Stumbling Blocks in the Learning Process

El siguiente texto profundiza los conceptos del recurso "Interlanguage", analizando estrategias para superar dificultades en el proceso de aprendizaje del inglés, sobre todo las que plantea el interlenguaje.
The study of «language learner language» or learner interlanguage is one of the most studied aspects in second and foreign language acquisition research for the last 30 years or so. It is supposed to be a dynamic system, sometimes pausing for reorganising features and components, and then proceeding.

But this is no more than a bucolic picture, the ideal thing, what happens in fact?

Learners tend to get stuck at different points, sometimes these points are in a way predictable. This is what we mean by «stumbling blocks». These are inevitable, and are generally determined by features of the target language, but also by personal learner factors.

Among these factors we can mention personality, age, intelligence, aptitude, cognitive style, and motivation in foreign language acquisition. The better we get to know the group, the better prepared we will be to predict these stumbling blocks and develop strategies to remedy them.

A word about each of these factors

Relative success and rate of acquisition seem to be closely related to age. Younger learners seem to score better at oral skills, typically pronunciation and intonation; older learners appear to learn faster, especially with respect to the morphology and the syntax of the target language.

Researchers assert that intelligence generally is closely related with success in the foreign language classroom. Aptitude also helps the learner higher levels of communicative competence.

As you may know already, motivation and attitude influence success. Instrumental and integrative motivation combined sustaining initial motivation through different types of tasks.
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When it comes to personality traits, research seems to point to the fact that extrovert personalities tend to achieve better at communicative competence, while learners of the introvert type might be better at developing linguistic competence. Cognitive style does not seem to be decisive in successful language learning.

As you might have experienced already, individual learner variables are not easy to attend to due to the lack of a common and standardised definition for each of the different variables (for example, the distinction between motivation and attitudes is not always clear.) Also, the interrelatedness of the various factors (for example, age and cognitive style, cognitive style and personality, etc.)

However, if these factors are attended to while planning correction and remedial strategies, there is the possibility that learners might not fall into the much feared «plateau predicament». What does this mean?

As we said above, the learning process pauses at intervals to process information. The danger is that this period should extend for too long a time, and might not be able to take in new material, recycle and integrate and incorporate material for production.

What could be done in these cases?

Classroom experience has shown that the more we insist the worse it becomes, and the learner seems to regress. One possible measure is not to insist on production, but focus on comprehension, on input; in other words, what can be done is change the discourse domain.

Much like natural languages, interlanguages are found to be variable. All along the acquisition/learning process, the learner's interlanguage goes through different stages of development.

Each stage of development overlaps with the one that precedes and follows it, so that at any given stage of development the learner's interlanguage contains a number of competing language rules with «one rule guiding performance on one occasion and another rule on a different occasion.». (Ellis, 1985:75.)

Students' linguistic performance often varies even from one task to another, and there are a number of factors that are believed to produce variable forms.

Variability can be systematic and non-systematic. Systematic variability is relatively easy to handle since in general it can be seen most learners at the same time, and they show the direction of learner language development.

More problematic is individual variability. Here we must try to guess what kind of hypotheses he learner has constructed to understand the system the learner has constructed.

There's still another type of variability, contextual variability, which can be explained with reference to either the linguistic or the situational context of use. This involves the type of task, for instance, since we're focusing on language learning in the classroom.

Performance variability has to do with psycholinguistic factors such as the learner's emotional or physical condition, which can lead to slips, hesitations and repetitions.

And here comes the headache: free variability. It is sometimes the case the learners use two or more alternate forms that exist within the learner's interlanguage for no apparent reason.

All these factors point to the complexity of the learning task, and to the usefulness of teacher intervention.

We might suggest the following activity:

  • single out one learner from one of your groups;
  • keep a record of his/her performance for two weeks;
  • try to classify your data in terms of different variables:
  • oral v. written discourse
  • planned v. unplanned discourse
  • controlled v. free production
  • try to spot any instances of variability
  • classify those instances in terms of the types we've discussed in this chapter
  • try to elaborate a remedial strategy to help that learner;
  • apply it;
  • measure results;
  • interview your learner: what were his/her impressions?


ELLIS, R. (1995). Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Publicado: 19 de enero de 2015
Última modificación: 26 de febrero de 2015


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