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Can second language learning be described as a kind of skill-based learning?


submitted by, Ornuma Surakul, Phuket Thailand

Can second language learning be described as a kind of skill-based learning, or did that idea die with Audiolingualism?

Dr Richards Responds:

Since language considered from the perspective of communication is a form of behavior, some aspects of language learning can be considered an example of skill-based learning. Skill learning theory suggests that complex behaviours are made up of a hierarchy of skills. Complex skills such as how to take part in conversation or how to read a newspaper can be broken down into individual component skills. These exist in a hierarchy from lower level skills (e.g. in reading a text – recognizing key words in a text) to higher level skills (e.g. recognizing the writer’s attitude to the topic of a text) and the lower-level skills need to be acquired before the higher-level skills can be used. Initially, skills are often consciously managed and directed by the learner. This is called controlled processing. Over time they can become automatic and do not require conscious attention. This is called automatic processing. Learning involves development from controlled to automatic processing, i.e. the cumulative learning of lower-level skills. For example when pianists learn to play a new piece of music pianists often initially study the score to make decisions about fingering, phrasing and so on. They then learn the piece, usually in sections, often starting with a very slow performance of the piece as they master difficult sections using controlled processing, and gradually moving towards faster performance. Eventually they learn to play it from memory without using the printed score as a guide. Many of the decisions they had to solve while learning the piece are now made automatically as the piece is performed using automatic processing. Sometimes however as part of their regular practice sessions they may return to the use of controlled processing and practice the piece again very slowly and in shorter sections until they pick up fluent performance of the piece again (check out Josh Wright on Youtube)…

I think that many aspects of second language learning can similarly be understood from a skill-based perspective, such as the ability to compose complex written texts, the ability to understand spoken and written texts, and the ability to speak fluently and coherently. And central to the notion of skill-based learning is the notion of practice. Practice refers to repeated opportunities to use language over time. Practice is normally accompanied by feedback, allowing the learner to gradually improve his or her performance over time . However it is important to distinguish mechanical practice from meaningful practice. In approaches such as Audiolingualism it was assumed that practice in itself would lead to learning and whether the practice was meaningful or part of the process of communication was not important. Mechanical practice activities in the classroom or language laboratory that could be carried out without any real conscious attention were part of this approach. Current views of practice however see it as involving meaningful language use, either through interaction (in the case of conversation) or through meaningful processing of language (e.g. as in reading and listening).

For further information I recommend the following:

  • DeKeyser, Robert N. 2007 (a) (ed).Practice in a Second Language: Perspectives from Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • DeKeyser, Robert N. 2007 (b).Skill acquisition theory. In B. VanPatten and J. Williams (Eds), Theories in Second Language Acquisition:An Introduction. 97=113 Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum