A Language 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, attitude, 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?

Waterfall Lesson Planning

[Adapted from a post I made on another blog a few years ago.]

I often have the opportunity to sit on a panel of experienced teachers [1].  Being on panels like this where novice teachers [2] ask questions about teaching is always an enlightening experience. It makes me reflect a lot on my past teaching experiences. I’m also occasionally lucky enough to have a brilliant description of a rather obvious process leave my mouth. One of the teachers asked the panel about lesson planning. I thought of my approach to lesson planning and opened my mouth. In that moment, I named my process the Waterfall Approach. It’s a process I’ve used for a long time but never named.

Waterfalls are beautiful sites. The fluid mechanics involved and the mark they leave on the terrain are incredible. A few years ago, I went to. You can’t get to the falls by car—you take about a three mile hike to get to the bottom or last of the falls.

I’ve never been to the top, but there is a small pool. When it is full, the overflowing [3] water creates a waterfall. This is the approach I like to take when lesson planning.

Life as a teacher is easiest for me when I first do all of the lesson planning possible at the beginning of the semester—actually before the semester begins if possible. The semester pool is very deep, so I try to do as much planning and prep as possible. What doesn’t fit flows into the smaller weekly pools. I try to set aside a time each week to plan for the next week. At this point, you might be thinking if there is anything that spills over into the daily pool. By now I’ve put so much effort into my classes that I can use the daily pool to customize the lesson based on the needs of the class. I’ve found that moving as much planning as possible to the beginning of a semester cuts down on stress and burnout and increased the quality of my teaching.

My image below probably needs some tweaking, but hopefully it represents my approach. The sand or dirt represents the time I spend lesson planning. If I spend a bunch of time at the beginning then my weekly and daily lesson planning time decreases.

It might not work for everyone, but it’s an approach that helps me.

[1] As much as I would like to talk about what makes a teacher “experienced,” I’ll save that for a later post.

[2] We’ll have to define “novice” sometime in the future, too.

[3] It’s always overflowing—all year long—you can create your own symbolism for that.

Using Siri in the Classroom

This isn’t really a post about how to use Siri in the classroom. Well, it could be. This semester I have a deaf student in my class. He’s fluent in Russian, Uzbek, American Sign Language, and Russian Sign Language. He’s here to learn English. Communication with him involves an interpreter or a series of notes on paper. Enter Siri. After class, his interpreter had to leave but he still needed to talk. Honestly, I got tired of writing/typing everything. It was slow and annoying. I opened up notes on my ipad mini and started using Siri. I could say whatever I wanted and it would be written in real time. He would then type his response. It sped up our communication and was fun for both of us. Siri, thanks for making my job easier and enjoyable!

Dana Ferris at BYU

The Linguistics and English Language Department at BYU is sponsoring a lecture series on second language literacy. Today, Dana Ferris was the speaker. It was great to here her speak. She is a very intelligent person with a clear perception of the field. She provided some very helpful insights about teaching. She listed 10 things she feels are the most important in developing literacy.

  1. Extensive reading
  2. Vocabulary Development
  3. Text Selection
  4. Reading Strategies
  5. Reading/Writing Assessment
  6. Peer Response
  7. Teacher Feedback
  8. Grammar Instruction
  9. Written Corrective Feedback
  10. Collaboration Among Faculty

One of the things that I enjoyed about her was her attitude toward working with others. She said we don’t need be prideful and that we don’t need to have a chip on a shoulder. We should be willing to work with English departments and all departments to help ESL student write better. This really stuck out to me. We, as ESL professionals, don’t know everything.

She also brought up some things that teachers do that are “mean.” She said that the high-stakes timed writing is mean. She said that when teachers wait to give feedback until the final draft is “mean.” I agree.

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.

My Profession

I recently recieved and email from a former student. He is taking a class that is helping students explore various careers. One of the assignments is to interview someone in a profession you might be interested in. He asked me a few questions, and I thought it might make for an interesting post.

1. What do you do?
I teach English as a Second Language, develop ESL Curriculum, and train student teachers.

2. How did you get interested in this type of work? Get started in this job?
I have always been interested in language. I have always known that I wanted a job that would require langauge skills. When I came home from my mission, I took a Spanish class. The teacher was also and ESL teacher and told good stories. That got me interested. Later, I met my wife who was an ESL teacher. I observed her class, and I was hooked!

3. How long have you been doing this kind of work?
5+ years

4. What are 3-5 of the most common activities you do on a typical day?
teach, grade, write curriculum, email, talk to students

5. What is your ultimate career goal?
I always want to teach. In the long run, I want an administrative position that works with language teaching and instructional technology.

6. How did you prepare yourself? Any special schooling, classes, volunteer experience? How much did it cost?
I got an MA in TESOL from BYU. It took a little more than 1.5 years (past my BA) and cost me about $3000 after scholarships.

7. What classes or projects can I do to prepare myself for this career? What is the most valuable thing you learned in college that helped in this career?
Classes: Any TESOL classes. If you want to be involved in this career, you should get a graduate certificate(at least) in teaching ESL.
Projects: Observe ESL classes, volunteer as a teacher or TA
Most Valuable thing learned: not to procrastinate

8. Knowing what you know now, would you take this same career path? Why?
Yes. It is Rewarding! It is fun! It’s what I love to do!

9. What do you like the most about your job?
Helping students learn English, and helping teachers helps students learn English.

10. What are the least rewarding aspects of your job?
Grading long exams.

11. What skills or personal qualities are necessary in this career? • What type of people do you work with?
You should be outgoing, happy, punctual, responsible, understanding, intelligent, willing, and dilligent. You should have experience learning language. These are the type of people I work with.

12. What are other specialties in this career area?
Test Development, teacher training, materials development,
more specific focuses in grammar, reading, writing, vocabulary, listening, speaking, pronunciation, culture

13. Would you advise young people to enter this career area? Why/why not?
If you want to work in the US:
This is a tough question. If you are a woman and are interested in it AND planning on depending on your spouse for your main source of income, definitely. Due to the lack of full-time job opportunities, if you are a man, you need to think twice. Supporting a family may require private insurance and teaching part-time at multiple institutions. It can be tough. However, if you are devoted, go for it. It will take a lot of work to get a stable full-time job, but if it is what you want to do, do it!
If you want to work in other countries:

14. What is the job outlook? What will affect its growth or decline?
The job outlook is always good for part-time teaching. Full-time teaching is much more difficult to find. The number of visas given to applicants in programs and the exchange rate are the main things that affect job outlook. For example, the two countries that provide BYU with the most students, Mexico and Korean, are both having some exchange rate issues with the dollar. In Korea, their money just became half as valuable as it was a year ago. This can really affect the number of students and the number of jobs available.

15. What are the main challenges in this industry?
Visas issued and exchange rates.

16. What do you think one should expect as a starting salary?

17. What is the salary range for someone with 3 years experience? 7 years experience?
3 years: 36k – 50k
7 years: 36k-55k

18. How does your job affect your family and leisure life? How do you balance the many life roles you play (employee, spouse, parent, community volunteer, church worker, etc.)?
It works out really well. I am only obligated to be at the workplace when I am teaching. I am obligated to work 40-50 hours a week. Some weeks I spend 50 hours at work, others only 20 and I do the other 30 at home. I can also work at anytime (besides the classes I teach). I have often worked on curriculum development or grading late at night after family and church obligations are over or early in the morning. I can also use my off-time in the summer to spend with my family and go camping with youth groups in the summer.

19. Do you have any specific advice for someone who is considering entering into this particular profession?
Network. the best way to get a job is to know people, or better yet, for them to know you. Think carefully if you are going to be the sole income provider for a family. You will probably need to have some special skill to get a job that does not just involve teaching in order to have a stable job with stable income and healthcare benefits.

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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