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What do you understand by a "learning strategy" and why might learning strategies be important in language learning? Discuss the kinds of strategies that have been identified and the relationship between strategy use and second language proficiency. Why might strategy training be important for language learners?
A brief description of what role learning strategies play when it comes to learning a new language is the steps that are taken by a person in order to enhance their own knowledge of other languages, these steps are very important for language learning as they are seen as the main tools for any form of involvement (such as self-directed). Research into language learning strategies began roughly around the 1960s, at first it revolved around the cognitive developments of a learner and how it influenced the majority of research on language learning strategies (Williams and Burden 1997:149).
It was until the middle of the 1970's that focus of language strategy research was based around classroom environments; afterwards research began to expand to other kinds of strategic methods.
"From the mid 70's the emphasis moved from a concern with the methods and products of language teaching to focus on the learner, with growing inquiry into how language learners process, store, retrieve and use TL material." (S. Hurd & T. Lewis, 2008: 8)
The language strategies considered to be more appropriate for gaining knowledge of another language not only result in an improved proficiency but a yearn to possibly learn other languages for their own self-esteem. Another way to look at learning strategies is to see them as what Rebecca Oxford describes them as "memory devices" (R.Oxford, 1990:1), these memory strategies are believed to have been used for quite some time in order to help narrators/story tellers remember things they needed to say/write. Language strategies have been shown to range from control-based to naturalistic, and are nowadays recognized throughout most educational subjects. The obvious goal of a learning strategy is orientated towards succeeding in grasping a language and being able to communicate it correctly to those around them. The strategies considered to be affective allow the learners to improve their self-confidence and determination that is needed for them to actively engage themselves in language learning; this is an important requirement in order for the learner to attain communicative competence (the ability to communicate in both spoken and written language).
Oxford (1999) refers to learning strategies as "Specific actions, behaviours, steps, or techniques that students use to improve their own progress in developing skills in a second or foreign language".
(S. Gass & L. Selinker 2008: 439) Whilst Selinker (1972) finds that "the endorsement for the separation, in principle, of language - learning strategies and communication strategies is laid out, with both being postulated as basic processes leading to the formation of inter-language, though they are not always easy to disentangle". (S. Gass & L. Selinker 2008: 439)
The idea of Language strategy is to show how it is involved in all forms of learning, regardless of its content, as well as its context. Not only is a learning strategy used when it comes to learning a second language, but also in other subjects such as science, maths and geography. Environments that are better known when it comes to including strategies of learning something are classroom settings and other possible learning surroundings both formal and informal. The intended outcome for a learner when it comes to understanding a second language different to their own depends on the strategies that they undergo as well as depending on their own personal understanding and ability to learn within a period of time. Weinstein and Mayer they defined learning strategies as the "behaviours as thoughts that a learner engages during learning which are intended to influence the learners encoding process" (C.F Weinstein & R.F Mayer 1986: 315). This process can be gained with a number of different learning strategies which can improve the learners' ability to understand information given to them. Throughout the remainder of this paper, the main focus will be centred on the language learning strategies in second language/Foreign language learning.
"A common observation is that not only are some language learners more successful than others, but also that good language learner sometimes do different things than poorer language learners. The term commonly used in the second language acquisition literature to refer to what learner's do that underlies these differences is learning strategies" (A. Cohen 1998: 4)
A way of generalising language learning can be compared with an old Chinese proverb "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime". If a person is supplied with answers before given the chance to learn and remember it themselves the memory does not remain with them, however, given the opportunity to solve language problems in a learning environment allows themselves to manage their own personal way of learning therefore what they had learnt would remain and then be put to use.
Using that proverb as a way to define the variation of language strategies had then undergone amounts of research numerous times, "learning begins with a learner" (R. L. Oxford & M. Nyikos, 1993:11) and they are the only people who can actually learn what they are given. The contribution of the learner would be determined by the features of their language learning environment, such features considered to be of large importance are the role of the tutor and how he/she allow the learners to become more confident in self-direction with what they learn from a language. Also that the learner needs to be problem-orientated, with no motivation of wanting to problem solve then the obvious outcome would show no results gained. A simpler way to look at these learning strategies is to categorise them to their core base; these being direct and indirect. (R.L. Oxford 1990:16)
Direct Strategies Cognitive Strategies
Indirect Strategies Metacognitive Strategies
Figure 1: Diagram of Strategy System (R. L. Oxford, 1990:16)
The diagram above originated by Oxford (R. L. Oxford, 1990:16), using Rigney's definition of language learning strategies; "operations employed by the learner to aid the acquisition, storage, retrieval, and use of information" (R. L. Oxford, 1990:8). Oxfords main goal was to rectify an ongoing problem where these suggested strategies appeared to be prioritised more so with cognitive and metacognitive strategies whilst other strategies such as affective and social did not seemed to be followed up via research as much as the others. All in all, Oxford classified these learning strategies into two main categories then into six smaller groups; Cognitive strategies; Memory strategies; Compensation strategies; Metacognitive strategies; Affective strategies and Social strategies.
Cognitive strategies relates to how a learner processes what they are being taught, it "Involves conscious ways of tackling learning, such as note-taking, resourcing (using dictionaries and other resources) and elaboration (relating new information to old) (V. Cook, 1996: 105). Memory strategies are what related to a learner and how they remember a language, compensation strategies are what a learner is able to make up for their limited knowledge. These first three are considered to be direct strategies (which tends to involve the target language in methods such as practice and reviewing afterwards), mean while, these three indirect strategies (providing more of an emotional support for the learner in activities such as group planning) such as affective strategies relate more so to the emotions of a learner, the metacognitive strategies "Involve planning and thinking about learning, such as planning one's learning, monitoring one's own speech, writing and evaluating how well one has done" (V. Cook, 1996: 105), so basically this strategy is what a learner uses to manage their own learning skills at a level that is more suited to them and social strategies "mean learning by interacting with others, such as working with fellow students or asking for the teachers help" (V. Cook, 1996: 105), this strategy involves mainly how a learner takes part in interaction with others in order to increase their knowledge of a language. Ellis describes Oxfords work as "perhaps the most comprehensive classification of learning strategies to date" (R. Ellis, 1994:539). Oxford also has somewhat criticised her own work as somewhat overlapping with one another, for example she believes that the feature 'planning' shown within the metacognitive strategy requires some kind of reasoning, especially amongst group-work so therefore 'planning' may also be placed under the group cognitive strategy.
Andrew Cohen Defines language learning (and language use) strategies as "those processes which are consciously selected by learners and which may result in action taken to enhance the learning or use of a second or foreign language, through the storage, retention, recall, and application of information about the language" (S. Gass & L. Selinker 2008: 439) He then continued to say that these strategies "Include strategies for indentifying the material that needs to be learned, distinguishing it from other material if need be, grouping it for easier learning (grouping vocabulary by category into nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and so forth), having repeated contact with the material (e.g., through classroom tasks or the completion of homework assignments), and formally committing the material to memory when it does not seem to be acquired naturally (whether through rote memory techniques such as repetition, the use of mnemonics, or some other memory technique)" (S. Gass & L. Selinker 2008: 439)
These examples of research into learning strategies are considered to be the centre when it comes to developing the learners' personal understanding of how to correctly solve problems of learning a language in both a direct and indirect manner.
"Relatively few studies have focused on naturalistic independent learning in an immersion context where learners have no access to formal instruction. An important piece of research in this area comes from Carson and Longhini (2002) who provide a longitudinal account of the learning styles and strategies of an adult learner of Spanish, Joan, immersed in the TL in Argentina over a period of eight weeks. A distinctive feature of the diary study is the attention given to the learning context - described as 'a rich target language environment with continuous communicative demands' (Carson & Longhini; 2002: 432)." (S. Hurd & T. Lewis 2008: 12). They focused on the input of the "interlocutors and what they afford in terms of learning opportunities and explanations of language phenomena, especially pragmatics and nuances in the semantic lexicon". (S. Hurd & T. Lewis 2008: 12) Carson and Longhini had a main focus with Joan, this was her development of her understanding of context and her ability to communicate with continuous need to show a high preference in wanting to ensure her learning skills are improving.
Their study within a naturalistic environment was considered a success as clear evidence was provided from Joan's cognitive strategy which had increased in understanding, and any missing knowledge she had at the beginning of the study was soon no longer an issue as Joan was able to address problems given to her effectively, thus increasing her strategic memory, and being less reliant a compensation strategy that would have been given to her if she were to be associated with a classroom learning environment. "Within the diary entries by far the most recurrent strategies were in the metacognitive group (examples include organising and evaluating strategies), compromising of 40% total reported strategy use." (S. Hurd & T. Lewis 2008: 13) This metacognitive strategy played a role in Joan's learning as it not only increased her memory but her individual interest in wanting to keep learning what she was being given, increasing her knowledge experience. "An important finding was that while learning style remained relatively constant throughout the study, strategy use was variable" (S. Hurd & T. Lewis 2008: 13).
On the other end of the spectrum where the influence of an independent study stands, a more direct strategy would be that of questionnaires, as they more than often invite a learner to describe something, however most of the time questionnaires tend to be focused of a specific subject or centred on a task; for example, learners may be asked how frequently they can guess and describe words unknown to them when either reading or watching a programme. Regardless of the above analysis though, most learners are still invited to talk about their strategy uses throughout the questionnaire in a general manner. "Levine et al (1996), for example, found that recent immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union tended to prefer 'traditional' strategies, such as memorisation of grammar rules and doing grammar exercises, where as learners which had spent five years or more in Israel showed a preference for more 'communicative' strategies" (S. Hurd & T. Lewis, 2008: 30).
It is in this sense that strategy questionnaires appear to address strategy preferences, or predispositions to adopt certain strategies independently of the situation or task at hand, rather than strategy use. Our point here is that in classroom learning, the situation and environment are usually given and known. But in both structured and unstructured independent learning contexts, learners have to create these environments and situations for themselves and the ways in which they go about this will be part and parcel of the strategic behaviour that we will need to understand.
In relation to language proficiency (the ability of an individual person to speak /write/perform in a newly acquired language) although there is some impact played upon a person learning a second language it is not necessarily done directly, but used through numerous variables; such as the attitudes of the learner. As not every learner is the same it would be difficult to make an overall conclusion therefore whenever research is carried out any kind of emotional influence during language learning is considered to be important and play a major factor. These social/emotional influences as a result shape the outcome of a learner, "social factors also influence L2 learning indirectly in another way. They determine the learning opportunities which individual learners experience". (R. Ellis, 1994: 197)
Past research has indicated that second language learners who are considered to be more proficient appear to have a much wider range of compatibility with these learning strategies and therefore use them more often in a correct grammatical sense than those learners who are less proficient."More proficient learners orchestrate strategy use more effectively combining strategies into strategy clusters for complex tasks and making sure that any chosen strategy is appropriate at the time. Less proficient L2 learners often use strategy in a desperate way, not knowing how to identify the needed strategies". (S. Hurd & T. Lewis 2008: 51) A known researcher whose work is considered to be of high significance when it comes to SLA is that of James Cummings, he distinguished language proficiency into two kinds; BICS and CALP. "Basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) are the skills requires for oral fluency and sociolinguistic appropriateness. They are basic in the sense that they develop naturally as a result exposure to language through communication. Cognitive/academic language proficiency (CALP) consists of the linguistic knowledge and literacy skills required for academic work) (R. Ellis, 1994: 198)
Another researcher who studied the relationship between language strategies and language proficiency was Bialystok;
Krashen (1985) "Proposed that comprehensible input is the driving force for interlanguage development and change, and that the effects of such change carry over to influence production - that is, one learns to speak by listening, a claim which is interesting because of its counter-intuitive nature" ( 1998: 11) - A cognitive approach to Language Learning Peter Skehan, Oxford University Press.