Monday, January 9, 2012

What are good language learners?

This is one of the topics of inquiry that have historically caused a lot of controversy. I am sure all the readers of this blog are language learners, though your experiences somewhat differ from each other. And, since you have all engaged in the studies of language learning/teaching, what are the elements and components of being good language learners (GLL) more or less attracts you. That's why I wanted to pick this up this time on this blog.

Let me briefly summarize the historical background of GLL studies. Rubin, in her 1975 seminal work entitled "What the "good language learner" can tell us?" (TESOL Quarterly, 9(1), 41-51), tried to figure out some commonality in learning styles among successful L2 learners. This is generally seen as the origin of GLL studies. In light of this, many applied linguistics have dealt with this topic of inquiry from various kinds of approaches. One of the popular studies includes Rebecca Oxford's study where she conducted some questionnaire survey, aka Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL), and categorized two categories of learning strategies: 1) direct strategies (including memory, cognitive, and compensation strategies), and 2) indirect strategies (including metacognitive, affective, and social strategies). As another notable study of this kind, Pintrich & De Groot (1990) is often referred to. They administered some questionnaire survey to investigate the correlation between some components of successful language learners, such as self-efficacy, intrinsic value, test anxiety, self-regulation, and the use of learning strategies. Likewise, Dornyei, a hungarian applied linguist, proclaimed that motivation is one of the elements that determines the L2 learning success and thus provided a model of motivation specific to L2 learning, which is very different from Gardner & Lambert model based on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation dichotomy. Wenger (1998), from a more sociocultural-theory-oriented standpoint, explained that the community of practice (CoP), where you have 1) joint enterprise, 2) mutual engagement, and 3) shared repertoire, will help you gain identity and thus enhance your study. By the same token, many applied linguists from all over the world have tackled the issue of GLL from various kinds of approaches.

The studies I mentioned above were some examples of popular studies of this discipline. There must be many more works you might want to cite in addition to these. I am looking forward to reading your comments about this. And, after the millennium, there appears some slight paradigm shift on methodology of this discipline (or, it looks like it in my impression). That is, the shift from quantitative approaches to more qualitative-oriented ones. The above works have all relied on quantitative methods, except Wenger who provided some theories of learning. And, many applied linguists have gradually begun to problematize that statistic approaches can help you capture only partial aspects of the complex reality of learning. And thus, they called for some alternative methodological possibilities that will guide them to take a holistic perspective of analysis, aka qualitative approaches. (And, please keep in mind that this is basically based on my impression, though it might be true to many other applied linguists.) One of the noteworthy study with qualitative approaches to GLL was conducted by Ushioda (2001), where she found out the time-model of motivational shift through longitudinal ethnographic observation.

I personally want to pay attention to the study conducted by Prof. Yoshifumi Saito, 『英語達人列伝』(Eigo Tatsujin Retsuden, meaning "The legend of English Masters' in Japan"). This seminal work of his has figured out some commonality of English learning styles of Japanese famous English masters, such as Nitobe Inazo, Okakura Tenshin, and Saito Shuzaburo. Prof. Saito's work employed a literature-reveiw approach to find out how those intellectual giants had mastered English, and thus I will define this as more qualitative. Gary Barkhuizen, whom I have personally paid a lot of attention to, also dealt with this topic by employing a narrative inquiry to figure out how learners interpret their learning experiences. In sum, it has been about 40 years since people started to discuss what GLLs are, however, it has been still so demanded. And, there is still some more room to explore in this realm.

I personally think all of these approaches are pretty important and thus appreciable. However, we still need to expand this to include the learners' actual linguistic performance under some condition of contingency, such as business meeting, presentation, and negotiation. In this light, I am thinking about having a look at successful language learners by combining macro (through qualitative-based narrative approaches) and micro (through conversation analysis) perspectives. As a result, I want to find out some commonality of learning styles in relation to the use of communication strategies. That is, I am interested in seeing how the difference in learning style of successful language learners will lead them to use different communication strategies in their actual linguistic performance. Based upon this finding, I will guide readers to the notion of strategy-based language learning, which I talked a little bit about with you last time in KLA. My ultimate goal is to develop second language learning curriculum based on this research finding.

Thank you very much for reading these long paragraphs. This is my idea. What do you think? How do you define GLLs? How do you tackle this issue yourself? I would love to hear from any of you very soon!

Yoichi Sato