The wrong and right way to learn a foreign language

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Allison Wright  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:21
German to English
+ ...
Thanks for posting Jun 20, 2012

Thank you for posting this Ty.

While learning grammar is always useful, "comprehensible input" does more to help fix the *sense* of the language in one's mind than getting hit over the head with the grammar book.

I have learned (and continue to learn) Portuguese with diverse sources of comprehensible input, with only basic grammar learned at the outset. I daresay that after less than three years of only doing this part-time, my level of Portuguese in all areas of language acquisition far exceeds the level I had attained in French and German by "O" Level after four years in grammar and vocab boot camp, with occasional speech forced out of me.

There are so many variables with language learning. For instance, if one could set up an experiment with two willing "lab rats" of the same mother tongue and similar IQ, age, etc. one a translator and one not a translator, and subject the two as far as possible to the same stimuli - comprehensible input included - what guarantee is there that the translator (by reason of already been "clued in as to how languages work") would acquire a better command of the language, or acquire a set level of of measurable progress in learning a language than the non translator?


Phil Hand  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:21
Chinese to English
Useful reminder Jun 21, 2012

The interesting thing about this post is that it reminds us:
1) There is lots of research available on this stuff, and the intuitions of you, me or Andrew Eil are no substitute
2) There are a lot of amazingly successful adult language teaching programs out there, mainly run by government organisations because they really need them. The US military is a good example, the Hong Kong police used to be another. Look at what they do - hint, it's not what this guy was suggesting.


Phil Hand  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:21
Chinese to English
Ooohh, I spoke too soon! Jun 21, 2012

Without wanting to take back what I just posted, I have now gone and read the articles, and noticed two things.

1. The "grammar bootcamp" is only one of seven suggestions, and read together, they're rather good:
Make the commitment.
Take a hard class with lots of grammar.
Open your mouth.
Buy a ticket.
Go on a date.
Get a job.
Don’t lose it.

2. The article that Ty quotes is written by a guy called Krashen, who is known variously as "controversial" and "an idiot". This guy is not the mainstream of EFL research. So his central point probably right - people learn in lots of different ways, grammar bootcamp is not the only way - it's worth being a bit cautious with his stuff.


David Wright  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:21
German to English
+ ...
Krashen not mainstream EFL? Jun 21, 2012

I think anyone who teaches EFl will be more than aware of Krashen and will subscribe to quite a lot of his ideas. I can't think of anyone more mainstream than Krashen right now! And to refer to him as an "idiot" would be a sign of a reluctance to address recent developments in language learning and teaching, as well as of the abandonment of the forms of politeness that generalyl prevail in academic discourse!

(By the way . which article quoted by Ty? I can't find it).

On the subject: There is no doubt whatsoever that we all have our own way of learning a language, possibly determined by how we learned our first foreign language, possibly determined by other factors. I know that I need to have some idea of the grammar of a language before I can start using it in any meaningful (productive) way, and that languages whose grammar I can't get my head round (esp. Russian) are just beyond me. Once this basic grammar is there, then I have no problem progressing through contact with the speakers of the language. BUT: I know this is not an approach that will suit most other people.

[Edited at 2012-06-21 07:15 GMT]

[Edited at 2012-06-21 07:18 GMT]


Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 03:21
Hebrew to English
I only flagged the original Washington Post article... Jun 21, 2012 I've only just read Andrew Eli's original piece.

I agree with Phil that he doesn't come across as anywhere near as fanatical as the WP makes him out to be. If anything he's advocating a combined strategy of hardcore grammar and comprehensible input (which he describes in more ordinary and humorous terms).

Krashen seems to be on a bit of a crusade in light of the new article...why the animosity for grammar study? It works for some people and gives them a great foundation in metalinguistic knowledge, which is invaluable in linguistic study.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, an obsession with grammar in language learning can be detrimental. Students who are never exposed to comprehensible input or learn skills often come out of their language course being able to lecture anyone on the quirks of the third conditional, but actually getting them to open their mouths and speak is like getting blood out of a stone. Conversely, a "comprehensible input only" method churns out students who on the surface appear relatively "fluent" - in that their speaking is more seamless, but the lack of grammar reveals itself in the sometimes-atrocious accuracy of what they are saying.

In my pedagogical opinion, a combined approach is most effective. Some students will respond more to the grammar, others to the comprehensible input...but offering both allows you to capture all your students, i.e. giving them both what they want and what they need.

In fact, Andrew Eli may even have a very valid pedagogical point. Try as we might, any work done in the classroom is inherently artificial and lacks real authenticity. All those hours teachers spend crafting lesson plans which include "authentic input" can be achieved easily in the real world by: buying a ticket, going on a date, getting a job etc.
So maybe it is better to focus on grammar in the classroom and leave the comprehensible input to outside the classroom where it will at least be authentic (not some contrived recordings or awkward consequence-free role plays).

(BTW If I went to IATEFL and said the above, I'd be shot, or lynched if I was lucky!)

I also agree with Phil that a lot of what Krashen says seems overly provocative. During my time at uni studying him, I also found a lot of his 'theories' nothing more than stating the bleedin' obvious!

On the other hand, it's hard not to warm to Andrew Eli, who says this:

"You’re also probably American, which is better than beer goggles in many foreign countries."


Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 03:21
Hebrew to English
Articles Jun 21, 2012


They are linked into the main body of text in the main page. For convenience though, they are:

Original Washington Post article flagged by me:

Andrew Eli's original article (which sparked Krashen's response):

They also link in another article which is about language learning, but not really related to this debate.


Phil Hand  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:21
Chinese to English
Thank you, David Jun 21, 2012

David: the words you read at the top of this very thread were written by Krashen.

OK, perhaps I was wrong in my previous post. I've asked around, and it seems that some EFL teachers I respect agree with David that Krashen does count as mainstream, indeed, that his work is widely used in EFL training.

I was wrong to dismiss him as non-mainstream.

I still think it's legitimate to say that he represents the most "communicative" and least "formal" approaches to language learning, and that the body of opinion is somewhat less "progressive" than his. (To the extent that these terms apply.)

As Ty says, Krashen's article seems to be a highly selective reading of Eil's article - which encourages commitment and immersion, both of which I would agree with.


Michele Fauble  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 19:21
Member (2006)
Norwegian to English
+ ...
Comprehensible input Jun 21, 2012

Ty Kendall wrote:

So maybe it is better to focus on grammar in the classroom and leave the comprehensible input to outside the classroom where it will at least be authentic (not some contrived recordings or awkward consequence-free role plays).

There are many ways to START to learn a language. To actually learn a language requires large amounts of comprehensible input. Classroom learning should focus on providing the foundation for this.


Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:21
Italian to English
Grammar is a road map Jun 21, 2012

The post notes that:

"The complexity of the grammatical system to be mastered makes it highly unlikely that it can be taught and learned: Linguists have not even described the grammatical system of any language completely and many rules are forbiddingly complex, with numerous exceptions".

This is unduly pessimistic.

Once you have mastered one or more foreign languages - preferably very different from your own - the principles of grammar can provide you with a road map when you are learning your next language. That said, the researchers are right to assert that exposure to native-speaker production of the new language is paramount for anyone's learning, grammar mavens included icon_wink.gif

However, I am less impressed when the post goes on to say that "The subjunctive is of interest as it is considered a difficult structure to master", thus confusing syntax with grammar (the subjunctive is a verbal mood, not a syntactical structure).

Grammar is a language-learning resource because it gives you the tools with which to compare languages. You don't need grammar to master a language functionally but it certainly helps if you want to understand how other languages work.


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