How are languages learned? A shared question for research at LUCL and ICLON  0

The title of this blog contains a Big Question: “How are languages learned?” I would say this is an intriguing question, considering how quickly children learn the vast amount of knowledge and skills needed for successful communication. They start with crying, giggling, and babbling some sounds, and by the age of three they are talking your heads off. This Big question is one of the fundamental questions of the broad research field of Linguistics. “How are languages learned” is also one of the big questions for practice-oriented research informing foreign language pedagogy, and the learnability question includes another relevant question for both fields: how language learning is the same or different for early versus late learners.

Fundamental questions in linguistics

If we consider the other three fundamental questions in the field of linguistics, we can even conclude that these questions are related to the first, learnability-question, and therefore also relevant for foreign language pedagogy research:

  • How do languages all over the world differ (are languages equally easy or hard to learn?);
  • how do languages change over time (how is language learning leading to language change?);
  • and how is language produced and understood in real time (how do cognitive processes lead to language learning and how are the cognitive processes the same or different for early and late language learners?).

Linguists take different angles when tackling these issues. The question about how languages differ is mainly a structural question, and linguists have described languages at different levels: from the level of sounds to the level of text or discourse organization. How and why languages change is mainly a social question, as languages change through generations, through contact between languages due to migration, and because of people’s need to belong to social groups. The question how languages are processed in real time is cognitive, where linguists investigate how and which cognitive processes are put into action, for instance for the enormous task of listening and speaking with about 5 words per second. The same structural, social, and cognitive viewpoints towards language are also relevant for research into foreign language pedagogy, to answer the more direct practice-oriented question “How to teach language?”.

A unique position for foreign language classroom research

This means that for such practice-oriented research, an enormous amount of relevant research as well as a vast tradition in research methods is available. If we would compare this to research into pedagogy of other school subjects, it becomes clear that this situation for foreign languages as school subjects is unique. Take Biology, for example. It is not the case that the research field of Biology busies itself mostly with the question “How is Biology learned?” Likewise, the main research question of History is not “How do people learn History?”, etcetera.

Practice-oriented research and fundamental research both inform foreign language pedagogy

My conclusion for this blog is that both fundamental and practice-oriented research are needed to better understand and promote language learning and teaching in the classroom. For instance, to investigate successful didactics for teaching verb forms in Spanish, researchers first need to know which verb forms are problematic and why. Or for (research into) teaching and assessing speaking skills, it is first necessary to understand the construct of speaking in a fundamental way. Because foreign language learning research is partly built upon the vast research tradition of Linguistics, I would argue that we can and must make use of this unique situation and interact with researchers who work in linguistics on the more fundamental parts of the big issues to inform practice-oriented research into foreign language teaching. At Leiden University, interaction between the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL) at the faculty of humanities and the practice-oriented research at ICLON is already present. I hope we can make the collaboration in the future even stronger, for instance through the Language Learning Resource Centre as well as through working together as teachers on the two-year educational MA for (foreign) languages.


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