Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Re-visiting Old Thoughts about Language and Language Learning

Back in 1998, I started writing down ideas for an Advanced Spanish Composition/Conversation "book" to accompany the courses I was teaching at the University of Oklahoma. I haven't thought about that project in more than a decade, but a comment by a co-worker on the limits of language made me go back and dig out the introduction I wrote back then.

For the most part, I hold the same thoughts about language as I did back then. Naturally, here has been some evolution. I am probably less influenced by complexity theory than I was back then, and my thinking is more influenced by non-verbal communication theories.


Learning is the accrual and evolution of human wisdom through cultural patterns of spoken, written, and lived symbols.  It takes place over time and occurs ideally in environments where real change and interaction are permitted.

Language, in this context, is defined as the symbolic expression of self or communal awareness. The greater a learner's awareness of her/his self and environment the greater will be his/her desire to master the symbols of communication.  Most second language textbooks assume such self-knowledge and its accompanying motivation.  This e-text/environment centers first on the learner's need to know self before the desire to know symbols.

Oral proficiency in a language is only achieved through the repeated use of that language in uncontrolled/uncontrollable contexts.  El Camino (the book project) leads the learner through a rich variety of such contexts by placing the learner and her/his evolving interests at the center of all learning activities.  Through improvisational and extemporaneous speaking and writing, learners overcome the obstacles of spontaneity and self-doubt, and develop a wide comfort zone for use of the target language.

Composition proficiency in a language is developed and achieved via the acquisition of vocabulary, the study of model written texts in that language, and the practice of different writing modes both in rehearsed and non-rehearsed settings. El Camino provides the learner with a wealth of authentic, written texts for study and stimulated composition.  The many samples of texts included in El Camino, available in both written and audio formats, are augmented by a vast library of stored Internet texts and electronic newspapers and journals.

Ideal and efficient second language acquisition involves the following learning environment assumptions/components:

  • Information is dynamic.  It is fluid and ever-changing as opposed to being static content that is easily encoded, packaged, sent, decoded, and digested without variation.

  • Architecture of the environment is open.  Evolution is built-in.  There is no attempt to pre-determine what final outcomes will be or what final form of the system will emerge.

  • Change (in any direction) must be possible.  Positive feedback (in which small effects are reinforced and produce evolution to the next stage(s) of development) is essential.  As the learning community develops particular interests and skills, a unique character for the community emerges and emphases must adapt to match that evolving character.

  • Emphasis of the learning environment is entirely on doing (the use/misuse of the language by the learners).

  • Objectives for any community of learners can only be defined after the completion a particular stage/chapter.  As such, these objectives serve as markers to show where the community of learners has been as opposed to where it might be headed.

  • Process of second language acquisition is clear to all learners and its discussion is part of the learning environment and community.

  • Inquiry and investigation are the active processes of all learning in the community.

  • Creativity, both in terms of target language use and personal development, is essential.

  • Learners are inevitably heterogeneous with distinct interests, motivations, and learning styles.

  • Learners as community and learners as individuals receive equal attention.  In this way learners can learn from other learners as well as self with the language serving as the only real classroom authority.

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