Exploring Learner Language

Jason Martel on how a new manual enables educators to better understand students’ processes of language learning

Much of a world language teacher’s time is invested in thinking about how new languages are effectively and efficiently learned. Often, this leads to experimentation in the classroom — that is, the trying out of a variety of activities in order to determine what works best with a given group of students. Think of French and Spanish teachers, for example, who spend hours on end trying to find the best way to teach the passé composé and the imparfait (what a quagmire!).

When tackling language “puzzles” of this sort, teachers might turn to a new resource: Tarone and Swierzbin’s (2009) Exploring Learner Language. This manual, which coordinates with Lightbown and Spada’s (2006) How Languages are Learned, prepares foreign/
second language teachers to identify and tackle problems of practice using an “exploratory practice” framework (Allwright, 2005). It is unique amongst the many other books on second language acquisition in that it positions teachers as knowledge generators, valuing the contributions that they make to the field of second language teaching and learning.

From its opening lines, Tarone and Swierzbin situate their manual within Allwright’s (2005) exploratory practice framework. Exploratory practice is a form of research that allows teachers to better understand language puzzles (e.g., the “unexpectedly creative things [learners do] with their language” (p. xv)] and to modify their teaching in light of what they find (Allwright, 2005; Tarone & Swierzbin, 2009). Tarone and Swierzbin’s adoption of this framework demonstrates their belief that second language acquisition courses should go beyond the mere coverage of major theories and should instead equip teachers with the necessary skills for ably analyzing their students’ learner language.

In Chapter One, Tarone and Swierzbin provide a succinct review of individual differences in second language learning. We are introduced to six English language learners of varying ability levels — Rodrigo, Antonio, Xue, Chun, Catrine, and Jeanne — who are featured on an accompanying DVD in interviews and various language elicitation tasks. The activities in this chapter help us to get acquainted with the six learners and ask us to generate hypotheses about different aspects of second language learning based on these initial acquaintances. Speaking from experience, you will become quite fond of the six learners by the time you are done using the book
In Chapter Two, the authors highlight a central principle in second language learning, expressed several decades ago by Corder (1967): input does not equal intake, or, in other words, “the linguistic forms we teach a second language learner are not the same as the forms that learner learns” (Tarone & Swierzbin, 2009, p. 11). From this, they review Selinker’s (1972) concept of “interlanguage” — that is, each learner’s idiosyncratic, rule-governed representation of the foreign language they are engaged in learning. The uniqueness of each students’ foreign language proficiency is paramount here; we are reminded that students acquire language at their own pace (not at the textbook’s) and that each mistake they make is a roadmap for what steps we need to take next in order to help them make their language more target-like. To close the chapter, the authors review several major theories of second language learning from behaviorist, innnatist, interactionist, and sociocultural traditions, peppering the text with exercises that ask us to think about the various theories by looking at our six learners’ performances in their interviews and elicitation tasks.

In Chapters Three through Seven, the authors guide us in practicing several ways of analyzing our six learners’ interview and elicitation task data: we complete an error analysis of Xue’s pronunciation; we determine which developmental levels Antonio, Chun, and Catrine sit at in terms of their ability to form questions in English; we hypothesize about whether the learners are focused on form or on meaning during certain portions of their interviews; we judge the effectiveness of the communication strategies they use when referring to entities, actions, and events; and we carry out analyses of lexical complexity in the learners’ speech and writing. This list represents only a few of many engaging activities that Tarone and Swierzbin craft to help us polish our skills as teacher-researchers.
Finally, in Chapter Eight, Tarone and Swierzbin expand upon the exploratory practice framework, explaining its three steps: reflecting on a puzzle, engaging in exploratory practice to learn more about that puzzle, and conducting action research in order to change one’s practice. They then walk us very clearly through the process of identifying puzzles, protecting learners’ rights, collecting data, and analyzing it. The chapter ends with a discussion about the desirability and the viability of change in one’s local teaching context.

According to Tarone (personal communication), Exploring learner language is meant to bring us back to the early 1970s, when second language acquisition researchers were beginning to understand that what gets taught is not necessarily what gets learned and that there seems to be some rhyme and rhythm to many of the errors that foreign language learners make. It poises us as foreign language teachers to do exactly what researchers in our field have been doing since then — that is, figuring out what might promote (and consequently what might hinder) our students’ particular ways of foreign language learning. Although many articles in second language acquisition journals may claim to have the answers, they certainly do not have the ability to speak definitively about the unique contexts in which we teach. This is where we come in as foreign language teacher-researchers and where Exploring learner language can help.
Since its publication, it has served as a go-to resource for students in Tarone’s basics of second language acquisition course at the University of Minnesota. As part of this class, Tarone asks her students to complete a learner language study that requires them to identify a subject (or subjects), conduct the process of informed consent, collect data using elicitation tasks, analyze the data, and produce a final report. Students are free to broach any relevant topic of interest from the course, such as developmental sequences, corrective feedback, lexical complexity, etc. The book helps students to conceptualize and realize this project, from start to finish.
During the summer of 2010, I taught an introductory course on second language acquisition to a group of student teachers at the University of Minnesota. For this course, I used the manual and asked students to complete Tarone’s learner language project. The students engaged vigorously in the project and produced a myriad of interesting products, including:
• An exploration of an English language learner’s differing use of communication strategies in her speaking and writing
• An exploration of codeswitcing during a conversation in Spanish between a native English speaker and a native Spanish speaker
• An exploration of negation acquisition in an English language learner

What is crucial to understand is that these projects were not intended merely for the calculation of a grade; instead, they were important practice experiences that represented the beginning of what I hope will be long and fruitful careers for these student teachers as foreign language teacher-researchers who frequently engage in exploratory practice in their classrooms. The role of teacher-researcher is not reserved solely for student teachers fresh out of preparation programs, however; Exploring learner language is also a fantastic resource for practicing foreign language teachers who seek to cultivate their skills as teacher-researchers via exploratory practice, resulting in a fine-tuning of their teaching and a better understanding of their students’ processes of language learning.

Postmethod Pedagogy
According to Kumaravadivelu (2001), the field of second language teaching is in the process of moving past strict adherence to single, bounded methods (e.g., the Natural Approach or Total Physical Response) and towards ways of teaching that are responsive to the distinctive needs of students. As such, second language education is in a “postmethod condition,” and I consider exploratory practice and postmethod pedagogy to go hand-in-hand.

Postmethod pedagogies are characterized by two facets. The first is a pedagogy of particularity — one that is “sensitive to a particular group of teachers teaching a particular group of learners pursuing a particular set of goals within a particular institutional context embedded in a particular social milieu” (p. 538). The second is a pedagogy of practicality, which, in Kumaravadivelu’s estimation, helps to erase a seemingly age-old divide between theory and practice (usually conceived of as university versus schools) by “encouraging and enabling teachers themselves to theorize from their practice and practice what they theorize” (p. 541). By engaging in exploratory practice and thus learning more about our students’ unique language learning processes, we are better able to meet their linguistic needs and we are doing a service to our field by generating new knowledge. In essence, we are carrying out pedagogies of particularity and practicality.

In sum, Exploring Learner Language has great potential for making an impact on what we know about foreign/second language teaching and learning. With this manual in hand, teachers are well equipped to better understand their students’ processes of language learning and to generate knowledge that is helpful both locally in their classrooms and to the field of second language learning in general. Indeed, exploratory practice projects like the ones described above are helpful for making classroom-based curricular decisions, but they also make excellent fodder for presentation at local and national conferences (e.g., the Minnesota Council on the Teaching of Languages and Cultures’ Fall Conference, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages’ Annual Convention, etc.). It is my hope that many current and future foreign language teachers will use Exploring learner language to frequently engage in projects and professional activities like the ones described in this article, in turn benefiting their students and legitimizing their roles as teacher-researchers by realizing pedagogies of particularity and practicality.

Allwright, D. (2005). “Developing Principles for Practitioner Research: The Case of Exploratory Practice” Modern Language Journal, 89(3), 353-366.
Corder, S. P. (1967). “The Significance of Learners’ Errors” International Review of Applied Linguistics, 5, 161-170.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (2001). “Toward a Postmethod Pedagogy” TESOL Quarterly, 35(4), 537-560.
Lightbown, P., & Spada, N. (2006). How Languages are Learned (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Selinker, L. (1972). “Interlanguage” International Review of Applied Linguistics, 10(3), 209-231.
Tarone, E., & Swierzbin, B. (2009). Exploring Learner Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jason Martel ([email protected]) is a Ph.D. student in the Second Languages and Cultures Education program at the University of Minnesota. Before entering this program, he taught middle and high school French in Massachusetts. His research interests lie within the realm of foreign language teacher education, including a recent self-study on foreign language student teacher supervision to appear in The New Educator. He is particularly interested in content-based instruction and hopes to understand how this approach might be integrated into secondary foreign language educational settings.