I’ve been thinking a lot about something I read in Stephen Krashen’s book, Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. If you’re learning languages, you hear all the time about how you need to have your writing corrected, you need to have your speech corrected, lest you fall into bad habits or never learn proper grammar. I have always been an adherent to this way of thinking– I write on Lang-8 from time to time, where journal entries are checked and corrected by native speakers. When I intensively studied French, I asked my conversation partner to correct everything I said– I didn’t want to get away with anything! This all seems very intuitive, but what if we didn’t need as many corrections as we think we do?
Dr. Krashen divides language learning into two categories: conscious learning, which is traditional textbook learning and memorization of grammar, and acquisition, which is learning correct vocabulary and grammar forms without conscious effort and which most closely models the stages of infant language learning. Dr. Krashen sees language acquisition as the goal of any language learner– we want to speak and write, read and understand without monitoring our grammar or sorting through memorized verbs. There just isn’t time for that, except perhaps when writing. This kind of “subconscious” learning is entirely possible for adults. See Dr. Krashen’s article about Armando, a Mexican man who acquired native-level Hebrew while working for many years in an Israeli restaurant.
So, there is a different between subconscious use of correct grammar and word choice, and consciously monitoring that grammar. The monitor can usually only be used when writing, at which time you can take the time you need to choose the correct word or form. But, Dr. Krashen insists that conscious learning is a phenomenon by itself– it does not lead to fluency:
According to the Monitor model for performance, conscious learning acts as an editor, as a Monitor, “correcting” the errors, or rather when the performer perceives to be errors in the output of the acquired system. This can happen before the sentence is spoken or written, or after. Conscious knowledge of rules is not responsible for our fluency, it does not initiate utterances.
[…] A very important point that also needs to be stated is that learning does not “turn into” acquisition. The idea that we first learn a new rule, and eventually, through practice, acquire it, is widespread and many seem to some people to be intuitively obvious. (Krashen, 83)
Crazy stuff! But what really got me thinking was this quote right here:
Language acquisition […] happens in one way, when the acquirer understands input containing a structure that the acquirer is “due” to acquire, a structure at his or her “i+1.” [Just beyond comprehension]. (Krashen, 84).
Now, I generally aim to “acquire” my languages, using Dr. Krashen’s definition. I love input-based learning. But I also love my textbooks, and I do think they have a huge amount of value– obviously, you can memorize grammar and then use it in a limited way, perhaps up to CEFR level A2, and rote learning helps even after you’ve acquired language to a higher level. Along with this, however, I followed the general advice that not only do I need to monitor my speech and writing, but others need to as well.
Dr. Krashen’s assertions resonated with me largely because I remember receiving corrections for French, and I would file them away, vowing to never make those mistakes again, if I could help it. And if I was writing, I could usually remember to do that– but it was a very conscious effort. I would sort through the grammar tables or think “Does this use the subjunctive?” And then, some months later, I would find myself using the grammar without any trouble. I had acquired it, through input.
I’ve recognized something similar with my Spanish, as well. I have not had many opportunities to speak Spanish, but I have written pretty extensively on Lang-8. Several months into my project, I was pretty frustrated, because I thought I should be further along with my language level. I thought I needed to practice speaking or writing more to get further. Luckily, I’m terrible at keeping up with my desires to practice output, so those goals fell by the wayside, and I simply continued reading and listening. And, what do you know, several months after that, I found my written Spanish coming to me much more naturally, and I was thinking in Spanish almost effortlessly. It’s hard to believe that input can get you that far, especially when you’re at the beginning, but once you see it start to work so naturally, your confidence skyrockets (at least, until you start a new language).
I suppose this is the principle behind SRS (like Anki and Mnemosyne) in the first place. If you make SRS flashcards with full sentences or cloze deletions, you acquire grammar the way Dr. Krashen describes. You’re just engineering your environment to give you the same grammar forms more repetitively that it would ordinarily. The goal isn’t to memorize the grammar, but just to see the same patterns over and over. And, eventually, you’ll subconsciously begin to use it in speech and writing.
How am I experimenting?
I’ve decided to try something new with Dutch. With French and Spanish, I still aimed to acquire the languages, but I was a little nervous and overly attentive to grammar, especially at the beginning. But Dr. Krashen, along with my own experiences, have given me confidence that I can let the input environment do its job.
I’ve decided that I will limit myself (read: relax) in seeking out corrections from conversation partners or other native speakers on the internet. I know that my grammar is pretty atrocious right now, but I’ve figured most things out through my reading, not from learning a rule from a textbook (in fact, Dutch textbooks are so hard to find in the US that this has forced me to depend more on an immersion environment). I’ll still likely write on Lang-8, but I’ll only scan the corrections. I won’t try to commit them to memory. My conversation partner already doesn’t correct me unless I ask, and I’ve found this much more relaxing. Considering the fact that speaking isn’t my favorite way to practice a language, this relaxing environment is probably doing more to incubate my fledgling Dutch than having a taskmaster.
I’m beginning to think that, if a language learner is receiving input in adequate quantities, the risk of developing bad habits just doesn’t exist. It’s hard to fall into a bad habit if you’re surrounded by correct usage.
I think grammar corrections are icing on the cake– they’re useful when you’re already pretty darn fantastic at the language. Think of the kinds of corrections you received in your native language when you were a child or teenager. You were already certainly fluent in your language, but there were some stylistic or nitpicky grammar points that needed to be hammered out so that you would sound literate and educated. This, I think, still has its place. But when your language skills are wobbly to begin with, perhaps taxing yourself with specific grammar rules isn’t the way to get to fluency. Just get in more reading and listening, and grammar takes care of itself.