Stephen Krashen on Language Learning in the Polyglot Community

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.

Enjoy!

A Little About Stephen Krashen

  • 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 Language Learning Theorystephen krashen reading

  • Stephen’s thesis is that all language learning is done through comprehensible input
  • This means reading or listening to language that we can mostly understand despite not understanding all the words and structures in it
  • Stephen believes we acquire language 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 Beginner’s Objection

  • 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

The Power of Storystephen krashen story

  • 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

Stephen’s Language Learning Experiences

  • 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 the revolve around story 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 beginner’s 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

Accent in a Second LanguageStephen Krashen language acquisition

  • Stephen thinks we probably acquire a good accent in a foreign language quite quickly:
  • 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”

The Regression to ‘Skill Building’

  • 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
  • His cure for this is more compelling input – more interesting conversations and more interesting stories

Stephen’s Advice to Language Learners

  • 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’

stephen krashen second language acquisition

You can learn more about Stephen and read a selection of his articles and books at www.sdkrashen.com


What have you learned from this interview and how will you apply it to your own learning? Let us know in the comments!

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  • Ethan Crown

    First and foremost I would like to say thank you on your great podcast, I have listened to your podcast since it’s inception. Love your point of views and your style of speaking on language learning is really engrossing. You’re able to explains things, whether difficult or complex in a straight and simple way. Feels like I can really get control of my own language learning.
    I currently live in Japan and I am struggling with learning Japanese but for one reason, my own fault. I live in a self-made English bubble. Doing everything necessary to escape from it now and be able to follow your great advice. In your last interview, Dr. Stephen Krashen was really insightful, he only reinforced all that you have clearly outlined in your podcast, with the exception being the whole music link, aside from that, All was agreed. I do have some questions in regards to what you and Dr. Krashen were discussing about reading. Dr. Krashen and you spoke about how reading is fundamental, you asked on behalf of us beginners, how can we begin to read? How can we get comprehensible input from reading? But I felt that these questions were not really clearly answered.
    You and Dr. Krashen spoke about a ratio of known words against unknown words? How does this work? Especially at the beginning when, all seems very foreign, if I understood the ratio correctly. My own ratio being 95% unknown words and maybe 5% known words!
    Dr. Krashen went as far as to say that one not need to study vocabulary in isolation, if I
    understood him correctly, then how would that work being able to read without knowing the words?
    I would like to thank you in advance and again amazing podcast and YouTube channel.

    Ps. I have definitely written an iTunes review!

    • Thanks for the comment, and for the iTunes review! The principle you’re referring to is the essence of “comprehensible input”, which is to say that you should be studying with material that is only slightly above your current level (e.g. 95% known, 5% unknown).

      Now, the problem you’ve highlighted is that as a beginner you don’t know many words. However, the principle of comprehensible input still applies – you still need to be studying with stuff that’s a little beyond your level, albeit low.

      At the very beginning (i.e. your first few weeks of study), you simply have to go through a textbook and learn the basics. But once you’ve learnt a couple of hundred words, you can start to apply these principles. As such, the problem is not one of level, but one of material – how do you find material that is both interesting and comprehensible for a beginner?

      This is a problem that the language learning industry on the whole does not have a good answer to, basically because there’s more money in making textbooks and apps (these are also easier to understand for early-stage learners). So what do you do?

      Here’s what I recommend:
      – Graded readers: https://goo.gl/nrr9Ay
      – Textbook dialogues
      – LingQ: http://iwillteachyoualanguage.com/lingq
      – Hire freelancers to transcribe interesting YouTube videos

      I’m also working on my own material to solve this exact problem, called Conversations, which has the benefit of being based completely around dialogues, so you learn spoken language, but comes with all the learning material you need to actually make the most of it from a learning perspective (transcriptions, translations, word lists, audio etc):
      https://www.iwillteachyoualanguage.com/listening-practice-con/

      As you can tell, this is something I care quite a lot about, and I’m doing what I can to make this easier for learners of different languages! Good luck!

      • Ethan Crown

        Thank you very much for the prompt and detailed answered. I will be putting it to great use. I’d like to update you on how things go for me with your advice and learning Japanese. You have talked in some occasion about your own experience learning Japanese. Although it was quite early in your own language learning journey. All of it is quite inspiring. Especially when you said “I’ve had enough, I’m just going to do this last thing or quitting all together!”

  • personal favourite moment:

    “In your work, what’s suprised you?”

    – “How right I was from the start.”

    • Haha yes. Actually I think I asked him what surprised him at the conference… but the point stands!

  • Fabiana von Sydow

    Thanks for this very interesting interview! It was fantastic and lots of useful information.

  • Juliet Allnutt

    I found this immensely helpful. Really interesting and as I am about to help french people (I am living in France) improve their conversational skills in english (my mother tongue) and have no personal experience of teaching I shall try to follow these principles.

    • W R

      Juliet, I’m not a native speaker of English but shouldn’t you capitalize French and English in your comment?

    • Great to hear it was helpful Juliet. What was your main takeaway from a teaching perspective?

      • Juliet Allnutt

        Not having anything to do with teaching I was fascinated to hear about the TPRS method of learning and I shall research this further. My experience as a child learning french at school was through lists of words, idioms and conjugations of verbs, which stood me in good stead for the vocabulary but no help whatsoever with speech. I used to go to the supermarket here in France and listen to what people said to each other, to the cashiers, the replies, etc, and (as the french love talking) I gradually picked up the phrases and sentences without consciously learning.

        • Yes. The question for a teacher (or independent learner) is how to bottle up that experience and reproduce it the in the classroom! Not easy!

          • Kevin Richardson

            I can certainly vouch for that – I’ve tried using TPRS in my teaching with some degree of success and disaster (on my part) – but yesterday, I was sitting in a language exchange waiting for a couple of students to come to my lesson and heard a Japanese teacher giving a brilliant TPRS lesson to a group of beginner Japanese learners … which inspired me to try using it in my English lesson. It’s magical when done right 🙂

  • Dot Read

    Great interview, thank you. I have read some of Stephen Krashen’s work before, so found it very interesting. The problem, as you mentioned, is finding comprehensible input of the right level, but I’m working on it!

  • ElfinW

    Sorry for joining the party very late but I loved this interview so much that I decided to make some exercises with your notes and will use it with some of my ESL students. It’s going to be BRILLIANT. Thanks again, Olly! Such a great and inspiring interview. I love his energy and he has such great intuitions!

    • So glad you enjoyed it! I’m curious to know what exercises you create!

  • Nick Adams

    This was a really good interview, and you came across as super disciplined. There were many times where you clearly wanted to go off on a interesting tangent but had to hold it down and stay on task. Fantastic work!

    • Haha thanks Nick, it’s always interesting to see the extent to which other people can “read” what I’m thinking. I could have talked with Krashen for hours – no doubt about that! The hardest thing for me is knowing when to shut up and let the other person talk. I actually Iike to approach these things much more like conversations than interviews, and think there’s quite a bit to be gained by me throwing my thoughts into the mix from time to time, but by the same token the big prize in this case, I think, was to encourage him to talk about things which haven’t been discussed much in the past… and that takes some discipline from my side!

  • Debra McPhee

    I live in Brisbane Australia. Do you know of any teachers or language schools in French that use this method. Is it possible to learn this way from the internet. YouTube for example?