films in an EFL class is an effective way to facilitate speaking and listening skills unless it can be demonstrated that there is not a significant percentage of vocabulary in excess of the students' current level of understanding. In such an instance, even if the teacher were to have the students memorize lists of "movie vocabulary words" beforehand, doing so would not theoretically facilitate second language acquisition if the percentage of new words exceeded i + 1 (because memorizing a word and acquiring its use functionally are two different things, according to Krashen as well as others). Audiovisual aids, therefore, will be most effective when used in a limited and measured manner and especially when combined with a corresponding textbook and played for a relatively brief period of time, such that the film or audiotape helps facilitate acquisition. A good example of this application are companion CDs that often accompany EFL textbooks for beginning second language learners featuring 10-minute video segments for each unit.

"Foreigner talk" or "teacher talk," i.e., the use of simplified or reduced-rate communication during class, also referred to as "roughly-tuned input" (speaking around or near-to the students' current acquired level of understanding) is theoretically justified by the input hypothesis, although career EFL teachers appear to be divided on this issue. However, in reality, this is very tricky to effectively put into practice because it necessarily requires erring in one direction or the other, assuming the current acquired levels of understanding among one's students are widely dispersed (as they almost always are). That is, speaking "near to" one particularly weaker student's current level of understanding could easily be perceived as infantilizing or insulting to the more advanced students. What most EFL teachers do is either teach towards the predetermined middle or divide the class into fairly homogenous groups, based on level of understanding, and then assign differential group tasks to realize i + 1 for each group.

Affective Filter Hypothesis

The affective filter hypothesis essentially refers to how tense, angry, anxious, or bored the student is. Simply stated, those who are emotionally disturbed or distracted will employ high affective filters and will acquire very little of the language, while those who are relaxed, comfortable and at ease will present with very low affective filters and will acquire the most of a second language. In Krashen's own words:

Performers with high or strong filters will acquire less of the language directed at them, as less input is "allowed in" to the language-acquisition device. The presence of such a filter, according to Dulay and Burt, may explain which of alternative models the acquirer will internalize (e.g. why children acquire the dialect of their peers rather than that of their elders), why acquisition prematurely ceases in some cases, and often what parts of language are acquired first. Thus, attitudinal factors relating to language acquisition will be those that contribute to a low affective filter (ibid, p. 26).

According to the affective filter hypothesis, there are three attitudinal or affective (emotional) factors that contribute to the presence of either a high or low filter. These factors are:

  1. Motivation. Performers with high motivation generally do better in second language acquisition.
  2. Self-confidence. Performers with self-confidence and a good self-image tend to do better in second language acquisition.
  3. Anxiety. Low anxiety appears to be conductive to second language acquisition, whether measured as personal or classroom anxiety.

For anyone who has spent any time at all teaching English as a foreign language, these three aforementioned factors are self-evident and intuitively correct and constitute common knowledge. The next unit will delve more specifically into the educational psychology of motivation, especially as it applies to Chinese EFL students.


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