Learning Techniques As children, we have learned to speak


As children, we have learned to speak by simply listening to, and absorbing the language around us. However, when it comes to learning a second language, this 'natural acquisition' process becomes impossible. Confronted with a foreign language, we are in need of stratagems and procedures that will unable us to accomplish particular learning objectives. For a very long time, scholars have debated on what these procedures are, and which are the most effective.

According to Stern , a student learning a foreign language faces three major problems: having to pay attention to grammatical/linguistic problems and communication at the same time, having to choose between rational and intuitive learning, and relying too much on the first language as a reference system. Student's progress is to a large extent depended on the way he/she deals with these three problems. Mary Ann Reiss, in her article Helping the Unsuccessful Language Learner , discusses different individual learning techniques designed to help learners overcome these issues. According to her, 'inference' is a very useful strategy; learners should try to relate unfamiliar contexts and attributes to familiar ones. Using specific grammatical or lexical clues, students should be able to guess the meaning of the unfamiliar item. Successful learners are also always 'prepared to attend to form,' they analyze, synthesize and categorize material, constantly looking for patterns in language. Constant practice is also an essential part of language learning; practice enables students to learn from their own, and other people's mistakes. Whereas all these strategies seem to be very useful on an individual level, the question that arises is how to incorporate them into a classroom learning environment.

In her article Three Communicative Strands in the Language Classroom , Rebecca Oxford distinguishes between cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and interaction. Cooperative learning is group learning, dependent on the interactions and exchange of information between learners. Each learner is held accountable for his/her own learning, and for motivating the learning of others. Cooperative learning is very structured and is based on positive interdependence, teamwork, role assignment and similar techniques. This type of learning enhances cognitive and social skills, through a set of established techniques. Collaborative learning is, on the other hand, defined as 'acculturation into knowledge communities;' students are assisted and guided by a teacher. Furthermore, the collaborative method emphasizes the cultural aspect of language learning, students need to identify with a different culture, and a different language. When students are learning a foreign language in their own country, the teacher becomes the main 'window' into the foreign culture, the main source of information about the foreign culture. The last learning method, interaction, is based on interpersonal communication; it allows learners to communicate with others in numerous ways. This method requires students to engage in different communication activities: dialogues, debates, role-plays. The efficiency of the method depends of course on the students' willingness to engage and communicate.

It is rather difficult to decide which of the three methods is the most efficient, especially since language learning is influenced by many factors such as student's personality, his/her cultural and linguistic background. Personally, I would argue that an effective learning process needs to combine all of these stratagems. Group learning, guided learning, and learning through interaction, emphasize different language aspects and thus complement each other. In order to truly learn a new language, students need language exposure, teacher guidance, and willingness to constantly practice and communicate.

1. Stern, H.H. 'What can we learn from a good language learner.' Canadian Modern Language Review, 31 (1975), pp. 304-318 2. Reiss, Marry-Ann. 'Helping the Unsuccessful language learner'. Modern Language Journal, 65 (Summer 1981), pp. 121-128 3. Oxford, Rebecca. 'Three communicative strands in the classroom.' Modern Language Journal, 81 (1997) pp. 443-456