Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Krashen’s Hypothesis No. 4: The Input Hypothesis

90% of the effort you’ve spent on biblical languages was a waste of time.

If not more.

Sure, I do like to start with controversial statements. But as we turn to hypothesis 4, which is at the heart of Krashen’s theory, that is again the conclusion you should come to. The Input Hypothesis, “states simply that we acquire (not learn) language by understanding input that is a little beyond our current level of (acquired) competence.” [1]

This goes back to “the central hypothesis of the theory is that language acquisition occurs in only one way: by understanding messages.” [2]

If the Acquisition/Learning distinction is true, and the Input hypothesis is true, then most of that time spent memorising paradigms, rote-learning vocabulary, and translating to and from Greek, has contributed meagrely, if at all, to acquisition. That is why you don’t know any Greek, and that is why you probably never will. You’ve been wasting your time.

You haven’t been wasting your time if your aim was to learn grammar and do grammatical analysis!

Okay, but that aside, any hope of becoming proficient in Latin rests on being exposed regularly to Latin at a level that is just a bit beyond what you already know. This goes for both reading and listening (notice that it is only Input, not Output, that contributes to acquisition. There may be important reasons (indeed, I believe there are) for having speaking and writing in language programs, but they do not themselves contribute to acquisition).

Krashen puts it helpfully like this. If our language competency is at level i, then we need exposure, comprehensible input, at i + 1. Simple, brilliantly simple. If we get i + 10, we will be bewildered. This is why deep-end immersion is not so helpful. If we get i + zero, we don’t get anything new (though reinforcement is important too!).

How do we understand the +1, since it’s new? In two ways: we either gain an understanding of it by context or by extra-linguistic information.

Context is a great help. Whether it’s context within a conversation or within a passage, the flow of communication builds up our expectations about what it could mean, and often gives us enough information to figure it out. Extra-linguistic information covers a range of things: non-verbal clues, actions, pictures, activities, and so on. I would also say that glosses and translation also count as ‘extra-linguistic’ because they are pieces of information outside the language that is being acquired. This is why the Grammar-Translation method does produce some acquisition: translation is one, albeit poor, way of rendering input comprehensible.

What does this mean for the classical languages? That if our aim is acquisition, then our methods must aim for comprehensible input of increasing complexity. We do best to read things we mostly understand and can figure out the unknown. We’d be greatly aided if we had monologues, dialogues, and conversations in which we heard the language spoken and used. All these would contribute to language acquisition. If, however, we prefer to stick to paradigms and grammars, and analysis, we will continue to get what we have always got from this method: grammarians who can barely read the text and pastors whose language died in the summer after seminary.

Hypothesis 1
Hypothesis 2
Hypothesis 3

[1] Krashen, S & Terrell, T. The natural approach : language acquisition in the classroom Oxford [Oxfordshire] ; New York : Pergamon Press ; San Francisco : Alemany Press, 1983. p32.
[2] Krashen, p1.


Anonymous said...

This makes me curious about the benefits of speaking and writing in the language. It does make sense that you can't say or write something you haven't acquired, though it's been my experience that speaking and writing have tremendous benefits. It's a great way to solidify "structures."

Unfortunately, for those around me, they get to hear lots of phrases spouted out in other languages, which is not always fun for them ;-).

Unknown said...

Krashen would totally agree that speaking and writing have benefits, just that they don't contribute to language acquisition. As you point out, you can't say or write something you haven't acquired. So, anything *new* must be an *input*.

Speaking is good for all sorts of reasons though: it's training and encouraging the mind to think, compose, and produce utterances in the language. That's a skill that's needed! Furthermore, when we speak in a conversation, we elicit more speech from others, thus more comprehensible input.

Writing is likewise good: it trains us in production too.

Probably there are other benefits that I haven't mentioned as well, but the Input hypothesis is about acquiring the unknown.