Acquisition vs. Learning (Stephen Krashen)

Explanation of Main
According to Krashen, the acquisition-learning hypothesis, is perhaps the most fundamental of his five hypotheses regarding second language acquisition. This hypothesis states that there are two separate ways of developing mastery in a second language. The first, which Krashen calls learning, is the formal, conscious process that involves studying the rules of a language. This process is characterized by memorizing vocabulary, learning grammatical rules, and practicing this knowledge through drills and exercises. Because this learned knowledge is based on memorization it is more likely to be forgotten if it is not used.

The second way of developing mastery in a second language is through acquisition. According to Krashen, acquisition is the unconscious process of learning a language that takes place when an individual uses it for real communication. In contrast to learning, acquisition is a natural and informal way of learning a second language that takes place at the subconscious level when students use the target language in meaningful interactions. Unlike learning, which is usually restricted to the school context, acquisition can take place in and out of school.

Classroom Implications
For teachers, the most important classroom implication is to develop a curriculum that requires students to use the target language in meaningful interactions. According to Krashen, language acquisition occurs when language is used for what it was designed for, communication. Teachers should create an environment in their classroom that allows children to chat with one another in cooperative groups using the target language in meaningful interactions. This will promote the acquisition of the target language not only when it is taught but throughout the day in other content areas such as math, science and social studies.

Diaz-Rico, L.T., & Weed, K. Z. (2010). The crosscultural, language, and academic development handbook:
A complete K-12 reference guide (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Freeman, D. E., & Freeman, Y. S. (2004). Essential linguistics: What you need to know to teach reading,
ESL, spelling, phonics, grammar. Portsmouth, NH:Heinemann.

Krashen, S. (2009). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Retrieved May 11, 2011, from


The first critique of Krashen's learning/acquisition hypothesis centers on the fact that it has never been proven that human beings actually have what is called a "subconscious". It is merely a theory, albeit a widely regarded and accepted one, and as such has not been proven to be conclusive or irreducible. On language acquistion and Krashen, Freeman and Freeman write, "The second way of developing language is what Krashen calls acquistion. In contrast to learning, acquisition is subconscious." (pg. 35). The very currency of the term and concept "subconscious" is debatable. The very idea of a student who, as the authors write, "may not even be aware" while acquiring language is not above being refuted. In plausible support of this assertion, Freeman and Freeman write, "Since language is so complex, linguists have not been able to describe the order of acquisition of the different part of language in sufficient detail so that teachers could use the order to create a sequence of lessons..."(pg. 37). On considering these two points, perhaps Krashen's theory deserves less that the "sacred cow" status that it has been accorded.

Another important critique is that Krashen doesn't feel that there is a need to provide grammar lessons or other type of language instruction in the classroom (i.e., "learning"). However, we now understand that explicit instruction of language (in the context of meaningful use for communicative purposes) is very important for students to reach high levels of language proficiency, especially in terms of academic language.

Freeman, D.E. & Freeman, Y.S. (2004). Essential Linguistics. Portsmouth, NH: Henemann.