Single, bilingual: What do we need to know about second-language learning?

Although recent advances in the ‘science of learning’ have influenced teacher practice, language learning is different in important ways to learning in other disciplines. In particular the nature of linguistic ‘knowledge’ significantly affects how teachers should teach. Steve Smith looks at some key strands in research into second-language learning and suggest ways in which teachers might benefit from it.

Many language teachers have happily embraced various findings from what’s often referred to as the ‘science of learning’, including the importance of spaced retrieval practice, interleaving, cognitive load theory and the benefits of explicit teacher-led instruction. Even if they’re unfamiliar with the latest research findings, effective teachers often do these things instinctively or through experience. They’re supported by a recent report1 into language-teaching methodology by the Teaching Schools Council (TSC) which carried out a Department for Education-sponsored selective review of literature, observed a large number of lessons and interviewed teachers in a variety of secondary schools. Practices supported included systematic teaching of phonics, a planned approach to explicit vocabulary teaching, and explanation and practice of grammatical structures.
Traditionally, however, the scholarly field of second- language acquisition has come from different perspectives, not just those of cognitive science. These have led to a number of pendulum-swings over the decades. Behaviourism from the field of psychology spawned audio- lingual language teaching, with its emphasis on repetitive drills and habit formation; a strong British current of ‘direct method’ oral teaching, with a stress on developing grammatical and lexical skill by avoiding translation and sticking to the target language can be observed in many a classroom; and the powerful communicative language teaching movement, characterised by the functional use of language, continues to be a huge influence in language teaching. In light of the variable success of these approaches, it’s often said that we’re now in a period of ‘principled eclecticism’, with teachers taking the best bits of prior approaches and various research strands.

But what makes second-language learning distinct from other disciplines is the fact that, according to a large majority of researchers, most learning occurs implicitly or sub-consciously, just as when young children acquire their first language. Thus language learning is somehow ‘natural’ in a way that many other forms of learning are not. Everyday evidence for this can be seen when students spend time abroad on a school exchange visit. After a couple of weeks of immersion, without any explicit teaching at all, students’ comprehension and fluency is measurably improved. How did this happen without teaching? So should classroom practice primarily aim to ape the processes of first language acquisition by just trying to provide as much meaningful language input as possible, letting nature take its course? This is where the debate can get heated!

Traditionally it’s been assumed that by presenting, practising and using new language structures, students gradually build up the internalised grammatical and lexical capability to understand and speak. Unfortunately research doesn’t (yet) lend much support to this view of how new languages are acquired. Evidence suggests that, just as with their first language, learners ‘acquire’ (i.e. become proficient in) grammatical structures – for example tenses and verb endings – in an order that’s somewhat immune to teaching. Although the first language can influence how we learn the second, the argument runs that acquisition follows a natural trajectory – we’re just hard-wired with a Chomskyan ‘language acquisition device’ to pick up languages in certain ways. Some conclude from this that all a teacher can do is provide interesting language exposure at a comprehensible level and the opportunity to interact with it. The most famous scholar supporting this view is the highly influential Stephen Krashen.(2)

In stark contrast, some researchers and many teachers believe language learning takes place at least partly along the lines of any form of skill learning – for example, learning to play tennis. The teacher explains a structure, show lots of examples of it in written and spoken texts, get students to practise it in controlled exercises, then in free speech and writing. This view is essentially supported by the TSC report,1 which argues that structures become ‘automatised’ through repeated practice in meaningful contexts. In addition, some argue that in the school setting there’s simply not enough time for the natural processes of acquisition to occur.

Others prefer to stress the importance of learning language through real-life task-based activity, arguing that language learning is a social activity as well as a cognitive one, and that students are more likely to be motivated by using the new language in practical contexts – for example, solving a problem or carrying out a task together. Supporters of this approach include eminent researchers such as Rod Ellis(3) and Michael Long.(4)

Whatever the theoretical viewpoint, one thing is certain: ‘knowledge’ in language learning is not the same as ‘knowledge’ in, say, history. Linguistic skill derives from having a well-established tacit ‘mental representation’ (procedural knowledge) of the grammar, vocabulary and discourse rules of a language. ‘Knowing how’ is far more important than ‘knowing that’. So the challenge for language teachers is how to help this mental representation to develop. As any language learner knows, it takes lots of exposure, time and practice.

With this in mind, teachers may be well advised (in the absence of precise research-supported models of ‘what works’) to hedge their bets by doing two things: 1) Exploit natural acquisition mechanisms by using as much of the target language as possible in meaningful and interesting ways, involving listening, speaking, reading and writing; and 2) Exploit the gradual acquisition of skills by using a certain amount of explanation and structured practice on high-frequency areas of vocabulary and grammar. In addition, they’d be wise to find out more about the research, question their own beliefs and be sensitive to the precise context they’re working in. And they might well take on board some of the more secure findings of research. Here are just a few for the record:

  • Explicit vocabulary instruction can help alongside the incidental learning of words through listening and reading.
  • Reducing anxiety helps students learn.
  • Error correction can make a difference, but not much.
  • Explicitly teaching sound-spelling relationships (phonics) is useful.
  • Repetition is vital for acquisition, but not just any repetition – the more meaningful and varied the better.
  • Transcription tasks and reading aloud reinforce ‘phonological memory’.
  • It’s often more efficient to teach vocabulary in lexical phrases rather than with isolated words.
  • Old-fashioned grammar-translation is generally a poor way to teach a language if you want students to communicate.

Steve Smith is a former Head of Modern Languages, co-author with Gianfranco Conti of The Language Teacher Toolkit (available on Amazon), author of Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher (Routledge) and writer of the widely used French resources website He is also a writer and trainer for the AQA awarding body in England, and Visiting Lecturer and Subject Lead Tutor at the University of Buckingham.

Further reading:

Anderson, J. R. (1982) ‘Acquisition of cognitive skill’, Psychological Review 89 (4) pp. 369–406.
Barcroft, J. (2015) Vocabulary in language teaching. London: Routledge.
Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. (2011) How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1. Teaching Schools Council (2016) Modern foreign languages pedagogy review. Available at:
2. Krashen, S. D. (1982) Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press. Also available at:
3. Ellis, R. (2005) Instructed second language acquisition: a literature review. Available at:
4. Long, M. H. and Doughty, J. (eds) (2009) The handbook of language teaching. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.