Principle 1.: The student is the language learner

Emphasis on the student learning rather than the teacher teaching is hardly new. Already in 1836, Wilhelm von Humboldt concluded that no one can really teach a language, one can only present the conditions under which it will develop spontaneously in its own way; and in 1965 Chomsky redirected our attention to this insight in no uncertain terms[2], thus influencing language teaching significantly during the 1970s and 80s. Bronson Alcott, who was a noted nineteenth century educator, maintained in his General Maxims (1826-27) that we should "teach nothing that pupils cannot teach themselves." [3] This radical paradox was echoed in 1972 by Gattegno, who observed that in teaching we are nurturing in learners inner criteria that enable them to advance in their learning. "Only self-education," he said, "will lead any learner to the mastery of a skill." [4]

In learning a language, their own or another, each learner must develop and consolidate mental representations that are basic to understanding the language as well as to expressing oneself through it, whether in speech or writing. For whatever we attempt, whether tying shoelaces or driving a car, we need a kind of mental map or blueprint of what we are trying to do that guides us to effective performance (see also Principle 5). This mental representation is very personal, evolving as the learner becomes more fully competent in the language. Different speakers possess even their native language to varying degrees of control, manipulating it to make it serve their purposes according to somewhat different mental representations.

In teaching a language, we are helping individual learners, in the best ways we know, to consolidate their control of it, so that they become increasingly fluent in using it for expression of personal meaning. Our ways of proceeding are often intuitive, since our ignorance in this area is great. We can provide opportunities for observing the language in use and for using the language creatively, but only the learners themselves can assimilate the language and make it their own. This they do in very individualistic ways. Consequently, in recent years we have been paying more and more attention to differing styles and preferred strategies of learning.[5] Sometimes, despite our efforts, our students do not learn as we would like, because they are not motivated to do so, and this is an important issue (see Corollary 1.1). With the individual learning process as central, self and peer-to-peer assessment of progress and error detection become important. Students must realize they are responsible for their own learning; they will take this responsibility more seriously if they themselves discover and work at their own weaknesses and insufficiencies.

Corollary 1.1: Motivation springs from within; it can be sparked, but not imposed from without

There is a misconception among some teachers that it is their task to "motivate" their students. "My students are completely unmotivated," they complain. Corpses and mummies are "completely unmotivated," but every living being is motivated. One student may be motivated to get through each language class with the least personal hassle, while acquiring the barest minimum of the language compatible with not flunking out; another may be motivated to get high grades by supplying what the teacher or some testing agency seems to be seeking on tests; yet another may be motivated to learn a subset of skills or a distinctive vocabulary to achieve personal goals, which may not be those of the course or the teacher. Motivation, strong or weak, is always there. It is the task of the teacher to discover the springs of motivation in individual students and channel it in the direction of further language acquisition through course content, activities in and out of the classroom, and learner-generated or at least learner-maintained projects (see also Principle 2). Frequently the intrinsic attraction of the subject matter and the interest aroused by classroom interaction will spark motivation to persist with language learning, and this will continue until a degree of language control satisfying to the learner has been attained.[6]

It is noticeable that language learning motivation waxes and wanes as students feel they can operate in the language sufficiently to satisfy their immediate needs or presently perceived longer term objectives. It is for this reason that, although adults and adolescents learn a language faster in the short run than young children, they are more easily satisfied with what they can do with it than younger learners who, wishing to be accepted by their peers and succeed in a new environment, persist to a higher level of control over the long haul.[7] It is for the teacher to find ways of restimulating the motivation of older learners by opening up new vistas of potentiality. Sometimes external factors do this for us and the student's interest and enthusiasm rekindle. Hence the number of older learners who return to language study in their adult years.[8 ]

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