Table of contents
Professor Stephen Krashen is one of the most respected researchers in the field of linguistics. He is best known for his five hypotheses related to language learning.
If the word ‘linguistics’ sounds scary, don’t worry! Professor Krashen’s work is very practical and easy to understand.
Most English teachers know his work and use his concepts in their teaching. Here, I would like to take one of these concepts and put it in the hands of independent learners!
Krashen’s Five Ideas about Language Learning
For an overview, let’s look at some of Professor Krashen’s five ideas.
He considers language learning and language acquisition to be two different things. He says that you learn language when you study it and learn the rules, but you can acquire language outside of the classroom (like how a baby acquires its first language).
He also claims that you will acquire language faster from content that is fun or interesting.
As an example, I have often seen my students struggling to read a newspaper article that they picked at random on a topic that they have no interest in.
I always recommend that they ditch the article and choose something fun instead. It could be an article on football or fashion - whatever the student is interested in.
Professor Krashen claims that language acquisition can be affected by our emotions. Hence, a teacher must make the classroom environment as stress-free as possible.
Many learners face issues with self-confidence, anxiety or motivation. These need to be addressed before a person can acquire language effectively.
These are logical, practical, common-sense ideas that can help teachers and learners.
My focus today, though, is Professor Krashen’s Monitor Hypothesis.
What exactly is the monitor hypothesis?
Let’s imagine that you take all of the rules that you have learned about English and call them ‘the monitor’.
These include spelling rules, pronunciation rules and grammar rules. They also include rules on usage and formality, such as what to write when you sign a letter or when to say ‘please’.
Now, let’s imagine that you take all the words and phrases that you have acquired and call them your ‘acquired language’. Your acquired language could include language you acquired from school, from watching TV, from listening to podcasts or from anywhere else.
When you speak freely in a conversation, you use the words and phrases from your acquired language.
But, just before speaking, you use ‘the monitor’ to review what you are going to say.
And, just after speaking, you use ‘the monitor’ once again to check that what you just said was correct.
Do you use ‘the monitor’?
Reading the description of the monitor hypothesis, you were probably wondering… “Do I do that?”
You probably don’t do it in your first language because the rules of the language have become internalised (so natural that you need not think about them).
How much you monitor and self-correct yourself in English depends upon what kind of learner you are.
But before we look at that, let’s look at the monitor hypothesis from the viewpoint of its critics.
Criticism of the monitor hypothesis
You may have noticed that we are talking about the monitor hypothesis and not the monitor theory.
Confusingly, in everyday English, a theory is an unproven idea we have about something. While in science, a theory is an idea which is tested and proven to be true!
So when a TV detective says that he has a theory about who the murderer is, he means he can’t prove it yet.
But when a scientist talks about a theory (like the theory of gravity), he means that it has been tested and found to work.
Professor Krashen originally talked about the monitor theory. However, he changed the name to monitor hypothesis when it was challenged by other linguists. (A hypothesis is an unproven theory.)
Does this mean that the monitor hypothesis is not true or of no value to us? No! Linguists and other scientists argue over their theories all the time!
As a teacher (and language learner), I personally find the monitor hypothesis to be a useful tool to help you speak more fluently and accurately.
Let me explain why.
The battle between fluency and accuracy
Fluency is the ability to speak freely without hesitation. Accuracy is the ability to speak without making mistakes. For a language learner, it is difficult to do both!
I have noticed that some of my students speak very quickly without seeming to care whether they make a mistake or not.
In fact, they even make mistakes with basic grammar, such as the past tense. Or they make a mistake in something we just learned ten minutes ago!
These students might be fluent, but not accurate.
Other students have the opposite issue. They speak very slowly and with a lot of hesitation because they are anxious about making a mistake. In fact, if they are not sure if the grammar is correct, they may not say the sentence at all!
These learners might be accurate but they are probably not fluent. I have to admit that I am in this category myself when speaking a foreign language!
So we can say that there is a battle between fluency and accuracy. What we need to do is to find a balance between the two things.
We can sacrifice a little fluency to improve accuracy or we can sacrifice a little accuracy to gain fluency.
The monitor hypothesis can help us to do this.
Practical application of the monitor hypothesis
My first suggestion is to think about what kind of English speaker you are.
If you speak fluently, but make a lot of mistakes, then you need to focus on accuracy.
Some learners don’t like grammar. Some feel that it is unimportant. This is absolutely not true. Learning all the various English tenses, for example, allows you to express yourself more precisely.
If you ever have a job where you need to write in English, good grammar suddenly will become much more important. And since English is being used more and more widely, there is a strong chance you will need to write in English in the future for your work.
Some learners use a ‘listen and repeat’ method when speaking. That is, they repeat pieces of language that they have acquired without ever thinking about the rules. Again, this kind of learner will make a lot of mistakes.
The solution is actually fairly easy, but requires a major change in your behaviour.
The first step is to speak just a little bit slower. You can think much faster than you can speak, so a small reduction in speed gives you a lot more thinking time.
Once you do this, you will have time to think about what you want to say before you say it. In particular, think about your weak areas, e.g. verb tenses or parts of speech.
Remember that the ‘monitor’ also works after you say something. If you find that you have just made a mistake, correct yourself.
Self-correction is a very powerful tool and can really help improve your accuracy over time.
You may face a situation where you say something, then wonder whether it is correct or not. For example, you say “proved” and then wonder whether you should have said “proven”*.
In this case, make a mental note and then Google it later. To understand the explanation, you may have to learn some new grammar words or rules. If so, good! This is independent learning.
Let’s look at the other kind of English learner. This person speaks very slowly and with a lot of hesitation because they are afraid to make a mistake.
The advice for this kind of learner is simple: you need to get over your fear of making mistakes.
What you are doing is called ‘over-monitoring’ and it is preventing you from speaking fluently.
Yes, it’s not easy to fix because it involves changing habits and behaviour, but you can do it.
For example, you could try speaking just a little bit faster and worrying a little bit less about mistakes. Take a small step at a time to achieve big changes in the long run.
Remember, most people speaking English around the world speak it as a second language. If you can read and understand this article, your English is better than most other people’s!
What if you get “stuck” and you just can’t think of the correct way to say something?
Remember, even native speakers forget words sometimes!
But if you get stuck on a grammar rule, remember you can always take time to Google it later.
Finding the balance
To conclude, you need to find balance when you speak.
You shouldn’t “under-monitor” and ignore all those grammar rules that you learned at school.
Neither should you “over-monitor” and prevent yourself from speaking fluently.
Take the middle path and eventually you will be able to speak both fluently and accurately.