Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Autonomous Language Learning

Autonomous language learning is the idea that learners are capable of learning a language on their own, outside the language classroom. Language programs that focus on incorporating autonomous language learning usually have some sort of self-access center with resources and guides, where the learner can go during his or her free time to study. In this model, the classroom is often seen as a place for learners to interact with an expert (the teacher) and with other learners. Instead of focusing entirely on grammar and vocabulary, classroom time is spent creating language learning goals and sharing positive and negative experiences of learning. As our teaching methodology moves towards a more student-centered model, and as internet technology becomes increasingly more available throughout the word, we are seeing that this model of language learning is a growing reality for students (and teachers) everywhere.

There are several reasons that I like this model of language learning.
  1. Motivation – Autonomous language learning utilizes the learner's motivation. For the communicative classroom to function properly, it is essential that the learners are all motivated to study, learn, and interact. When learners lack intrinsic motivation, the teacher is stuck trying to think of colorful circus tricks and rewards in order to get learners to talk to each other and to study outside of class. Autonomous language learning forces learners to take greater responsibility for motivation.
  2. Power – This model places the power in the hands of the learner. The learners make their own goals and plans to achieve these goals. The learners choose what they are going to learn. The teacher is available to guide the learner in the event that they don't know where to go or what to do, but the ultimate choice is in the hands of the learner. This will lead not only to more relevant language learning, but also to a greater sense of personal responsibility for the material. Moreover, giving learners the power over their own learning equips them for life-long learning.
  3. Authenticity – I have written before about authenticity in language learning, and about how I think it is one of the most important parts of language teaching. Autonomous language learning allows learners to take advantage of authentic materials that teachers cannot feasibly use in the classroom, due to time constraints, discrepancies in learner levels, and access, etc. In this model, learners have more exposure to native-speaker materials and less exposure to pedagogical texts and “classroom talk”.
In my own life, I am trying to learn German. As a supporter of this autonomous language learning, I feel that my own learning experience should reflect my teaching methodology. I am hesitant to sign up for a language course because I feel that, with a little guidance, I should be able to take advantage of the materials available to me while I am living in a German-speaking environment.

However, I have had some trouble identifying good materials for myself as a learner, which proves (to me, at least) that autonomous language learning does NOT reduce the need for a teacher. I will continue to develop my plan and see if I can create path for myself, and I will share my reflections along the way.

Along that line, several blog articles and websites stuck out to me as particularly helpful for and/or related to autonomous language learning this week.

The Telenovela Method of LanguageLearning. Very interesting article about the use of Mexican soap operas to learn Spanish, good tips for learning on your own with this method, and some resources.

The NEW Issue of the SiSAL (Studies in Self-Access Learning) Journal. I'll just say that I like this journal. I also like that it is completely open-access, so you can read it without a subscription. There are some good articles in this issue, and in past issues, for those of you who would like to know more about autonomous language learning (or self-access learning).

I found this website in an article from the new issue of the SiSAL. I haven't had a chance to test it yet, but wow! It looks like an amazing resouce. I wish they had it for other languages. Basically, it is a collection of video clips with transcripts, and learners can watch the videos, read the text, and record themselves saying the lines. Supposedly, they also compare the recording with the original to tell students how they are doing. I know that Google has something to do with the site, and I'm pretty sure it is free.

I regularly read this blog, and I saw this article about talking to native speakers of the target language. It struck a chord with me, and I think that following the advice that the author gives about “just talking” is instrumental in autonomous language learning. 

Does anyone have experience in autonomous language learning (or teaching) that they can share? What about some more good resources for independent learning?


  1. Hi Bekah,

    I have to admit, I don't think I would be a good autonomous learner for a number of reasons.

    Primarily, I like the classroom environment and I enjoy interacting with other students, which is why I would also not choose to have a one-to-one lesson unless there was no other option.

    Secondly, I need a routine and I know I'm the kind of person who would theoretically set aside time to study at home, but inevitably find other things which needed doing.

    Also, I like having things on paper and I prefer learning from a book than from the Internet. I find that once I get engrossed in an activity, such as lyricstraining.com, I can spend quite a while using it - but I'm terrible at recording new vocabulary whilst using the page, so I'm not getting as great a benefit from it as I could.

    So good luck with your lessons and autonomous learning! I'm looking forward to hearing how it goes!


  2. Your second point is the one that is hardest for me--it is so difficult to be intrinsically motivated to learn a language that you can (technically) get by without! I start learning, and then get distracted with email or looking up some grammar point in English. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Also--I looked at that website! What a great resource! I will have to use it. Thanks for the tip :)

  4. Hi Bekah,

    By the way, this is Sonnet. So I found your blog via facebook, and I am really enjoying it it.

    I will weigh in not as a professional language teacher, but as a professional language learner (I am studying Czech full-time in preparation for moving to Prague for work). Despite the fact that Czech is eating my lunch, I do have some thoughts on autonomous learning.

    So right now I have 5 hours of class every day and then am expected to study for at least 2-3 to complete my 8 hour workday. This is not hard to motivate us to do since this is my job and I will receive a score and a performance evaluation at the end of the course. So there is a large mandatory element of autonomous learning.

    I think that autonomous learning works particularly well for students who have studied other languages and know their own learning styles. For instance, I seem to be the only one in my class of 3 who enjoys watching Czech movies and videos in my free time. I find that it helps me get the cadence of the language, and that I tend to absorb new words and grammatical constructions. My classmates seem to get frustrated trying to understand at speed Czech, but enjoy reading the news or difficult opinions pieces, which makes my eyes cross. I know from my previous language experience that I am an auditory learner, and that my time is well-spent with that, whereas for someone else it might be a waste.

    One more comment. For a target language that is quite popular, such as German or obviously English, it should be fairly easy for the student to find their own resources, but it may also be overwhelming. You have to wade through a swamp of unhelpful or far too advanced materials to find anything useful. On the other hand, in a less common target language such as Czech, it can be quite difficult to find good open source materials. In either case, help from a teacher or astute native-speaker in identifying good resources is helpful.

    So that's my non-expert non-linguistic opinion, but I have been thinking a lot about this lately as relates to my own experience.

    1. Hey Sonnet! Professional language learning--that sounds like dream job and a nightmare at the same time! When will you be in Prague? We will be in the same time zone!

      As time goes on, I'm beginning to think that autonomous language learning would work best in conjunction with classroom teaching, like you describe - time in class, but also effectively used time out of class, watching movies, reading newspaper, etc. You do need some sort of expert to help you identify materials and to correct you when you make mistakes that you don't catch on your own.

      I think the biggest benefit of autonomous language learning as a teaching/learning philosophy is that it takes the responsibility of "learning" from the teacher (who can't learn for the student anyway) to the student, and helps them identify their own goals and favored learning strategies. You did it naturally, but I think a lot of people don't realize that there is more than one way to learn a foreign language.


What do you think?