Stephen Krashen at TESOL France

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Saturday, November 15, 2014 - 18:00
Conference Reports -

For myself and many other ELT professionals, Stephen Krashen is a legend. In the words of Wikipedia, for instance ‘He is credited with introducing various influential concepts ... including the acquisition-learning hypothesis, the input hypothesis, the monitor hypothesis, the affective filter, and the natural order hypothesis’. So naturally, he is a big pull at a conference.
At TESOL France 2014, he gave three presentations, and this is a reflection on the second. In the first, which I did not see, he had outlined his more recent work, in which he suggests that the most powerful tool in language learning is extensive, voluntary reading.
In his second presentation, he moved on to the theme of language acquisition among animals and, as if that wasn’t astonishing enough, aliens! To put this into context, this was the party-slot of the conference, last thing on the Saturday evening, so light-heartedness was in order. So it was appropriate that Stephen began with a comedic turn worthy of Woody Allen. For instance, in reference to his own age (seventy something) and his predicament as someone at high hereditary risk of dementia, he reported research to the effect that the best defence against this is three-fold: learning a language, extensive reading and (perfectly-timed pause), coffee! (laughter all round).
So what was Stephen going to say about language acquisition in the animal kingdom, we were all wondering. And the answer seemed to be this: that research into how apes and parrots learn languages seems to support the idea that it is input-driven. These creatures hear the language and digest it during a ‘quiet period’, and then one day they begin to produce it. In no case does explicit instruction or correction appear to play any part in the process. In other words, the findings appear to support and extend from Stephen’s own ideas regarding language learning among humans.
The implications for language teaching seem fatalistic: don’t bother trying, because you can’t alter the natural order. The only thing you can do is ensure the learner receives a steady diet of graded input, with the added requirement from Stephen’s more recent ideas on extensive reading, that this input should be totally compelling. If this is simply a forceful way of saying that appropriately graded, motivating material is good, then most of us would agree. However, Stephen does appear to be making the stronger claim: that graded, motivating material is the only way, and the rest of what passes for teaching is useless.
Occasionally, it feels like there's an appetite among ELT conference-goers for ideas which undermine all of our previous ELT training. In a similar vein to Stephen Krashen, Sugata Mitra at IATEFL in Harrogate suggested that, in order to learn, kids need no teaching, only technology. Support should be given by a grandmotherly figure, untainted by training in linguistics or pedagogy. How can we explain this appetite? Is there a certain frisson in thinking the unthinkable (the destruction of our profession as we know it)? Or is it simply that the speakers themselves are very persuasive and entertaining in their presentation (TED talks have demonstrated the popularity of well-crafted rhetoric)?
Finally, what was Stephen Krashen going to say about language acquisition among aliens? Well, I guess this should be taken in the party-slot spirit – a hilarious run-away train of the input hypothesis into the realms of absurdity. Yet there was a certain passion in Stephen’s discussion of invented languages in Avatar and Star Trek. He’s obviously a fan, and he says he’s keeping an open mind with regard to UFO abductions.



Nice report. He is funny, and he has a Sergeant Bilko style delivery. Know what I mean?
Mark Hancock's picture

I'm afraid my memory of Bilko's gone very hazy!

Saw Krashen a few years back at a Reading conference in Germany. Struck me then he had a backup career as a sage standup then... He's also someone who will back up their claims with some hard statistics - and in favour of extensive reading, the research is compelling. The wider debate needs compromise. Readdressing the balance between instruction/graded input would be a more realistic start.
Mark Hancock's picture

Yes, Nicholas, compromise. Speakers often try to achieve salience by overstating their case. When that happens, audiences are required to find the more realistic compromise for themselves.

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