Perspective on Learning a Foreign Language

Every language teacher knows that learning a foreign language is an extremely complex  process. A child begins to learn his mother tongue by picking up the sounds he hears in   his family. All the way through, the child undergoes an unconscious and spontaneous experience of using a system of language to express his wants. Later, he makes a conscious effort to perfect his mastery of the system he has been using.
On the other hand, students beginning to learn a foreign language make a conscious effort to acquire the language according to whatever guidance  they  may receive.

Stephen Krashen has introduced some of the most influential concepts to the study of second-language acquisition. In his Input Hypothesis, 1985, he makes the distinction between acquisition and learning. He defines learning as the conscious, traditional grammar based process in the classroom and acquisition  as the way children learn their first language. He also believes that learners need to be exposed to what Krashen calls “comprehensible input”, that is exposure to interesting and understandable listening and reading material. Moreover,  Krashen makes the important point that comprehensible input  or roughly-tuned input should  be at a slightly higher level than the students are capable of using, but at a level they are capable of understanding. He compared it to the way adults talk to children as  they tend to simplify the language they use so that the children can more or less understand it.  If students constantly receive input that is roughly-tuned- that is above their level- they will acquire those items of language that they did not previously know without making a conscious effort to do so.
In contrast, conscious learning means that students receive finely-tuned input- that is language  chosen to be precisely at their level. A good practical example of this in action are graded readers, that are books especially created for foreign language learners at various levels, such as A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2, according to the Common European Framework (CEFR).

Moreover, the process of   learning a foreign language should be as natural as possible and in  order to do that, lessons should be based on meaningful interactions with plenty of graded reading and listening input. The only way to do this is to keep learners in touch with the language as much as possible by introducing them to stories written in simple language, pieces of simple prose, poetry and drama. Furthermore, good teaching means creating conditions for a successful and stress-free  learning environment where students are encouraged to relax and acquire the language naturally. It is believed that conscious language-learning cannot be the source of  spontaneous speech, especially when the lesson   focuses  on grammar only. On the other hand, a different approach would be to have learners notice grammatical features in reading texts using the ‘discovery technique’. By using the ‘discovery technique’, we learn more about their knowledge and abilities eliciting information from them rather than telling things to them. The idea is that students will ‘discover’ the grammar through a series of steps (tasks, language awareness activities, pictures, questions) and will deduce both the form and the meaning from the context. This might be followed by a short discussion, led by the teacher, as to why the tense is being used in this particular situation, followed by concept-checking questions to ensure that students understand how to use the target language.  (Workman, 2008)

Concept-checking questions should always be in teacher’s mind and be used where appropriate.  For instance, the questions  “Do you understand?” or “Does that make sense?” students might answer positively when they have lost interest and want to move on or they do not want to admit the lack of understanding. When checking answers to a reading comprehension task, it is better to ask students to give reasons for their answers. Teachers should always ask students “Why?” or “What phrase gave you the answer?”  This can provide a real ‘learning moment’ for those who answered their question incorrectly and want to understand where they went wrong. The question also checks whether students have really figured out the answer, or they have just made a lucky guess ( or copied the answer from their peers).

Another important aspect of this theory is linked to the benefits that extensive reading might have on language acquisition. As far as it is reading for pleasure, the students  select the comprehensibility of the  texts they want to read, so the reading text is at their level. Students show interest for it, as long as they have the option to read texts that are of personal curiosity. Pleasure reading gives students the opportunity to enrich their vocabulary and to  deduce meaning from context, without  using the dictionary. Early stages of learning English require less linguistic production or premature production because language acquisition comes with more comprehensible input, from reading, rather than from demands for production.

Production comes through real-life contexts for writing in English, when the focus is only on the topic not on grammar, vocabulary or style, as these will be acquired along with the subject matter. According to Krashen, (1985: 1) “language acquisition occurs when language is used for what it was designed for, communication”.  Teachers provide reading materials in which students read  short dialogues on certain topics like: at the restaurant, at the doctor, at the supermarket,  or short magazine articles or websites like e-friends,  and then after doing controlled-practice exercises, students are asked to write down  a short similar  dialogue or a short text on the same topic. I consider that this approach is suitable for beginner students as they become active participants in real-life situations, acquiring language almost unconsciously.

To conclude, it seems that  the present  methodological approach, which stresses the need for acquisition rather than conscious learning, underlines that using comprehensible input to acquire language is  more effective than the conscious learning of language items.


1. Krashen, Stephen, (1985).  “The Input Hypothesis. Issues and Implications”, p 1-32, Longman;
2. Krashen, Stephen, (1982). “Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition”, Pergamon Press;
3. Piaget, J. (1969). The Psychology of the Child, Basic Books;
4. Piaget, J. (1977). The Development of Thought: Equilibration of Cognitive Structures. New York: The Viking Press;
5. Puchta, H. and Rinvolucri, M. (2005). Multiple Intelligences in EFL, Helbling Languages;
6.  Raimes, Ann. (1983). Techniques in Teaching Writing. New York: Oxford University Press;
7. Workman, G. (2008). Concept Questions and Time Lines. Gem  Publishing.


prof. Daniela Pribeanu

Colegiul Național Bănățean, Timișoara (Timiş) , România
Profil iTeach:

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