Unconscious Autonomy and Learning a Mother Language

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During the last few decades research on first language development has shown that learning a mother tongue is a - largely unconscious - autonomous process: Children do not learn their mother tongue word by word but pass through a series of stages, which is linked with an accommodation of their existing linguistic knowledge to new structural features. Furthermore, there is no separation between learning language and using language; and, thus, first language acquisition could be seen as a result of the children's communication and interaction with their environment. Another important feature of first language acquisition in connection with learner autonomy is the fact that acquisition "proceeds on the initiative of the child as it gradually learns to meet the communicative needs generated by its interaction with the environment" (Little, 1991: 24).

This unconscious autonomy show that we are born self-directed learners and that we are naturally inclined to take control over the learning of a language. Benson, however, claims that - on the one hand - we appear to give up much of our autonomy as learning becomes more complex and is channeled through the institution of the school, but that - on the other hand - all of us are able to develop autonomy on the basis of capacities that most learners already possess due to their natural tendency to take control over various aspects of learning (cf. Benson, 2001: 59).

Although people often believe that, in schooling, learning is the result of teaching, in fact, most learning happens casually. In many cases "learning is self-motivated, and undertaken in order to fulfill a personal need" (Little, 1991: 10). However, most learners are not aware of their autonomous behavior, which shows that unconscious autonomy can also be found in foreign language learning.

Another similarity between first and second language acquisition is the influence of the learners' encounters with their environment: "Social interaction generates communicative needs and provides the learner with input; and the learner's effort to meet his communicative needs by using the target language gradually produces learning" (Little, 1991: 25). This can especially be implied for those people who are learning a second language without benefit of instruction.

Enabling learners to use the foreign language as a medium of communication has always been regarded as the aim of foreign language teaching. But the learners' communicative efficiency in the target language depends on their achieving a substantial degree of autonomy as language users, which includes factors like independence, self-reliance and self-confidence. Consequently, the most important question for language teachers is how to help their students to achieve this autonomy and to maintain it - mainly by becoming aware of the social requirements of the different situations in which they have to use the target language. In fact, learners will become more autonomous if as much of the classroom communication as possible is carried out in the target language and if this communication is "real to the learners in the sense that it engages them in understanding and producing meanings that are important to them" (Little, 1991: 29). Thus, communication is not only the goal of but also a channel for learning; and the target language is not only the target but also the content of teaching.

In order to prevent learners from remaining alienated from the content and process of their learning and to enable them to become autonomous language users, traditional patterns of classroom organization have to be abandoned in favor of learner-centeredness in both curricula and classrooms. The ranges of roles that characterize the autonomous language user and that the learners are expected to adopt have to be available to them in the classroom.

Furthermore, learners have to be autonomous in the sense that they are allowed to determine the content of their learning and to take responsibility for reviewing their progress. If this is the case, the learners not only communicate meanings that really matter to them but they are also encouraged to explore and make explicit their personal constructs; and engaging the Theory: Learner autonomy Christina Schluchlenz 27 learners' personal construct systems and giving the learners the opportunity to be in control of their learning has the effect of interesting them in the language learning tasks. "Thus they experience the learning they are engaged on as their own, and this enables them to achieve to a remarkable degree the autonomy that characterizes the fluent language user." (Little, 1991: 31)

In the context of fostering learner autonomy in the classroom, important aspects that have to be taken into account apart from the students' personal construct systems are individual psychological factors, which have a strong influence on the way a person learns a language and on the outcome of her learning efforts. Some of these variables - like learning style, aptitude and personality - are relatively stable conditions that cannot easily be changed. The term learning style refers to any individuals preferred ways of problem-solving and learning. A frequently quoted definition is the one given by Keefe (1979): …the characteristic cognitive, affective and physiological behaviours that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with and respond to the learning environment… Learning style is a consistent way of functioning that reflects underlying causes of behaviour. Various dimensions of learning style have been identified. Some of these dimensions are: field-dependence/ interdependence, ambiguity tolerance, reflectivity and impulsiveness as well as visual and auditory styles (cf. Brown, 2000: 114-122). Apart from learning styles, there are other variables like motivation, affective states and attitudes that can influence learning. Benson, however, states that these variables depend on context or experience and can be changed more easily than learning styles. "Although the research evidence is limited, there is good reason to believe that language learners can and do exercise some degree of control over these variables in attempting to overcome obstacles to their learning." (Benson, 2001: 67)

4. Learner autonomy in practice

As mentioned above, autonomy is based on the learners' natural tendency to take control over their own learning, which means that they "[…] initiate and manage their own learning, set their own priorities and agendas and attempt to control psychological factors that influence their learning" (Benson, 2001: 75). Even if learners do take control, this does not imply, however, that they are autonomous. In order to be regarded as autonomous, learners not only have to try to take control of their learning every now and then but they have to do it systematically; and it is the role of the teacher to encourage and assist them in doing so. If autonomy is to be seen as a goal of language education, teachers and educational institutions should attempt to promote autonomy through practices that will encourage and enable learners to take more control of all aspects of their learning and will, thus, help them to become better language learners (cf. Benson, 2001: 109).

Apart from control of the psychological variables mentioned in the previous chapter, learner autonomy involves three different levels of control: teach management, cognitive processes and learning content.

4.1 Learner autonomy and control over learning management

"Control over learning management can be described in terms of the behaviors that learners employ in order to manage the planning, organization and evaluation of their learning." (Benson, 2001: 76) Learning management - together with self-monitoring, and self assessment - is regarded as an important part of effective self-directed learning, which is Theory: Learner autonomy Christina Schluchlenz understood as the key to learning languages and to learning how to learn languages. In order to manage their learning effectively, learners should use certain learning strategies.

According to Brown, strategies are "specific methods of approaching a problem or task, modes of operation for achieving a particular end, planned designs for controlling and manipulating certain information" (Brown, 2000: 113). Cohen (1998) defines learning strategies as "learning processes which are consciously selected by the learner". These learning strategies are divided into three main categories: metacognitive, cognitive and socioaffective strategies. "Metacognitive strategies make use of knowledge about cognitive processes and constitute an attempt to regulate language learning by means of planning, monitoring, and evaluating. They have an executive function." (Ellis, 1994: 538) Cognitive strategies, on the other hand, are "more limited to specific learning tasks and involve more direct manipulation of the learning material itself" (Brown, 2000: 124).

Socioaffective strategies concern ways in which learners interact with other learners or native speakers and control themselves in order to improve their learning. In general, strategy use requires the learner to know what language and language learning involve, to plan the content and methods of learning and to be willing to do a self-evaluation of his/her progress and his/her learning experience (cf. Benson, 2001: 81).

The discussion of learning strategies directly leads to the issue of strategy training or learner training, the primary goal of which is to help learners become better language learners and take greater control over their learning by increasing the learners' awareness of themselves as language learners as well as their willingness and ability to manage their own learning. Cohen (1998: 67) defines strategy training and its purposes as follows: Strategy training, i.e. explicitly teaching students how to apply language learning and language use strategies, can enhance students' effort to reach language program goals because it encourages students to find their own pathways to success, and thus it promotes learner autonomy and self-direction.

Consequently, learner training and the resulting increase of the learners' learning efficiency seem to lead to the development of greater autonomy.

Strategy training in classroom learning or strategies-based instruction - as Brown (2000: 130) calls it - basically means that teachers assist their students in developing skills in learning how to learn and skills related to strategy use and that they encourage the learners to activate their language outside the classroom (cf. Nunan, 1991: 181). According to Cohen (1998: 65), the underlying premise of strategy training is that "language learning will be facilitated if students become more aware of the range of possible strategies that they can consciously select during language learning and language use". The implication of this claim for language teaching is that it should have two different goals: The one is to foster the development of autonomy, and the other is to increase the development of learning skills and skills in learning how to learn (cf. Nunan, 1991: 187). In practice this can be done by incorporating elements of learner training as well as learninghow- to-learn tasks into language teaching. The advantages of doing so are that "learners become aware not only of their own preferred ways of learning, but also of the fact that there are choices, not only in what to learn but also in how to learn" (Nunan, 1991: 181). Learning how to learn tasks are able to encourage learners both to be more flexible in the ways they go about learning and to experiment with a wide range of different learning experiences.

The teachers' task is not only to provide the learners with technical know-how about how to tackle a language but also to assist them in becoming aware of their own style preferences and beliefs (cf. Brown, 2000: 131) - for the students' choice of learning strategies is strongly influenced by individual learner differences such as attitudes, affective states and general factors as well as by various situational factors (cf. Ellis, 1994: 529). However, it is important that strategy-based instruction and learner training are not limited to teaching an Theory: Learner autonomy Christina Schluchlenz approved set of strategies; instead learners should be trained to use strategies flexibly, appropriately and independently, which will help them to become more autonomous. It has been proved that language learners engage in self-instruction by using a wide repertoire of out-of-class strategies - like reading newspapers and novels or listing to the radio - even when their learning is primarily classroom-based. This out-of-class learning could be seen as a supplement to classroom learning. Its main purpose is the development of proficiency. Because of the fact that learners who achieve proficiency in foreign languages tend to take some degree of control over their learning, self-management, self-instruction and learner training could be regarded as important parts of most language-learning careers and as a key to learner autonomy (cf. Benson, 2001: 61-65).

The control over learning management and the application of learning strategies are part of a movement within educational theory and practice which takes a learner-centred view of pedagogy: "A learner-centred approach is based on a belief that learners will bring to the learning situation different beliefs and attitudes about the nature of language and learning and that these beliefs and attitudes need to be taken into consideration in the selection of content and learning experiences." (Nunan, 1991: 178)

4.2 Learner autonomy and control over cognitive and content aspects of learning

As already mentioned above, a learner-centred approach to foreign language learning does not only consist of giving learners the opportunity for self-directed learning but also of involving learners in the majority of decision-making processes concerned with the day-to-day management of their learning. Only if students are given the opportunity to take a certain degree of control over the planning and assessment of classroom learning and only if they are supported appropriately in doing so, will they have the chance to acquire the ability to develop control over all three aspects relevant for learner autonomy - learning management, cognitive and content aspects of learning. According to Benson, there are some pre-conditions for the development of these levels of control: Learners may develop the capacity to control cognitive aspects of their learning through the opportunity to take decisions in the classroom, but this will depend in part on the extent to which their decisions are limited by or go beyond learning procedures with which they are already familiar. Similarly, they may develop the capacity to define and determine the content of their learning, but this again depends on the extent to which decisions are constrained by pre-determined learning content. The risk in implementing learner control in the classroom when the scope of decision making is constrained is that the learners will feel that their decisions have little real consequence or that they are being given responsibility without genuine freedom. (Benson, 2001: 161-162)

Benson also emphasizes that giving learners the opportunity to make decisions regarding their learning within a collaborative and supportive environment is a key factor in the development of autonomy and that - because of this - teachers should surrender "their prerogative of making most or all of the decisions concerning the students' learning" (Benson, 2001: 152).

When they finally do so and learners are encouraged to take control over the planning of classroom activities, the result is a positive effect on both learner autonomy and language learning.

Experimental programmes involving group work in language classes or giving students a certain degree of control over the content of their learning within a teacher-directed classroom had the effect that the students felt more free to speak, to make mistakes and to contribute their own experience, which lead to a feeling of being supported in their learning difficulties. In fact, group work and peer teaching result in "gains in motivation, participation, 'real' communication, in-depth understanding, responsibility for learning, commitment to the

Theory: Learner autonomy Christina Schluchlenz course, confidence, mutual respect, the number of skills and strategies used and accuracy in written outcomes" (Benson, 2001: 154).

As far as control over the learning content is concerned it is very common that the general learning goals are determined by the National Curriculum. Nevertheless it is possible to give learners at least some control over the content by allowing them to select the order in which they work on these goals, to choose their own tasks for practice and to plan activities within the classroom. In fact, increased learner control is beneficial to language learning because, according to Benson, "transfer of control also often involves an increase in student interaction and increased opportunities to use and process the target language in group work" (Benson, 2001: 154).

Another advantage of this learner-centred approach is that students are encouraged to reflect consciously on the learning process, on their goals and learning activities and they are trained in self-evaluation and self-assessment of the effectiveness of their learning and their language performance; and while self-evaluation is beneficial to learning in itself, conscious reflection on the learning process is a distinctive characteristic of autonomous learning.