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Language learning theories

October 12, 2006

Do we need new learning theories for English as a lingua franca?

Hello again,
Is it just my imagination or do teachers today spend less time weighing the relative advantages of language learning theories, preferring to rely on their own intuition for what works best with their learners? I raise this question because...

... I find increasingly that teachers need explanations of key theories and seem pretty unconcerned about how such theories need to underpin their classroom practice.

Perhaps this is a reaction to the proliferation of apparently contradictory language learning theories. Often debate has been on polarised issues. When I first started teaching the polarity was behaviourism versus cognitive learning. At first I was pretty relieved to see behaviourism on the decline as the drills and the focus on the language’s surface seemed not to engage with the learner’s need for understanding. Later, however, I saw that the two theories could complement each other, because there is a mechanical element to language learning, a gradually acquired reflex that is vital when there is not time to think about the correct structures.

Stephen Krashen’s ideas on natural language acquisition also seemed to fill in some of the cracks. I had often puzzled about why learners found some aspects of English verbs more difficult than others and Krashen’s studies, showing how slow learners were to use the third person singular -s for the present simple tense, helped me a great deal to see what learning processes were typical.

In a similar way, the more recent lexical approach appeals to me because I have wondered a great deal about how to cope with the issue of collocation, something native speakers handle instinctively, but which is puzzling and illogical for speakers of other languages.

Inevitably today’s teachers make use of a blend of theories when they plan their teaching but as the debate rages over what kind of English is suitable as an international language, it may be that we need new theories about how we learn a lingua franca that is somehow developing quite independently of its native-speaker varieties.

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  1. Lee Says:

    Hi Brenda,

    This reminds me a bit of theoritical studies of education via Paulo Freire and his Christian Marxist opposition to "banking" education (performance of an oppressor). Was "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" part of your teaching theory reading list back in the day? Good stuff but I've still not found a way to totally apply such non-banking standards "immediately" to "cultures" (even Western ones) that have banked information into its pupils for, say, twelve straight years. It does seem that some sort of a blend from both sides of the dichomoty is the best approach - at least, at first. Personal teaching styles (according to personality) is also something that should be addressed according to strengths and weakness in any teacher training routine, IMHO.

    You're right. There are simply too many out there espousing one way or another as the cure-all methodology for every teacher and every situation.

    Enjoying your posts!


  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Hi Lee,

    Yes, I am familiar with Freire's teacher/student dichotomy. I

    was really thinking about theories of how second language learning relates to first language acquisition. But then we used to see the second language as being somebody else's mother tongue. Now we seem to be considering an artificial form of English that has been attenuated to international needs and which does not aspire to match any native-speaker models. It's an idea I find quite challenging. Imagine my surprise when a group of executives told me they found my British accent more difficult to understand than the accents they used among themselves!

  1. kamalika sen Says:

    Hello Brenda,
    I am currently doing PGCE in Esol an I need your help.We have an assignment on using learning theories in lesson planning and I have to say that though I understand behaviourism and cognitivism,I can't find ways of using these in my lesson plans.Could you please give me some ideas as to how and what kind of activities could be used in an Entry 3/2 class,so that I could relate them to the learning theories?
    I would be very greatful if you could help.
    Thanking in anticipation,
    Kamalika Sen

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Hello Kamalika,

    For exercises that are based on behaviourist theories you should devise some language drills for verb patterns etc. Pattern repetition helps the learners develop correct habits that gradually become the automatic response. he criticism of such exercises is that they are purely mechanical. In cognitive exercises, learners use their proble-solving skills to arrive at answers. You could try a "cloze" test. In these tests you take a text and remove every "nth" word. The learners have to work out which word is missing. Another exercise that involves reasoning powers is sentence transformation; for example, asking students to put sentence in a different tense.

    Hope this helps.

    Best wishes,

  1. Uma Says:

    Dear Brenda,
    I have an assignment relating to designing an English Language syllabus.My lecturer wants to to submit a 3-page report on the contributions of language theories in the preparatory of a syllabus.I am quite confused now.I really need your help.Thank you.

    From Uma

  1. Btownsend Says:

    Hello Uma,
    You have quite a challenge! I wonder what you mean by language theories: I am assuming language learning theories. Way back we had grammar/translation. The syllabus concentrated on grammatical structures and students read texts, did mainly written exercises and translated. It gave learners a good grasp of structure but didn't help them to speak. Behaviourist theories gave us syllabuses that were like building blocks. The language was broken down into segments and students were drilled until they could parrot them. It helped early stage learning in that students were quickly able to use set phrases but it didn't help much with original language. Cognitive learning theories had syllabuses that allowed students to puzzle things out for themselves to discover underlying patterns. And so it goes on....I'm afraid there is no short cut for you: some thorough reading and background research is what you need!

  1. Fadhil Hamzah Mansor Says:

    Hi Brenda,
    When I was assigned by my department to design a course called Language At The Workplace, I immediately thought of ESP, which is essentially a proficiency course. However, I was told that such a course should be a 'content' rather than a language course, meaning the emphasis should be on theories and concepts about language usage in workplace settings rather than the learning of the language itself. Which one is the right approach? If it's the former, where can I find a book that deals with theories and concepts about workplace language usage? And if it's the latter, does that mean I need to dwell on the differences/similarities between workplace language and language learned institutionally? Hope you could shed some light on this. Thanks.

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Hello Fadhil,

    I don't think there is a right or a wrong answer here: you really need clarification from the person setting this task. Workplace courses are normally based on an analysis of learners' needs: how do they use English at work; what is the professional area; whom do they interact with (role set); what are the key activities, etc? You could have a look at Teaching English in the Workplace (Paperback) by Mary Ellen Belfiore and Barbara Burnaby; Pippin Publishing Corporation; New Ed edition (1995).

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