Monday, June 21, 2010

Krashen’s Hypothesis No. 1: The Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis

You don’t know Greek and probably never will. That’s the conclusion you should reach about most seminary Greek programs, including your own, by the end of this post.

In this series of 5 posts I am going to outline for you the 5 major hypotheses that make up Stephen Krashen’s contribution to Second Language Acquisition theory, and apply them to classical languages. My aim is that I can present these hypothesis in a way that is understandable, that their implications will be clear, and that the need for change becomes more evident.

The first of these is the Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis. This hypothesis is the articulation of a distinction between Language Acquisition and Language Learning. Acquisition is understood to be the gaining of communicative ability in the second language. To apply this to the 4 skills, it means the ability to read and hear input in the second language and understand what is being said/what has been written, and conversely to speak and write output in the second language that a native/fluent speaker would hear/read as meaningful communication faithful to the student’s intent.

Language Learning, on the other hand, is a conscious knowledge of the grammar of the Language. It is knowing the rules of morphology and syntax. It is knowledge about the language, not knowledge of the language. It is explicit where acquisition is implicit.

This distinction does not necessarily imply a value judgment on the two. For certain purposes and certain goals, language learning is exactly what people might aim at. If your purpose is linguistics or grammatical analysis or so on, then language learning is exactly what you require. However, it is a mistake to think that language learning is language acquisition.

And when most people ask the question, “Do you know Spanish?” (for instance), they rarely mean, “Are you educated in Spanish grammar?”, they mean, “Can you speak/read/write/understand Spanish?”

Now, Ancient Greek is just such a language. It no longer has, in that historical form, native speakers, but it certainly meets the criteria for a language. So why do you suppose that the question, “Do you know Ancient Greek?” should differ in meaning from the above question? It is not the language that changes what people mean, only the historical and academic context of the question. This is easily revealed when you talk to the ‘uninitiated’ about your study of Greek – they often query whether you can hold a conversation in Attic, to which you fumble some reply about studying texts and not buying milk at the shops.

Most courses in ancient languages, and many in modern ones, follow a Grammar-Translation method, or an Inductive-Reading method (also heavily grammatical), whose aims are primarily to teach grammar, and so aid Language Learning, and only incidentally and poorly contribute to Language Acquisition. That means that unless you happen to be in a few rare places, or have invested significant efforts of your own, both to understanding this problem and gaining an alternative remedy, then what you’ve done is Learnt about Greek, not Acquired Greek.

And so, for today, I conclude: You don’t know Greek, and (the odds are) you probably never will.

p.s. Before you despair, I promise to point to some remedies in future posts.

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