Second Language Acquisition and Self-Directed Study
I have always believed that if you teach a child to read well, they can later teach themselves almost anything through self-directed study. Some theories take advantage of the natural curiosity of children and incorporate that into their learning model of self-directed studies. When I worked on my Masters of Library and Information Science, we stressed that students should be taught information literacy skills so that they could become self-directed life-long learners. Although I was educated under the stand-and-deliver pedagogy style, I actually learned more outside of the classroom through random independent reading. I believe that it is in the students’ best interests for the teacher to encourage, develop, and enable self-directed learning.
Although Grover, Miller, Swearingen, and Wood (2014) discuss self-directed learning in the context of adult ESL learners, it is also applicable to other age groups. “Nurturing this ability to be self-directed can help students take ownership of their learning in all areas” (Grover et al., 2014, p. 12). Grover et al. (2014) found that the passive watching of television dominated the self-directed activities of their participants. I have found television to be an incredible source for second language acquisition if used properly. While I watched Spanish telenovelas, I actively took notes of new expression, idioms, and vocabulary. If I didn’t catch a word or expression, I rewound the recording (I recorded all my telenovelas on TIVO so that I could rewind them as necessary) as many times as was necessary to understand it. I also picked telenovelas from different countries for the different idioms, accents, age groups, and vocabulary. I had already studied Spanish for years, so I had concrete goals about what I wanted to learn. My viewing was not passive and my ability to listen to Spanish continued to improve tremendously because I was able to set goals and implement the plan.
Navarro and Thornton (2011) conducted research that focused on the qualities that students need to posses in order to benefit from self-directed study in a foreign language. They found that skill in planning, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating were all necessary. Although students were able to plan, monitor, and evaluate, many actually failed to implement their plans and thus were unable to complete their self-directed studies (Navarro & Thornton, 2011). In Navarro’s study, the participants actually tended to let their previous beliefs about learning influence their planning and implementation in studying. In other words, the students needed help in acquiring new skills for independent individualized study that didn’t just copy old behavior patterns. It is important to realize that the teacher cannot solely rely on students’ self-perception of their ability to pursue self-directed study. The students must also be coached in how to set goals, devise a step-by-step procedure to achieve those goals, and devise a method to evaluate progress made towards the goals. In second language acquisition, it is easy to mistake mastery in one of the areas of learning such as reception (listening or reading) and forget that one must also be able to produce the target language as in writing and speaking.
Fukuda and Yoshida (2013) point out that teachers believe that students need to spend more time studying outside of the classroom in order to increase their foreign language proficiency. This would, of course, include self-directed study. However, increasing tests, quizzes and homework actually reduced the students’ motivation to study and to take more advanced classes. Instead of motivating the students to learn, the increased pressure from outside sources undermined the students’ learning outcomes. Most true learning happens because the student is interested in the subject and sees a personal gain in acquiring the knowledge. Fukuda and Yoshida (2013) suggested that clear course aims, strong student-teacher relationships, non-threatening classroom environments, and interactive classroom procedures were conducive to motivating students to study more outside of the classroom. In order to complete the projects and presentations, the students worked collaboratively to ascertain what they needed to know, develop a plan to obtain the information, and then create a way to present it. The projects were also directly tied to future skills that the workplace would expect of the students’ performance. Their research showed that creating projects that incorporated more self-directed work contributed to more successful outcomes in the classroom.
Self-directed studies now include more than textbooks, radio, television, and writing to foreign pen pals. The Internet has opened up the entire planet to the self-directed student. Song and Lee (2014) investigated the impact of 66 web resources on self-directed and informal language learning. Although most of the definitions of self-directed learning and informal learning referred to the common activities such as blogs, multimedia sharing and social networking, the authors also included that of learning “…serendipitously with the learner mostly being unaware of what is being learned…” (Song & Lee, 2014, p. 512). This will be returned to later because it is a real phenomenon. The Internet has made it possible for long-tail learning niches to develop and “…is contributing to the emergence of expert young people or amateur experts who have developed specialized knowledge about topics of interest using Web 2.0” (Song & Lee, 2014, p. 515). Song and Lee (2014) evaluated the websites and found that they are updated continuously and that “the feature of independent access to data enables learners to locate resources in the context of where they are needed, and to share the information with others” (p. 524). In addition, because of “…the communicative nature of language learning, informal learning websites might enable learners to improve their communicative skills by using diverse Web 2.0 tools…” (Song & Lee, 2014, p. 524).
Although I knew that there were vast resources on the Internet for language learners, it wasn’t until I became personally involved with trying to learn Korean that I found the informal long-tail niches that these authors are referring to. I began watching Korea dramas, subtitled in English, in 2010. I noticed two phenomena. Because I am bilingual in Spanish and it is my second language, my brain was actively looking for Spanish sound patterns and words for the first six months of watching these dramas on a daily basis. Apparently my brain realized that it wasn’t English and the next best assumption was that it might be Spanish. This was beyond my control and it is something that just went on in the subconscious background as I enjoyed the dramas. I constantly thought I heard Spanish words for about six months. Second, after about six months, I realized that I had serendipitously picked up over 40 words in Korean. In addition to this, I found out that I could also tell the difference when the actors were speaking Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese and Korean. This happened without my realizing it and my brain starting compartmentalizing the Asian languages separately from the Latin ones and finding word associations and similarities between the new Asian languages. It was and continues to be a fascinating study of how the brain processes language.
As Song and Lee (2014) point out, self-directed study that exposes the learner to the target language never falls on a deaf ear. The brain is busy processing the information in the background. I found that many native Korean and Japanese speakers have created language-learning corners on YouTube, Twitter, personal websites, and blogs. Unlike other content areas and disciplines, language is necessary to communicate and the brain continues to quietly work in the background making associations of sounds, symbols, and word patterns so that people can achieve their goals through communication.
As a language learner, I knew that I would need textbooks, so I bought some appropriate level Korean textbooks and joined some blogs and downloaded YouTube videos. Even though I knew the correct way to plan how to learn a language, as Navarro and Thornton (2011) found in their studies, implementing the plan was harder. Self-directed study has to compete with the demands of daily life, such as work, time, classes, other obligations and entertainment. I fell into the trap of passively listening to the Korean and reading the subtitles without a serious plan and measurable goals and outcomes. Over the years, I have acquired more Korean, but it is haphazard and focused only on the listening skills. As the articles point out, self-directed study is an important skill to learn and it can truly engage the motivation of the student. However, it is important for the teacher to be there to help guide the student in implementation, goal setting, and evaluation. It cannot be a passive activity and there has to be a way to measure the outcomes. Self-directed study is an important concept in Second Language Acquisition, and teachers need to study how to best incorporate it into their classrooms so that students can experience the most benefit from its use.
Fukuda, S., & Yoshida, H. (2013). Time is of the essence: Factors encouraging out-of-class study time. ELT Journal: English Language Teacher, 67(1), 31-40. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccso54
Grover, K. S., Miller, M. T., Swearingen, B., & Wood, N. (2014). An examination of the self-directed learning practices of ESL adult language learners. Journal of Adult Education, 43(2), 12-19. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1628649823?accountid=12085
Navarro, D., & Thornton, K. (2011). Investigating the relationship between belief and action in self-directed language learning. System 39, 290-301. doi: 10.1016/j.system.2011.07.002
Song, D., & Lee, J. (2014). Has Web 2.0 revitalized informal learning? The relationship between Web 2.0 and informal learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 30, 511533. doi: 10.1111/jcal.12056