Basic Principles of Language Learning

Tom HutchinsonAlan Waters

Cambridge University Press

(Extracted from English for Specific Purposes pages 128-143)

  • Second Language learning is a developmental process:

Learners use their existing knowledge to make the new information comprehensible. Only in this way can learning take place. Comprehension precedes learning. The learner’s existing state of knowledge is, therefore, a vital element in the success or failure of learning, and the good teacher will consequently try to establish and exploit what the learners already know.


  • Learning is an emotional experience:

Our concern should be to develop the positive emotions as opposed to the negative ones by, for example;

Using pair and group work to build on existing social relationships;

  • giving students time to think and generally avoiding undue pressure;
  • putting less emphasis on the product (the right answer) and more on the process of getting an answer;
  • valuing attitude as much as aptitude and ability;
  • making ‘interest’, ‘fun’, ‘variety’ primary considerations in materials and methodology.


  • Language learning is an active process:

It is not enough for learners just to have the necessary knowledge to make things meaningful, they must also use that knowledge. However, it is important to be clear what we mean by the term active. We must make a distinction between two types of activity:


  1. Psycho-motor activity, that is, the observable movement of speech organs or limbs in accordance with signals from the brain;
  2. Language processing activity, that is, the organization of information into a meaningful network of knowledge. This kind of activity is internal and not observable.


It is the language processing activity which is the important factor. If language is not connected into the network, the psycho-motor activity will have little if any benefit. In practical terms this means that activity should not be judged in terms of how much learners say or write, but in terms of how much the learners have to think- to use their cognitive capacities and knowledge of the world to make sense of the flow of new information.


  • Language learning is a decision-making process:

In the traditional classroom the teacher made all the decisions. Indeed it was essential for the teacher to do so in order to avoid all possibilities of error- you can’t make decisions without taking risks and taking risks makes errors possible or even likely. But the process of developing and using a network of knowledge relies upon learner’s decisions.


  • Language learning is not just a matter of linguistic knowledge:

The most fundamental problem of second language learning is the mismatch between the learners’ conceptual/cognitive capacities and the learners’ linguistic level. In mother tongue they develop together. In the second language they are grossly out of focus: the second language learner is someone who is conceptually and cognitively mature, but is linguistically an infant. Teaching must respect both levels of the learners’ state.


  • Language learning is not the learners’ first experience with language:

Every second language learner is already communicatively competent in one language. They do not know the specific forms, words or possibly some of the concepts of the target language, but they know what communication is and how it is used. Learners’ knowledge of communication should be actively exploited in second language learning, for example, by getting students to predict, before reading or listening.


  • Language learning is to a large extent incidental:

You don’t have to be working with language problems in order to learn language. You can learn a language incidentally, while you are actually thinking about something else. The problems to be solved in a problem-solving approach do not have to be language problems. The important point is that the problems should oblige the learners to use language and thereby to fix the language into the matrix of knowledge in their minds.


  • Language learning is not systematic:

We learn by systematizing knowledge, but the process itself is not systematic. Laying out information in a systematic way will not guarantee learning. The learner must create an internal system. An external system may help, but that is all it can do.


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