A Langauge Learning Framework

As a linguist, language learner, and language teacher I am often asked questions similar to the following:

  • So how do you actually learn a language?
  • What can I do to learn a language more easily?
  • How can I learn a language more quickly?
  • What’s the trick to learning a new language?
  • In your experience, what are the best ways to learn a new language?

These are all great questions with no short answers. However, as I’ve observed my own language learning and the learning of countless others, I’ve identified three components to language learning. My hypothesis is that if at least two of these components are present, the language learner will be successful. When all three components are present, you may find an exceptional language learner.

This concept needs testing. I invite anyone who wishes to prove or disprove this hypothesis to please do so.

Aptitude, aptitude, and access are three factors that contribute to second language acquisition.


Aptitude refers to the learner’s natural ability or capacity to learn language. This is not necessarily connected to general intelligence. Some people have a natural aptitude for language learning. When I first shared this idea with a group of language teachers, Ray Clifford pointed out that we can do some things to increase aptitude. While nature is clearly a factor here, nurture may be as well.


Attitude refers to several factors. Motivation centers on the reasons for learning and the impact those reasons have on effort. Effort is the time and work put into learning a language. In one of my earlier drafts I called this component effort because of the huge impact it can have. After thinking about it, effort is directly connected to the attitude of the learner. But attitude is not limited to effort. What types of attitudes do language learners have toward risk-taking, failure, and success? Certainly, these learner responses to these situations have an impact on effort and progress.


I’m thankful that Troy Cox found a better name for this one. When I mentioned these ideas over lunch I used the term environment. When he was talking to another colleague he remembered it as access. Access seems to target the core idea of environment. Certain environments are more conducive to learning a language. This may refer to being in a country where the target language is spoken or it may refer to classroom culture and instruction. The concept behind access is that the the language learner has unfettered access to language input and opportunities for language output.

Implications for Language Learners

While ideal, it might be rare to have all three factors in a language learning situation. But, having two of these generally leads to effective language acquisition. What can the language learner do to enhance any of these areas? There are probably a multitude of activities and practices that could help strengthen language learners in these three areas. Perhaps, the first step is to simply let language learners know about the three components. I am continually impressed by how my students can take knowledge and understanding and convert it into application.

Implications of Language Teachers

Ideally, teachers should help learners reach their potential in these three areas. Some may be easier to tackle than others. Perhaps access is the area in which teachers can have the most impact on language acquisition. The culture of the classroom coupled with effective instruction can promote language acquisition. Then again, teachers have the opportunity to inspire their students which may impact attitude. And, does the very act of learning a language increase language learning aptitude? Are there other things we can do to increase aptitude?

Great Lifehacker Post

I have not been a great blogger lately. I can’t believe that my last post was on May 31st. This week I saw a great post on lifehacker.com. Lifehacker is an awesome blog with loads of posts about interesting tips about life. This week they had a post on some language tools. Click here to check them out.

I had seen or used most of the tools, but the one I didn’t know about was After the Deadline. So far, it seems to be quite good. It’s a nifty tool that could probably best be described as the Super Hero version of Spelling/Grammar Checkers. Language teachers, especially writing teachers, might find it incredibly helpful. I hope to teach a class at the ELC next semester. If I do, and if it’s writing, I might explore some of these things.

iLife, ESL, and the Past Tense

I recently did a Poster Session at an Apple Education Conference: AcademiX. It was a lot of fun. I thought that I would share what what I did. For more information you can look at the Poster Session PDF.


For starters, this is something that I did with my intermediate ESL students.  In order to help them with them learn the past tense, I gave them an assignment.

The student videos were comprised of two parts. First, the students drew their story as if it were a comic. Second, the students narrated the story.


1. The students were divided into groups of four or five.
2. Each group was assigned one of the four topics:
•    Frightening Experience – Fire
•    Frightening Experience – Car accident
•    Frightening Experience – Getting Lost
•    Most Embarrassing Moment
3. Each group brainstormed to find a good story to tell for their assigned topic.
4. The students then began to take turns drawing pictures to go with their stories.
5. While not drawing, the other students would review and practice their portion of the speaking part.

During this portion the students had great authentic language use.

Brainstorming – The students told personal stories about their past while thinking of good topics. The students negotiated ideas as they decided on a story whether fictional or real.
Practicing – The students were able to use more language as they practiced their presentation. They helped one another and corrected each other.

I should note that this was done over the course of a week. For each class period, they were given 30 minutes to work on the project.

Day 1 – Brainstorming
Day 2 – Creating a Story
Day 3 – Drawing the Pictures
Day 4 – Recording their stories

Putting it all together

1. The students pictures were scanned and imported into iPhoto where they were edited.
2. Students recorded their dialogs using GarageBand, Sound Studio or WireTap Studio Pro. The students used iMacs with their built in microphones.
3. The audio and pictures were imported into iMovie where it was all put together.


It was a fun activity for everyone. It did put a lot of the burden on me to put it all together, but it was worth it.

Video Feedback with Viddler

For the last three weeks I have been using Viddler in my Listening & Speaking classes. We went to our wonderful computer lab and I helped them all set up accounts. We made a group for the class and did some practice recordings. I have had them do three assignments so far.
Our current curriculum for Listening & Speaking has task-based objectives. The assignments so far have been to record an invitation to a party, talk about your future plans and goals, and talk about a past experience. After the students have recorded their video, they give themselves feedback by annotating the video. Some of the students really do a good job, but I obviously need to do some student training. To be honest, I don’t give the best feedback either right now. Giving feedback to 37 students can be taxing.

Overall, I am pleased with viddler. What do you use to give students feedback on speaking?

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