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This lecture, like the others in this series, was given to students of English at the Université of Versailles St. Quentin, for a course in the Didactics of English, which I taught from 1993 to 2002.

It offers a simplified introductory account. The embedded links, most of which point to material off this site, are for readers who are looking for greater depth and complexity.

Didactics - 6 : Critique of Krashen II

The Natural Order Hypothesis

A : Recap:

We have seen that Krashen's first hypothesis - that there is a distinction between conscious learning, on the one hand, and unconscious acquisition on the other, and that the latter is far more effective in enabling people to use an L2 - can be criticized :

  • 1. It oversimplifies the cognitive processes of learning, and draws too rigid a distinction between acquisition and learning:
  • 2. It is based mainly on the observation of learners acquiring an L2 that is generally used in the surrounding environment - that is immigrants to the US learning English. In other situations one may expect classroom learning, of the conscious kind, to be important.
In looking at cognitive processing, we have considered the work of Anderson, who distinguishes three phases in the learning process
  • 1. the Cognitive Stage - learner receives instruction, or watches an expert, or studies the question on his own.
  • 2. The Associative Stage - two things occur :
  • a) errors in the declarative statements are detected and eliminated.
  • b) connections between the different elements of the skill are strengthened
  • 3. The Autonomous Stage - skill becomes virtually automatic and errors disappear. The skill can now be executed without attention - driving a car and having a conversation at the same time. With a complex skill, this stage takes a long time to reach.

Gagné suggests that the rules that the learner uses are not necessarily the traditional rules of the grammar class, but are rules that he constructs for himself through observation, interaction, and the construction of hypotheses. This idea leads us on to consider Krashen's second hypothesis - the natural order hypothesis.

B : The Natural Order Hypothesis:

Krashen makes several claims about what he calls the 'natural order'. Some of these are strong claims, with a high degree of falsifiability. Others are more general and of less interest. Let us have a look at the idea more closely.

  • The American psychologist, Roger Brown, who investigated the acquisition of a first language by young children, discovered that they assimilated a number of grammatical morphemes in a predictable sequence.
  • Grammatical morphemes are those like 'the', 'of', or 'is', and the 's' of the genitive, the plural, and the 3PS. At first, children tend to leave them out, using only the lexical morphemes to produce sentences such as :

'Here bed', or ''Not dada'.

When they do acquire them, they appear to do so in a specific order.

  • Krashen, using the research of colleagues Dulay & Burt, suggests that, just as there is a natural sequence in the way children pick up their own first language, with certain grammatical morphemes being acquired before others, so there is for second languages.

Average Order of Acquisition of Grammatical Morphemes


English as a Second Language (Children and Adults)

ING (progressive)


COPULA (to be)


AUXILIARY (progressive)

ARTICLE (a, the)




(NOTES: (from Krashen & Terrell)

  • 1. This order is derived from an analysis of empirical studies of second language acquisition in a 1981 study by Krashen. Most studies show significant correlations with the average order.
  • 2. No claims are made about ordering relations for morphemes in the same box.
  • 3. Many of the relationships posited here also hold for child first language.

Some of the morphemes have the same rank order as for first language acquisition, but some do not. In general the bound morphemes have the same relative order for first and second language acquisition (-ing, Plural, Ir. Past, Reg. Past, III Singular, and Possessive) while Copula and Auxiliary tend to be acquired relatively later in first language acquisition than in second language acquisition.) According to Krashen, this order is found only when the subjects use the L2 in light monitoring situations - thus we do not find it in students' answers to formal grammar test questions, when the 3rd person Singular, for example, is reproduced correctly at quite an early stage.

The studies by Krashen himself, and by Dulay and Burt have been criticized by a number of other observers.

  • To begin with, it is not clear how we decide whether a morpheme has been acquired or not - the fact that a learner uses a specific grammatical feature does not necessarily mean that he uses it in an appropriate fashion, or that he understands how it works. As Krashen himself recognizes, a learner may use the feature in one context and not in another.
  • Moreover, the studies carried out by Krashen's associates have all been cross-sectional - that is, they have studied different learners at different points in their career: other longitudinal studies, following the same learners through various stages of the learning process, have not always found a similar progression.
  • A more damning criticism is that, although the findings might indeed be true, they are not open to any theoretical interpretation - this is in large part because there is no evident linguistic relationship between the different items. Some of them are free morphemes, whilst some are bound. They pertain to different areas of grammar - the morphology of the main verb, the morphology of the noun, the auxiliary verb 'to be' - and there is no attempt to show how they may be related. They are thus divorced from the system of English grammar, and grammar is nothing if it is not systematic.
At the moment, we may say that there are strong reasons to believe that there is indeed some kind of an order in the acquisition of certain grammatical morphemes, but not of all.

There is perhaps a stronger case to be made out for the existence of 'developmental sequences'. This refers not to the fact that one morpheme comes before or after another, but that a certain rule is acquired gradually, that the learner makes certain predictable mistakes at each stage in the learning process, and that these mistakes follow a similar order whatever the mother tongue of the learner.

Let's see how the negation is put in place by learners of English as an L2. What we see here is that, like the child learning her mother tongue, the adult L2 learner will produce utterances that he has never heard from her teacher or from a native speaker. Instead, they build up their mastery of the negation through successively using a series of self-generated rules, many of which display a similar simplification and over-generalisation to that used by the child. Thus, first attempts at negation would be :

No very good.

No like it.

Then the learner moves on to place the negativizer inside the utterance :

I not want to.

He no can speak.

She don't come.

In a third phase, the learner attaches the negation to modal verbs, although without necessarily analysing the utterances :

I can't play this one.

I won't go.

Then in a final phase, negation follows fully English rules, although mistakes may occur in tense uses.

Individual learners may go through the phases more or less quickly, and some never reach the final phase at all. In this case, we often speak about 'fossilization' - for some reason or other, the learner makes no further progress. In fact, this may be seen as a perfectly rational judgement on the part of the learner, who decides that any further investment in perfecting his grasp of the L2 will not pay sufficient dividends in added communicative and social power.

C : Implications for teachers

We may gather from the above that L2 learning is similar to L1 learning in a number of ways, but is not exactly alike. In particular, whereas all normal L1 learners achieve fluency, the majority of L2 learners do not, even if they have lived in an L2 environment for a long time. The reasons for this are not always clear, but may, in part, be due to personality and attitudinal factors as much as to any intrinsic difficulty in language learning.

a) Unlike children learning their first language, adult and adolescent learners do not have an overwhelming need to learn an L2.
  • b) Adults and adolescents do not have the time to consecrate to language learning - they also need to learn other subjects - in school - to work and earn a living, and so on. Their concentration is more limited.
  • c) Adults and adolescents may have invested heavily in their first language, and regard it as being a part of their basic personality. To speak another language fluently would be to change their personality:

Teachers will need to take all of these possibilities into account. A student who is no longer progressing may very well have perfectly rational reasons for her failures. The teacher needs to make it worth the learner's while to continue learning.

Another consequence of the above is that learners are themselves implicated in constructing their language. They make their way to mastery through a number of intermediate stages. These stages, following Selinker, are referred to as 'interlanguage'. Interlanguage differs from one learner to another, and will show the following features :

  • - interference from the L1. The amount of interference will depend upon the similarity of the two languages, and upon the context within which the L2 is learned.
  • - developmental features intrinsic to the L2 - natural order and developmental sequences.
  • - avoidance and communicative strategies - the learner may avoid certain linguistic features with which he or she does not feel comfortable, and use circumlocutions in order to express the desired meanings.

The errors that the student makes are a natural part of the learning process. Krashen implies that there is very little that we can do other than encourage the learner to form his own hypotheses, and to continue along the 'natural pathway' to mastery - or at least to the level of master which satisfies him. However, other observers have noted that classroom teaching may help the learner go through each stage in the process rather more quickly, even if it cannot enable him to beat the system.

This implies that it can only be done through a rigorous identification of the present needs of the student - it is no good trying to get the learner to correct errors which are as yet beyond his competence. The teacher needs to work in concert with the learner to determine what features should be worked on, and to make the learner conscious of the hypotheses and strategies that he uses in communicative situations.

D : Conclusion

Krashen appears to be on stronger ground in his second hypothesis. However, his conclusions as to teaching strategies do not necessarily follow from his premises : formal learning, if directed to the specific problems that a learner is encountering, can benefit the learner and lead to a more rapid progress through the 'natural stages'.

On the other hand, we may conclude that Krashen's insistence that the normal 'lock-step', whole-class teaching of grammar is of little value is well-founded.  Traditional grammar teaching - that is, imposing the linguists' grammar on the learner whether or not he needs it - does not have any appreciable effect on L2 acquisition. A fruitful teaching strategy would be to help the student construct his or her own grammar, or rather to construct a series of intermediate grammars, gradually approaching full mastery.

(If you wish to comment or ask a question, please write to tmason@timothyjpmason.com)

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