The Bummer about ‘Acquisition’ (Part 2)

In the last post, I lamented that the distinction between acquisition and learning that developed in 20th-century academia is prone not only to misunderstanding, but also to misrepresentation. In this post, I point out some deficiencies in the term acquisition itself and suggest another way of picturing the process.

Bummer 2: ‘(Second) language acquisition’ suggests the transfer of a commodity or substance, which is not really what happens.

On Episode 6 of Tea With BVP, Dr Daniela Busciglio, Assistant Professor of Italian and Second Language Acquisition at The University of Oklahoma, points out that ‘acquisition’ suggests the transfer of a commodity from outside the learner’s brain into the learner’s brain, which doesn’t accurately describe the process, and wonders if we ought to look for a more suitable term, such as ‘second language development.’ (Stephen Krashen, a guest on that episode, replies half-jokingly that development is “too clear”–you need to invent obscure terminology to keep your career going.)

I agree that the metaphor inherent in acquisition is misleading. Coming to know a language is less an act of obtaining than it is a process of becoming: through the interaction of the brain with the linguistic input it encounters, and through interaction with other users of the language, a person gradually transforms from being a person who does not know the language to being a person who does. Sure, linguistic elements that weren’t previously in the brain may come to be “stored” in the brain somehow, but storing the elements of a language isn’t the same as becoming competent in the language.

Metaphors are tricky.

Metaphors are tricky.

In general, I avoid making analogies to language learning from other domains, but I’ll go ahead and suggest that referring to the process of coming to know a language as “acquisition” makes about as much sense as talking about “health acquisition.” Health isn’t something out there that you obtain and ingest. Health is something you cultivate by maintaining habits that are likely to promote it and by taking things into your body and brain that are likely to improve it and not harm it. Some habits, foods, and messages tend to promote health, some tend to harm it, and some don’t really make much difference, even if it seems like they should or a lot of people think they do.

Language is different from health, of course, because language is “out there” in the sense that, besides being a mental faculty, it also has a life of its own (we can say, “English nouns used to be inflected for gender and case, but no longer are”–although this basically means “English speakers used to inflect nouns for gender and case, but no longer do”) and there are linguistic products–stories, songs, poems, ads, shopping lists–that we can consume. But imbibing the language as a whole or in the form of its products is not what we mean by (second) language acquisition. What we really mean, again, is “moving from being a person who isn’t competent in language X to being a person who is.”

As with health, a person’s language faculty becomes more robust by means of appropriate input and habits. The input is the linguistic products referred to in the previous paragraph: things other people say or write. The habits are whatever helps a learner (a) find suitable input and (b) consume it frequently and regularly. (With language, unlike with health, you can’t really get too much input!) Just as good health is a natural result of suitable input and habits, so too a robust Mental Representation of a language is a natural result of suitable input and habits. (It’s worth acknowledging that, in both cases, factors outside the person’s control or about which the person doesn’t know any better may get in the way.)

So, I recommend thinking of the term acquisition simply as a placeholder for the process of becoming competent in a language. If you do choose to let the basic, non-academic meaning of the word acquisition inform your learning or teaching practice, think of it as the obtaining of input–content in the target language–that is suitable, i.e., (a) understandable and (b) interesting enough to make you or your students want to keep consuming it.

Do you think of language learning as an act of obtaining or a process of becoming?

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  1. Justin,

    In your previous article you discussed what the real problem is. It is not the terms but the ignorance and dare I say laziness of some language teachers.

    “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.”

    If this is happening you are right, it is sad. PLC and the profession that is passionate about Modern/World/Classical Languages should engage in conversations about the history and filed of SLA theory. IMO we have enough terms to go around e.g fluency, proficiency, acquired competence, learned competence, implicit, explicit, learning, acquisition.

    Instead of developing more words and phrases professionals should be exposed to the implications of these existing terms. The days are over where we do not have access to the information, articles, YouTube videos, teaching materials, resources, etc.

    Malpractice in language teaching needs to come to an end!

  2. I love that you are talking about terminology and definitions! That’s where discussion has to start.
    In both posts you are concerned with aligning the non-academic meanings with the meanings given to the terms in the domain of SLA. But like you say, “acquisition” could be called “bippling” – the word is arbitrary, except that the chosen words already have non-SLA connotations.

    As you already know, Krashen’s distinction defines acquisition and learning differently than the rest of the SLA field, the rest using acquisition and learning interchangeably. Krashen’s distinction always felt more about context (classroom) and focus (meaning). If you think about the historical context, it was beneficial to separate traditional classroom learning from that of the development of an internal language system. The distinction thus afforded a way to give a much-deserved negative connotation to such traditional teaching practices, which is still relevant today. In any case, it’s not negative if the goal is knowledge ABOUT language and monitored language use.

    In post 2 you are channeling Larsen-Freeman! VanPatten could have answered that question on his show that calling it Second Language Development (SLD) is precisely what Larsen-Freeman supports and VanPatten clearly knows that because he edited the book (2015, 2nd Ed) with her chapter (on Complexity Theory) in which she stated that (you can read most of the chapter on Google Books). And check the abstract to the article (2015): “Saying what we mean: Making a case for ‘language acquisition’ to become ‘language development.’”

    I do think that if you characterize acquisition as an input-dependent construction of a mental representation (a la generative perspective), then “acquisition” is fitting. Larsen-Freeman is NOT defining it in that way, so already if you call it SLD then it will be associated with a paradigm, namely Complexity Theory (CT). She is against the computational model and information-processing metaphors, saying that terms such as “input” and “output” dehumanize the learner (2015), and CT is more connectionist than it is UG when it comes to the nature of language.

    I have only recently been reading about Larsen-Freeman’s use of CT as a framework for understanding the process of SLA, but it has intuitive appeal! . . . a focus on learner’s perceptions and experiences and language as meaning-making, a holistic approach that brings together the social, functional, and psycholinguistic frameworks, and the longitudinal case studies that analyze in depth the developmental stages in order to track individual differences, which have been shown to vary from the stages seen in group data.

    You have to learn/acquire a whole new lexicon to read about CT, but I see much of the terminology as an improvement (e.g. “affordances” instead of “input,” “innovations” instead of “errors”). I think this reframes SLA in ways that can improve how we talk about the process, e.g. dynamic, nonlinear, adaptive, emerging, emic, not target-centric, etc. But these concepts are not new, e.g. “accommodation” and “restructuring” are terms VanPatten uses in his input processing theory.

    With CT, you’re in for a whole bunch of new metaphors – camel’s back, butterfly effect, bird flock, climate, etc. You’ll love reading this, if you haven’t already: Larsen-Freeman. 2011. The emancipation of the language learner.

    • Hi, Eric, as someone who spent a lot of time in the linguistics department at the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, I may have some built-in affinity for Larsen-Freeman! I haven’t read “The Emancipation of the Language Learner,” but I’m eager to now. VanPatten may well have SLD’s connection with CT in mind when he says on teawithbvp Ep 6, “I don’t use the word ‘development,’ for a variety of reasons.”

      I’d like to make a little distinction about my purpose in writing this pair of posts: I’m not trying to bend academic and lay meanings of particular words into alignment. I’m trying to help lay learners and teachers remember that the academic terms (a) are used by convention and (b) do not mean what the words mean to most laypersons. Remembering these things can help autodidacts and classroom teachers avoid defensiveness about “learning” and avoid picturing second language acquisition as the amassing of some substance that is out there.

      Thanks again for bringing the knowledge!

  3. I’m curious to read Larsen-Freeman now too!
    I wonder how it squares with this:
    On the other hand, the complexity theory label made me think of this school of thought which seems to go in the opposite direction–this was the grandfather of my daughter’s best friend so I was lucky enough to have several conversations with him:

    • I’ve enjoyed reading Larsen-Freeman on CT and language development. Recommended for anyone interested in theories of SLA, especially alternatives to cognitive-heavy explanations.

      Re: Epstein’s Aeon article, I consider it an important reminder that most (all?) of the ways we talk about the brain are models and metaphors, and a worthwhile check on thinking of brain activity only in terms of computation. But he implies that that we should drop all metaphors to describe brain activity (because pursuing research framed [even if unconsciously] in terms of metaphors is a waste of money and historical time), which seems extreme and unlikely to happen, if not impossible–even his own emphasis on the brain as “organism” depends ultimately on a (Greek) metaphor.

      So, Epstein might emphasize that Larsen-Freeman’s application of CT to SLA is (as she acknowledges) quite metaphorical, though he might say that her emphasis on sensitivity and adaptability is a step up from cognitive-only models of SLA and from the “IP Metaphor” he decries.

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