Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching
Frederick H. Jackson
Foreign Service Institute, U.S. Department of State
Marsha A. Kaplan
Foreign Service Institute, U.S. Department of State
Lesson 1. Mature adults can learn a foreign language well enough through intensive language study to do things in the language (almost) as well as native speakers.
...skilled adults learn some aspects of languages better and faster than children...
They can do this because they have learned how to learn.
...mainstream second-language acquisition (SLA) researchers have the “fundamental misconception”—the term is Kachru’s—that the target of foreign language learning is “the idealized native speaker’s competence” (Sridhar 1994:801) or “to use [the language] in the same way as monolingual native speakers”
Lesson 2. “Language-learning aptitude” varies among individuals and affects their classroom learning success (but at least some aspects of aptitude can be learned).
Lesson 3. There is no “one right way” to teach (or learn) languages, nor is there a single “right” syllabus.
Spolsky (1989: 383) writes, “Any intelligent and disinterested observer knows that there are many ways to learn languages and many ways to teach them, and that some ways work with some students in some circumstances and fail with others.”
Another generalization is that some kind of explicit grammar instruction helps most people to learn efficiently. Some focus on an overview of the grammatical system early in a course also appears to make language learning more efficient for FSI’s students by creating awareness of form(s) so that learners can attend to them when they are ready. If there is insufficient early focus on form, we have learned that learners may, indeed, risk automatizing ingrained errors (see Higgs and Clifford 1982).
Lesson 4. Time on task and the intensity of the learning experience appear crucial. Language learning is not an effortless endeavor for adults (or for children, for that matter). For the great majority of adult learners, learning a language rapidly to a high level requires a great deal of memorization, analysis, practice to build automaticity, and, of course, functional and meaningful language use. Learning as quickly as possible to speak and understand a language automatically and effectively in a variety of situations and for a range of purposes requires intensive exposure to and interaction with that language.
Learning a language also cannot be done in a short time. The length of time it takes to learn a language well depends to a great extent on similarities between the new language and other languages that the learner may know well. The time necessary for a beginning learner to develop professional proficiency in each language— proven again and again over a half century of language teaching—cannot be shortened appreciably. FSI has tried to shorten programs, and it has not worked.
Class size makes a difference....
Focused practice of some kind, including “drills,” appears necessary for almost all language learners to develop confidence and automatic language use (see also lesson 7).
There is no substitute for simply spending time using the language. Segalowitz
and his colleagues have pointed out how crucial to reading ability is the simple fact of doing a lot of reading (e.g., Favreau and Segalowitz 1982). Our experience at FSI indicates unequivocally that the amount of time spent in reading, listening to, and interacting in the language has a close relationship to the learner’s ability to use that language professionally.
Lesson 5. Learners’ existing knowledge about language affects their learning. All else being equal, the more that learners already know that they can use in learning a new language, the faster and better they will learn. The less they know that they can use, the harder learning will be.
The length of time it takes to learn a language well also depends to a great extent on similarities between that language and any other languages that the learner knows well. The more dissimilar a new language is—in structure, sounds, orthography, implicit world view, and so on—the longer learning takes.
For knowledge of one language to be a real advantage in learning another, however,
it needs to be at a significant level. Thain and Jackson (n.d.) and an interagency
group determined recently that this kind of advantage takes effect at a three-level proficiency or better. Below that level, knowledge of a second language does not appear to make any useful difference in acquisition of a related third language.
In addition to the often unconscious effects of transfer-based phenomena, language learning may also be affected by whether the learners possess an overt declarative knowledge of salient linguistic and grammatical concepts.
It appears increasingly clear at FSI that such knowledge helps many learners to be able to progress faster and more surely, and that lack of that knowledge can slow them down. Such concepts may include basic ideas like subject, predicate, preposition, or sentence, but also more language-specific concepts like tone, aspect, palatalization, declension, topicalization, and so on. Knowing such concepts increases the accessibility of such resources as reference grammars, textbooks, and dictionaries, and also serves an important purpose in making adult learners aware of
types of language phenomena to watch for.
Lesson 6. A learner’s prior experience with learning (languages or other skills) also affects classroom learning. If learners already have learned a foreign language to a high level, that is a great advantage in learning another language, regardless of whether or not it is related to the first, but if they do not know how to learn a language in a classroom, that is a disadvantage. Prior formal language study makes a difference, no matter how remote it was. Knowing how to learn a language in a formal setting helps the learner, both cognitively and affectively. In contrast, bilingualism acquired naturally as a child does not, in and of itself, appear to aid in learning a third language in a classroom.
We see individuals on a regular basis who know exactly what they have to do in order to learn a new language. Some of them are so good that they are truly astonishing, and they are each different. Earl Stevick emphasized this point in his 1989 book, Success with Foreign Languages, by describing seven such superb learners—
each with different learning approaches.
Richness of background knowledge and experience appear to have a marked influence on how well and how quickly many adults can learn a new language. Part of this may be a matter of having things to talk about.
Lesson 7. The importance of “automaticity” in building learner skill and confidence in speaking and reading a language is more important than has been recognized by the SLA field over the last two decades. Successful language learning requires “stretching” learners some of the time through “i 1”- type tasks. Yet it is also important to build up processing skills by varying the pace and giving learners some tasks that they can perform easily.
McLaughlin argued this point nearly twenty years ago. As he explains in a more
recent work, “[t]he acquisition of a cognitive skill [results] from the automatization of routines or units of activity. Initially, the execution of these routines requires the allocation of large amounts of mental effort (controlled processing), but repeated performance of the activity leads to the availability of automatized routines in long term memory. The result of this process is that less and less effort is required for automated routines and the learner can devote more effort to acquiring other sub-skills that are not yet automated” (McLaughlin 1987:149). In order to perform higher order communicative skills—such as participating in social conversations (see lesson 10) and other such job-related uses of the target language— our students must produce spontaneously and accurately the relevant grammatical structures and routines of the language.
The importance of promoting automaticity is true for reading as well as speaking. Adults need to read considerable amounts of “easy” material in order to build up stamina and to automatize processing skills. Segalowitz and his collaborators have shown us that iteration of relatively easy processing tasks is crucial to developing reading skill.
Lesson 8. Learners may not learn a linguistic form until they are “ready,” but FSI’s experience indicates that teachers and a well designed course can help learners become ready earlier...
Celce- Murcia, Dornyei, and Thurrell (1997) quote Widdowson (1990) approvingly as
follows: “the whole point of language pedagogy is that it is a way of shortcircuiting
the slow process of natural discovery and can make arrangements for learning to happen more easily and more efficiently than it does in ‘natural surroundings’” (emphasis added).
Lesson 9. A supportive, collaborative, responsive learning environment, with a rich variety of authentic and teacher-made resources, is very important in fostering effective learning.
Lesson 10. Conversation, which on the surface appears to be one of the most basic forms of communication, is actually one of the hardest to master.
Interestingly, such reports appear to fly in the face of some of the assumptions of the language proficiency level descriptions of the Interagency Language Roundtable and ACTFL, which relegate “extensive but casual social conversation” to a relatively low-level speaking skill while raising professional language use and certain institutionalized forms of talk to a higher level.
The properties of ordinary social conversation imply that language learners need to practice at least all of the following:
• following rapid and unpredictable turns in topic,
• displaying understanding and involvement,
• producing unplanned speech,
• coping with the speed of the turn-taking, and
• coping with background noise.
Participants in conversation must at once listen to what their interlocutor is saying, formulate their contribution, make their contribution relevant, and utter
their contribution in a timely way, lest they lose the thread of the conversation.
Unlike most other typical face-to-face interactions, no individual can successfully
“control” a free-wheeling multi-party conversation.
In a sense, conversation is more about listening than about speaking, especially when the conversationalist is either trying to determine where the interlocutor
might stand on certain important issues or is searching for an opportune moment to make a particular point.
Conclusions. We hope that the present paper will not be interpreted as yet another blow in some emotional battle between “researchers” and “practitioners” (viz. Clarke 1994).