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Knowledge Previous to the Learning Task

Esta adaptación de un texto de Earl Stevick presenta un esquema de trabajo que permite relacionar la forma en que percibimos el mundo con las habilidades y procesos necesarios para adquirir una lengua extranjera.


One's image of something is not just a visual picture in the mind. It is one's basis for action with respect to that something. One's image of one's kitchen enables one to find things in the kitchen.

Non-verbal imagery includes the kinds of data that come in through the five senses –colour, distance, size, sound, texture, and flavour, among others. It also includes emotions and purposes, and duration, frequency and remoteness in time. Non-verbal imagery provides the meanings that we put into words and infer from the words of others.

Our verbal imagery is the basis we have for pronouncing sounds and words, and for putting words together into larger combinations. If our verbal imagery coincides with that of others we will be understood, and, as FL users we will have made a good approximation to the FL. Often as learners we get the wrong imagery, or imageries lacking in parts, and so we make errors.

Learning and using a language implies the two kinds of imagery that we mentioned above: verbal imagery refers to form, sort of the boxes which we fill in with meanings, which come from our non-verbal imageries.

How can we connect verbal and non-verbal imageries?


In a nutshell, language learning consists in learning the appropriate connections between the verbal and the non-verbal imageries.

Verbal and non-verbal images result in a network of relevant associations, which involve data of many kinds. We can say that the two things that connect when we use language are verbal symbols and non-verbal images, which are the mental resources that enable us to come up with the spoken and written linguistic symbols and patterns of symbols that we need when we need them. Non-verbal images are what generate the meanings: the feelings, the pictures, the sounds and all.

By contrast, verbal images are based on data drawn from different communication channels as identified by the five human senses, but they draw on other modalities as well. Performing actions while we talk to someone provides additional kinaesthetic and auditory information. Let's not forget that there are individual differences regarding channel choice and modalities in general.

People differ greatly in the degree of strength and frequency of the various kinds of associations from which they create their images. They seldom perceive the difference between visual, auditory and emotional sources. Also, the images we construct do not remain fixed on our minds. For every occasion that the images are required to take action, the mind recycles a number of relevant associations and recreates a new enriched image.

In Stevick's opinion learning a language implies three simultaneous processes.

  1. Matching up non-verbal images with other non-verbal image.
  2. Combining verbal material, which what we often do when we relate a word or pattern with its meaning, more or less consciously.
  3. Matching non-verbal with verbal images, which refers to those moments when we reflect on how we use language.

In general terms, this fantastic capacity for language acquisition that we humans possess enables us to distinguish non-verbal from verbal material, and to sort out all this material.

How can all this be implemented in the classroom?


Stevick suggests that as teachers we should try to make an effort for verbal and non-verbal material to be active in learners' minds. It is not enough, he points out, for that material to be present in the teacher’s mind only. So this requires activation on the part of the teacher and the learner, and retrieval by the learner.

Translated into classroom terms, this implies that there should be constant recycling of the material taught. Recycling will be most effective if it is contextualized in situations different from the initial ones, and if it requires different kinds of associations involving verbal and non-verbal images.

Another aspect to take into account is the fact that learners differ in their handling of different aspects of input. This means that different kinds of information produce different kinds of impact on them: some respond to visual material more readily; others to auditory input; or grammatical, phonological o lexical material.

Consequently the richer the input, the better. What does rich mean? Rich in what sense? Richness not in the linguistic sense only: input is rich if it appeals to learners in different ways, considering that groups are richly diverse, with learners whose cognitive and learning styles are different, who employ different strategies to go about in the foreign language.

Another aspect related to input is that it will be more appealing to the learner and interesting –and hence more memorable– if it relates to some coherent reality: what we mean is that the content should be true in some possible world, even if it is fictional.

This implies that to some learners factual information is not so important. However, even though it’s healthy for content not to always reveal facts, it is necessary to establish a common code with learners so that they realize what type of input they will be exposed to. Why should this be so? Factual as opposed to fictional content calls for the activation of different kinds of non-verbal images, though, often, the verbal images might be the same!

In the Contenido relacionado and in this chapter, there have been constant references to diversity in the way of cognitive and learning styles. However, though it's perfectly advisable to allow learners to develop their own stockpile of information, as teachers –Stevick says– we should try to keep track of what kind of information is in fact in their stockpile.

At first sight this reads like an impossible task to accomplish, given the number of learners in each group, and the apparent enormous diversity one is likely to encounter in any one group. Still, diversity is not infinite but rather predictable in terms of cognitive and learning style types. The important thing is to be on the alert to at least single out some modes of operating as agents of their own learning/acquisition task.

Stevick warns us against the danger of building a set of teaching strategies around the success of an identified learner or group of learners.

These are not idle questions, either, for exactly this kind of thing has happened time and again in the history of language teaching. The social prestige of literary scholars lay behind the Grammar - Translation method, and the practical achievements of the anthropological linguists during World War II produced a methodology built around their strengths. One after another, successive innovators have cast and recast «the learner» in their own image. Even as an individual teacher, may be tempted to act as if all students really «should» be like me at my best, or perhaps like my most illustrious alumni. So I will remember Diller’s warning (...) about the temptation to take one experience or one small set of principles and push that experience or that set of principles «too long and far». Whenever some one offers me a new technique, or asks me to embrace yet another approach, I will ask myself, «How would this fit...?», and into the blank I will substitute first Ann, then Bert, then Carla and Derek and Ed and Frieda and Gwen. [These are the learners whose strategies he discusses in his book.] (Stevick: pp. 150-1)

What do you think of the quote above? Do you agree with Stevick about teaching approaches? Do you think you could be in a position to detect some of your learners' images? This is the activity we suggest for this chapter. How would you try to implement it?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Taking down notes on an identified sub-group of learners.
  • Carrying out a survey.
  • Trying different kinds of innovative activities and checking and recording learners' reactions.


    Can you think of any others?

References and Bibliography

Success with Foreign Languages

STEVICK W., E. (1989). Success with Foreign Languages: seven who achieved it and what worked for them. (Electronic version with permission.) New York: Prentice Hall.

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Publicado: 14 de enero de 2015

Última modificación: 25 de febrero de 2015

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