Acquisition vs. Learning

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One of the main reasons why students give up on reaching high proficiency levels in foreign languages is the unconditional faith in the sacred power of classrooms, textbooks, grammar drills, and individual word memorization.

The notion that spoken languages can simply be broken down into just sets of formulas with tons of variables hinders one's progress to the point of complete stagnation and despair. In many cases, such a harmful concept leads to a sort of defective expertise that may include fake fluency, incorrect word usage, illogical train of thought, unintelligible pronunciation, etc. Worst of all is that these negative qualities are usually very hard to fix later on.

So as not to fall for any mainstream delusions that might hurt one's communicative abilities in the long run, he/she should keep in mind one fundamental idea: spoken languages cannot be learned; they can only be acquired. Although this notion may not sound quite apparent at first, it is essential to differentiate between the two approaches.

Stephen Krashen, Ph.D., a linguist, and educational researcher, proposes a clear distinction between acquisition and learning in his acquisition-learning hypothesis as part of the five hypotheses that form the input hypothesis. The acquisition-learning hypothesis argues that people can develop their linguistic abilities by means of two distinctly different approaches — acquisition and learning.


Learning, Krashen says, is a deductive approach in a teacher-centered setting and the product of formal instruction requiring conscious processes that result in conscious knowledge ABOUT language.

Rather than acquiring a foreign language, students learn an abstract, conceptual model of that language in a strictly structured order and at a fixed pace. Fear of mistakes, chopped and unnatural speech, strong native accent, incorrect word usage, bidirectional translation, conscious grammatical filter, etc., are all the attributes of learning.


Acquisition, on the other hand, is an inductive and student-centered approach.

It is the product of subconscious processes involving natural language assimilation, similar to the way children absorb their mother tongue, dynamic interaction with language's ecosystem, and linguistic intuition. Unlike with learning, students do not focus on the form of their utterances, constantly referring to the theoretical mental database. Instead, their speech is effortless, much more accurate, and extremely natural. In the majority of cases, not only do students obtain proper pronunciation in target languages, they significantly reduce or sometimes even eliminate their native accents and succeed in acquiring true fluency in much shorter time periods.

The acquisition-learning hypothesis is one of the most fundamental linguistic concepts to understand. The two processes are inherently different and involve diametrically opposite in nature brain activities and approaches. They almost never overlap in real-life circumstances and have very little in common. Put simply, just because you have learned something does not necessarily mean that you have acquired it, and just because you have acquired something does not mean that you have learned anything about it.

Being able to assemble sentences consciously, relying solely on linguistic theory and some shady skills, is far from sufficient when it comes to reaching near-native or native proficiency in foreign languages. As opposed to learning, the acquisition process is governed by massive and intensive exposure to a target language through the mechanism called comprehensible input. This mechanism itself can bring out one's language abilities to the highest quality possible. However, this matter requires a separate, more concentrated coverage.

Spoken language is not something you learn about; it is something you ingrain and experience. This central idea is what one should keep in mind if they do not want to become victims of a mid-level plateau and turn their communicative abilities into some scientific garbage but instead maintain steady progress toward the desired genuine fluency and naturalness of the speech.


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