The Four Strands of Language Learning

In the pursuit of acquiring a language, there are various methods, techniques, guides and approaches which are often emotionally and personally motivated. In my research, and on a personal level, I'm interested foreign language acquisition. It fascinates me.

I'm not the best language learner out there.

I've only been learning one foreign language (Chinese) since University, while now and then dabbling on other languages, like Spanish or Japanese. However, my pursuit in understanding the processes involved is what really intrigues me.

Many language learners have got their own approaches and methods. Understandably so. Learning a language is a personal endeavour. You've gotta find your own way to do it. Comfortable or uncomfortable. Quick or methodical. It's up to you.

This post, however, details a recent paper I read by Paul Nation, that describes the Four Strands of Language Learning. Paul, himself, is a well-known researcher in second language acquisition and I admire his research.

You'll often come across his name when doing applied linguistic research. For some reason, he is overshadowed by Krashen in the public domain. I'm not comparing the two, but when it comes to language learners establishing a linguistic basis for their learning, I often hear Krashen's name first.

To me the four strands of language learning is a succinct balanced approach of looking at language learning. Like I said, I'm not a good language learner, especially when I now look at the four strands and how I easily neglect some aspects. Without further ado, here are the four strands:

1) Meaning-Focused Input (Learning through listening and reading)

In this strand the focus should be on trying to understand, gain knowledge and enjoy what you are listening and reading about. Activities include watching TV shows, movies, extensive reading, listening to radio or music or being a listener in a conversation.

The meaning-focused input strand should not be too unfamiliar. This is where Krashen's meaning comprehensible input, or the +1 hypothesis, comes in. This means that when you aim for input, you should try and listen and read materials that are just above just current level, in the sense that "unknown language items [are understood] through context clues and background knowledge".

Therefore, for this strand to work well, you need a lot of input, otherwise the gains will be low.

2) Meaning-Focused Output (Learning through speaking and writing)

To produce language is an essential part of language learning. This is what most language products sell. "Learn to Speak Chinese Quick!". Speak being the emphasis here. In some sense, this is what most language learners aim for. The ability to have conversations using speech.

Other activities in this strand include keeping a diary, writing notes, blogging, having conversations, giving speeches and/or instructions, among others.

The main goal of this strand is trying to get your message across to someone else with language knowledge that is largely familiar to you. This idea is very popular in language teaching and is called communicative language teaching.

Now, Swain also features here. He is the opposite of Krashen. Swain, put forth the output hypothesis, which in my opinion has some really great points as to the role of producing language. These are:

2.1) The noticing/triggering function

When you speak or write, you notice what gaps your current language knowledge has. This provides you with essential information you would not easily recognize otherwise. If you don't know how to say a word, or what to say, then you have that gap to solve which might inhibit you trying to get your message across to someone. Another effect that this function has, that now, when doing meaning-focused input, you are more attentive to acquiring these potential gaps that could arise during output.

2.2) The Hypothesis-Testing function

Producing output allows you to test a hypothesis and then alter this based on "perceived succes and feedback". It need not be immediate. For instance, websites like lang-8, allow you to write and get feedback from native speakers.

2.3) Metalinguistic (reflective) function

This functions allows you talk about language using language. For instance reconstructing a text with other learners.

3) Fluency Development

In this strand the focus lies on improving fluency in your target language in all four skills: listening, writing, reading and speaking. Materials should all be comfortable to you. The goal is not to learn new items or new language, but to increase your processing of existing skills. Activities include speed reading, listening to material already known to you and repeated retelling.

4) Language-Focused Learning (Deliberate Learning)

The final strand is where you explicitly learn language features: grammar, vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation and discourse. This might seem unpopular in today's language learning/teaching fields, but this forms an integral and efficient method to improve your language. Activities include using spaced repetition systems and flashcards andĀ pronunciationĀ and grammar drills.

My research at present falls into this strand. I'm looking at spaced repetition systems and Chinese characters. Research has shown (I'll give the details if anyone wants to know) that deliberate learning of vocabulary is actually stored in a similar fashion to your first language and existing second language vocabulary. In fact, words learned in a deliberate manner are actually retrieved quicker than low frequency second language words. Words learned deliberately, like flashcards, however still need to be later learned in a context, to establish a concrete lexical entry for it. A word does not only have the dictionary definition but also other relationships, such as synonyms, antonyms and collocation etc.

However deliberate learning can "raise consciousness to help later learning".

However, this strand, as with the other strands, it should be noted, should be placed in a balanced system. You cannot just focus on vocabulary, or you cannot just listen to input. Each strand, according to Paul Nation, should be dived equally.

Where am I at?

At present, I'm doing a lot of input and deliberate learning. I need to focus more on output and fluency development to strike a balance. How balanced are your four strands? Do you lack something at present?

Let me know what you think of Nation's Four Strands. I quite like it.

Picture credits: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5]