By Marc L. Nash

What is the Input Hypothesis?
The Input Hypothesis is defined as understanding language that contains structures a bit beyond our current level of competence.

“Once, in the throes of the audiolingual revolution, we 'knew the truth.' Today, I am working with only a set of working hypotheses for myself as a foreign language teacher" (Strasheim, 42).

For many years, it seemed that the language teaching profession was engaged in a series of "revolutions," most of which had their origins in an attempt to reach some consensus about the best or "true way" to teach a foreign language. One of the newest revolutionary movements to influence foreign education in the last decade is Stephen Krashen's Input Hypothesis. This hypothesis forms the central part of an overall theory of second language acquisition that consists of five complex hypotheses, together forming the Monitor Theory (Hadley, 50). I will attempt to define the Input Hypothesis over the other four because it "is the heart of the theory and answers what is perhaps the most important question in our field, and gives an answer that has a potential impact on all areas of language teaching " (Krashen, 20).

The Input Hypothesis claims that humans acquire language in only one way--by understanding messages, that is, by receiving "comprehensible input." If acquisition is the core of this theory, the crucial question then becomes: How do we acquire? According to the hypothesis, we move from one stage of understanding to another. More specifically, we acquire a new rule by understanding messages that contain this new rule. We move from stage "i", the present level of the understood message or "current competence" (Krashen, 21), to the next level, giving us the formula "i+1." From now on "i+1", "comprehensible input" and the Input Hypothesis (IH) mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably for the purpose of this paper.

Krashen theorizes that we acquire through "comprehensible input" (input a bit beyond our current level of understanding), by listening or reading for meaning. This is done with the aid of an extra linguistic context, knowledge of the world, and our previous language competence. The Input Hypothesis explains why pictures, gestures, "foreign language talk" (same as mother and baby talk), realia (illustrations, gestures, pictures, etc...), and careful preparation are so valuable to the beginning language teacher and student. They provide context and background information that help make input comprehensible beyond the student's current level of understanding (i+1).

Many foreign educational classes teach grammatical structures, make students memorize these structures through practice and drill, with the expectation that fluency will develop. The IH claims the opposite: "It goes for meaning first, and as a result, we acquire structure!" (Krashen, 21) Speaking does not cause language acquisition; language acquisition "emerges" on its own as a result of obtaining comprehensible input (i+1). Listening

Listening to the language (radio, TV, natives, teacher, etc...) helps a great deal if it is comprehensible. Speaking helps indirectly: if you speak, someone will answer and will give you a chance to listen. This hypothesis explains why children often go through a silent period before they begin to speak the language. During the silent period (listening to i+1), children are building competence in the second language. Another important part of the IH is that i + 1, when delivered in sufficient quality and quantity, automatically contains all the appropriate structures for the acquirer--the teacher does not need to program or explain grammar since it is being acquired inductively.

The Input Hypothesis claims that deliberate attempts of the teacher to force students to speak before they are ready "may even be harmful" (Krashen, 22). Early speech, similar to baby talk, will come when the student feels ready; this phase of readiness comes at different times for different people. Teachers need to be aware that early speech will not and cannot be grammatically accurate. Accuracy will emerge automatically as the students acquire, hear and understand more comprehensible input.

This theory does not predict that language classes are a waste of time. On the contrary, they can be more useful than simply going to the country where the language is spoken. If beginners "go to the country," they will encounter only noise, or incomprehensible input. A well taught language class can give beginners a concentrated dose of "comprehensible input" right from the start. The goal of the class is to put students in a position to understand the language of the "outside" world, to make them "intermediates." The hypothesis suggests the classroom is the best place for the beginners; intermediates are better off traveling to the country because they can be provided with comprehensible input (i+l) all day long.

Krashen's Input Hypothesis along with the Monitor theory (the other four minor hypotheses), have certain implications for classroom practice. The main premise of these implications is that "it is possible for students in a classroom situation to learn to communicate in a second language" (Terrell, 325). From this statement, it seems that the goal of the "Natural Approach," the latest methodology of the last decade based on Krashen's theory of second language acquisition, is set at an "intermediate" level (survival in the host country). For example: to put students in a position to converse with cooperative native speaker about everyday topics.

To accomplish this, Terrel proposed that the entire class period be devoted to communication activities. If communication is more important than form in beginning and intermediate levels of instruction, then most, if not all, classroom activities should be designed to evoke communication. Explanation and practice with language forms should be done outside the classroom. "This outside work must be carefully planned and highly structured"(Terrell, 330). Krashen and Terrell agree that correction of speech errors is not necessary or even helpful in language acquisition. Correction is negative and "may even be harmful" (Krashen) in terms of motivation, attitude, embarrassment, and the like, even when done with the best intentions and situations.

The guidelines for classroom practice in the "Natural Approach" promote that initial classroom instruction involve listening comprehension activities. This, of course, is consistent

consistent with Krashen's "silent period" and "comprehensible input." Simplified speech by the teacher or "foreigner talk" is used. Since the classroom has turned into a "community-like" environment, the teacher has to follow certain characteristics to be understood since "Natural Approach" does not recommend native tongue be used in the classroom: slower rate of speech, loud, clear, longer pauses, the use of realia to define new words or concepts, a simplified syntax and redundancy and the use of yes/no questions, tag questions, forced choice (either/or) questions, and questions with a sample answer provided.

The method based on Krashen's Input Hypothesis requires that the teacher provide students with the opportunity to acquire language rather than to force them to learn it. Krashen argues affective rather than cognitive factors are primary in language instruction, and must be followed to be consistent with his theory. The "community-like" classroom needs to be free of stress, anxiety, and have a high motivation filter. The requirements for optimal input are that it must be comprehensible, interesting, relevant, and functional; in other words, real language for real situations.

The functional activities (optimal input) in the "Natural Approach classes are highly organized. The syllabus, the list of topics, will vary according to student interest and can even be negotiated; according to the theory, input need only be comprehensible and interesting. A foreign language syllabus in the Natural Approach for beginners consists of games, mini-dialogues, recreational and leisure activities based on what natives do to survive in their society. Part of an example copy of Terrell's syllabus for a first semester Spanish class is provided here to illustrate the realities of the Natural Approach (Krashen and Terrell, 67-70).

There are quite a few elements of the proficiency-oriented classroom in the illustration provided on the next page. It reminds us that the ultimate goal behind the Natural Approach methodology, based on Krashen's Input Hypothesis, is survival-level communication in a host community where the language is spoken. The students learn language in context in personalized activities and in an affective atmosphere.

Handley warns that the Input Hypothesis (i+1) is not without its critics. Some challengers of Krashen's theory, experts in the field of second language acquisition and learning like Munsell, Carr, Green, and McLaughlin question the lack of corrective feedback during classroom practice, and that the comprehensible Input Hypothesis is untestable and is not clearly defined. The Input Hypothesis also assumes that natives will be cooperative and willing to carry these simplified speeches with beginners. They also object that he equates child language acquisition to second language learning in stating that children and teens/adults approach language the same way when in fact they do not. In acquiring their native tongue children over-generalize the rules of the language and adults should not correct them because their brains are in a state of plasticity, not susceptible to correction. Teens/adults, however, should be corrected lest their mistakes become habitual. Handley concludes that the Monitor Theory about language has touched a responsive chord in many practitioners, especially the comprehensible Input Hypothesis, but its popularity does not mean its critics should not be considered seriously.

Strasheim sees the "Natural Approach" method as another of the "evangelistic movements that suddenly emerges, captures the attention of many foreign language teachers, cause an upheaval in methods and materials, and then--just as suddenly--fade from view" leaving those who jumped on the "bandwagon" on the lookout for the next revolutionary movement.

TABLE 1.1   A Natural Approach Syllabus Example

Preliminary Unit: Learning to Understand

2.Description of students6.Colors
3.Family7.Objects in the classroom
  1. Greetings
  2. Classroom commands

I. Students in the classroom

  1. Personal identification (name, address, telephone numbers, age, sex, nationality, date of birth, marital status)
  2. Description of school environment (identification, description and location of people and objects in the classroom, description and location of building)
  3. Classes (subjects/courses)
  4. Telling time

II. Recreational and leisure activities

1.Favorite activities5.Holidays
2.Sports and games6.Parties and celebrations
3.Climate/weather and seasons7.Hobbies and abilities
4.Seasonal activities8.Cultural and artistic interests

III. Family, friends and daily activities (present and reflexive verbs)

1.Family and relatives4.Holiday and vacations
2.Physical states and emotions5.Pets
3.Daily activities or routine
  1. Introductions and meeting people
  2. Visiting relatives and friends

IV. Plans, obligations and careers

1.Immediate future plans5.Careers and professions
2.General future activities6.Place of work and work activities
3.Obligations7.Salary and money
4.Hopes and desires
  1. Job interview
  2. Talking on the job

V. Residence

1.Place of residence4.Activities at home
2.Rooms of a house5.Household items
3.Furniture and household items6.Amenities
  1. Looking for a place to live
  2. Moving

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