What’s the Difference Between Learning and Picking
Up a Language?
Learning a language is different from picking up a language (Krashen
1981; Harper and de Jong 2004). Well-meaning teachers sometimes say,
“These children don’t really need me; they are picking up English on
their own!” Learning to speak a language without instruction shows
great creativity and resourcefulness. But it is like learning music by ear.
Gifted individuals can become proficient musicians this way, but most
people need explicit instruction. Similarly, without explicit language
instruction, most people develop only social language.
Learning a language is acquiring language skills through explicit
instruction. Explicit instruction is showing and telling a child about an
object, action, or idea and providing an opportunity to practice talking
about it. Without such practice, second-language learners may not pro-
gress. They may stay at the telegraphic or formulaic stage. Even if they are
able to make social conversation in the playground, they do not develop
the academic language skills they need to succeed in their studies.
The following dialogue between a mom and her two-year-old son
demonstrates explicit instruction and language learning:
Car. (Points to a car parked in front of the house.)
Car! Yes, it’s a car. You see a car! (Smiles.)
Car! Car! (Smiles and nods.)
excitedly: Yes, honey, it’s a blue car! A blue car! (Smiles and
Bue, bue! (Beams.)
Blue. Can you say blllue? Blllue, like your shirt! Blllue. (Touches
the child’s chest and smiles.)
Bue, blllue. (Touches tummy and smiles.)
Yes, blue car! Blue shirt! You know the color blue! (Kisses child.)
Blue! (Points to the blue blanket on the couch and smiles
triumphantly.) This simple interaction contains all the components of explicit lan-
guage instruction and learning. It includes an affective component: The
mom is happy to be with the child and is happy that the child is learn-
ing. She shows her happiness and encourages the child in a playful,