Helping Language Learners Learn How to Learn Language

Last time I posted about orientation in adult ESOL, and it got me thinking about some of the notions that I try to impress upon my students at the very beginning of a course. I’m not just talking about baseline English knowledge, but about knowledge about the very nature of language acquisition.

“English isn’t just some thing in my brain. I can’t just take it out of my brain, open up your skull and plop it in there.” I find myself telling and miming this idea to my adult students quite often. History and science, on the other hand, are a bit like that for most of us. You’re certainly not going to be a very good scientist or historian if you approach those disciplines as collections of dates and formulas, but for the purposes of the average layman, we learn history and science as a transfer of facts. H2O. Covalent bonds. 1066. William of Normandy. From the teacher’s brain, from the textbook, from a website, into our brains.

Language isn’t like that. We don’t just think about language, we think in language. Language has a privileged place in our brains. No, even that is misleading. Language is the very stuff of the mind. As teachers we know this. This is why to talk about language we need metalanguage. All of this makes its way into our teaching; any good TEFL course or MA program makes sure of that.

But our students aren’t trained professionals. They likely don’t spend hours pondering the nature of language and its practical ramifications on their studies. More important, most of them don’t just want a layman’s casual familiarity with English, the casual, Trivial-Pursuit-card factoids that we are left with from our science and history classes. They want fluency, mastery.

And yet, if your students are anything like mine, many of them approach the language as though it were a series of facts to be memorized. They make vocab lists and flashcards, want teacher-centered lectures and explanations, think that speaking activities are just the “fun” part of class and want more “serious” activities like grammar exercises.

Building an awareness of this tendency is important, especially with adult ELLs. Here are a few strategies that can help your students to addresss this issue:

  1. Introduce the distinction between learning and acquisition, and with them, what we know about how acquisition occurs.
  2. Assign thinking in English for homework.
  3. Emphasize the value of speaking English at home over studying English at home.

How do you help your students become aware of how they learn language?

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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4 Responses to Helping Language Learners Learn How to Learn Language

  1. francis chege says:

    thank you very much for sharing

  2. Aaron Royer says:

    I always try to spend some time on the difference between acquisition and learning, though this can be somewhat difficult to convey, especially to beginners. Perhaps more importantly, though, I like to introduce them to the concept of what it means to “speak” a language. One way to do this is via can-do statements: These allow students to track their progress and set goals for themselves. Also, this definition of language proficiency de-emphasizes grammar and the notion that language is “a series of facts to be memorized.”

  3. MaryAnn Voveris says:

    Excellent post Rob !
    I practice the last 2 !

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