Know – Do / Learn – Acquire

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As a teacher trainer, there is one “theoretical” thing I really want all new teachers to believe and understand. It is the difference between “knowing” a language and “doing” a language. Further, the implications that suggests for our classroom practices.

In general speak, we use the word “learn” quite liberally. It is a fuzzy word and covers a lot of territory. It can mean what is supposed to happen at school, which might be just the act of sitting in a classroom, “I’m at school, I’m learning.”  It might mean the ability to recall facts and information. “Today, I learned that E=MC2”  It might mean that you can apply knowledge and have “learned” to do something. “Look, I’m driving! I’ve learned to drive.”

However, “learning”  is much  fuzzier than these examples make it appear. Why? Well, learning is something we do all the time. There is no off button for human experience. To live is to learn and most of the above examples represent a specific  subjective pigeon-holing of what learning means. A cultural  and institutional definition, if you will.

A kid plays plays a video game – he is learning. A woman bakes a cake she has made a thousand times – she is learning. I am writing this, I am learning.  We are ALWAYS learning.  So when a teacher tells me – “My students aren’t learning.”  I really have to suggest that yes they are learning, just not what the teacher intended!

In TESOL though, learning has a much narrower definition (thank god!).  It is this that teachers should be well aware of – Learning vs Acquiring a language.

Stephen Krashen popularized this ancient distinction between “knowing” and “understanding” with his Learning-Acquisition Hypothesis. He states,

“Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.”

Krashen believes we can’t learn a language. Learning is only “having knowledge of” a language. For example, we all can think of a student who “knows” a lot of English and has an amazing TOEIC score yet can’t meaningfully communicate his/her thoughts. For Krashen, they have “learned” English but they haven’t “acquired” English. Think of it like the distinction between “hear” and “listen”. I can hear someone but I don’t necessarily need to listen. Listening, like acquiring, requires a whole new kind of brain activity, something much fuller and deeper.

I hate the word – acquire. It is beyond me why academia must couch all their terms in such stiff, mechanical and scientific language (when it is anything but more precise). I prefer “do” a language. We can “know” a language but when we are fluent, we can “do” a language. And unlike Krashen, I believe there is a gradient between the two. There isn’t as he later developed in his Natural Approach, a dark space between the two.

We do “monitor” language, but this can also lead to acquisition. There are many ways to get to fluency and teachers know this – many academics don’t. We do what works, they suggest what doesn’t. I won’t pontificate any longer – if you are interested in a critique of Krashen’s Acquisition hypothesis, no better place than Timothy Mason’s great post.

So, what are the implications for us teachers?

Well, we have to mix it up. Students need authentic models and communication in order to “do” language. They need the “real” and as teachers, we should constantly try to bring reality into the testing ground that is our classroom. Students need A Lot of tasks and activities where they must communicate real meaning. In a nutshell – the main course is CLT (Communicative Language Teaching). However, that doesn’t mean we can’t fortify this meal with grammar lessons, testing, conscious “learning” of a language. We can and we must. It too has a role. Without the “knowing” – we can’t ever get to “doing”. For example – beginning students have to memorize language!!!!! You can’t skip this. As a teacher, I stand by this claim. If not, you’ll only go from nothing to nothing.

But as teachers – we need to remember this vital distinction between “knowing” and “doing” language. It is the steering wheel that should guide us through the “learning” course.

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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