Learning how we learn
It is an accepted premise that whatever the reasons we decide to learn a new language, our ultimate success depends on the strength of our motivation. Or does it? Is that really all there is to it?
Stephen Krashen’s language acquisition theory
The world-renowned linguistics professor, Stephen Krashen, maintained that: “Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, and does not require tedious drill.” He believed that if we really want to learn, If we have the motivation and a good level of self-esteem, we will naturally acquire the language we need through interaction with others, preferably sympathetic native speakers, and not through formal teaching. The context and the content are more important than grammar and rules.
Whether this is strictly true remains a much-debated topic. Indeed, discussions about the validity of Krashen’s theories have been raging since he first introduced them in the 1980s. All the same there can’t be many who would disagree that mastery of a language at least starts with the desire to learn and without that desire, we won’t get far. But can we acquire the language we need without more effort?
Why learn a new language?
In his papers on second language acquisition, Stephen Krashen outlined the main drivers as being 1) a social need, as in having to communicate with people around you in the target language; 2) a work need, meaning that you need the language for professional or employment purposes; and 3) an educational need, which can either be an academic necessity or a personal interest.
Still, while social needs might be quite pressing, those in this category often only learn as much as it takes to communicate within their own environment and no more. In some cases, this might be very limited indeed, particularly if the learners are part of an immigrant or expat community consisting of people who speak their own first language. Such newcomers are frequently not motivated to learn or acquire the language of their host country and so their functional knowledge remains scant.
On the other hand, learners who have to use the language for employment purposes are more likely to work at aspects such as grammar and syntax than the social needs group. Linguistic accuracy will be important for their professional careers or for clear communication with clients. While they may necessarily not be self-motivated, the incentive to keep their jobs is likely to be strong, so their language skills will probably match the requirements of their work within this familiar area.
However, the last group, i.e. those with educational requirements or personal interests, may be the most motivated of all. This group is more likely to study the language and develop a range and depth of linguistic competence due to both exposure to a range of subjects and a willingness to learn. In other words, the greater the need, the stronger the motivation, and the more the individual is likely to be pro-active in learning rather than just acquiring.
Multiple Intelligences and learning styles
That said, it’s generally acknowledged that some people find it much easier to learn languages than others; there are those of us who have a natural gift and those who quite clearly do not. To some extent, this will depend on the type of learner we are.
Another theorist, Howard Gardner, introduced the concept of Multiple Intelligences in 1983 to show how differences in our individual aptitudes can affect our ability to acquire knowledge. Initially, he defined eight Intelligences (although these have since been increased to eleven). He further maintained that everyone has a mix of these Intelligences in varying proportions and these combinations can be the basis of an individual’s learning style.
So at the risk of over simplifying the theory, the two main natural tendencies (or Intelligences) which influence our learning abilities are as follows:
Visual: A preference for pictures, images, and spatial understanding. In other words, you need to see what you are learning
Aural: A preference for using sound and music, which means you learn what you hear more easily than what you see
Then added to these are other ‘intelligences’ or preferences that affect our learning, e.g. verbal, physical, logical, social and/or solitary.
As an example of how this theory might apply to language acquisition, someone who is a visual learner with social leanings is likely to learn better with examples (s)he can see and talk about with other people in a group situation. This person might also prefer writing (which (s)he can see) to speaking (which involves sound and voice)
An aural and verbal learner, however, will find it easier to learn a language by listening to the words rather than seeing them. If that person is also logical, (s)he might also learn by hearing the repeated patterns in the language.
What it could mean in practice is that if learners aren’t exposed to the new language in a way that suits their learning style, acquisition might be much slower.
Teaching with technology
The difficulties that such a variety of learning styles can impose on the language teaching profession are the subject of scores of text books, studies, course books and syllabi. However, today’s advances in technology have opened wonderful new windows of opportunity for teachers and learners alike.
Language trainers can now use video, apps, audio and educational games, all facilitated by immediate online connections in the classroom. Such technology makes it possible for one teacher to include every learning style in one class without excluding any individual students. Programs can be both interactive and anonymous, visual and aural, social and solitary. The range is astonishing; the Internet has become an Aladdin’s Cave for teaching resources.
Indeed, teachers for the university Language and Training Centre keep abreast of such developments in educational tools and employ a wide array of both audio and visual aids in their lessons. For large group courses where interaction and student-centred learning are integral to the syllabus, apps allow the teacher to create word games, puzzles, quizzes and interactive tasks that can be used for every level of language training offered: from beginners to PhD academic writing.
Having internet access in every lecture and classroom at EUR has added to the dynamism of all the language lessons and workshops. Added to that, students can engage in active self-study on their own through the endless wealth of internet sites and activities, and all of these can be chosen according to their own learning preferences.
It seems that when Howard Gardner first introduced the concept of Multiple Intelligences, the teaching profession was both delighted and frustrated. How, they asked, could any teacher of a group of students cater to the complete range of learning styles in one classroom? Now, with the technology we have today, the possibilities are thankfully almost limitless.
Motivation before acquisition
In the end, though, none of this wealth of resources is going to help the language student who doesn’t have the motivation to learn in the first place. Despite Stephen Krashen’s conviction that we can all acquire second languages without much formal teaching, our ultimate success will not only depend on this basic desire, but on our aptitude and learning style as well. Without these essentials, acquisition and thereafter proficiency could be a long time coming.
- Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
- Krashen, Stephen D. (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Pergamon Press
- Website: Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition: https://www.sk.com.br/sk-krash-english.html retrieved 31 July 2019
Valerie Poore was born and raised in England but later moved to South Africa where she gained experience in Marketing and Communications, both as a practitioner and as a trainer. She returned to Europe in 2001 and has been working for the Language and Training Centre (EUR) as a freelance teacher and trainer since 2002. During this time, she gained her Master’s in TESOL, specializing in English for academic purposes. Valerie currently teaches writing skills to both business and academic students. In addition, she writes articles for magazines, as well as publishing her own books.