Dr. Stephen Krashen is a linguistics professor at the University of California who has written extensively on second-language acquisition.
His work is very highly regarded and it’s used in linguistics classes all over the world. If you’ve ever studied linguistics, you’ve probably come across some of his articles or books!
I spent a lot of time studying Stephen's work while completing my masters in linguistics, so when I got the chance to meet and interview him at the Langfest2017 conference in Montréal, I jumped at the opportunity!
The video above is the result – a fascinating half-hour conversation in which I pick Stephen’s brain about his life’s work on how people learn new languages.
Stephen not only talks about his research findings but about his own experiences of learning new languages and the power of story as a learning tool.
- Prefer to listen to this interview as a podcast? Find it on the IWTYAL Podcast, Episode 220: Listen on iTunes or Listen on Android
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- Stephen has a background in music. He became interested in music in college and changed his major to Musicology and Music History
- He then went to Vienna to study piano for a year
- It was in Vienna that he discovered his passion for languages
- He ended up giving up on his piano study but learned to speak very good German during that year
- He later spent 2 years with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia where he studied Amharic and 6 months in Israel with his wife learning Hebrew
- Stephen’s thesis is that all language learning is done through comprehensible input – how to acquire any language not learn it
- This means reading or listening to language that we can mostly understand despite not understanding all the words and structures in it
- For Stephen Krashen language acquisition is done in only one way:
- “We acquire language in only one way: when we understand what people say and when we understand what we read” – Stephen Krashen
- “If you do that, … the grammar and vocabulary you’re ready to acquire is there and it’s gradually, little by little, absorbed”
- ”The ability to speak is the result of listening [and] the result of reading” – Stephen Krashen
- What about beginners who literally can’t understand anything in their new language?
- Stephen says the solution is to find simple stories or take a class where there are lots of stories
- He says that classes are fabulous for beginners and that polyglots are now helping this movement go online by producing great beginner materials (including me!)
- Stephen believes that when looking for comprehensible input you should try to find things you’re interested in where you’re excited to know what’s going to happen next – a good book, a good movie, or an interesting friend
- He’s an advocate of the TPRS method – Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling
- Basically, this means telling/reading stories and making them comprehensible with explanation, occasional translation, drawings and other contextual clues
- In linguistics and in teaching, there’s a tendency for many experts to be monolingual
- Stephen is the exception – a researcher who’s also an avid language learner
- He feels that it’s important to understand the learning experience first-hand in order to become a better teacher or researcher:
- “I regard my languages experiences as part of the research… You’ve got to be in the acquirer’s mind all the time”
- He also says it’s extremely helpful for researchers like him to be at different levels in their learning
- Currently, he has a very high level in German, French and Spanish, while his Chinese is at a much lower level as he’s started learning it much more recently
- He says learning a language is difficult – people want to speak English with you all the time!
- He likes to take classes that revolve around stories to improve his Mandarin Chinese. In his higher-level languages, he loves to spend time reading
- Many polyglots feel that travelling and learning in immersion can actually be counterproductive. Stephen agrees that this is the case for beginners because they can’t understand enough to hold conversations:
- “I’m much better off in my Mandarin class and working alone right now than going to China – I’m not good enough!” – Stephen Krashen
- However, he does feel that for his higher level languages he can learn while travelling because his level is good enough to be able to use the language with the people he meets
- Stephen thinks we probably acquire a good accent in a foreign language quite quickly: “The perfect accent is within you” – Stephen Krashen”
- However, he thinks we almost never use it because subconsciously we’re afraid of sounding silly – “that doesn’t sound like me!”
- He calls this his “crackpot theory of accent” since he hasn’t done any major research into it
- Stephen believes the key to speaking with a better accent is just to relax
- He argues that the problem with accents is not that we can’t do them, well it’s that the standards for having a good accent in a second language are very high
- “Our standards are ridiculously high – that’s the problem”
- In Stephen’s opinion, study doesn’t help you very much
- He says that memorising vocabulary, studying grammar, getting your errors corrected and trying to talk are all the result of language acquisition
- But he admits that we all ‘forget the theory’ sometimes
- In his own learning, Stephen sometimes does it the right way and gets lost in a book when he’s practising one of his stronger languages (French, Spanish, German)
- However, sometimes with Mandarin (one of his newer languages), he still feels the need to look things up or check grammar rules (yup the grammar villain can even get to the experts)
- His cure for this is more compelling input – more interesting conversations and more interesting stories
Stephen Krashen's Theory of Second Language Acquisition: The Takeaways
- Use comprehensible input over immersion
- Make sure to use compelling input (good stories, interesting conversations, etc.)
- Have patience patience
- Don’t force production of the language
- Languages are learned through acquisition rather than conscious learning
- You don’t have to know every word
- Some tolerance of noise (or not knowing) is important. You'll fill the gaps in time through repeated exposure to the language
- Learning a second language is not about talent or having a ‘different brain’
You can learn more about Stephen and read a selection of his articles and books at www.sdkrashen.com