Interview published in Teaching Times #71, Fall 2014, p. 4. TESOL France (www.Tesol-France.org).
We are delighted that you will be one of the speakers at the TESOL France 2014 Colloquium. What will you be talking about?
SK: I will talk about something that is obvious to most people, but was not obvious not to us, professional language teachers: Most people are not especially interested in acquiring second languages. But they are very interested in hearing good stories, reading good books, and having interesting conversations. Fortunately, hearing stories, reading good books and having interesting conversations, in other words, getting COMPELLING comprensible input, is the best way to acquire language.
For many, your distinction between language acquisition and language learning is appealing since it seems relatively intuitive. How far did intuition and your own learning experiences inform your hypotheses?
SK: The acquisition-learning hypothesis came from some problems in the research:
First, it appeared that sometimes adult second language acquirers' errors followed the "natural order" of acquisition (early acquired were most accurate), but sometimes they didn't. It was clear that the natural order was present in conversational situations, and the "unnatural" order occurred in "test" situations.
Second was a case history co-authored with Pauline Pon, an acquirer of English as a second language. We examined her own English production and found that she made many "careless" errors in speech, but could nearly always correct them when shown the errors on written down.
These two cases led to the same hypothesis: There are two systems at work – a natural "acquired" system identical to the system children use in first and second language acquisition and production, and a consciously "learned" system that adults who have had instruction use in situations when they have time to think about rules and are focussed on form. So Pauline Pon did not worry about consciously learned rules in normal communication, but she could apply them when she was thinking about form and had time.
So far, your famous hypotheses on language acquisition remain hypotheses. Do you think it will ever be possible or even desirable to prove them?
SK: They will always be hypotheses because that's the way science works. We can never "prove" any scientific hypothesis, because it is always possible that a counterexample will appear.
But there have been no counterexamples to the original hypotheses, in my opinion. Also, the hypotheses have been shown to work quite well in different areas. They were based on research in adult second language acquisition, but subsequent reearch has shown that they work well for child second language acquisition, child language acquisition, and literacy development. They also help explain why certain bilingual education programs are successful and others are not.
I have also been looking at research on animal language and so far the comprehension hypothesis shows promise. I hope that the next frontier will be "exolinguistics": will the comprehension hypothesis help us acquire alien languages and will aliens be able to acquire our languages via comprehensible input?
What do you think is the single most important takeaway for a classroom teacher from your work?
SK: We acquire language and develop literacy when we understand messages, and for optimal acquisition, input should be compelling, so interesting that students forget it is in another language.
Your work has been incredibly influential for a great many people interested in Second Language Acquisition for both research and practical purposes. Who has been your greatest professional influence?
SK: Frank Smith, for sure. When I read Reading without Nonsense in 1983, I discovered that he had come to similar conclusions about the importance of comprehension, based on very different evidence. He also presented his work far more coherently than I did. This stimulated my interest in reading and writing.
How would you like to be remembered?
SK: Let me change this question to a different one: What do I want to accomplish? In addition to more work in language and literacy development, I have a modest goal: Stop the world wide overtesting movement, the drive to "test the world" (see http://edushyster.com/?p=3559), led by the Common Core in the US, a movement that has no foundation in research, bleeds educational systems of needed money, and profits only testing and computer companies; a perfect example of "take from the needy and give to the greedy."