ESL TeachingTraining

Applied Linguistics

As a young(ish) teacher in the early 80s, I thought research was a waste of time – the arrogance of youth!

Now, a few years later (!) I think we should pay more attention to what research can tell us. That means:

  1. research which takes place in classrooms (Action Research) as well as research which is undertaken in ‘ivory towers’ and
  2. that we should know what’s going on but not necessarily adapt what we do accordingly – we need to be able to choose what impacts our teaching and what doesn’t.

On that basis, here are a few tasters from SLA and Linguistics research which particularly appeal to me and are things I wish I’d know all those years ago. This is not meant to be an exhaustive interrogation of the research but a brief overview. I would invite anyone interested in knowing more to read some of the many publications and journals which deal with this area of interest and I’ll be happy to advise on that if anyone needs guidance.

U-Shaped Learning
(also known as U-shaped behaviour) learners will often begin the process of assimilating a new language item producing it in a close to native-like way. As time goes by, the quality of the item deteriorates and takes on a divergent form. This might be seen as progressing down the path of the U. Over time, the item or feature can recover to climb back up the U, perhaps reaching its original level of accuracy.
Implications for teachers: don’t jump off a high building when learners appear never to have seen or heard a particular language item or produce as though it were completely new! With time and exposure, it will probably recover.

Interlanguage
this is the mix of L1 and L2 which learners manifest while managing the effects of both their own language (L1) and the new language (L2).
Implications for teachers: all those pesky ‘errors’ are a window into interlanguage! They help you understand where your students are developmentally.

Teachability Hypothesis
suggests that an item taught will only be acquired if the learner is developmentally ready for that item.
Implications for teachers: consider where your learners are and how your new item might integrate with what they already know, if and how they can manage the concept and how the new item will be seen to support their forward movement.

Sequence of Acquisition
informs us that learners will often not necessarily acquire all the components of a particular grammatical structure simultaneously. They may work their way through various stages to finally arrive at the whole.
Implications for teachers: if you teach, for example, the Present Continuous, don’t be surprised that learners may go through stages to get to the end result. The components are: pronoun + to be + ing and often learners will take a route such as: pronoun + verb + ing or pronoun + to be + verb before managing the whole chunk.

Avoidance
learners may avoid certain structures and forms if they are perceived to be unlikely in L1 and therefore, difficult.
Implications for teachers: sometimes learners use avoidance because the feature is so weird in L1 that they can’t believe it’s ok in L2, even when they’ve encountered it multiple times. Avoidance can manifest in a variety of ways, such as: circumlocution, using an alternative structure or inventing a ‘new’ form. If you know the L1 of your students, you can more easily recognise when and where avoidance might occur.

Strategic Competence
is the capacity to use whatever means one has to get one’s message across.
Implications for teachers: this is an important and often overlooked ability! Teachers can help students by encouraging use of verbal and non-verbal clues to achieve their communicative aims.

Interface Hypothesis
this describes the processing of two different kinds of information or knowledge: declarative and procedural. The former refers to knowledge or information about the language, things which can be stated or declared while the latter relates to knowledge which is available for use, already automatised. The question this hypothesis poses is: does declarative information convert to procedural knowledge? There are various positions along a spectrum from: Zero Interface to Strong Interface which reflect the viewfrom: nothing can be converted, to: much can be converted and most stages in between.
Implications for teachers: if you give your students explanations of grammar points, what happens to those explanations? You must decide if you think that everything you tell them can be later converted into use, nothing you tell them can be later converted into use or somewhere in between! If you think ‘somewhere in between’, then you need to work out what criteria are used for successful processing. In my own view, any explanations should be in ‘bite-sized’ chunks, easily digested and almost instantly convertible. Long, complex and technical explanations are simply a waste of time in terms of facilitating language acquisition.

Negotiation of Meaning
when learners speaking together reach a breakdown in communications because of lack of understanding, they can engage with each other to clarify.
Implications for teachers: this topic is broader than my interpretation here, I am viewing it from a teacher’s perspective. When teachers see this kind of breakdown, they often try to ‘help’ by intervening and explaining. If learners are left to their own devices, they will often reach an understanding on their own. I believe that the result of this kind of activity is most often likely to be of greater value than if the teacher intervenes.

Critical Period Hypothesis
this postulates that there is a period after which it becomes more difficult to learn/acquire a (second) language. It is suggested that up to around the age of puberty is the Critical Period and that thereafter some of the brain’s plasticity will have been lost.
Implications for teachers: this should be treated with caution in my view since it could be too easy to assume that an adult learner will never achieve native-like competence and thus a teacher might transmit lower expectations. While the CPH may be worthy of consideration, it must also be balanced against the personality and motivation of each learner.

Ego Permeability
this refers to the inhibition a learner might feel when using an L2. It is suggested that younger learner have less inhibition and that as they grow older, learners’ inhibitions become fixed, negatively effecting language learning.
Implications for teachers: we all know the feeling – you are reduced to a child-like status even as a grown up, intelligent adult when you stumble through something in an L2 which you’re not confident in. Young learners suffer from the same feelings, even if they may not be quite so strong. Teachers can help by always having a positive, encouraging and supportive attitude.

(In)Tolerance of Ambiguity
this refers to the amount of frustration a learner feels when faced with something they don’t understand. The higher the ToA, the less likely a learner is to manage his/her learning effectively.
Implications for teachers: learners get frustrated when they don’t understand - but some faster than others. These are the ones teachers need to pay special attention to, as in losing patience, they will also disengage. Voice tone and intonation can help to suggest that everything’s fine and sometimes minimal L1 use can also help to allay those frustrations.