Learner Autonomy: A
Personal Note by the Editor
Leibniz Universität Hannover,
The conference in Hannover brought together some of
the most important figures in learner autonomy. Three of the
plenary speakers have been frequent contributors to the LASIG, Leni
and Lienhard have been LASIG coordinators for some time.
Coincidentally, David, Leni, and Lienhard have also been
accompanying my own path to learner autonomy for decades. When
still a student of Anglo-Irish Literature at the University of
Münster and a student assistant to Lienhard Legenhausen in the late
1980s and early 1990s, I had the chance to explore new technologies
like the Internet and discussing “learner autonomy” with both
Lienhard and also Leni who came to visit us now and then. I still
remember heated debates, especially with Leni, on my
(mis)conceptions of learner autonomy. Slowly, and without realizing
it, I became infected with the virus of “learner autonomy”.
I remember not being happy with a cloze test result
on prepositional phrases and questioning the lecturer’s decision.
Leaving the session, I immediately sat down and consulted the
London “Times” CD-ROM text corpus which we had just purchased for
the Self-Access Centre and searching it with MicroConcord, a
concordancer, for results. I spent hours on this, not realizing how
much time I spent sorting, then re-sorting my results, categorizing
my findings, and finally (and, I must admit, triumphantly) coming
up with five results for the supposedly “wrong” item in my test.
One week later, I confronted the lecturer, a native speaker, with
my results. I did mention that I had found 232 results for “his”
solution, but also five for “my” solution, so surely, how could
mine be wrong? The lecturer had a detailed look at “my” five
results, and had to think long and hard about his answer. Finally,
he mentioned that two results came from authors who he knew to be
sloppy in their writing. The three other results were actually
correct (“I knew it!”), but only in THOSE CONTEXTS (“what?”). The
items were “typical of” and “typical for”; an easy mistake for
German students growing up with “typisch für”. This incident set in
motion learning processes that I only much later began to recognize
as central to learner autonomy. I was a learner in control; I
learned not because somebody told me but because I wanted to find
out; I questioned the authority of native speakers, especially
textbooks, and “rules” and looked instead at actual language use; I
began to recognize language learning as a dynamic and complex
process; I played with and deconstructed language by using computer
programs; I negotiated language and language learning explicitly
with native speakers and other learners. My result in this test did
not change; my view on language and language learning, however,
My time as a student assistant with Lienhard
eventually came to an end. I finished my Magister (still in
Anglo-Irish Literature) in 1995 and half-heartedly started a
less-than-adequately funded PhD course, when Lienhard contacted me
with the news that a PhD candidate’s position was available at
Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and whether (with my experience
having lived in Ireland while a PAD language assistant) I would be
interested. Thus I travelled to Dublin for an interview with David
Little. It quickly became clear that I would need to change my
topic, switching to something between linguistics and didactics.
Not really trusting my instincts, I still said yes, especially as
David made it clear that there was no risk if things did not work
out for me. Five years later, I received my PhD and became a
permanent lecturer in applied linguistics and coordinator of
language modules at the Centre for Language and Communication
Studies at Trinity College, and afterwards enjoying several more
years of working with David in a fantastic environment with great
Thus, with David, Lienhard, and Leni agreeing to
become plenary speakers at the LASIG 2013 conference in Hannover, I
was thrilled to be able to welcome three people who were
instrumental in starting me on my own path to learner autonomy,
providing opportunities and forcing me to think and make decisions.
Our conference theme, “Learner autonomy in second language pedagogy
and research – challenges and issues”, focused on a core issue in
learner autonomy and language learning. While very few question the
benefits of learner autonomy and the usefulness of its goals in
general, the practice (and also the theory) of learner autonomy
seems to be hampered by a number of challenges and obstacles. Some
of these lie within the discussion of the concept of learner
autonomy itself (Is it self-access? Does learner autonomy go well
with the CEFR? Does learner autonomy mean revolution or reform of
our educational systems?). Others lie in the realm of learners and
their experiences and beliefs. Other perceived challenges and
obstacles lie with teacher education; it is a truism to say that
the implementation of learner autonomy can hardly be achieved
without teachers who experienced its benefits in their own
education as language teaching professionals.
Language Learner Autonomy, Vygotsky and Sociocultural Theory: Some Theoretical and Pedagogical Reflections
Language Learner Autonomy, Vygotsky and Sociocultural Theory
Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
Vygotsky has long been cited in the literature on language learner autonomy, whereas learner autonomy rarely crops up in the literature on second language acquisition that claims to base itself directly on Vygotsky’s writings. I had already committed myself to exploring this asymmetry in the talk on which this article is based when I read James Lantolf’s chapter – ‘Sociocultural Theory and the dialectics of L2 learner autonomy/agency’ – in The Applied Linguistic Individual (Benson & Cooker, 2013a). At the beginning of his chapter Lantolf declares himself ‘a little concerned by some of the proposals and recommendations made in the name of SCT’, by which he means Vygotsky, or rather his own interpretation of Vygotsky. He explains that his goal is ‘to address some of the concerns I have regarding these matters and to suggest some modifications based on a fuller understanding of Vygotskian theory’ (Lantolf, 2013: 17). Lantolf’s principal source for what he labels ALR (autonomous learner research) is a rather random gathering of my own publications, so his article provided me with a focus and a challenge. My talk explored the relation between language learner autonomy theory (LLAT) and SCT in Lantolf’s limited sense, with close reference to Lantolf’s arguments; the present article does the same in somewhat greater detail.
The concept of learner autonomy has given rise to many different conceptions, so I begin by briefly elaborating my own. I then explain how Vygotsky’s ideas contributed to the development of my thinking and give preliminary consideration to some points of divergence between LLAT and SCT. This prepares the ground for a more detailed consideration of two key Vygotskian notions, inner speech and scientific concepts, on which my views differ significantly from Lantolf’s. Finally, my conclusion briefly recapitulates what seem to me major differences between LLAT and SCT, before suggesting a possible direction for future research focused on language learner autonomy.
Keywords: Language learner autonomy; Vygotsky; sociocultural theory (SCT); inner speech; spontaneous concepts; scientific concepts
Language Learner Autonomy: A Brief Definition
In my experience the most successful language learning environments are those in which, from the beginning, the target language is the principal channel of the learners’ agency: the communicative and metacognitive medium through which, individually and collaboratively, they plan, execute, monitor and evaluate their own learning. Four elements of this definition require brief elaboration. The first comes at the end: ‘plan, execute, monitor and evaluate their own learning’. The idea that autonomous learners are in charge of and responsible for all aspects of their learning is Henri Holec’s starting point in Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning (Holec, 1979; cited here as Holec, 1981), and it is fundamental to all versions of learner autonomy. The second element that requires elaboration is the phrase ‘individually and collaboratively’. In the most successful language learning environments individual learning is embedded in interaction; pursuit of a collaborative learning agenda leads to the fulfilment of individual learning needs and agendas. The third element is not found in all versions of learner autonomy, though it seems to me a precondition for successful learning outcomes: ‘the target language is the principal channel of the learners’ agency’. By this I mean that individually and collaboratively learners make choices, take decisions, implement their decisions, and evaluate learning outcomes in the target language. Finally, because the target language is used in this way its impact on the learning process is metacognitive as well as communicative.
Language learning environments that correspond to this description are governed by three principles (Dam & Legenhausen, 1997; Legenhausen, 2003). The underlying principle is that language learning arises quasi-spontaneously from the learner’s active involvement in target language use – ‘quasi-spontaneously’ because in formal contexts all learning is the product of intentional processes. This yields an operational principle, according to which classroom interactions must be authentic, driven by genuine communicative purposes and not by ‘drill and practice’ or other traditional teaching techniques. This principle redefines the teacher’s role. Instead of seeking to transmit knowledge and skills to her learners she proposes learning activities for them to try out, scaffolds their attempts to use the target language as the medium of their learning, raises their awareness of language as a system, and leads them in reflection on the learning process and evaluation of learning outcomes. According to the procedural principle the work cycle must be strictly managed in order to provide structure and give teacher and learners a sense of security, direction and control of the learning process (a detailed account of the work cycle is provided by Dam, 1995).
This kind of language learning environment is a great deal more than a theoretical construct. Variations have existed in Denmark, other Nordic countries and elsewhere for more than thirty years, and the learning outcomes that have been achieved are beyond dispute. In their LAALE Project (Language Acquisition in an Autonomous Learning Environment), for example, Dam and Legenhausen studied the English L2 development of one particular class over a period of four years, focusing on the acquisition of vocabulary (Dam & Legenhausen, 1996), grammatical structures (Legenhausen, 1999a, 1999b), and the ability to participate spontaneously in conversational interactions (Legenhausen, 2001). The empirical data show conclusively that Dam’s mixed-ability learners achieved greater communicative proficiency and a fuller, more flexible mastery of the underlying target language system than a class of learners at an elite German secondary school (Gymnasium) who were taught English using a ‘communicative’ textbook. Legenhausen (2003) attributes this success to a number of...