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LANGUAGE LEARNING Short form LL. In principle, the learning of any language or of LANGUAGE itself; in practice, in LANGUAGE TEACHING and APPLIED LINGUISTICS, the term is usually limited to the learning of foreign languages. The psychological and neurological nature of such learning is not known, but some general statements can be made about its educational and social aspects. In broad terms, there are two kinds of foreign-language learning: informal (‘picking a language up’) and formal (taking an organized course).

The market-place tradition

Although not often discussed by applied linguists, the informal approach has been by far the commoner way of learning languages, especially among migrants, refugees, traders, sailors, soldiers, and the inhabitants of frontier settlements, garrison towns, and ports. This market-place tradition is primarily oral, usually haphazard, and part of a range of adhoc communicative strategies that include gesturing, drawing pictures, using interpreters, mixing elements from two or more tongues, and guesswork. The aim has seldom been to learn an approved or ‘high’ version of another language to the fullest possible extent, but rather to use language to get something else done (‘to get by’). In the process, the boundaries between languages may not be well established. CODE-MIXING AND CODE-SWITCHING are common, especially where people know two or more language systems fairly well. One result of the widespread need to communicate at this level has been what are variously known as CONTACT LANGUAGES, makeshift languages, TRADE JARGONS, and INTERLANGUAGES, such as Bazar Malay, Lingua Franca, and Pidgin English. In course of time, under appropriate circumstances, some of these forms have evolved into new ‘full’ languages in their own right. In their early stages of stabilization and growth, such languages are known technically as creoles.

The monastery tradition

Because of its dominant position in most present-day societies, formal instruction in some kind of institution, in set periods of time, with one teacher and a class of learners in a room, has come to be seen as the ‘proper’ way to learn a language. Such formality, typical of present-day educational systems, is usually associated with certain assumptions about culture and utility: for example, it is traditionally applied more to prestige languages (such as FRENCH in Britain and English in France) than to minority or fringe languages (such as WELSH in Britain and Basque in France). In the Western world, the roots of formal learning of this type are classical, but the truly formative influence was the medieval training of religious novices in LATIN as an international language. This monastery tradition favours rote learning associated with repetition, the study of canonical texts, and grammatical analysis. Though rigorous and demanding, and greatly valued by many people, it sits apart from the world, favouring abstraction and standardization. It distances learning from immediate need, demanding discipline (often, especially formerly, by coercion: learning Latin sub virga or ‘under the rod’) and motivation (or at least submission) on the part of students.


Formal language learning is incremental. It is absorbed (or not absorbed) in doses, and runs from zero to whatever ceiling is reached. Progress is usually marked by a reduction of dependence on the teacher and changes in the kind of help needed. Such changes are gradual and occur at different rates for different people and in different aspects of learning. There are no easily displayed tokens of attainment, but administrators, teachers, and students need indicators of attainment, and for this purpose three levels are generally assumed: beginner, intermediate, advanced.

1. Beginner.

In the classroom, learning is at first by courtesy of the teacher. At first, beginners understand little and produce nothing, then gradually they understand individual words, fixed formulas, and disconnected items in speech or text. There is often little creative scope, frustration is common, and regular praise and reassurance are essential. Translation is constant and often overt. Generally, learning to understand (receptive ability) is faster than learning to express (productive ability). Performance is usually poor at this stage and dominated by the mother tongue.

2. Intermediate.

When learners begin to produce their own phrases and sentences they can use their own creativity in making mental connections (sometimes correct, often wrong, constantly developing) between items already encountered and partly learned. They make guesses, set up provisional theories about what things mean, or how they might be expressed, and modify them in the light of experience. Much of the learner's grasp of syntax is now established, though with gaps and shortcomings. Dependence on TRANSLATION (spoken or mental) is less compulsive. At this stage, many learners stop, their capacity fossilized. For more motivated students, however, it is the level at which the performance skills (speaking and writing) improve rapidly, given opportunity, stimulation, and time for assimilation.

3. Advanced.

Learners at the advanced stage use their own creativity and seek delicate discriminations of meaning, stylistic niceties, subtleties of culture and discourse, and greater acquaintance with the language. All going well, inner translation continues to decline and fluency, speed, and accuracy continue to develop. At this level, many learners achieve a close approximation to the skills of the native speaker of the target language.


The levels are not watertight. Individuals rise imperceptibly from one to the other, and may also slip back. Members of a class do not move forward uniformly, and the varying rates of fast, average, and slow learners may pose problems for teacher and students. Teachers, writers, and publishers often divide the levels into six: absolute beginner, beginner-to-intermediate, lower intermediate, upper intermediate, early advanced, late advanced, making it easier to structure courses and materials and conduct attainment tests. Although the market-place and the monastery continue to be well-separated styles of language learning, there is a growing tendency to open the classroom door and let the world in, or take students out into that world to immerse them for a time in ‘real’ usage, before returning to the classroom for a time of consolidation. See CHILD LANGUAGE ACQUISITION.

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