Acquisition and Learning
What Every TESOL Professional Should Know
Copyright 2001 by Ashley Hastings and Brenda Murphy

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 acquired about 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.


Krashen, S. (1981). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. New York: Prentice Hall.
Krashen, S. (1985). The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. Torrance, CA: Laredo Publishing Co., Inc..
O'Grady, W., Archibald, J., Aronoff, M., Rees-Miller, J. (2001). Contemporary Linguistics. New York: St. Martin's.