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Teksti ja kuva Aleksi Tolppi

Language becomes meaningful in a social context

What if you could learn any language just by watching tv? It might be too good to be true but with the input hypothesis, you could come close enough.

American linguist Stephen Krashen published what is now known as the input hypothesis in 1977. Immensely popular but also controversial, the hypothesis has greatly influenced the way language learning and teaching is thought of.

The core idea of the hypothesis is that we learn languages by understanding messages and receiving comprehensible input, which translates into any kind of exposure to a language that is understandable.

”If we consider Krashen’s theory in general, it has had a huge impact, especially on the idea of moving from studying a system to communication and understanding,” Maria Ruohotie-Lyhty, a senior lecturer in applied linguistics at the University of Jyväskylä, explained.

Learning just by watching tv or listening to music in a foreign language might be too much to ask.

It used to be typical to view language as a system that had vocabulary and grammar and when you mastered the system, you learned the language.

Currently it is more common to view language studying as a social activity and not something that happens just inside an individual’s mind.

 

Perhaps the most famous part of the input hypothesis is the ”i + 1” model for input, where ”i” represents learner’s current level of knowledge and ”+ 1” the next stage of acquisition.

In an ideal situation one could learn grammar patterns and new vocabulary just from context when the input (e.g. music) is just slightly above the learner’s level but still comprehensible.

”The model is slightly problematic when we don’t know what the one stands for. How difficult or easy should it be? My understanding is that you can learn even if the language usage is much higher than ’+ 1’,” Ruohotie-Lyhty  said.

It can be harmful if students try to learn difficult concepts too early or start to over-analyze the language.

Learning just by watching tv or listening to music in a foreign language might be too much to ask, but could one learn mainly through exposure to the language without using it actively?

”Sure, you would learn slowly and the ability to understand would develop well. But I don’t think that it’s an optimal way of studying. You would miss out on the output part that is actively using the language. Speaking and writing would support learning,” she explained.

 

One of the more controversial claims by Krashen is that language acquisition and learning are completely different and conscious study of language is less effective than acquisition.

According to Krashen studying leads students to developing an abstract, conceptual model of a language rather than learning the language itself.

It can be harmful if students try to learn difficult concepts too early or start to over-analyze the language. He also thinks that speaking doesn’t lead to acquisition but is a consequence of it.

I believe that meaningful activity, whether it’s listening to music, talking to people or playing games, is important.

Ruohotie-Lyhty isn’t convinced that the distinction between acquisition and learning is so clear. There is evidence that focusing on certain characteristics of a language can help with learning.

The idea that speaking doesn’t help with acquisition is also debatable in her opinion.

”When there have been studies on people who have learned in this kind of understanding focused context, we have seen that the speaking abilities don’t develop so well,” she said.

 

While learning a language through sheer exposure might be difficult if one aims to speak and write the language fluently, a lot can be said for Krashen’s hypothesis.

”Learning a language is about getting exposed to it. You use the language, read in it and be in contact with the language. That’s the way you’ll learn. There isn’t anything mystical about it,” Ruohotie-Lyhty said.

Even if for example your motivation isn’t high or you don’t practice speaking, you can learn.

”I believe that meaningful activity, whether it’s listening to music, talking to people or playing games, is important. It has a positive emotional effect. Language becomes meaningful in a social context.”

 

In the end, with language learning there aren’t absolutes. Even if for example your motivation isn’t high or you don’t practice speaking, you can learn. One enlightening example comes from her French teaching experience at a community college.

”I had an adult student who had studied French for years as a hobby. He went to France for the first time and when he came back, he was really excited because people could understand him. Without anything other than the courses at the community college, he was able to communicate. It was a really remarkable experience for him.”

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