Monday, January 4, 2010

Krashen - Acquisition v. Learning

The first post of the new year (that's actually academic), is a response to (or rather an addendum to) Steve Kaufmann's recent video blog entry.

While I don't agree with Steve (as always) in everything he says, I did find some of what he said on the ball. For example he said that the brain always learns - I agree. However, I do believe that whether someone learns the language "naturally" (i.e. something like immersion - like babies learning their first language) or something more like a classroom, the processes are quite similar. It is true that kids learning their mother tongue don't have to pass quizzes in vocabulary or grammar in the traditional sense (i.e. sit down and take a pen and paper exam - that would be hilarious though) but they do have tests whether one wants to admit it or not.

When a kid utters something like "DOG!" when the kid really means "cookie!", this impedes the kid's ability to communicate - in essence failing a test. The kid really want a cookie, but the parents bring him the puppy and the kid gets frustrated. Luckily in close communication we've got paralinguistic communications such as pointing to cookies (or pictures of them), making eating sounds, jumping up and down in frustration and so on (as adults some of these might look ridiculous). Parents also pair down their speech to kid-talk to accommodate the kid's growing vocab, so the kid doesn't always have access to full on language - they get it piece meal.

So, back to acquisition and learning. Now the difference between the two (not that I agree 100%) is that acquisition is learning that results in language usage being spontaneous - no thought required. Whereas learning is formal learning where you might monitor your speech or search for that word that you just learned or learned a while back but don't use all that often.

In an L1 setting (L1 = primary language), acquisition is what happens at home, what the kid learns - for example learning that a cookie is a cookie and not a dog, or saying "if I was king...", whereas learning would be what happens in school and where you learn the correct subjunctive: "if I were king..." Learning (in my opinion) can become acquisition if the stuff you learn comes out naturally without much thought. For example if you can say "if I were king, I would eradicate poverty" instead of fumbling and saying "If I was king...eerr.. If I were king I would eradicate poverty"

Personally I am not sure where I stand on Krashen just yet - I disagree with a lot of what he says - but I need to explore some more. I just wanted to offer a devil's advocate on learning versus acquisition.

One last thing on classroom learning - it seems that Steve, and others, really equate classroom learning with the methods that we grew up with - the audio lingual method, the berlitz method, some of the crazy experimental TPR stuff. The classroom need not be stuffy and it need not resemble what we grew up with. As we understand more about human learning we can bring that back into the classroom and improve the learning process. Teaching to the test is bad - but just because we've grown up with that culture doesn't mean we need to perpetuate it.
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