Student award 2005: What makes the best learning experience for students of Languages, Linguistics or Area Studies?

Author: Joanna Britton


The winner of the Subject Centre's undergraduate student essay competition 2005 was Joanna Britton, Exeter College, University of Oxford.

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To answer this question, we need first to ask some further questions. What should a language student be able to do after 'the best learning experience'? Speak fluently, if inaccurately? Write with perfect style, but be nervous of mistakes while speaking? Or just be able to say, honestly, that they love learning the language? And is it ever fair to say that grammatical accuracy and organic fluency in a language are mutually exclusive? Moreover, in trying to define the 'best' learning experience, should we focus on the most enjoyable one, or the one where most vocabulary or grammatical structures are learnt?

The central factor governing language learning is learner motivation, and the best language learning will arise only when teachers and students dedicate time and interest. No matter how talented the teacher, or how wonderful the facilities, if learners don't want to learn a language, they won't! But while it is difficult to motivate uninterested students, I suggest that the initial responsibility for a good learning experience lies with teachers: a fun, student-centred approach, based on students' interests and learning styles, will both boost exam performance, and also provide the best learning experience.

In the best language experience of all- children learning their native tongue- we see that the greatest motivation is a desire for meaningful communication: children learn language to express themselves. In a classroom, meaningful communication can be promoted in two ways: through the choice of topics, and the choice of materials. Learners will be more motivated if they choose their own topics - or choose from topics suggested by a teacher. Why focus on recycling habits when you can learn the same structures talking about shopping habits? This is not dumbing-down, but makes learning interesting, and is vital for learners at all levels. Indeed, if someone asked me, for example, to talk in English about a favourite sports team, I would be hard pressed to say anything. Ask me to do the same in another language, and my reticence will soon turn to boredom and frustration.

Simply put, an uninterested student who has no fun will not acquire language skills, and will have no language learning experience at all, let alone the best one.

- Joanna Britton

An emphasis on (edited) authentic materials gives exposure to natural language models, and also has an obvious practical application. Furthermore, it is always more motivating if activities are personal, and linked to the foreign culture. I covered the topic of food several times, and the most memorable approach involved discussing which foods we liked and tasting the foods of the other country. (Bringing chocolate into a classroom environment naturally works wonders for concentration). Another factor to consider is that successful learning requires variety. Learners need activities to cover all four language skills and also to accommodate different learning styles. Thus for me, an auditory learner, my knowledge of the future tense in Italian derives less from the hours of grammar classes I sat through, than from a pop song we listened to once in a class.

The vocabulary, phrases, or grammar structures I have most accurately retained have been those learned while having fun. When relaxed, your learning barriers are lower than when nervous. Thus, having forgotten much of the French I learnt, I can indeed still recite parts of the body from the song 'Alouette'- sung once by a teacher in a bird costume! This is in contrast to much forgotten vocabulary on any number of topics, that I dutifully learnt each week for tests. Indeed, the role of assessment and feedback is also vital. For example, simply setting a list of vocabulary for a test is common, but it would be far better for students to perform role-plays using the same vocabulary in a context. Similarly, more than other subjects, language skills develop continuously and are far more suited to assessment in quizzes or informal chats, than a single final exam, where a bad mark can demotivate, and make students scared of continuing.

Obviously the ideal place to learn a language is the country itself, with an obvious motivation, and relaxed situations in which to learn. Some of these advantages can be extended to classes anywhere, and were exemplified in one weekly German class. Coffee breaks were central to the class; the teacher came along, and was happy to lengthen them if we were speaking German- if we spoke anything else, we were threatened with immediate grammar exercises! Encouraging students to stick vocabulary/grammar cards up around the home and bring German into everyday life extended this environment. Moreover, rather than receiving homework at the end of the class, we were emailed a short grammar exercise or article every day or two. This encouraged us to make time for language within the week, and made us feel that we should mirror the teacher's extra effort. Even if time and money don't make a daily class possible, the development of Blackboard websites, and e-learning has made the old language mantra 'little but often' even easier.

While these suggestions may seem at odds with traditional, text-book based learning, I am not suggesting that people should - or can -learn languages simply by listening to Italian pop music or reading Vogue in French. In helping others to learn English I now see even more the importance of a solid approach to grammar. Toddlers may appear to learn native grammar by osmosis, but I have met no older learners of foreign languages who don't desire simple explanations of grammar rules, and repeated practice of them. For while grammar can be concealed in songs or topics chosen by learners, most learners become frustrated at their inability to express what they want to without some separate grammar explanation and practice. Thus grammar still plays a vital role in facilitating communication and motivating learners.


In conclusion, I suggest that the best language learning experience enables students to confidently express things relevant to them, and have receptive skills appropriate to their level. This acquisition of skills is directly tied to a student's enthusiasm and love of the language. Simply put, an uninterested student who has no fun will not acquire language skills, and will have no language learning experience at all, let alone the best one. Rather, the best language learning experience will arise, even with students of limited initial motivation, if teachers and students choose relevant topics and activities, make grammar directly relevant to communication, and, above all, together cultivate an atmosphere of (controlled) fun in the classroom.