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Professor Stephen Krashen has arguably had more of an impact in the field of modern language education than any other academic linguist.
His Input Hypothesis – a group of five hypotheses developed in the 1970s and 80s, argues that comprehensible input is the key component required for successful second language acquisition.
Language education in schools and universities has traditionally been based on the belief that practicing speaking, vocabulary memorisation, repetition drills and grammar rules are the keys to learning a second language.
According to Krashen, however, studying information about languages in the form of grammar rules and practicing speaking through repetition drills are of marginal importance. Instead we acquire languages when we understand messages through reading and listening to our target language.
If we follow his principles, our task as language learners is simple: seek out reading and listening material we find compelling and comprehensible, then consume enough of it until we’ve internalised the language. If we get enough comprehensible input appropriate to our level, our comprehension skills will consistently improve and our ability to speak the language will then gradually emerge.
The online language learning community is full of influencers and learners – myself included – who have been inspired by Krashen. The likes of Steve Kaufmann and Matt Vs Japan (who I interviewed for this podcast) are examples of what can be achieved when Krashen’s principles are applied successfully.
But Krashen is not without his critics and there are question marks over how applicable his ideas are to learning Mandarin. Can Mandarin pronunciation and tones be acquired through comprehensible input alone or is in necessary to learn rules, use rote memorisation and repetition drills to become proficient? And what about grammar? Can we acquire Mandarin to a high level without deliberately studying grammar rules?
In this episode I want to take a critical look at the input hypothesis. To do so I’ve invited two Mandarin learning experts, both of whom have appeared on this podcast before. Professor Karen Chung is a linguist with decades of experience working at National Taiwan University. Daniel Nalesnik is the founder of the leading flashcard website Hack Chinese. Together we explore the strengths and limitations of the input hypothesis in the context of learning Mandarin.
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