Sunday, June 29, 2014

How is language acquired?

Sent to The Japan News, June 29, 2014

I appreciate Helene Uchida's mentioning my work ("Teaching 'kid-friendly' grammar", June 29) but her description is not quite accurate: Language acquisition, we have concluded, does not require "meaningful interaction." It requires comprehension of messages, called "comprehensible input." 
This means that we acquire languages when we understand what we hear and read, not when we speak or write. The ability to speak and write is the result of language acquisition, not the cause. 
This is an important point: It means that the value of interaction is what the other person says to you, not what you say to them. It also means that we should not force students to speak before they are ready.
From her description, much of what Ms. Uchida does provides comprehensible input, especially hearing stories. I hope she will reconsider other aspect of her method.
Research supporting this approach is now available for free, at  For studies done in Japan with EFL students, please see

Stephen Krashen
Professor Emeritus
University of Southern California

original article:

PRIMARY ADVICE / Teaching ‘kid-friendly’ grammar
June 29, 2014; The Japan News
By Helene Uchida / Special to The Japan News Q: I understand that grammar can be dull for children, but I believe it is still essential in language learning. Am I wrong? Could you give me some advice on how to incorporate grammar into a child’s lesson and still keep it “kid-friendly”?
D.B., teacher
Vancouver, Canada A: I notice that you are teaching in Canada, so your situation is most likely different from ours in Japan. Middle and high school English teachers here tend to focus on grammar and translation methods; primary school English programs are still in the infancy stage.
Granted, grammar is the structure all languages hinge on.
The question is, “Should we teach grammar to prescribe language or describe it?” Clearly, the current Japanese system of prescribing English grammar rules does not contribute to communication.
Stephen Krashen, a pioneer in second language acquisition, states: “Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language—natural communication—in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.”
I think the key point here is “messages.” Youngsters worldwide could not care less about grammar; most do not even know what grammar is. Because their attention span is short, young learners enjoy discovering and using words or phrases that easily work for them in sending and receiving messages. This can be coordinated in the classroom by the teacher orchestrating “message” activities, such as naming flash cards, recognizing words or images on posters, imagining the meaning of content as picture books are being read to them, understanding the teacher’s requests, commands and praises, and making statements or asking questions for clarification with peers.
Primary school students can easily understand the following sentences with visuals: Taro is a boy. Sumi is a girl. Bo is a dog.
They can understand and in some instances construct similar sentences without knowing what a subject, verb, complement or article is. Later on, after sentence structures like these become natural to them, the teacher can tell them subjects are what the sentence is about. The teacher can hand them a print with simple sentences, such as the ones above, and ask them to circle the subjects. After completing that exercise, the teacher can ask them where the subject usually occurs. They will notice it is usually at the beginning of a sentence.
Such exercises help students describe the language that they have been using to communicate with others. I think this is better than prescribing rules, which makes them hesitate because fear of making a mistake takes priority over communication. Understanding and appreciating grammar at this point in the learning process is akin to “fine tuning.” Language structure has already been established via experiences.
* * * * *
Readers are encouraged to send questions on any theme related to teaching English to younger learners, particularly those at the primary school level, to Helene J. Uchida by e-mail at or fax at (03) 3217-9820. Questions should preferably be written in English, accompanied by your name, occupation and the area in which you live.
Uchida is the director of Little America, a Fukuoka-based company for training teachers of English.

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