I received a thoughtful message from a follower of my blog in Lithuania, a PhD student doing work on Second Language Acquisition, who would like my views on certain common criticisms of Krashen’s theories. Here are four criticisms of Krashen, and my (unscientific) responses.
- vague definition of what constitutes conscious versus subconscious processes, as they are very difficult to test in practice.
I don’t understand the problem. I don’t understand why it matters.
- Monitor hypothesis: attempts to test its predictions have been unsuccessful. Krashen used the monitor in order to explain individual differences in learners. He suggested that it is possible to find Monitor’s over-users who do not like making mistakes and are therefore constantly checking what they produce against the conscious stock of rules they posses. Their speech is consequently very halting and non-fluent. On the other hand, ‘under-users’ do not seem to care very much about the errors they make, for them speed and fluency are more important. Such learners rely exclusively on the acquired system and do not seem able to consciously apply anything they learned to their output. In between the two are ‘optimal’ Monitor users who use the Monitor when it is appropriate, when it does not interfere with communication. The problem with such claims, even though they might have some intuitive appeal, is that they are at present impossible to test empirically: how do we know when a learner is consciously applying a rule, or whether the source of the rule that has been applied is the acquired system or the learned system?
I intuitively find the Monitor theory to be true. A certain amount of conscious reference to those grammar rules that I can easily remember, can sometimes help. If I attempt to systematically refer to grammar rules, I make more mistakes. If I just let go with what seems right, I communicate better, in all languages, almost regardless of my level. The value of grammar study, which I do from time to time in a survey fashion, is that it helps me become more observant of what is happening in the language as I listen and read. I notice more things, but this only happens after a while, and after enough input.
- Input hypothesis has been criticized for being vague and imprecise: how do we determine level i and level i+1? Moreover, Krashen’s claim is somewhat circular: acquisition takes place if the learner receives comprehensible input, and comprehensible input is claimed to have been provided if acquisition takes place. The theory becomes impossible to verify, as no independently testable definition is given of what comprehensible input actually consists of, and therefore of how it might relate to acquisition.
I do not personally follow this i+1 approach. What matters to me is the interest level of the content. Of course, easier content is easier, but I use audio support and LingQ to fight my way through interesting content with a lot of new words. I know I will learn the new words. So the content is of interest and informative, and I feel I am improving my language skills at the same time. I find this satisfying on many fronts. I would find it too boring to read through mountains of simplified and uninteresting content based on the i+1 approach.
- Krashen’s Affective Filter remains vague and theoretical: are all self-conscious adolescents bad learners and all extrovert and confident adults good learners? How does Affective filter actually work?
I see it all the time. People who like the language, are confident in their skills, have favourite content or friends in the language, simply do better. It is certainly not a matter of introvert of extrovert, but of interest, determination and affection for (attraction to) the subject of study.
- Krashen’s main overall weakness was the presentation of mere hypotheses as empirical facts and using them prematurely as a basis for drawing pedagogical implications.
I have not seen any more effective and practical solutions come from other, supposedly more rigorous, academic, peer reviewed, pedagogical studies, quite the contrary.