The Myth Of Input
Why people trying to learn a language should stay away from Krashen’s Input Hypothesis and the learning systems it has inspired
Anyone who has tried to learn a language knows that there are a million different learning systems and methods out there, and a million different people trying to sell them to you. But after a while you will probably notice one idea that everyone seems to believe in, and that is the importance of input. Sometimes entire learning programs are based only on providing input, and on the idea that input is the only thing you need to learn a language.
The main reason that this idea is so powerful is due to the influence of one man: Stephen Krashen, who is often viewed as a legendary figure in the world of language learning. He proposed the Input Hypothesis back in the 1970s and his ideas have been enormously popular and very influential on the world of language learning during the last 50 years.
And in 2021 you will still find him repeating his now-famous mantra:
“We acquire language in only one way: when we understand it. We don’t acquire language when we speak, we don’t acquire language when we study it, we don’t acquire language when we memorise lists of verbs, we don’t acquire language when we get corrected. All those things are the result of getting comprehensible input.”
It sounds great right? No speaking, no boring study, just input! It’s the dream of any language learner! There’s only one little problem with the Input Hypothesis: it’s total bullshit.
Now, I know this is dangerous ground because I am talking about a person that is highly respected, and his ideas are the foundation of a lot of language-learning programs, but I truly believe in the Principle of Error Correction created by the great sociolinguist William Labov, who said that a person who becomes aware of an idea with important consequences that has errors, has an obligation to talk about those errors with the widest possible audience.
And because I think that the Input Hypothesis has errors, and negatively affects millions of people trying to learn a language, I have an obligation to talk about it.
You get good at what you practice
The first problem is that the hypothesis can immediately be shown to be false by a specific but very common group of people, called receptive bilinguals. They are people who have a highly-proficient understanding of language, but they cannot speak or write it. This situation is really common among the children of immigrants: the family moves to a new country and the parents continue to speak the language of the old country, but the children will adopt the language of the new country. And in that situation the children will often be able to perfectly understand the language of their parents, but will have a varying ability to express themselves.
Now you cannot argue that these children are not receiving comprehensible input. And not only is it comprehensible, but it is meaningful! It’s input from their own parents! About their own life!
Yet some of these children cannot speak or write the language of their parents. And this is just one example of asymmetrical bilingualism. In fact, bilingualism is generally misunderstood. It is extremely, extremely rare that people who speak two or more languages will have equal abilities in all of them, and even though this is a well-known fact, and also totally natural, this creates a great deal of shame for some people who want to honour their parents or their culture through language. As François Grosjean said:
“The bilingual is NOT the sum of two complete or incomplete monolinguals; rather, he or she has a unique and specific linguistic configuration.”
But the fact that people do not have equal abilities in all their languages is not surprising to me at all, because I know something that everyone knows if they take a moment to reflect: you get good at what you practice.
And that’s why I have an obligation to talk about why the obsession with input is so dangerous: because it doesn’t explain the full story. But I think it’s mainly a problem of definitions which we can solve by asking two vital questions:
- What does it mean to acquire a language?
- What do you want?
Acquiring vs. learning language
Firstly, what does it mean to acquire a language? And is it something different to learning a language? Krashen himself differentiates between acquiring and learning language in this way:
“Language acquisition happens subconsciously: while it’s happening you don’t know it’s happening, once you’re done acquiring something, you don’t even that it’s there. The brain is very, very good at acquiring language. The other process is called learning: it’s knowing about language. The subject and the verb are supposed to agree, etc. The brain is not very good at learning language.”
If you define acquiring a language as being able to comprehend it, and process it, and understand it, then I suppose the Input Hypothesis is correct.
But that is hardly what most language learners want. It’s not an accident that people call themselves ‘English speakers’ or ‘Japanese speakers’ when they talk about their language abilities. The ability to speak is, of course, quite valued and, in my experience, considered a fundamental skill.
And ideally any spoken language is accompanied by intelligible pronunciation, and all of the other expressive features of language such as gesture and turn-taking. No serious teacher would suggest that you could learn pronunciation without producing output.
I wonder how many learners would believe in a teacher that says: “In my classroom you will learn to acquire language, but not produce it.”
Let’s do a thought experiment: Imagine I sit down and watch a video on YouTube from a surgeon that shows me how to perform brain surgery. I totally comprehend the video and everything that the surgeon does. Have I acquired the knowledge of this operation? If not, how many videos would I need to watch before I acquired the knowledge? Is that knowledge useful? And how many videos would I need to watch before you feel comfortable with me operating on your brain?
Yet another Eurocentric view of language
But apart from that, think about how the idea of selling the importance of input discriminates against a majority of the world’s languages. The fact is that most of the world’s languages have never been written down, ever. But we have all become indoctrinated into the idea that recorded language is king. That if it is written in a book, or recorded as a podcast, or put on TV, then it is real language that needs to be digested. And once you’ve done that, you have acquired the language.
Well, apart from a tiny percent of languages on the planet, that attitude won’t get you very far. Apart from the fact that most languages produce hardly any output, so there is little or no input to digest, how will you ever use that language in any way if you don’t know how to speak it or write it?
How do you think you will be accepted as a human being and a member of a community or culture if you can’t participate in the most fundamental of all human actions: sharing?
And maybe that’s the part that upsets me most about the input hypothesis: it’s not generous. It doesn’t seek to contribute. It doesn’t add anything. It just wants to suck on language like a parasite.
What are the implications for teachers of the popularity and impact of the Input Hypothesis? As Noam Chomsky said:
“Teachers, in particular, have a responsibility to make sure that ideas and proposals are evaluated on their merits, and not passively accepted on grounds of authority, real or presumed.”
As Kevin R. Gregg says, the danger of a bad theory of second language acquisition is that it can tempt us to overlook that warning. He continues:
What do you want?
And that brings us to the second question, and by far the most important: what do you want? That is the first question that any good teacher asks, and so it’s also the first question that should be considered by any good teaching theory.
If you want only to acquire language, then please, spend all of your time and energy on comprehensible input.
But if you want to use language for the reason it was invented: communication, then you need to follow that basic logic of: you get good at what you practice.
If you want to be good at reading, read more. If you want to be good at speaking, speak more. If you want to be good at writing, write more. And getting good at any of that will require years of hard work, and a healthy dose of deliberate practice.
Please don’t let the promises of false prophets, and profits, rob you of the gift of language, which isn’t about understanding language, but about understanding other people, and about understanding yourself, and making a contribution to society, because now more than ever, the world needs to hear what you have to say.