Krashen's Monitor Theory on the Relation between Spontaneous and Guided Language Learning

Term Paper, 2005

15 Pages, Grade: 1




Spontaneous Language Learning

Guided Language Learning

Krashen’s monitor theory

Criticism of Krashen’s theory

Recent views on Spontaneous and Guided Language Acquisition




Stephen Krashen’s monitor theory tried to provide two explanations of how exactly a second language learner acquires or learns a second language. His theory, although developed around twenty years ago, had an undeniable influence on many linguists and teachers alike. However, there have also been many opponents to his hypotheses. By taking a closer look at Krashen’s theory one will realise that there are a variety of ambiguities and paradoxes involved. Other linguists have conducted studies that show evidence for a different relationship of the two ways of acquiring a second language.

First of all, this essay will provide definitions of the two ways in which a learner can acquire a new language, according to Krashen, which are spontaneous language acquisition and guided language acquisition or using Krashen’s terms acquisition and learning. I will go on trying to demonstrate just how many errors and inadequacies Krashen’s theory contains by providing a summary of Krashen’s monitor theory, containing all of Krashen’s ambiguous ideas. After having gained a general overview of Krashen’s monitor model, objections and criticisms to Krashen’s hypotheses by some of his harshest critics will follow.

In the very last part of this research, I will try to outline some more recent views on the relationship of spontaneous and guided language learning, based on research and studies conducted by other linguists. This will demonstrate that Krashen’s monitor model is not the ideal description of the way learners acquire or learn a second language.

Spontaneous Language Learning

Spontaneous language learning, as used in Klein’s text, has also been referred to by other linguists using different terms such as “natural” acquisition (Lightbrown and Spada, pp71-2). The spontaneous or natural process of language acquisition happens through everyday communication (Klein, 16) and social interaction. Spontaneous language acquisition generally occurs in a social environment in which the language is actually spoken as first language. In result the learner has a greater language-access, as he/she is surrounded by the language all day in many different situations (Lightbrown and Spada, pp71-2).

As the second language is acquired through communication, learners are rarely corrected i.e. the learner is not guided, therefore linguistic rules are often neglected. It mainly focuses on the ability to learn to express oneself verbally in order to be understood and to get the meaning across, rather than be grammatically correct. In order to acquire the new language correctly the learner has to expose himself to specific situations in which he is forced to communicate.

Communication might be difficult at the beginning, as the learner has to use his /her limited second language ability to participate (Lightbrown and Spada). Klein differentiates even further than Lightbrown and Spada and identifies two tasks with which the learner is faced in spontaneous second language acquisition: the communication task and the learning task. The communication task describes the learner’s usage of his/her range of words, grammar etc. in communication. The learning task describes the process of the learner’s language-approximation to the language that is to be acquired (Klein, 17).

Guided Language Learning

Guided language learning is, as Klein describes it: “The domestication of a natural process” (Klein, 19) i.e. the learning process is artificially created in e.g. a classroom setting, which, of course, works very differently to the spontaneous learning process outlined above. It is a “guided” leaning process in which importance is placed on correctness rather than merely getting the meaning across, as it tends to be the case in spontaneous interaction. Errors are usually corrected by a person, e.g. the teacher. Also as guided language learning tends to take place in a classroom setting, the time one is surrounded by the language is limited to a few hours. This hinders ones access to the language, as the learner is only exposed to material and topics that are used and discussed in class and has no access to real-life-situations outside of this setting. This results in the second language knowledge being limited to a specific range of vocabulary.

Even though teachers of second languages try to create spontaneous interaction between students in the classroom, it is often difficult for learners to communicate naturally outside of the classroom and use learned material to build new sentences (Corder, 49). Therefore, the input needed to acquire the language, the way it is used in a natural setting, seems to be even greater than it seems to be in the spontaneous language process.

Krashen’s monitor theory

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Stephen Krashen developed a theory which outlines the relationship between the two terms discussed above. Krashen has, however, used two different terms to describe the same ideas outlined above. He differentiates between language “acquisition” and language “learning”. The term “acquisition” corresponds with the term spontaneous language learning and “learning” corresponds with guided language learning[1]. His theory about their relationship is shown in a model known as the monitor model. The five hypotheses of his model are summarised below:

1.) The Acquisition vs. Learning Hypothesis: Acquisition happens subconsciously and is similar to the process of first language acquisition. It is based on the interaction with speakers of the language i.e. by communication with native speakers, where the grammatical correctness is secondarily to the content and meaning of the utterance. Learning, on the other hand, occurs consciously and importance is placed on the form i.e. an utterance is produced by using specific rules, which have been learned at some stage. It is “knowing about” or “formal knowledge” of a language (Krashen, 26) and cannot turn into acquisition (Krashen, 83)
2.) The natural order hypothesis: Acquiring rules of the second language follows a specific, “predictable” order, known as the natural order. Krashen’s natural order hypothesis merely suggests an order in acquisition not learning. When learning a second language in a guided environment, instructors should “reject grammatical sequencing in all cases where our goal is acquisition” (Krashen, 14)
3.) The monitor hypothesis: Monitoring refers to the process of self-correcting one’s utterance. To use the monitor the learner has to have 1. sufficient time to correct his/her utterance, 2. needs to focus on the form and 3. he/she needs to know the rules. In the acquisition process or spontaneous language, acquisition the learner might not be aware of the fact that monitoring takes place, as often it happens subconsciously but it helps the learning process to progress. In learning or guided language learning the process of self-correction occurs on the basis of learnt language rules, whereas in the acquisition process the learner does not follow explicit language rules to correct his/her utterance.
4.) The input hypothesis: in order to gain a greater range of language variety the learner has to be exposed to comprehensible input, which has to be a step beyond his/her current knowledge of the second language. Krashen has developed a formula expressing this idea: The learner’s knowledge of the second language is i. By using comprehensible input containing i + 1 the learner can move up to that new step i.e. the learner’s newly acquired knowledge would now be i + 1. This hypothesis relates to the acquisition process, rather than the learning process.
5.) The affective filter hypothesis: The feelings a language learner has about the language, which is to be learned play a big part in the learning process. If the learner has a negative attitude towards the language it is very likely that the acquisition process will be disturbed or even blocked, so that the language will never be properly acquired. The learner will basically “filter out” certain structures which will, as a result, not be acquired. On the other hand, if the learner has positive feelings towards the language the learning process would also be positively affected, so that learning would speed up and the language would probably be more accurately acquired. There are three affective variables involved in second language acquisition: These are anxiety, motivation and self-confidence. (Krashen, 1982)

Criticism of Krashen’s theory

Although Krashen developed his monitor model around 20 years ago it is still debated today. In spite of its popularity among some linguists, there has also been a lot of harsh criticism by others, such as Gregg, McLaughlan and White.

McLaughlan and Gregg’s criticism is mostly concerned with definitional inadequacies used in Krashen’s theory: “Krashen has not defined his terms with enough precision, the empirical basis of the theory is weak, and the theory is not clear in its predictions” (McLaughlan 1987, p.56) or as Gregg puts it (1984, p.94): “Each of Krashen's hypotheses is marked by serious flaws: undefinable or ill-defined terms, unmotivated constructs, lack of empirical content and thus of falsifiability, lack of explanatory power”.


[1] The terms “learning” and “acquisition” will be used interchangeably throughout this essay and only in the outline of Krashen’s monitor model I will refer to Krashen’s usage of the two terms as defined above.

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Krashen's Monitor Theory on the Relation between Spontaneous and Guided Language Learning
University of Frankfurt (Main)
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krashen, monitor, theory, relation, spontaneous, guided, language, learning
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Anja Benthin (Author), 2005, Krashen's Monitor Theory on the Relation between Spontaneous and Guided Language Learning, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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