The Bummer about ‘Acquisition’ (Part 1)

I love it. I aim for it. I teach for it. I travel all over presenting about it. It pervades this website. If I had a gerbil, this would be its name. But it also carries two bits of baggage that I wish could be lost in one of those airline warehouses where duffels go to die.

I’m talking about the third word in “Second Language Acquisition” (SLA), the formal term for both the study and the process of how people go from not knowing a particular language to knowing it. One bummer has to do with the implications of the word itself, which I’ll address in the next post. The other bummer has to do with the opposition of acquisition to learning popularized by Dr Stephen Krashen’s Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis, which I’ll address here.

Bummer 1: The Acquisition-Learning distinction can be used to misconstrue the position of people who teach for acquisition.

Eavesdropping on Dr Krashen at NTPRS 2015

Eavesdropping on Dr Krashen at NTPRS 2015

In the Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis, acquisition refers to the effortless, subconscious process by which people “pick up a language,” while learning refers to the intentional commitment to memory of information about a language. In this context, learning may be an enjoyable endeavor for its own sake, but does not translate into acquisition. (This acquisition-learning distinction is not universally acknowledged or understood, which is why the term learning often appears on this site even to refer to the automatic process of acquiring a language. Cf. the opening of a popular introductory textbook: “[Second language acquisition] is the study of how languages are learned.”* Note, too, that Krashen is not the originator of the distinction, though he is its best-known articulator in SLA–see Eric’s superb comment below.)

The problem here isn’t so much with the term ‘acquisition’ as with the fact that ‘learning’ seems to be its opposite. This leads to frequent misunderstanding and even to conscious misconstruing. I have seen, both in email groups for teachers and on Twitter, statements along the lines of “Why would any teachers be anti-learning?” “What’s the problem with learning?” “I, for one, will keep helping my students learn. I’m a teacher, after all.” I have even seen the pursuit of acquisition as opposed to learning accused of being part of a larger trend toward anti-intellectualism.

No one who teaches for acquisition is against people’s learning stuff. It’s just that the two processes are worth distinguishing from each other, and the word ‘acquisition’ came to be used for one and ‘learning’ for the other. Neither term inherently means what it is defined as in SLA. In fact, the definitions could be switched and still make the same point: it wouldn’t sound strange to say “acquisition refers to consciously obtaining information about a language; learning refers to subconsciously internalizing a language.” In this case, we’d be celebrating language learning and pointing out that acquisition doesn’t cut it.

Every once in a while, I see what might be considered the opposite problem: a teacher whose practices take seriously the acquisition-learning distinction and promote what Krashen calls acquisition, but who happens not to know of or consistently use the term acquisition, is criticized by a teacher who is highly committed to the term. The criticized teacher is blindsided by the criticism, because she was simply using the face-value, lay definition of learning, which she has every right to do. It’s sad when this happens, because it unnecessarily distracts from the actual conversation, or, worse, shuts it down. (And, in fact, the criticizer is probably not using the face-value, lay definition of acquisition–see next post.)

Personally, I wish Krashen had introduced neutral terms such as ‘X-ing and Y-ing,’ or ‘flarping and bippling,’ and simply defined one as referring to one process and the other as referring to the other process. This would have been at least as clear, and probably more fun.

While I’m bummed, as a learner, teacher, parent, and human, that the term ‘learning’ has acquired(!) even a bit of a negative connotation, I know academic terminology is conventional, and I’m not calling for new terminology. I’m not about to start a revolution. I’ll keep seeking to understand and explain the differences between what Krashen and others mean by acquisition and what they mean by learning. And I hope that, regardless of the terminology involved, teachers and researchers can continue to improve not only how they talk about language, acquisition, and learning, but also how they talk to and about each other.


*Gass, Susan M. and Larry Selinker, Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course, p. 1, italics added.

Posted in Learning, Teaching and tagged , , , .


  1. Great points Justin! I know you will have more to say in part 2. For the points you bring up, I have shifted professional discussions on this topic to be about “RESULTS of student learning.” This is what MOST teachers, students, and communities care about. What are the results after 180 days together?!?!

    If we focus on the students and what they can really do, the conflict between pedagogical principles takes a back seat. The reality is, “learning” and “acquisition” paradigms yield very different outcomes.

    I an fascinated by Latin classrooms. If we look strictly at Latin learning environments and Latin acquisition environments I wonder what the REAL results yield? I hypothesize that one group can communicate and comprehend (in) Latin much better than the other. I hypothesize that one approach has information that “stays” with students much longer and richer than the other.

    Thanks for writing on this topic!

    Mike Coxon

    • Hi, Mike, great to hear from you. I love your framing the conversation in terms of results. As you know, it doesn’t solve all of the problem–some teachers and assessments value, e.g., accuracy over communication as a result, while others value communication over accuracy, but the focus on results does help teachers and other parties think about these values more carefully and more openly.

      The question about desired and actual results in Latin courses is a big one these days–I actually have an article that deals with that question scheduled to come out next month–I’ll let you know when it does!

  2. Well said Justin. Clear commentary on a confusing topic.

    Terminology aside, the distinction that Krashen made between the two processes has proven to be perhaps the most crucial revelation of my teaching career. It fundamentally shifted my focus of instruction (for lack of a better word) from “think hard about this” to “know what I’m saying?”

    Perhaps one day when people are talking about learning languages, their mind will not confuse learning linguistics with learning how to interpersonally communicate in another language.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Jim. For me, too, recognizing the difference between learning about a language and actually becoming a person who can communicate in that language has been central. I plan to say a bit about this in Part 2. I really like both the phrasing and the significance of your shift “think hard about this” to “know what I’m saying?”!

  3. Krashen was not the originator of the acquisition/learning distinction, though he is to be credited for its promotion and widespread use.

    Corder, 1967, p. 163:
    “The usefulness of the distinction between acquisition and learning has been emphasised by Lambert (1966) and the possibility that the latter may benefit from a study of the former has been suggested by Caroll (1966).”

    Krashen said to me:
    “When I started using the terms I thought I was using terms already in use. I knew that Wallace Lambert used it, and some others did as well – (vague memories, this was a long time ago).”

    Read VanPatten, 1994 in Consciousness in SLA for a clarification of the distinction in terms of process, product, context, and purpose (focus).

    In different disciplines, acquisition and learning are used with discipline-specific meanings, e.g. you can talk about acquiring the skill of throwing a baseball. So in SLA, the process of “acquisition” is how we come to know any language. Some in SLA think it is a “special” process (language-specific mechanisms and processes, e.g. innatists) and rightfully deserves to be distinguished from the “learning” of other things. Others who think it’s a process like the learning of anything (e.g. skill acquisition theory or emergentism), would say that “acquisition” is the learning of language.

    It makes sense to me that the process (comprehending input), product (acquired competence – UG), context (informal, non-classroom aspects), and purpose (focus on meaning) of coming to know an L1 be called “acquisition.” Then, we need a different term for what would be a different process (memorizing and manipulating), product (learned competence), context (formal), and purpose (focus on form). “Learning” is what the latter would be called in other subject matters. And since Krashen and others believe that the process, product, context, and purpose in knowing an L1 is the same as L2 (so-called “identity hypothesis”), then they both needed to be called “acquisition” and be distinct from what traditionally happens in classrooms.

    Today, the terms explicit and implicit learning (process) and explicit and implicit knowledge (product) are just as hotly debated. One problem with the “acquisition/learning” distinction as a “science” is that it is so far impossible (and dependent on interpretation) whether language performance is based on an acquired system or a learned system. But the distinction resonates with teachers on an intuitive level who are not thinking like scientists (who need clear definitions and ways of measuring constructs). And just because we don’t have a way yet to determine the knowledge source, doesn’t mean it won’t someday be possible. This hasn’t stopped Universal Grammar theorists from saying that L1 language performance is based on an unconscious language system. Furthermore, the distinction between acquisition and learning makes predictions, e.g. more CI = more fluency, that can be tested.

    Every SLA research paradigm has a different theory of acquisition – process, product, context, and purpose – and therefore has a different meaning for the term “acquisition.” In other words, each theory means something different when they say “acquisition” and “learning” and you always have to be clear and define what you mean by your terms. This is true with or without the acquisition/learning distinction hypothesis.

    So, I do not have a problem with Krashen’s terminology. The problem is often ignorance – ignorance of SLA leads to misunderstanding. The solution as you say in your concluding paragraph is to educate more in SLA and to improve how we talk with each other (e.g. respectful of the differences in the levels of SLA education).

    • Dear Eric, Thanks both for the background about pre-Krashen use of the acquisition-learning distinction and for the general comments about issues that inform or are at stake in different theories. I’ve added a note to the original post referring readers to your excellent contribution.

      I understand the point you’re making in the paragraph beginning with “It makes sense to me…”–basically, that Krashen’s and others’ use of “acquisition” and “learning” was pre-determined by the uses of these terms in (first) language acquisition and in non-language learning, respectively. But, regardless of the origins of the terms “acquisition” and “learning,” in language the distinction gives rise to a particular set of lamentable misunderstandings and divisions.

      In just about every other pursuit of improvement, whether academic or not, something people call “learning” is at least a major goal and perhaps the single greatest goal, and a person’s having “learned a lot” or even “learned something important” would be at least among the best possible outcomes. So when people perceive even a hint of “learning” taking a back seat in a language course, it’s no surprise when they either (a) react negatively out of misunderstanding/ignorance of the terminology of the field, or (b) take the easy opportunity to set up a straw man. The negative reaction would be less likely, and the straw-man-building less easy, if the term involved were not a pretty much universally positive one such as “learning.” If the term were “kvjnsklfing,” ignorance of terminology would still be a problem. But ignorance of terminology wouldn’t result in gut reactions against someone’s saying, “activity X should be used sparingly because it leads only to kvjnsklfing,” or critics quipping, “Since when is kvjnsklfing a bad thing?” without explanation.

      Since I’m not calling for alternative terminology and, even if I were, the terminology is pretty well established, my lament may be about as useful as lamenting that earthquakes happen. But I still lament that earthquakes happen.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting. I always benefit from your knowledge of the literature and your insight into the intersection of theory and practice.

  4. We’re talking about semantics, and you used a good phrase in your reply to Jim Tripp, above:

    ” . . . the difference between learning about a language and actually becoming a person who can communicate in that language . . . .”

    I find that a simple way to remind myself and explain to . . . acquirers . . . is to think or say “learn about vs learn (to use).”

  5. to put it in linguist’s terms: learning is greek, acquisition is hebraic ha!

    greek/hellenist/western is static, separated, moderate, harmonious, knowing, linear, and has single-point perspectives.

    hebraic is dynamic, organic, vigorous, passionate, doing, cyclical, encompassing multiple perspectives.


  6. I have taken to calling the not-internalizing process “learning ABOUT” the language. I think it makes the distinction easier to grasp and seems to help. Plus, somehow it seems to take a little of the pejorative sting out of the juxtaposition. Of course I would much prefer to use “flarping” and “bippling”… but I can never remember which is which! 🙂

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