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Comments on O'Neill's Debt to and Argument with Krashen
Stephen Krashen Responds to O'Neill's Criticisms

This is Stephen Krashen's reply to Robert O'Neill's rebuttal comments about acquisition and learning in a recent ESL MiniConference Online debate. You are also invited to follow subsequent exchanges between Krashen and O'Neill in shorter notes on our letters page.

On the terms acquisition and learning

Stephen KrashenIt is not clear to me whether O'Neill's objection to the term acquisition is because it sounds affected to him or whether he feels that such a distinction is not useful. In support of the first interpretation, he states that he prefers the term unconscious learning. Others have used similar terms, such as implicit learning and informal learning. In support of the second interpretation, O'Neill claims that after the end of a critical period, adults cannot acquire or do unconscious learning because the capacity for natural acquisition is lost or is difficult to recover. The latter is an empirical question, open to investigation.

Can adults acquire?

My position is that the evidence supports the hypothesis that adults can and do acquire and do so quite well. As I noted in my previous post, adults also follow a predictable sequence of acquisition and adult second language acquisition is, like child language acquisition, a result of comprehensible input.

O'Neill claims that the stages of learning (his term) a foreign language are only predictable if adults make any kind of progress at all. Of course.

O'Neill also appears to claim that adult second language acquisition is different from child language acquisition because some adults give up, get distracted, bored, etc. This does not happen to children acquiring their first language. The input/comprehension hypothesis claims, however, that given comprehensible input and a low affective filter, acquisition is involuntary and inevitable. One has no choice but to acquire. Those adults who refuse, give up, etc. have not had this kind of input, even if they have lived in the country where the language was spoken for many years. For details, see the discussion of fossilization in Krashen (1985).

Note that I am not claiming that all adults acquire second languages perfectly. They don't. But they do quite well, given the right circumstances. (1)

O'Neill also feels adult acquisition (learning?) is different because adults look for axiomatic rule systems. Not all adults do. In fact, it may be that a small minority do, those who have had considerable schooling and who think that the structure of language is intrinsically interesting.

I will go even farther. I will disagree with O'Neill's claim that grammar works well with some people if this is a claim that conscious learning of grammar alone can result in high levels of competence. There is a clear role for conscious learning, as I have tried to state in many books and papers, but it is a peripheral role, and I don't think anybody ever acquired a language from grammar alone. Comprehensible input must always be present (see e.g. Krashen, 1991).

Interactive activities, reading and communicative language teaching

I share O'Neill's critiques of certain aspects of communicative language teaching. I agree that some interactive activities are contrived and do not contain much comprehensible input. I strongly agree that the use of specially constructed readers, such as the Longman series and similar series, has been undervalued. There is tremendous evidence that interesting, comprehensible reading has a very positive effect on foreign language development, second language development, and of course first language development.

Beniko Mason has been a champion of the use of pedagogical readers for this purpose, and has shown in a series of studies that EFL students make impressive gains reading pedagogical readers, supplemented with easy authentic reading, outperforming comparisons in traditional classes. See eg Mason and Krashen (1997).

Stephen Krashen
Emeritus Professor, University of Southern California

2002 ESL MiniConference Online


1 Genie (mentioned by O'Neill) was a teenager when she was discovered and could thus be considered a case of adult language acquisition, albeit first language acquisition. Her acquisition of English was quite close to the order found for younger first language acquirers (Curtiss, Fromkin, Rigler, Rigler and Krashen, 1975), but her progress was limited, most likely due to the fact that she was attempting to acquire language using the right (non-dominant) side of the brain (Fromkin, Krashen, Curtiss, Rigler and Rigler, 1974). Return to text


Curtiss, S., Fromkin, V., Rigler, D., Rigler, D. and Krashen, S. 1975. An update on the linguistic development of Genie. In D. Dato (Ed.) Developmental Psycholinguistics: Theory and Applications. Georgetown Round Table on Languages and Linguistics, 1975. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. pp. 145-157. Return to text
Fromkin, V., Krashen, S., Curtiss, S., Rigler, D. and Rigler, M. 1974. The development of language in Genie: A case of language acquisition beyond the critical period. Brain and Language 1: 83-107. Reprinted in Clark, V., Eschholz, P., and Rosa, A. (Eds.) Language: Introductory Readings. 1981. New York: St. Martins Press. pp. 142-169. Return to text
Krashen, S. 1985. The Input Hypothesis. Beverly Hills: Laredo Publishing Company. Return to text
Krashen, S. 1991. How much comprehensible input did Heinrich Schliemann get? System 19/3: 189-190. Return to text
Mason, B. and Krashen, S. 1997. Extensive reading in English as a foreign language. System 25: 91-102. Return to text