Being a Foreign Language Learner

In 2004, I was assigned to be a Korean learner by the university to have further learning experience and have a chance to re-think my past teaching. Then, I was given an assignment which I finished in late October, 2004. I post the whole text here to share with you. You can also “download the PDF version of this article here.": Your comments are welcome.

In what ways (if any) has the experience of being a learner of Korean given you a different or deeper insight into the learning process?
What have you learnt that can help you as a learner and teacher?

1. Introduction:
In recent days, language teaching has transformed from “teacher-centred” to “learner-centered,” which means language teachers should concentrate more on the learner’s needs and tailor the language courses for better learning experience and acquisition. Language-learning experience (LLE) is a term to explain that teachers can re-think language-learning process by learning a new language (Waters et al, 1990). This means teachers are provided with many chances of foreign language learning and discussions held by teacher-developers in order to discover the LLE’s potential and to raise the awareness of the language-learning process. Since two Korean language lessons have been applied in the induction week, this assignment will be dealing with the LLE issues first. Strength and limitation of the LLE concept will be discussed with related literature followed by some insights about language learning strategies. Reflections on the Korean language learning sessions will also be provided.

2. Literature Review:
Hedge (2000) claims that in ‘learner-centred’ ELT, learners can contribute ideas for teachers to re-construct and monitor the language courses from different perspectives. Therefore, it is reasonable to get teachers to set back to learners’ position/point of view ‘to increase the understanding of language-learning process.’ (Waters et al, 1990 pp.305) Teachers and researchers are encouraged to find out in detail how learners process the language input and get practical ideas to foster the factors in favour of language learning and to prevent the factors that affect the quality of learning experience. In this way, teachers are provided with opportunities to identify personal insights into teaching language learning strategies. Through working with this introspective process, teachers might gain further information of language learning strategies and apply to the future home teaching (Waters et al, 1990).

The LLE’s main purposes and possible advantages can be summarized as follows:
1. To facilitate a more learner-centred perspective.
2. An introduction to experiential learning.
3. The formation of group identity.
4. Valuing one’s own judgments.
5. Extrapolating from course work.
6. To better use metalanguage to help teaching.
7. To provide a shared point of reference.
8. A basis for developing writing skills. (Waters et al, 1990 pp.306-8)
The LLE can serve teachers as a tool to get information about the strategies they use. Through discussion sessions, they are provoked by peer teachers to know their strategies in use because sometimes the strategies would be in subconsciousness without being noticed. Metalanguage can also be introduced by the teachers/participants and the teacher-developers and clarified to help managing teaching.

However, drawbacks of the LLE should be noticed by the participants and the teacher-developers to prevent bad effects. For example, the fact that the target language may be too easy or too difficult for a particular group would lead to the lack of motivation of the participants. This could be a problem in getting the most benefit from the LLE (Waters et al, 1990). The participants or teacher-developers may misunderstand the real aims of the LLE and see the lessons as ‘models’ of teaching. They may try to apply everything they learnt from the LLE course without generalisation and transferring their insights into the home teaching situation (HTS). In other words, the participants and the teacher-developers should keep in their mind the ultimate aims of the LLE, that is, to increase awareness of language leaning, while the courses move on.

3. Personal Experience:
In the first two weeks of the MA course in Media Technology for TESOL, I was introduced two Korean language learning sessions. The learner diary notes were also introduced by the lecturers to help participants, including me, to have better understanding the learning process and the strategies which had been used during those sessions. The learner diaries are powerful tools to record, analyse, and develop learning strategies for later reflections on learning process (Seidlhofer 2001, pp.64). Some insights did arise during those sessions and needed to be jotted down on the learner diary notes and it was very useful to me to organize the thoughts to come to conclusions about language learning process. It can also be served as a meta-cognitive way to get students to monitor consciously about their errors.

It is also delightful for me to see that all of the strategies I noted in the learner diary fit into the strategy scheme/system developed by Oxford (1992-3). The strategy system has six categories of L2 learning behaviors: affective, social, meta-cognitive, memory-related, general cognitive, and compensatory. The most significant finding to me is that I made good use of social strategies to further my learning. Forgetting the pronunciation of Korean words or grammar rules in Korean sentences was observed very often during the two sessions. The help from other peers was very valuable when encountering problems, especially those mnemonic ones.

In my learning diary notes, I proposed two sub-categories of the peer help would be: ‘active’ and ‘passive.’ The reason why I categorise the peer help is that when I noticed I forgot the pronunciation of a certain word, I could easily recall it as the Korean teacher asked the whole class to do pronunciation drilling. This kind of help from peers can be considered as ‘passive help.’ The ‘active help’ could be obtained when the language learner ask questions directly to other learners to get recall. According to Oxford (1992-3 pp.20), ‘the learner is a “whole person” who uses intellectual, social, emotional, and physical resources and is therefore not merely a cognitive/meta-cognitive information processing machine.’ The social strategies are very powerful and often used as a means to gain language skills (O’Malley and Chamot, 1990); therefore, the importance of social strategies in the ‘whole person’ theory proposed by Oxford become very important and the approaches to facilitate active/passive peer help should be taken into consideration for the future HTS.

Some of the features of the first language (L1) can be used as elements to facilitate the second language (L2) learning; therefore, raising language awareness about both L1 and L2 can be beneficial for learners (Lier 2001, pp.161). Korean (L2) and Chinese (L1 for me) share a lot of similar characteristics in word forming and pronunciation as they are both East Asian languages. The meta-cognitive strategies can be used to monitor and mark down the pronunciation errors. For example, I noticed that my Korean pronunciation of the word, ‘grape,’ was wrong in the beginning of the first session. After I monitored the pronunciation error in L2, I chose to think about my L1 and got the idea that the word ‘grape’ is quite similar in pronunciations in both languages. After I corrected my errors in the practice activity, the teacher came and heard my right pronunciation and gave oral rewards. I was affirmed by the teacher at that moment, which can also be taken as self-encouragement (an affective strategy) later in mind. This experience again confirms the ‘whole person’ statement proposed by Oxford (1992-3) as judged from the experience above, all the strategies were interwoven to help language learning in those sessions. In other words, different kinds of strategies should be combined and organised well to assure that the maximum learning effectiveness can be taken by students in the HTS.

4. Conclusions:
Since language teachers are the ones who have good skills in the target languages and would possibly forget the language learning process and the strategies they use in the early stage of learning, the LLE can be used by teacher-developers to provoke the insights of teachers into the essence of the L2 learning and help the teacher to facilitate the new language learning in the HTS. The learning diary can be used as a good tool to reshape the language teacher’s understanding of the L2 acquisition from the learner’s perspective. In addition, personal development in teaching language skills and strategies can also be developed from it. Because learners should be considered as a ‘whole person,’ different kinds of strategies should be interwoven in a well-organized structure and be instructed explicitly in order to assure the effectiveness of those strategies used.

Hedge, T. (2000) Teaching and Leaning in the Language Classroom. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
Lier, L. (2001) “Language Awareness.” In R. Carter, and D. Nunan, ed. Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: CUP.
Oxford, R. L. (1992-3) “Language learning strategies in a nutshell: update and ESL suggestions.” TESOL Journal, Winter 1992-3, pp.18-22.
O’Malley, J. M. and A. U. Chamot (1990) Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: CUP.
Seidlhofer, B. (2001) “Pronunciation.” In R. Carter, and D. Nunan, ed. Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: CUP.
Waters, A., J. Sunderland, T. Bray and J. Allwright (1990) “Getting the best out of the language-learning experience.” ELT Journal, 44/4, pp. 305-315.



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