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The main purpose of this written assignment is to interpret the incidents occurring in my own English learning experience in a foreign language setting, based on the pertinent issues and theoretical perspectives of second language acquisition (SLA). It also aims, by drawing from the translations of these incidents, at proposing some recommendations for curriculum development, classroom pedagogy and learning practice. The structure of this writing is then divided into three main sections. The first section begins with an autobiographical narrative of my English learning experience, the second with the commentaries on the critical incidents elaborated in the first section and the third with the implications for SLA in my own context.
SECTION ONE: Autobiographical Narrative
My experience of learning a foreign language such as English in the context where it is not typically used as the medium of ordinary communication was nothing easy. Moreover, learning the language at an older stage of life was another challenging experience, but not impossible.
I was born into a lower class family in one of the provinces in Cambodia. Born into the poor family such as this, I truly valued the power of education. I believed that if I had a good education, I would have a well-paid job and people around me would admire and respect me. To have a good education, it means I had to use a foreign language like English well, in addition to knowledge of other subjects. Nonetheless, throughout my primary schooling (grade 1 to 6), I did not have any opportunity to learn the language because no foreign language was incorporated into the curriculum. In my secondary schooling (grade 7 to 9), I had a chance to learn French for three years of a one-hour-per-week class, but it was only so basic that I could not speak, nor could I write. English then came to play in my life at the age of sixteen when I began my final high school year (grade 12). In fact, I should have begun to learn this language when I was in grade 10, but I was not able to commence, because I had to suspend my studies for two years (grade 10 and 11) due to financial problems in my family.
Then in 2002 I resumed my formal schooling in grade 12 in Phnom Penh after my family had moved to this city. In high school, Khmer was and is still solely used as the main medium of instruction even during English class. It was very difficult for me to learn the language because I had never before been exposed to it. Luckily, I had some basic knowledge of French which enabled me to know the English alphabets and to read some words like book, car, pen, and so on. My teacher would teach new vocabulary and translate them into our language. Reading and listening were conducted through the teacher himself who would always read the texts aloud for us to listen. There was no communicative activity at all during the class time, except for some occasion where a few pairs of students were asked to perform conversation in front of the class by reading out loud the already-designed conversational texts. Out of class, none would bother to communicate in English either. I had no opportunity to learn meaningful English at all. At the end of the year, I came to realize that my English was close to zero. However, my thought of getting good jobs and being respected by my family and friends around me if I could use good English was still floating around in my mind, and this did push me up. I wished to continue my undergraduate degree in English literature at one of the country renowned language Universities. Nonetheless, my current inability and critical financial problem, I knew, would not allow me to succeed. Therefore, after my high school I took up a job to earn some money for school fee and at the same time began an intensive preparatory English course.
During a year, I tried as hard as I could to prepare myself. Asides from classroom learning, I spent two hours per day at home for self-study. I did all the work given by my teachers and would read any grammar books I bought. I tried mainly to master my grammatical and lexical knowledge and reading skills because only grammar, vocabulary and reading were tested in the entrance examination to my desired University. Finally, I managed to pass the entrance examination to become a freshman at that University in the area of English literature.
Although there was no single native English teacher throughout my four years of studies, I felt so proud being part of the university and taught by the local teachers. The University has been recognized as the country most well-respected and famous language institution. Being a member of it would make me appear better than those who studied at other language institutions. Moreover, I was convinced that the teachers at this University would definitely help me to achieve my goals in becoming a competent user of English and in getting good jobs in the future.
The main medium of instruction was English and there were two sessions per week for Khmer studies in which the local language was used. For the rest of the subjects, we mainly used English in the classrooms and during the break time. In addition to having group discussions, pair works, role plays and individual and group presentations in English, we also created a culture in which everyone had to speak in English. When anyone was caught speaking the local language, that person would definitely be fined to perform any fun activities in the class. It seemed I had so much fun in doing so, and I tried to communicate in English very often with my classmates and teachers alike. We continued to do this through the rest of our studies.
As time progressed, I also wished to win a scholarship to study abroad, in addition to attaining my previously set goals. I saw it as another opening where I could both enrich my language competence and gain a good image in my community. Therefore, I strived to study harder than I had done in the previous years. I further engaged myself in every learning opportunity I had, such as being a representative of my group, being the first person in the class to respond to teachers' questions, being a volunteer for any activities, and so forth. Moreover, I sought advice from my teachers on how to cope with particular problems I had in order to learn better. I also formed a small group study with my friends so as to further improve our learning and share our understanding with one another. It seemed I was so happy with and absorbed in such kind of opportunities. I did this right through my remaining years. Furthermore, many of my teachers would often praise me upon any jobs I had done perfectly and, most importantly, took my work as a sample for others to observe. Such reinforcement truly motivated me throughout my academic years. I saw myself as one of the respected learners by my classmates and teachers alike. My current achievement even drove me forward until I accomplish more and more.
At present, I have been successful in all the goals I had set earlier. I managed to get a locally high-paid and respected job in my community, and to win a scholarship to study in the most prestigious and well-respected University in Hong Kong. Despite all these triumphs, however, I have still faced one critical problem in one of the productive skills. It is concerned with my inability to speak well English. Oftentimes, I am not really satisfied with my speaking since I cannot express myself sufficiently well to the level I wish. This truly poses me a good concern. For the other skills - writing, reading and listening - I am always satisfied with them. I can perform at an excellent level for these three skills. Perhaps, I need to work more to find out how I can further enhance that unsatisfactory speaking ability.
SECTION TWO: Commentary on the Critical Incidents
In this section, two critical incidents elaborated in the first section will be further examined, by focusing on the explanation of their role with reference to relevant issues and theoretical perspectives of second language acquisition (SLA). The first one is age and the second is motivation.
As can be seen from the autobiographical narrative of my English learning as a foreign language, it is obviously clear that a critical period has a role to play in my inability to produce accents like those of a native speaker of English. Many SLA researchers have often hypothesized that there is a critical period, or a sensitive period in Lamendella's (1977) term, for SLA just as there is for the first language learning (Lightbown & Spada, 2006). The notion of this critical period, according to Marinova-Todd, Marshall and Snow (2000), was first introduced by Penfield and Roberts in 1959. Generally, this critical period has often been claimed to begin from the age of three until roughly around pubertal stage, although some researchers argue it could end even before learners reach this pubertal stage (Flege, Frieda, & Nozawa, 1997; Lightbown & Spada, 2006). According to this critical period hypothesis (CPH), it is argued that SLA can be rather easy and usually meets with a high degree of success if the learning commences during the critical period. If this period is over, it is most likely that learning is often difficult and cannot guarantee a desirable level of achievement (Lenneberg, 1967; Lightbown & Spada, 2006; Patkowski, 1980; Penfield & Roberts, 1959). Asher and Garcia (1969) who developed the brain plastic theory likewise argued in support to this CPH that younger learners have a 'cellular receptivity' to language learning, which enables them to find it easier to acquire language. They pointed out that the earlier the children start learning a language, the more likely that they can achieve a native-like pronunciation.
Undeniably, many of these claims are true to me who began my English learning at the age of sixteen. I could not take the full advantages of acquiring the language competence as that of a native speaker. For example, sometimes I cannot pronounce the 'ed' ending sound of several words, or I simply pronounce this 'ed' or 's' ending sound unnecessarily. Perhaps, my band score of 6.5 in the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) Speaking Test reflects this negative impact. However, the effect of CPH on my pronunciation proficiency is not a complete truth. As described in my autobiographical narrative above, the condition in which I learnt the language could also share some effect of this inability. My learning took place in a foreign language, as opposed to a second language, environment in which the target language is not typically used as the medium of ordinary communication. I typically received input in the new language only in the classroom and 'by rather artificial means' (Oxford & Shearin, 1994). This then means that my L2 'global pronunciation' has been negatively affected (Riney & Flege, 1998). Moreover, since none of my teachers, who were viewed as the main linguistic input providers, was English speakers, this would mean that my exposure of authentic input was relatively inadequate. In turn, my full attainment of a native speaker-like accent was limited.
Apart from that, it is arguable with the claim of CPH that SLA can be relatively easy if the learning starts during the critical period, but most likely difficult if this period is over. This statement seems to ignore the potential of older learners. While younger language learners, who began their learning while they were young, are seen as more likely to attain fluency and native-like pronunciation, adult language learners are more efficient and cable in understanding complex grammatical system (Krashen, Long, & Scarcella, 1979; Lightbown & Spada, 2006; Olson & Samuels, 1973; Scarcella & Oxford, 1992). Even though it was hard for me from the very beginning, this is generally true to everyone learner who first learns a (foreign) language. My learning, on the contrary, seemed to have developed at a very fast speed, compared to that of many other younger starters. That was partly probably because my meta-linguistic knowledge, memory strategies, and problem-solving skills, or higher-order thinking strategies in Oxford and Shearin's (1994) term had enabled me to make the most of the instruction and learning (Lightbown & Spada, 2006). An implication from this discussion could be drawn that although I had arrived at my English learning late, I would not have had any problem in pronunciation if I had begun my learning in an English-speaking setting or in the environment in which English was used as both the main medium of instruction and medium of general communication. Therefore, if so, the effect of CPH would be no longer true to my own case.
Moreover, my success in learning English as a foreign language, despite the drawback of CPH, is essentially due to my strong motivation. It is motivation that determines the degree of active, personal involvement in L2 learning and that it is extremely important for L2 learning (Oxford & Shearin, 1994). Motivation is then defined as the ''individual's attitudes, desires and effort to learn the L2" (Gardner, Tremblay, & Masgoret, 1997, p. 345). Mitchell and Myles (2004) building on Gardner and MacIntyre (1993, p. 2) argue that "the motivated individual is one who wants to achieve a particular goal, devotes considerable effort to achieve this goal, and experiences satisfaction in the activities associated with achieving this goal" (p. 26). According to the given definitions, when an L2 learner has positive attitudes and desires toward learning the language, and puts much effort to invest in that language, it is most likely that she or he is destined to success. As for my own case, I desired toward learning English because I perceived it as something that would earn me both self advancement and respect from my community. In other words, I was convinced that with English knowledge, I would have a better future and earn myself a another level of social status, which in Bourdieu's (1991) term, more economic, social, and cultural capital, in my society. Bourdieu argued that the more linguistic capital ones possess, the more advantages such as economic, social and cultural capital, they will have. Lin (1999) citing Pennycook (1994) has pointed in a similar way that for many children and adults, access to or lack of English often shapes the social mobility and life chances of these individuals. My investment in English is thus a key to expending my horizons, or my own social identity in Norton's (1997) concept.
My motivation toward learning English in this sense can also be described as, in Oxford and Shearin's (1994) perception, an instrumental motivation orientation, or in Ehrman and Oxford's (1995) notion, an extrinsic motivation, or a material investment in Norton's (2001) term. These researchers argue that learners invest in L2 learning, for they recognize that they will, in return, gain various material resources. These resources are generally believed to augment the value and status of these learners in their wider community and social world.
Apart from this, my motivation also stemmed from my previous accomplishment. According to Oxford and Shearin (1994) quoting McClelland, et al. (1953), a person is likely to involve in achievement behaviors in a similar situation in the future due to his or her success in a particular situation in the past. Conversely, if he or she has experienced any failure, it is less likely that he or she will develop those achievement behaviors, but stifle them. To put it in another way, it is predictable that when an L2 learner manages to attain something he or she has done previously, he or she will be motivated to achieve more in the future. In relation to my own case, I saw achievement as something that I had made and that I would continue to make with further effort. I continued to engage more in other classroom tasks as well as out of it because of my past success. I engaged myself in various learning opportunities, for I saw them as some other things that could help me to master my learning and to achieve my goals. I found myself joyful and positive in so doing and at the same time I learned. This particular behavior also appears most likely in Ames and Archer's (1988) mastery goal orientation. They argue that with a master goal orientation, learners are primarily concerned with learning to develop new skills, valuing the learning process and perceiving mastery as dependent on effort. In this sense, effort and success go hand in hand. Moreover, the fact that my teachers rewarded me on what I had done well was another stimulus for me to expect for more attainment. It was a motivating feeling that I had done good things which my own community acknowledged and rewarded me. The more I was given rewards and prizes, the more I wished to achieve. This kind of behavior seems to also reflect in the reinforcement theories developed by Oxford and Shearin (1994). These theories emphasize that with reinforcement such as praise and physical prizes from teachers, students can become more encouraged to learn. Then, when students are motivated to learn, learning is thus seen as enjoyable and success is just ahead of them.
Probably, this learning behavior can also be translated from the socio-cultural perspective. According to the socio-cultural view of language learning, learning is perceived firstly as social and secondly as individual. Learners are the active constructors of their own learning setting through which they use it to form their selection of goals and operation (Donato & MacCormick, 1994; Mitchelle & Myles, 2004). From this perspective, it is apparent that because my teachers acknowledged my participation in their classroom, my participation, value and motivation increased. As an individual learner, I then created my own learning opportunities and environment within this social setting in which I engaged myself both actively and continuously. I used these conditions to develop my own learning strategies, so as to further reach my already-set goals until the dream turned into reality. In other words, through 'the situated learning' (Lave & Wenger, 1991, as cited in Norton, 2001), I developed myself from the novice to the competent member of my community (Donato & MacCormick, 1994).
SECTION THREE: Implications for SLA Curriculum Development, Classroom Pedagogy and Individual Learning
Drawing from the incidents and interpretations of those events in my own English learning experience and context, a number of implications or recommendations for SLA curriculum development, classroom pedagogical practice and individual learning level can be made appropriately.
First, it is concerned with the effect of the critical period hypothesis (CPH) and the condition in which my learning took place. According to the above-mentioned interpretations, CPH and the learning environment impacted significantly on my pronunciation proficiency, but not on the three other skills. Therefore, on the curriculum development level, elements of teaching should include a more communicative syllabus such as task-supported language teaching. This is being so because this kind of syllabus focuses both on the grammatical aspects and communicative tasks, which help promote the learners' knowledge of both linguistic or grammatical competence and communicative competence (Ellis, 2003). More imperatively, this type of syllabus is also more suitable with the learning condition in my country in which English is taught as a foreign language and in which the so-called structural syllabuses such as the grammar translation method has been dominant (Vira, 2003).
On the classroom pedagogical level, teachers, in addition to the communicative curriculum they are using, should create emotionally relaxed learning opportunities for the students to engage in. They should make sure every student has a chance to involve in and contribute to communicative tasks such group discussion, presentation, mini-debate, etc. On the individual level, the learners themselves should use various learning strategies to better prepare and equip themselves with necessary proficiency competence. On account of the fact that genuine input data are insufficient, they should seek to expose themselves to relatively authentic input by, for example, listening to and watching any programs which English from native speaker is used. More remarkably, they should communicate in English more often and ensure that they check with the dictionary on how to pronounce particular words, so that their speaking ability will enhance considerably over time.
Secondly and finally, as the implications from my learning experience have revealed, my success in learning English as a foreign language resulted from my intense motivation as well as the learning atmosphere itself. In this respect, on the curriculum development level, curriculum writers should sequence tasks for learning carefully, taking into account the level of difficulty. For example, any tasks that are usually seen as easy should be presented first and those that are difficult should come in the next row. Learners will feel they have achieved something in their previous learning and consequently they are more motivated to learn and to achieve more.
On the teaching level, since different learners have different goals in learning a foreign language, teachers should make some effort to identify what motivates their students to learn this language. When they know their students' objectives, they should acknowledge these varied learning goals, provide proper feedback on those goals and create the learning conditions which stimulate the students' motivation (Oxford & Shearin, 1994). Oxford and Shearin (1994) continue to suggest that to help cultivate the highest possible motivation within the students, teachers can decide which part of L2 learning are particularly meaningful to the students and can integrate those aspects to suit the students' needs. Furthermore, teachers can increase their students' motivation by means of praising and rewarding for their participation and contributions in the lessons, and making the students realize that there is no constraint in their participation in the classroom. In other words, the teachers should create their classroom as a community of practice where full participation from the students is assured.
On the individual level, the students should set their learning goals as high and reachable as possible. At the same time, they should value the previous attainment they have made. This is a critical key to boosting up their self-confidence to achieve more things in the future. The more the expectancy of triumph and the more value the students place on this victory, the higher the motivation will be (Ehrman & Oxford, 1995).