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In order to understand many fundamental issues in language teaching, it is

essential to understand the acquisition/learning dichotomy. This distinction is

pivotal to a great deal of work in second language acquisition research and
pedagogy. When used in professional discourse in our
field, acquisition and learning are technical terms that are to be used with
precise meanings. General-purpose dictionaries are of little value when
discussing the meanings of technical terms, which correspond to concepts that
are beyond the ken of the average lay person. These terms are part of the
intellectual tool-kit of professionals; one of the essential functions of professional
education is to introduce these terms, and the educated professional is expected
to know how to use them

While Stephen Krashen (e.g., 1981, 1985) has been a leading voice in the
exploration of acquisition/learning, the distinction has much deeper roots.
Linguists have been aware for years that native speakers do not learn their
languages in the same way as other subjects. O'Grady et al. (2001, p.10) state:
Knowledge of a grammar differs in important ways from knowledge of arithmetic, traffic rules, and
other subjects that are taught explicitly at home or in school: it is largely subconscious and not
accessible to introspection....
The authors then discuss the rules for pronouncing the regular English past tense
ending, and conclude:
If you are a native speaker of English, you acquired the grammatical subsystem regulating this aspect
of speech when you were a child and it now exists subconsciously in your mind....(ibid.)

Indeed, it is easy to find examples of subconscious linguistic knowledge that is

shared by all native speakers but that is never learned or taught outside of
linguistics courses. In pronunciation, we can cite the existence of aspirated and
unaspirated allophones of the voiceless stops; the dental allophones of alveolar
consonants preceding dental fricatives; the principles of the stress cycle; and
many others.

In syntax, we have movable and immovable particles (for example, "He looked
up the number. He looked up the chimney. He looked the number up." but
not *"He looked the chimney up.") Adverb placement has many complexities
that we handle subconsciously: "He walked slowly down the street. He was
frequently late. (where the adverb follows the verb) but not *"He drank
quickly the coffee."

Parents and teachers, for the most part, have no conscious awareness of these
phonological and syntactic facts, and could not teach them if they wanted to.
Most ordinary native speakers are unaware of these facts. Without careful study
and introspection, we are unable to say what it is that we know about our
language; and we are completely unable to say when or how we "learned" such
information. Knowledge that is subconscious, that has never been taught or
learned, is said to have been acquired

On the other hand, there are many types of knowledge that are always learned,
never acquired. We can learn that the moon is much closer to us than the sun;
that Julius Caesar invaded Britain; that dinosaurs once roamed the earth. Such
knowledge is always taught and learned consciously; people are able to say what
it is that they know. We call this learned knowledge.

Note that much of our learned knowledge enters our minds as verbal
information. Someone tells us that "the moon is closer than the sun"; we
comprehend this information and eventually store it in long-term memory. What
we have consciously learned is the content of the verbal expression; and we
could not learn in this way without having acquired a language beforehand. By
contrast, the knowledge we have acquiredabout our language was not verbalized
for us by anyone. No one tells their children about adverb placement. Rather,
children "pick up" the principles of adverb placement subconsciously, by being
exposed to many sentences containing adverbs in the proper positions. Thus,
language acquisition is the internalization of linguistic forms that are
exemplified, but not overtly discussed; while learning is the internalization of
linguistic content that is discussed.

Of course, sometimes attempts are made to teach the rules of a language, and
students are expected to learn them. This is the case in many ESL courses.
However, the rules are often inaccurate. For example, while many textbooks
teach that "pronouns replace nouns," the fact is that pronouns replace noun
phrases, not nouns. (You can easily prove this to your own satisfaction by taking
a sentence like "The clever woman solved the challenging problem." and
putting pronouns in the place of the nouns woman and problem. It doesn't work,
does it? Now replace the noun phrases "the clever woman" and "the
challenging problem" with pronouns, and everything is fine.) Fortunately, even
if such rules are learned, most students end up using pronouns correctly,
indicating that the acquired system is fairly immune to infection. The learned rule
may be recited on demand, but the acquired rule is the one that is actually used in
language performance.

It is safe to say that the majority of serious researchers and thinkers in this field
accept the acquisition/learning distinction as fundamental, although they may
view the distinction in different ways. Certainly, some of the best minds in our
field have devoted years of study to this dichotomy.

The distinction has obvious pedagogical implications. Learning requires the

explicit, conscious introduction of information; acquisition requires the creation
of situations that allow knowledge to be internalized subconsciously. Whole
approaches have been built on these concepts; we cannot understand the
approaches without understanding the concepts.

There are many unsettled questions in second language theory and pedagogy that
involve these two terms and the concepts they represent. Can learned
knowledge become acquired knowledge, through practice, repetition, etc.? Are
learned rules only useful for monitoring, as Krashen maintains? Are different
parts of the brain involved in language learning and language acquisition? Does
the ability to acquire language atrophy with age? Are some individuals better at
acquisition and others at learning?

These are important questions. We cannot afford to be dogmatic in our attempts

to answer them, and we must keep open minds with respect to the true
relationship between acquisition and learning in second language pedagogy. But
no one who wishes to be regarded as an educated TESOL professional can be
ignorant of the dichotomy. And, in view of the overwhelming body of evidence
and argumentation in favor of this distinction, those who argue that acquisition
and learning are not really distinct need to make a strong case if they wish to be
taken seriously.