On Language Learning Strategies

A few days ago I attended a conference in Klagenfurt, which focussed on language learning strategies. Strategies are not really my field of expertise, so the conference was a good opportunity for me to learn more about the topic, and what I will try to do in this post is to summarise and synthesise what I learnt from the presentations that I attended.

This is, by necessity, a very partial report on the conference. Firstly, there is the perennial conference problem, that one cannot attend every presentation (is it just my impression, or are the presentations you want to attend always scheduled in the same time-slot?). And secondly, some very interesting presentations did not fit in well with the focus of this post, and probably deserve posts of their own (e.g., Stephen Brewer’s talk on the parallels between mastering linguistic and musical communication, or Zarina Markova’s reflexive account about doing strategy-related research).

In the paragraphs that follow, I will begin by defining language learning strategies; following that, I will discuss why they are important for language learning; and finally, I will present some implications for language education and research, which were brought up in the conference.

Sign writing 'University of Klagenfurt" in German, Slovenian and Sign Langauge
An inclusive welcome

What are language learning strategies?

Language learning strategies were defined by Carol Griffiths in her plenary as “actions chosen (either deliberately or automatically) for the purpose of learning or regulating the learning of language”.

This fairly broad definition encompasses quite a few behaviours (and non-behaviours), and in fact, there are references to dozens of strategies in the literature. The proliferation of strategies, and frameworks that have been used to impose some order on the chaos, can at times be somewhat confusing. In his plenary, Andrew Cohen helpfully suggested a broad taxonomy that classified strategies, according to:

  • Goal: Under this heading, a distinction was made between strategies that facilitate learning (e.g., identifying and recording new words), and strategies that facilitate performance (e.g., retrieval and communicative strategies)
  • Function: This heading was used to classify strategies under sub-headings such as cognitive, affective, meta-affective, social, and more.
  • Skill: This heading referred to whether the strategies focussed on listening, speaking, reading or writing.

An important point that was iterated several times in the conference was that the use of strategies is a situated experience. That is to say, both the choice of strategies, and their effect depend on a number of factors pertaining to the user and the communicative situation. Yu Tina Yang, who reported on a study with Native Speakers of English learning Chinese, concluded that the use of strategies was affected by the nature of the task, the learner’s background knowledge and individual differences (e.g. different needs and priorities). In similar vein, Griffiths suggested that the use of strategies depends on the task and on individual characteristics, such as motivation, beliefs about oneself and about the language learnt, and on the learner’s ability to work autonomously. On the other hand, she suggested that research on the effects of age, gender and learning style differences has been inconclusive. The comments made by Griffiths seem to be consistent with a study reported by Vee Harris and Michael Grenfell, who compared 120 students from inner-city and suburban schools in the UK, and found that while gender did not seem to have any effect into the frequency of strategy use, but motivation did.

One final observation about strategies, which was raised by Sarah Mercer, is that they seem to have a recursive effect on shaping the context out of which they emerged. What this means is that it is perhaps counterproductive to think of strategies and context as being conceptually distinct. Rather, the context appears to be in a constant state of flux, and this dynamism seems to be sustained, among others, by the learners’ use of strategies. This is important to bear in mind when thinking about how to research strategies, as we need to be sensitive both to the ways in which each language learning situation is unique, and to the ways in which the situation constantly changes in response to the use of strategies.

Why are strategies important?

Most talks in the conference were premised on the belief that the use of language learning strategies is associated, in one way or another, with successful language learning and use.

For instance, Carol Griffiths pointed out that the frequency of strategy use was associated with successful learning; that successful learners tend to use strategies more frequently than less successful ones; and that successful learners often know how to orchestrate their strategy repertoires to address specific language problems.

Christina Gkonou used empirical data to show that highly anxious learners were able to deploy strategies such as positive thinking, relaxation techniques and actively seeking support from their peers in order to regulate their anxiety in language learning situations.

Harris and Grenfell also showed evidence that learners who exhibited persistence were prepared to take risks and tolerated ambiguity in communication tended to make stronger gains in language learning, compared to those who gave up easily, were risk averse and for whom ambiguity triggered self-doubt.

What are the implications for language teaching?

Several speakers suggested ways in which the findings from strategy research could be used to inform language teaching practice. The most important implication, raised by Griffiths, is that strategies are teachable; therefore if we make an effort to teach strategies, and if we encourage their use in a classroom context, this could make language learning more effective.

Cohen also discussed this point at some length in his plenary, where he suggested making students more aware of the strategies that are available to them, conducting strategy-based instruction, and even formally assessing strategies in language learning settings. He also suggested that teachers can help learners select appropriate strategies, by making themselves aware of their learners’ preferred strategies, linguistic proficiency, cultural background, motivation and more – although that raises the question of how feasible such demands might be.

Perhaps more pragmatically, Harris and Grenfell noted that bilingual students seem to use language learning strategies more effectively, and suggested capitalising on their expertise, particularly in large multi-ethnic schools. They also noted that, according to their research, motivation among UK students seems to plummet at the age of 12-13, so it would be sensible for strategy-based interventions to focus on that age group.

Another concrete suggestion was made by Gkonou, who recommended that interventions inspired by cognitive psychology could be used to increase self-regulation and enhance the students’ emotional intelligence.

What are the implications for research?

Some of the most important points raised in the conference pertained to questions such as what research should be done on strategies, as well as ‘how’ and ‘why’ to research the topic. Perhaps the most frustrating of these was made by Peter Gu, who reported on a large-scale literature review of studies conducted in China, to conclude that while a large repertoire of strategies had been identified, the real world impact of this research has been limited, and researchers are a fault for this unfortunate situation. Among the problematic aspects of research that he identified was the fact that research is often published in journals that are inaccessible to teachers, and there has been little effort to connect such research to training materials and procedures. Although Gu was discussing Chinese educational research, his remarks were met with knowing nods among the audience. I, for one, was frustrated by a number of studies in the conference, including nation-wide surveys involving thousands of students, the cost and effort of which seemed to be quite disproportionate to their social utility.

At the end of the day…

I left the conference in Klagenfurt knowing much more about strategies than I did before I went there, and with a sense of respect for all the good work that is being done in the field. However, I could not help fighting back the impression that arguing too strongly for Strategy-Based Instruction could be placing one demand too many on teachers, who are already being held accountable for more aspects of learning than is reasonable. At minimum, it seems to me, teachers should not be expected to tease out the relevance and implications of studies that do not make an effort to critically examine how they might influence practice. To argue that there is a need for more, and better, use of language learning strategies in the language classroom is perhaps useful, but what we really need to be doing is exploring is which strategies work where, and why. These were questions that have not been consistently addressed in the literature or in the conference, but it seems that the language learning strategy research community is reorienting itself towards this direction, and I think that it is a very useful redefinition of focus.

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