E7 – You Can’t Learn English!

Episode 7 . 24:50

Episode 7 - You Can't Learn English! - transcript:

What’s up, my friends? Welcome to Speakeasy English. I hope you are ready to party. And if my mom asks, we were practicing English!

Thank you for joining us on another episode. This podcast is designed to help intermediate English learners become fluent by giving you material to which you can listen every day, and you can enjoy listening, and create the habit of daily listening. As always, we’re going to talk about interesting stuff, interesting topics, all in English, and all spoken by me, a native English speaker. The more content that you experience (that you listen to and that you read), the faster you are going to become fluent and acquire English. So don’t forget to also check out our website and the free transcripts that are available there. It is speakeasyenglish.club. That’s speakeasyenglish.club. We do not charge and will never charge for access to the transcripts. It’s all posted right there for free on the website. My name is Brandon. I am always going to be your host. So make yourself comfortable. Grab yourself a cocktail, or a coffee, a beer, whatever, and let’s get this show on the road. 

Today we are going to talk about why you cannot learn English. I mean, no one can learn any language, according to the father of natural language acquisition, Dr. Stephen Krashen. That might sound shocking! You cannot learn English!? You cannot learn any language!? Well, we’ll get there in just a minute. 

First, let’s recap some of the things we’ve been talking about lately. So far, we have talked a lot about how the traditional method of learning a language does not work. If your goal is to become fluent, if you want to use the language to communicate, then the traditional method does not work. Now, if you are just interested in linguistics, like the lexicon and the structure and family of languages, well, okay, sure, learn about the language. You can learn a lot about the language, including all of the grammar rules and many of the words and their meanings… but none of that is going to help you become fluent. It just won’t. And that is exactly why I made this podcast to help you become fluent, naturally, to help you acquire English just by listening every day, and by reading every day, and using the language and bringing it into your real life. That is how you acquire a language! 

Now, remember I said I’m not a researcher or a professor of any sort. Well, today we’re going to talk about someone that is. That is Dr. Stephen Krashen. Many polyglots think of him as the father of natural language acquisition. His theories are used by polyglots, that is, people who speak multiple languages, all over the world. And more recent research by other scientists has only strengthened his theories that he presented 40 years ago. So today we’re going to find out why Dr. Krashen says you simply cannot learn a language – and if we have time, we’ll find out why he says smart people do not spend their time studying. Alright, let’s go. 

Dr. Krashen’s theory of acquiring a second language is based on five hypotheses. Today, we are just going to talk about two of them. In a future episode, we will talk about some of the others. But today, we are just going to talk about his acquisition learning hypothesis and his input hypothesis. Now, the names of these hypotheses do not matter. It’s the content that matters. And don’t worry, I will explain it, and I am sure you will find it very interesting. 

Dr. Krashen first presented these hypotheses some 40 years ago. And since then, although they have received plenty of criticism, they have never been disproven. In fact, most newer research is, in many ways, adopting portions of Dr. Krashen’s research from 40 years ago. In general, all of the research since then has done nothing but strengthen Dr. Krashen’s central claims. In other words, his ideas have stood the test of time. And now, finally, after four decades, they are starting to influence how we teach languages. Today we will start with the acquisition-learning hypothesis. So let’s get going.

You cannot learn a language! What? You can’t learn a language. I thought that’s why we’re here, right? To learn a language? Why else would we be here? Well, to Krqshen, when people talk about “learning” a language, they are actually talking about two different things. You can learn all sorts of things about a language, and you can memorize words and memorize rules. You could even memorize the entire dictionary if you want. And that sort of intentional studying and memorization, he calls learning. It is an intentional, conscious, explicit process where you intentionally memorize certain words and structures and rules. On the other hand, there is “acquiring” a language, which is a totally different process. It is subconscious and implicit, it happens automatically, and it is very similar to how children acquire their first language. Krashen calls this acquiring a language, and he says it is different and separate than “learning” a language – or “learning about” a language. So when you study and learn a language or learn about a language, it is like reading about how to play the guitar, or learning about how to walk. But when you acquire a language, that means obtain a language, then you are actually able to use it to speak and communicate, and you can understand messages when other people speak to you. These are two very different things. 

Remember back in episode five, I talked about my experience with languages. In that episode, I talk about how once I started listening to podcasts spoken by a native, I could barely understand anything at first! But when I looked at the transcripts, I did indeed know all (or almost all) of the words. So I had, in fact, “learned” Spanish: learned the words and learned the rules in school. But I did not acquire Spanish. I could not understand it, and I could not create sentences in real time to have a conversation with a native. At that moment in my life, I had never heard of Dr. Steven Krashen, but I was living out a real life example of his theories, of his hypothesis that I had learned a language, but I did not acquire it. I could not use it as a tool to communicate. 

When I learned about Steven Krashen and his hypotheses, all of the sudden my struggles learning Spanish made sense. It was exactly like he described. I “learned” it like any other academic subject, but that is not how language acquisition works! In order to acquire it, I had to do something different. So that is what Dr. Krashen means when he says you cannot learn to become fluent in a language. To do that, you have to acquire the language, not learn it. And those are two separate things. 

Let’s talk a little bit more about acquiring a language. Acquiring is an unconscious, abstract, and automatic process. When I am speaking English (or Spanish) and I make a mistake, it sounds wrong to me. I don’t know exactly what rule I broke. I just know that it sounds wrong. And I don’t know specifically when or where I learned that rule. And when I speak, I am not trying to follow any rules. It is all unconscious and abstract and automatic. Now, learning French, I am starting to experience the same thing. When I speak, I know when I’m making a mistake because it sounds wrong. And I don’t really have any way of explaining why or how I know that. I just know it. It is implicit, not explicit. 

So to recap, Dr. Krashen splits learning into two individual and separate processes. One of them is learning (consciously, intentionally memorizing), and the other is acquiring a language, which is subconscious, and it is implicit and automatic – it is not memorization

While there are some differences between my personal beliefs and the hypotheses of Dr. Krashen, in general his theory is saying the same thing that we have been saying for the first number of episodes here on this podcast: that in order to acquire the language, you need to do something different than what we did in school! There is no way to memorize your way to fluency. It will not work. Even without reading Krashen’s research, we have already intuitively figured out that knowing words and knowing rules is not the same thing as being fluent. These two ideas, knowing words (and knowing rules), versus becoming fluent, these two things must be (and are) two totally different things! Dr. Krashen calls it acquiring a language. In this podcast, I’ve referred to it as becoming fluent, but those are the same thing. Acquiring the language means becoming fluent. So now, the next time someone tells you that they want to “learn a language”, you can let them know that it is impossible to learn a language – they must acquire the language. 

Alright, so if studying words and grammar rules does not lead to acquiring a language, then how do you acquire a language? Now, we’ve already established: we don’t want to learn about the language. We don’t want to learn individual words and rules. We want to become fluent, which means acquiring the language. So the question is, how do we do that? 

This leads us to the second hypothesis, which is the input hypothesis. I’ll start by just giving you Dr. Krashen’s conclusion. His summary is, (quote), “we acquire language in one and only one way: When we get comprehensible input in a low anxiety environment.”

I will repeat this quote because it is brilliant. I’ll quote Krashen again. He says, “We acquire language in one and only one way: when we get comprehensible input in a low anxiety environment.”

In other words, we acquire language exclusively by understanding messages in that language. He uses the term comprehensible input, and that just means audio or text that we can understand. And we don’t have to understand all of it! In fact, the material needs to be slightly more advanced than our current level. Ideally, we should understand 80% to 95% of the material, but there should always be some words or phrases that we do not understand. Listening to, and reading, material that includes words and phrases that we do not understand, that allows our brain to problem solve. It allows our brain to unconsciously, bit by bit, create the picture of that word, and that phrase, those meanings. And that is how we acquire an understanding of what that means unconsciously and automatically. Our brain is a problem solver. Our brain automatically works on solving that puzzle. So to Dr. Krashen, the only way to acquire a language is to understand messages in that language. That means every day, listening to and reading that language. But, you need to be using material that is appropriate for your level (that means that you understand 80% to 95% of that material). But if it is too easy, if you easily understand 100% of that material – that will help you maintain your current level of that language – but it will not help you progress toward fluency. It will not help you acquire more of that language. In order to make progress, and in order to acquire the language, you need to be listening to and reading material where you only understand 80% to 95%. If listening to this podcast is very easy and you understand 100% of what I am saying, well, then I hate to lose listeners, but you should probably find a more difficult podcast. 

The input hypothesis is very interesting to me. That’s because I believe that everyone acquires languages in the same way and Dr. Krashen says the same thing! What confuses people is that different language learners seem to use different methods. But if you look closely, what they are actually doing is engineering different methods of getting comprehensible input. So some students use stories and they get engaged listening to and reading stories. Other students go to a class. But if you look at what’s happening in those classes where they have success, what’s actually happening is the teacher is giving them comprehensible input. The teacher is telling stories and explaining things using pictures and synonyms and videos to help give meaning to the content. So, the student is receiving comprehensible input every day. When you really look at it, all of the successful polyglots, all of the people that know multiple languages, in one way or another, they are acquiring those languages by allowing their brains to receive comprehensible input every single day. At first glance, this might seem like they are all using different methods, but they are not! They are all using the same fundamental method, which is: receiving messages in the language that you are trying to acquire. That’s receiving messages in English every day, whether it’s listening or reading, whether it’s stories or essays or children’s songs, whatever. But it is always receiving messages and understanding them in the language you are trying to learn every single day. That is the method. That is the only way to acquire a language. 

Okay, very quickly, Steven Krashen has a quote that I love, and it is, “Smart people don’t study.” He says, “Smart people do not study. They solve problems.” He also gives various examples of brilliant people who have spent their careers solving some of the most difficult problems in their fields. And in all of those cases, those people did not wake up and study the rules. For example, a chemist did not wake up and study the periodic table of elements every day. No, they wake up and try to solve problems! And the act of solving problems actually makes them smarter! 

Polyglots and language learners are, in a way, doing the same thing. We are all allowing our brains to solve problems. We are not just studying. Studying will not give us the result we want. We need to use our brains to work out what things mean and allow our brains to do what they do best and solve the riddle of language. And along the way, we need to be paying attention to what is working and what does not work. And we need to constantly be creating our own theory of language acquisition. Pay attention to your learning! Pay attention to what is actually giving you success. If you want to learn ten languages, the good news is you don’t need to study. Smart people don’t study. They just allow their brains to solve problems. They pay attention to what’s happening in their brains, and they allow their brains to solve problems. You can learn 10 languages, or 20 languages, without ever studying a single minute, and that is a fact. So the next time your teacher or parent says “you need to study,” you just hit them with that quote from Dr. Steven Krashen: “Smart people don’t study. They solve problems.”

Alright guys, hopefully now you know (at least) how to use this podcast, and audio in general, to learn English. Of course, these principles work to learn any language. So once you learn English, I encourage you to learn other languages, maybe Spanish or French or Mandarin. The sky is the limit. And if you think about it: repeatedly listening to the same words and phrases, well, that’s exactly how all of us learned our maternal language – and that’s why I call this natural language learning. Dr. Krashen calls it language acquisition – but it is allowing your brain the opportunity to become fluent, to use a language as a tool to communicate, and that is exactly what your brain was evolved to do. 

In the next episode, I’m going to be telling you a short story and also giving you some strategies that you can use while listening to that story – and also while listening to all of our episodes – in order to give your brain the best opportunity to acquire as much English as possible. You will not want to miss that episode.

Okay, I really appreciate you listening to this podcast, and if you appreciate having this free resource, please don’t forget to leave a review. That really helps other language learners to find this podcast. And as always, please feel free to check out the website speakeasyenglish.club. There you will find my email address as well as our blog and transcripts. That is, free transcripts of every episode right there on the website. Alright, thank you guys so much! As always, do not forget to listen to this episode multiple times. Don’t just listen once. You need to listen to every episode multiple times. Consistency and repetition are the keys to acquiring a new language. Thanks so much. Until next time, cheers!