A Case Analysis on Nell’s Language Acquisition

However, Nell was quite different from Victor and Genie because she learned to speak English well. Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition can explain how Nell acquired the language. I will discuss three of Krashen’s hypotheses in the next page that can help explain Nell’s situation.

Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition

Stephen Krashen from the University of Southern California is an expert in the field of Linguistics, specializing in theories of language acquisition and development. His theory of second language acquisition consists of five main hypotheses:

  1. the Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis,
  2. the Monitor Hypothesis,
  3. the Natural Order Hypothesis,
  4. the Input Hypothesis,
  5. and the Affective Filter Hypothesis

The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis

According to Krashen there are two independent systems of second language performance: ‘the acquired system’ and ‘the learned system’. The ‘acquired system’ oracquisition‘ is the product of a subconscious process very similar to the process children undergo when they acquire their first language. It requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concentrated not in the form of their utterances, but in the communicative act. On the other hand, the ‘learned system’ or ‘learning’ is the product of formal instruction and it comprises a conscious process which results in conscious knowledge ‘about’ the language, such as, knowledge of grammar rules. According to Krashen ‘learning’ is less important than ‘acquisition’.

Input Hypothesis

Krashen attempts to explain how the learner acquires a second language. In other words, Input Hypothesis is Krashen’s explanation of how second language acquisition takes place. Thus, the Input Hypothesis is only concerned with ‘acquisition’, not ‘learning’. According to this hypothesis, the learner improves and progresses along the ‘natural order’ when he/she receives second language ‘input’ that is one step beyond his/her current stage of linguistic competence.

I think, Nell learned language through acquisition and not learning because the movie did not show that she underwent a formal schooling in order to learn language. The movie shows how she interacted with other human beings, especially her friends in the natural form of communication. Nobody taught her the rudiments of grammar.

Further, the input hypothesis might be also true to Nell’s case because she needs to be exposed to comprehensible input. In the movie, Dr. Jerome Lovell tried to go down to Nell’s level by imitating her or uttering some words which she was familiar with and from that, they were able to communicate with each other. As time passed by, Nell and Jerome, or even Paula, understood each other up to the time that Nell spoke the way her friends did.

Affective Filter Hypothesis

The Affective Filter Hypothesis explains why Nell did not want to speak when she was brought to the hospital. According to this hypothesis, a number of ‘affective variables‘ play a facilitative, but non-causal, role in second language acquisition. These variables include: motivation, self-confidence and anxiety.

Krashen claims that learners with high motivation, self-confidence, a good self-image, and a low level of anxiety are better equipped for success in second language acquisition. Low motivation, low self-esteem, and debilitating anxiety can combine to ‘raise’ the affective filter and form a ‘mental block’ that prevents comprehensible input from being used for acquisition. In other words, when the filter is ‘up’ it impedes language acquisition. Thus, Nell institutionalized and acquired language well when she was in the right environment, i.e., together with people whom she loved and trusted.

Moreover, language acquisition theories have basically centered around “nurture” and “nature” distinction or on “empiricism” and “nativism”. The doctrine of empiricism holds that all knowledge comes from experience, ultimately from our interaction with the environment through our reasoning or senses. Empiricism, in this sense, can be contrasted to nativism, which holds that at least some knowledge is not acquired through interaction with the environment, but is genetically transmitted and innate. To put it another way, some theoreticians have based their theories on environmental factors while others believed that it is the innate factors that determine the acquisition of language (Kiymazarslan, 2002).

Kiymazarslan goes on to say that “environmentalist theories of language acquisition hold that an organism’s nurture, or experience, are of more significance to development than its nature or inborn contributions. Yet they do not completely reject the innate factors”. On the other hand, assert that much of the capacity for language learning in human is ‘innate’. It is part of the genetic makeup of human species and is nearly independent of any particular experience which may occur after birth. Thus, the nativists claim that language acquisition is innately determined and that we are born with a built-in device which predisposes us to acquire language.

Apparently, Nell’s case is more on nurture rather than nature. However, it does not connote that we should view language as the way Nell acquired a language. This calls for more intensive research to widen our perception about language acquisition and learning.


  1. Dr. Goodword’s Office (n.d.). Mama teached me talk. Retrieved, October 6, 2014, from  http://www.alphadictionary.com/articles/ling001.html
  2. Kiymazarlan, V. (2002). A Discussion of Language Acquisition Theories. Retrieved October 6, 2014 from http://naturalway.awardspace.com/articles/article006.htm
  3. Ricardo Schütz, R. (2014). Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition. Retrieved October 6, 2014, from http://www.sk.com.br/sk-krash.html

© 2014 October 6 M. G. Alvior

4 thoughts on “A Case Analysis on Nell’s Language Acquisition”

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