Naming the problem in Language Acquisition

Several months ago I learned about Language Acquisition Theory through one of its major proponents, Stephen Krashen. The one-line summary is this: we learn languages through comprehensible input.

One of the key ideas beyond that is the concept of N+1 input. This means you’re getting input that’s a little above your level, so that it’s mostly comprehensible but you’re still being challenged. It makes intuitive sense to me that this should be the difficulty level that results in the fastest improvement. In addition, the input should be interesting, fascinating, even compelling, so that your brain actually gets engaged.

Language Acquisition has been relatively “known about” for decades now, and so I assumed (naively) that it would be easy to find good resources designed for Acquisition Learning, especially at lower levels where comprehensible input is hardest to find. It hasn’t. Finding low-level comprehensible input that’s also interesting has been one of the major ongoing challenges in my language learning for the last several months.

As recently as 2013, in an interview with Stephen Krashen, Steve Kaufmann of Lingq brings up this very problem. Namely, when you’re in the early days of learning a language, input tends to either be A) too boring, e.g. textbooks, miscellaneous lists of sentences, guided readers, mundane stories designed for bored children, or B) too incomprehensible, e.g. anything designed for native speakers. What is one to do, Kaufmann asks, during those first few months (or years)?

Kaufmann deals with the problem by slogging through those boring guided readers for the first two or three months, and then taking the leap into interesting but difficult material as soon he possibly can. He says that using Lingq to track progress and save words helps him manage the difficulty level when he’s still at low comprehension with the interesting stuff.

Krashen’s answer to Kaufmann’s question is vindicating, if not quite as helpful as one might wish. That is the problem of Language Acquisition, he says. The big challenge facing language learners and would-be educators today, assuming they acknowledge the efficacy of Language Acquisition, is to create the kind of material that is both comprehensible and compelling for beginning language learners. He does mention TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) and Jason Fritze as good examples of the latest progress in this area, but says we still have a long way to go before we can expect to see anything close to ideal.

It’s at least a little encouraging to hear that I haven’t just been fumbling around in the dark for no reason — that some of the greatest acquisition proponents are still fumbling as well. In the meantime, I should probably check out Lingq and TPRS.

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