Krashen Versus Vygotsky

Many Second Language Theorists have equated Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Theory (I+1) with Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development. “.  Dunn and Lantolf contest this identification and maintain that the theories are not only not “unrelatable, but also… rooted in incommensurable discourses” (p. 411).  Incommensurable, in their use, means having virtually nothing in common, being based on differing constructs or worldviews.  What is proposed here, however, is that Dunn and Lantolf are mistaken, since they are looking at these theories from a perspective that assumes these concepts are working at the same level, whereas they are reflections of each other, the one (I+1) being a lower level (micro/subcomponent) than the realm in which Vygotsky’s concept operates (macro level).  Beyond this, it is maintained that Dunn and Lantolf have attempted to negate comparability by debating the impact of “learning” in each theory, without applying the definitions of these words, as used by the original authors.  Had they used the definitions of the authors, they would have realized that the words denote different ideas, and are not talking about the same thing.  It is Krashen’s term “acquisition” that most closely approximates the meaning of Vygotsky’s “learning”, and a comparison of these two terms as used by the authors does reflect a parallelism.


Krashen’s basic construct “I+1 is defined as I, which is the Second Language learner’s current level of (acquired) competence, and +1, which is the next phase of acquisition which contains aspects of the language which the learner is about to acquire along the axis of a “natural order” or developmental progression.  According to Krashen, learners acquire language by understanding language that contains elements of I+1, which they do through engaging in interaction, most specifically, hearing or reading, with the help of the surrounding ‘context’.  Although Krashen does not focus on the need for mutual interaction in an ‘external’ manner (learners are not required to talk until they are ready to do so, especially at the early stages), he does maintain that acquisition occurs best in a natural exposure setting, where learners engage in ‘seeking meaning’ through interaction.  In fact, he has been accused by SLA authors of promoting the idea that natural exposure (interaction in L2) is superior to classroom instruction in promoting language proficiency.  The meaning seeking involves mutuality between the learner and native L2 speaker (or other L2 learners), and an ‘intrapsychic’ process which involves the learner’s inner abilities.  The actual process of SLA (Second Language Acquisition) is NOT amenable to scientific analysis, since it does not occur on a ‘conscious’ level.  Learning, according to Krashen’s definition, is knowing ‘about’ language, that is, grammar rules and related concepts.  Formal learning, or knowledge about grammatical structures does not contribute to SLA, although it helps learners “monitor” their interlanguage, or level of proficiency and correctness.


Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is a construct that identifies the learner’s potentiality for all learning.  It is defined as the “the distance between the actual developmental level and the level of potential development” (p. 415) which is reached through collaboration with those who are above the learner’s level of knowledge or capability.  Vygotsky, according to Dunn and Lantolf, believes that “children develop only to the extent that they are taught” (p. 419).  His theory is used to conclude that children who are exposed to reading at an early age and to literacy activities, begin school with a higher IQ.  Despite IQ, however, the child may have a greater or lesser ‘zone of proximal development’.  Learning occurs through “meaning making” in a collaborative process, whereby the learner “borrows the knowledge and consciousness of the tutor to enter a language”. (p. 420)   Learning leads development.


Dunn and Lantolf insist that Krashen’s theory is incommensurable with Vygotsky’s because it belongs to the “scientific tradition” begun by Saussure, who “laid the foundation for the modern science of linguistics”. (p. 424) Vygotsky, they maintain espoused a “romantic-science view of mental behavior” (p. 428), which allows for a ‘richness’ which Krashen denies.  The authors accuse Krashen of “reducing complex phenomena to basic elements and constructing abstract schema to explain its object of study”. (p.428) Within the field of SLA, however, Krashen is accused of precisely the opposite.  He is seen as a non-scientific author who fails to clearly define his terms, and whose theory is founded on psychological workings that are not measurable.  He has been taken to task repeatedly for insisting that language acquisition processes can’t be broken down to purely ‘external’ factors, and for using an immeasurable (i) plus another vague immeasurable (I+1) to represent what should be a scientific theory.  Thus, they accuse, his is not a theory at all, but a romantic idea founded on complex psychological phenomena.  To the degree that SLA is a struggling new field of inquiry attempting to legitimize itself within the sciences as worthy of study, it is understandable that early authors attempted to phrase their writing in scientific terminology, lending legitimacy to a field of inquiry that defies true dissection.  In this respect Psychology and Sociology and Development are no different; as they emerged as fields of study, various authors provided legitimacy of inquiry by encasing the concepts in scientific jargon, coupled with attempts at measurement.  Beyond this lies that fact that Vygotsky’s idea is a ‘macro’ level idea, namely it encompasses all of learning and growth, which makes it impossible to completely decipher components as exclusive items.  Krashen’s idea, which is a subset of Vygotsky’s, relates only to language acquisition, that is, the production of fluent speech.  This narrowing of subject matter, is much more amenable to descriptive measures and analytic type discourse.


Dunn and Lantolf’s contention that Vygotsky relies on a “fundamentally human process of meaning making in collaborative activity with other members of the culture” (p.420), while Krashen believes that “whether the person engages other individuals in linguistic interaction is more or less irrevelant” (p. 423) is a misrepresentation of both.  While learning (for Vygotsky) is collaborative, the end result is as much the possession of the learner, as is Krashen’s acquisition.  Both focus on “meaning making through interaction”, the difference being that in studying components of early language acquisition, Krashen recognizes that the learner has very little knowledge in order to begin communicating verbally in the L2.  This recognition is precisely the same as that proposed in learning (by Vygotsky) for young children, where language “entails the creation of the very tools used to make meaning”. (p. 427)  The authors refer back to Krashen’s influence by Chomsky, whose concepts were affected by Saussure, resulting in the “ideal speaker/hearer, in which all human beings possess the same abstract linguistic knowledge or universal grammar”. (p. 425)  While they accuse Chomsky and Krashen of hard scientific bent, they admit that Chomsky “acknowledged that such idealizations are not real-world phenomena but assumptions necessary for theory construction”. (p. 425)  In Western civilization, in order to be taken seriously in academic circles, it is necessary to present new thought in terms of theory and the rational, scientific-inquiry model.  This attempt has Krashen doing exactly what Vygotsky thinks he should be doing, since, according to Vygotsky,  “mental activity is the consequence of the dialectic interaction between natural and cultural/historical forces”. (p. 426)


Dunn and Lantolf indicate that these theories are incompatible because Vygotsky insists “on the dialectic unity of learning-and-development” while Krashen maintains “a clear separatist position on learning and development (i.e. acquisition)”. (p.422)  The authors are equating the wrong terms.  Krashen’s definition of learning is “the formal rules of the language, i.e. grammar rules”.  This is not the learning Vygotsky is speaking about; rather, Krashen’s concept of ‘acquisition’ is the term to equate with Vygotsky’s ‘learning’.  Krashen’s term ‘acquisition’ is not the same as Vygotsky’s ‘development’, as the authors imply.  Acquisition is the end result of a process (language fluency) and cannot be equated to the whole of developmental processes.  Just as Vygotsky’s ‘learning’ occurs as a dialectic exchange between members of a society with differing levels of knowledge, Krashen’s ‘acquisition’ occurs as a dialectic exchange between members of society with differing levels of knowledge engaged in meaning making.   Dunn and Lantolf insist that “for Krashen, an individual’s linguistic future is certain; for Vygotsky, the future is open, uncertain and depends on the material and interactional (i.e. cultural and historical) circumstances in which the individual is situated”. (p. 422)  To the degree that language itself evolves through historical-cultural changes, Krashen’s “linguistic future” for an individual is also uncertain and changes as the meanings of words change.  But to the degree that Krashen is talking about acquiring a specific language, which has set constructs and syntax/grammar, it is as fixed as Vygotsky’s ‘learning’ would be when speaking of a child learning to put together a predefined product (toy).  Since they are engaged in different levels (macro vs. micro application), there cannot be ‘identical’ transfer of terms and definitions, only a general equating of concepts.  When we speak of making something, we refer to that something as an open-ended potential product.  But when we apply the term ‘making’ to ‘making a giraffe’, the giraffe is culturally predetermined as a specifically defined entity, as is Krashen’s ‘language’.  The term ‘making’ is, however, the same and implies a similar process.  Finally, the authors state that for Vygotsky “specifically human forms of mental activity are not processes that occur invisibly inside someone’s head but are instead the activity of socio-historically constituted people engaged in the historically situated activity of living”. (427)  This is a poor attempt to create opposition between Krashen and Vygotsky, for while Krashen does state that acquisition occurs as a mental process (meaning making) which cannot be seen, it occurs through an interactional process that occurs within a socio-historical context of people engaged in the historically situated activity of living.  Precisely the invisible, mental activity of ‘making meaning’ reflects the ‘unscientific’ and ‘romantic’ side of Krashen’s SLA process.  While Vygotsky’s ‘focus’ is socio-cultural and Krashen’s ‘focus’ is on the individual learner, again this reflects the move from one level (learning in general throughout society) to another (specific ‘learning’ of a particular, defined item).  Krashen and Vygotsky are looking through the same lens, but each is looking from a different angle at a different aspect of the same basic process.  I would venture to guess that Krashen himself would agree to having borrowed from Vygotsky in the creation of his I+1 concept, particularly since he himself was so thoroughly exposed to and knowledgeable of Vygotsky’s theories throughout his career as an educator.


To summarize, Dunn and Lantolf are making distinctions and implying incommensurability based on false comparisons and presumptions about both Vygotsky and Krashen.  While their goal may be to uphold a less-than-scientific tradition that is more wholistic, it does not warrant speculation of intent or meaning, and harms further study of SLA as well as detracting from further application of Vygotsky’s concepts to the field.  Perhaps in its infancy, second language acquisition must go through developmental stages that allow researchers to give priority to the emerging field.  As with all fields (including psychology), once cherished scientific and hard notions eventually will give way to new interpretations that allow for greater freedom in determining what constitutes ‘legitimate knowledge’.  For this to happen, it is not Krashen’s ideas that need to be dismissed nor his terminology debated.  Rather, society/culture must evolve from a Western, scientific and hard context, where only ideas presented in a (perhaps false) scientific theory can be accepted, to a more holistic context with a different paradigm.



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