The Natural Approach

I think it’s fair to say that both the Lexical Approach and CLIL have their roots in the Natural Approach. What the Natural Approach says is that for millennia, people have learned languages by communicating in real situations using just the target language; only in the last two centuries, with the development of public schools and printed textbooks, did this change to an approach in which learning a language became a relatively abstract way involving memorizing and applying the rules of grammar, with vocabulary used in a limited way to highlight the grammar, with plenty of support from the mother tongue. But many linguists would argue that grammatical rules are simply a way of making sense out of somewhat messy language by identifying patterns. It’s a great way of stretching your logical skills – hence the value placed on studying Latin – but a pretty rubbish way of learning language.

The Natural Approach is the name of a book published in the 1980s by Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell. Its central idea is that:

“To acquire the ability to communicate in another language, one must use that language in a communicative situation.”

(The Natural Approach page 16)

Underpinning Krashen’s description of the Natural Approach are five hypotheses, of which the first is the most important:

  • the input hypothesis
  • the acquisition-learning hypothesis
  • the monitor hypothesis
  • the3 natural order hypothesis
  • the affective filter hypothesis

The Input Hypothesis and Comprehensible Input

Comprehensible Input is central to the whole idea of the Natural Approach. Language students need to read and, most of all hear, the target language – and to get lots of it. But not any input. To be useful for the language learner, the input needs to be comprehensible. What this might means in practice is that the learner should understand 90% to 95% of the words in a text or speech; or that the input is on a topic the student is familiar with, perhaps in her mother tongue; or that there is plenty of visual support with the input, such as video or pictures.

It is thought that acquisition can take place only when people understand messages in the target language.

(The Natural Approach page 19)

Acquisition and Learning

To Krashen, these are two distinct processes. Acquisition is “picking up” a language: developing ability in it by using it to communicate. Learning is having a conscious knowledge of its rules. Krashen’s distinction has been criticized but it rightly emphasizes that it is quite possible for people to pick up a language without knowledge of the rules. In any case, Krashen also stresses the important role this learned knowledge has in checking if what we say is right – the Monitor Hypothesis. Krashen suggests that one reason why children seem to be better at languages is that they tend to acquire them rather than learn them.

Acquisition Learning
Similar to child first language acquisition Formal knowledge of language
“picking up” a language “knowing about” a language
subconscious conscious
implicit knowledge explicit knowledge
formal teaching does not help formal teaching helps

The Natural Order Hypothesis

This is based on research that suggests there is a predictable order to the acquisition of grammar, specifically those based on morphemes. According to Krashen, the order is:

  • -ing (progressive)
  • plural -s
  • copula (to be)
  • auxiliary verbs (progressive)
  • articles
  • irregular past tense
  • regular past tense
  • this person singular -s
  • possessive -‘s

Learning Objectives

Krashen suggests that a language sylabus should consist of communicative goals, rather than grammatical ones, by which I think he means such learning objectives as “to be able to talk about the different ways mountains are formed” or “to be able to order a meal in a restaurant.” This requires lexis (vocabulary glued together by grammar, or grammaticalized lexis as Michael Lewis calls it).

The Role of the Language Teacher

What, then, is the role of the language teacher in the Natural Approach. I think it’s fair to say that some of the anti-Krashen diatribe has come from language teachers worried about becoming obsolete, as well as academics who are suspicious of his non-academic style. The teachers, anywaym have a point. If language acquisition is about comprehensible input and communication, rather than explaining the present perfect, then teachers might be concerned. That is if teachers see their job as simply to transmit knowledge. But what a teacher in the Natural Method does is to act more as a guide from the side rather than a sage on the stage, directing students to useful input and facilitating communicative situations. And that requires real skill – as opposed to delivering prepackaged lesson plans based around textbooks bloated with fill in the gap exercises.

The Natural Approach and the Internet

Computers and the Internet now provide a variety of ways to make the Natural Approach a reality. Websites such as LingQ.com provide graded reading materials and audio recordings generated by native-speaking users. Other sites, such as Italki.com, offer opportunities to converse with native speakers.

Criticisms of the Natural Approach

The main criticism of the natural approach is that while comprehensible input is essential for language learning, it is not enough. Long also emphasised the need for interaction and Swain emphasised the need for comprehensible output.


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