Updated: Oct 11, 2020
Language and Language Acquisition
Language Acquisition as a Spiral
Interaction in Online Learning Situations References
Gimara Oy is a Finnish company focusing on online-learning and specializing in languages. The company was founded by two Finnish women: Marja Ahola and Raisa Haikala. We both have a long and profound experience in teaching Finnish as a second language. We met each other when we were facing something that was thought to be impossible. Our task was to create online-learning courses for immigrants, organized by the Ministry of Labour. These were planned and started by Arffman, where we both worked as teachers. The courses began in Lapland, which is known as an area with long distances between towns and villages. For the majority of our students, online-learning was the only option to acquire Finnish. Marja had a long history of creating different kinds of online-learning systems and Raisa was very puritan with language learning. Both of us thought and still think that interaction is always at the heart of the language learning. This was something that we wanted to emphasize and we put effort into thinking how to create a system that first of all motivates all the students to turn on their computer at 8 am, and then pursue their studies for the seven hours that are prescribed by the government for these courses. Soon we discovered that when online pedagogics is planned the right way: interactive, target based and creating a face-to-face -experience online, it really seemed to be more efficient than traditional learning in the classroom.
Between the years that we held the courses in Lapland, we both grew tremendously as teachers. We worked day and night as when our working day ended, we worked on new approaches, new methods and new visions for Online-learning. It forced us to find an even more radical approach, as in the classroom when you see a person in front of you, you might be forgiven for your little flaws as a teacher. In online-learning you have to keep the students’ interest all the time, online can be a harsh environment and this requires extra softness and creativity from a teacher. Shutting down the computer or claiming internet problems is easier than physically walking out of the classroom. Luckily we were able to create an environment, where students’ absences were close to zero and the drop-out rate was actually zero at that time.
Every new teacher in the online environment needs to learn and make their own learning path, but as a company we want to point out and warn our employees about some of the biggest errors and make sure that our quality of teaching meets the highest standards. Thus we created a Gimara method for languages. Part of this method is transferable to other subjects as well. Some of the most important things to realize before starting: all the online equipment are just tools. There are better tools and worse tools, but they remain just tools. Tools don’t create learning. Students and teachers do.
Language and Language Aqcuisition
Gimara’s method is based on the idea that language is dialogical, essentially heteroglossic and it needs to be adapted by actual eventing that can be also called languaging. (Bakhtin, 1981, 1986). As Dufva et al. point out (2011: 110) language use is characterized by variation (by situation) and change (over time) at the society level, thus we consider language learners to be multilingual, which means that for learners, language is always a plurality of usages and perspectives. Language is not something that we, as native speakers or teachers own and what second or foreign language learners need to learn from us. Language is somewhere in between – it is a shared resource (Dufva 2013: 9-10; 2014: 21 and 23).
At Gimara, we think that language should always be adapted in situation and in interaction (sociocognitive approach). In practice this means that every learning situation with us, is targeted at mastering one or two functions of language that we adapt during one webinar or other task, such as writing, listening or reading exercise. For example, the target of one webinar could be that we learn to give positive feedback and complain as a customer in a restaurant. These same skills could also be practiced in another context: giving positive feedback and complaints about a course, and the context could be in written form as well. We always try to be loyal to real-life text genres and gently force the students to communicate with the language from the very beginning. Learning targets give students a guided path to take, so that they can achieve their long-term goals such as a certain level of language.
How the language is seen behind the method is essential and crucial as a starting point. All the materials need to support this method and the traditional categorizing of language (such as grammar, lexicon, semantics, phrase structure) are subordinates to a situation and context where the language is used. Targets are divided to long-term and short-term targets. Long-term targets would be for example I know how to give positive feedback and complain about things I am not happy with, whereas short-term-targets for this same function would be I can give positive feedback and complain in a restaurant / hotel / to my teacher / hospital / library etc. Lexicon and structure that are needed in these situations are learnt several times. When we learn in Finnish case governments such as tyytyväinen + mihin?, we learn only case governments relevant to the context, genre and situation. By this approach we keep repeating the lexicon and grammar in different situations, which gives the learners a deeper understanding of the usage of certain forms or words in the language. We don’t give the rules first (for example how to form a partitive), but we guide the learners to analyze the forms by themselves as well, when necessary. Especially among the Finnish as-a-second- language learners, this part of the analyzation is not always relevant. Many students have a very natural language learning method: repeating and interaction. Many students will never need deeper analysis, as their approach is very similar to that of small children learning languages. They change the language according to the person they are speaking with. It might even be that they don’t translate from their mother tongue. Analyzing the language is important for some of us but it shouldn’t be a burden to all.
The Gimara method has three important keystones:
Language learning is seen as a continuous, spiral-shaped process, which is based on situations, interaction and language as a shared resource.
Students need to see their progress and be in charge of their learning. Students get a concrete idea of their skills and the situations they can manage with their skills.
Interaction is at the heart of learning.
Language acquisition as a spiral
The traditional way to learn a language is to register yourself for a language course which is at a certain time and certain day of the week, and as well during a certain time period, like fall semester or spring semester. The traditional way for language course centers is to offer these courses only when one course is full, which makes it economically reasonable to have a class. We wanted to create something different. Firstly we wanted to give the possibility to those whose timetables vary weekly and who can’t join the classes on a regular basis but who still want to take their language to the next level. Secondly the method needs to allow some absences and the students need to feel their progress even if they skip some lessons. This requires us to take a totally new angle to language learning. Thirdly we have noticed that the students are usually not very independent in their studies. Very rarely can students acquire a language alone by watching videos and reading texts. Sadly, for many online-courses, this has been an assumption: as it is online, and it is not bounded to a time, it needs to be independent – in other words, lonely.
Because we think that language is not something that needs to be learned in a linear way: taking courses 1, 2 and 3 and then if you have a break in your studies, you take course 3 again – it is possible to succeed with a different method. When you start to prepare for your language test, you dig into your language books and trust the author to know what is the best for your learning. At the same time, we acknowledge that this is what teachers are for: they need to guide the students to the right path of learning. If we don’t have traditional courses, how we are able to recognize students’ needs and make their development visible to them? How can we follow what they have studied and what they haven’t?
The traditional approach to a course is that a certain course holds certain grammar and this is the easiest way to handle complex language: by dividing it to grammar-based functions. For example, during course number two students learn the past tense and so in the third course the teacher knows that they have learnt this and doesn’t need to teach it again. Every teacher knows that the teaching of the past tense is a totally different thing to students’ mastering the past tense. What if someone is able to use the past tense quite accurately, at least in the right situations? Should he take that second course again although most of the course’s learning materials would be too easy for him?
The most important task of the teacher is to recognize student’s zone of proximal development (from now on ZPD). The ZPD was defined by Russian psychologist, Leo Vygotsky and is commonly used in modern linguistics as well. A very clear example of this is given by Lantolf (2011: 305-306) of a child learning to walk or sit, he is able to do it with the help of an adult, but he would not be able to do it by himself yet. However, there is no point to make a new-born walk as this skill is not in his ZPD yet. A teacher needs to be sensitive to know what kind of skills can be adapted in each learning situation. In order to recognize the ZPD it is also necessary that teachers are familiar with the European Framework of Languages. In order to understand the skills that are adaptable in each level of the framework, teachers need to understand the rough guidelines and especially the differences between A2 and B1, B2 and C1. It is easier to move within one level, A1-A2 or B1-B2 and C1-C2 than between the levels A-B and B-C. However, this navigation between basic and intermediate or intermediate and advanced -levels is done by scaffolding the student in the right way and giving him positive encouragement and constructive feedback to help him to reach the next level. This scaffolding requires the teacher to guide the student to the next level with accurate questions, and thus raising the topic’s abstractness.
When students entered our language gym with their monthly card, we made them a communicative test to test their different areas of language. The tests are our own but they follow the structure of the Finnish National Certificate of Language Proficiency. This means that the students are tested in speaking, understanding spoken forms, writing and understanding written texts. After getting the results, we gave them a colour that indicated what class level they need to take. The levels were light green and dark green (basic level), light blue and dark blue (intermediate level) and light red and dark red (advanced level). We gave a colour but we also recommend them to take classes at the other level, especially within the same colour, but also for dark colours to try out the next level. The lessons at each level always have the same theme, which allows students to try different levels and find the limitations of their skills.
On each level we have written down different situations and language functions in that situation. These functions are available for students to check out before entering the class and also to review after the class. Examples of these functions are in the following tables.
Theme: WorkBasic levelIntermediate levelAdvanced levelI can agree a meeting time.I can agree, cancel and postpone a meeting time.I can agree, cancel and postpone a meeting time.I can tell where I work, what is my profession and what is my normal day like.I can tell what I do for living and discuss and compare different professions and working places.I can tell accurately and detailed way about my work, I can describe, discuss and compare different working places and express my opinion about working culture in a certain company or country.
Theme: Home and livingBasic levelIntermediate levelAdvanced levelI can tell where I live and what kind of apartment I have.I can describe my living area and compare different areas.I can express my opinion about different living areas, their pros and cons and how they suit different groups of people.I can ask for help and explain in very simple way what is a problem at my home.I can ask for help and explain what is the problem at my home, when I noticed it / what happened and what it causes.I can ask for help for problems at home, explain the problem in a detailed manner, I can tell when I noticed it / what happened and what it causes.
All these functions are based on the European Framework of Languages but full charts are business confidential information. In the functions, we have taken into consideration whether the language is learned in a second language environment (in Finnish language most of our customers live in Finland) or if the students learn the language as a foreign language. The targets of the language learning may vary depending if you live in the environment or if you travel there or if your target is to take a test such as IELTS in English or National Certificate of Language Proficiency in Finnish.
When targeting a test, we also have written down the targets of the studies as a check list. Following table gives the idea of these functions in National Certificate of Language Proficiency in three levels.Basic level, SpeakingIntermediate level, SpeakingAdvanced level, SpeakingI understand the target of the interview.I understand the target of the language studio exam.I understand the target of the language studio exam and the interview.I understand the task type “telling” and I know that the questions are meant to help me and I don’t need to answer them systematically.I understand the task type “telling” and I know that the questions are meant to help me and I don’t need to answer them systematically. I am able to plan and perform a full answer within a time given to me.I understand the task type “telling” and I understand that I need to take my description and level of abstractness to advanced level. I am able to plan and perform a full answer within a time given to me.
All these functions are based on test techniques but full charts are business confidential information. (Due to restrictions given to evaluators and interviewers of National Certificate of Language Proficiency we have not given any courses and we have removed all the available materials online that give hints about the test techniques and the task types. This doesn’t change the fact that the majority of publicly funded integration courses teach test techniques as a part of integration courses nor the fact that anyone that has attended, has supervised the test or has basic knowledge about the test can do equivalent functions.)
Functions are precise enough so that we can give feedback and student can also self-reflect on whether he has the skill that each task / webinar is targeting. In the spiral, there are short-term targets in one level and long-term targets are at the threshold level. Each level is divided into themes which guide the learning. Themes are based on European Framework of Languages, for example Freetime is the main theme but under it we have theatre, movies, literature, dance, sports, friends, bars etc. Obviously the borders can’t always be very strict. For example, sports and theatre could be discussed in the theme Health and Well-Being as well, but from a different perspective and not as thoroughly. For example if I’m learning to express how I keep in shape, I can say that I play tennis because it is a good sport and after the practice I feel good. I don’t have to explain in this theme how much it costs, what kind of equipment I use for it etc., as I can learn that in the theme Freetime.
As the themes, in other words areas of language (or actually life) that should be covered, are the same, it gives student the possibility to deepen their skills with repetition. For teachers, it gives a freedom to move forward before the student can master all possible functions in that theme, which are not in his ZPD yet.
It is not a new approach to use targets for learning. Most university courses have targets in the course descriptions, so do language courses, but usually they are long-term targets which describe a certain level of language you reach during the course. If learning is now seen as a spiral, how do we know what kind of skills students adapt during certain time period and if we remove that pressure of a certain time-line, how we can make students’ progress visible? The key to success in long-term targets even when skipping some classes, is that we communicate to students their short-term targets in each session. This means that the students will enter the class knowing that today they will learn to express their opinion about recycling and next week they will learn to express their opinion about healthy eating habits. When gathering enough of these short-term targets, it can be quite obvious that students master the long-term target I can express my opinion.
Our future vision is to have an automated portfolio for each student and thus give them a visible learning path and the automated process would help us to keep track of students’ progress and also it would allow continuous evaluation. Our future vision is also prove language usage in real life. If our social media gives advertisements based on what we just discussed, why not to have learning badges based on our real-life activities?
This learning method is immediately useful to students. It is already gently forcing them to first of all use the language, as well as giving them confidence to use these skills in the real world. Still, the majority of people have a certain kind of image of language learning and some come to our courses saying, for example: I want to learn grammar or I want to learn lexicon. Luckily, especially in Finnish, we have had several students who have been constantly disappointed by multiple other courses and they come to us saying: I want to learn to use the language. They might come and tell us that they can make a partitive form in Finnish but when we ask, where, how and why do you use it, they are not able to answer.
The biggest critique of this method has been that we don’t teach grammar, which is not true. The only solution to this is that the teachers make it visible. Sometimes even with a meta-language, which we try to avoid. Based on our view, language should never be learnt out of context. It is possible, but it is more demanding and less efficient. We need to make it visible for students that in order to report a problem at home, you most likely need to be able to tell what happened but at the same time you don’t need to be able to describe what you did last summer.
Interaction in Online Learning Situation
… One should regard the learning outcomes in terms of the processes of us (or, procedural knowledge), not in terms of language knowledge. Thus learning would mean doing things with language in novel ways and in novel contexts rather than simply adding items in the container of the mind as the monological stand would suggest. It can also be noted that by doing, we do not refer to the production of language only but also to the processes of perception, comprehension and understanding which are all-important parts of the learning process and which are active in character. At the same time, it can be argued that the view of learning as doing speaks against the monolingual stand. Putting the emphasis on the ability to cope with situated usages, it removes the focus from ‘languages’ in the monological sense and hereby also blurs the borderline between ‘mother tongue’ and other languages. (Dufva et al. 2011: 117)
If the basic idea of any language acquisition is that the language resources are shared, it should become rather clear that all the learning should be mediated in the most interactive way possible. In constructivism it is already acknowledged that a student is never a tabula rasa and that different students get different things during one learning session, as they build their own learning story based on things they’ve learnt before. Even in the constructive approach it is still thought that knowledge and skills are something given by the teacher, despite the fact that it is a step further from behaviorism. Considering language learning as sociocultural eventing was already a big step forward and the sociocognitive approach can, and hopefully will, change a lot. We feel that learning is somewhere in between, it is definitely not a language that I give or share and then students pick their pieces out of my sharing. It is something that all the students and teachers in the situation create together.
When we developed the online language-learning system for the integration course for people living in remote areas of Finland, we very quickly discovered that the online learning environment really forces us to give students a voice and to create something with them instead of creating something for them. In order to execute good quality teaching in an online learning environment, interaction becomes inevitable. An online learning environment gives its own character for language learning and we claim that when done with real-time interaction, outcomes are more effective than in face-to-face teaching. We don’t have figures or research about this yet, but hopefully someday we will. Still, online is just a tool. Interaction should be the basis of all learning, online or not.
In an online learning environment, the student communicates with the teacher and co-students in various ways. If the study tool is a webinar, we use our voice, picture and written text to communicate. If the study tool is Skype, we use written text, voice, video and pictures to communicate. The webinar is a very efficient tool, especially for those who learn by reading, as they get a double message – written and spoken. We write almost everything that we speak in the chat. The chat is also very convenient way to correct the students while they speak, as the teacher doesn’t need to interrupt the interaction between students to make a correction but he can write it in the chat and get back to it later or the students can pick up on the corrections while speaking. Every webinar is recorded which allows the students to repeat their learning situation. This also allows us to follow the teaching for quality purposes.
In an online-learning environment it is possible to create a situation that is exactly like a real environment such as in a store, restaurant, gym, school or a work place. As our students are adults, they have an urge to severeness and sometimes it is really hard in a regular classroom to forget their inhibitions and encourage them to play a bit. In a webinar, we have never faced this problem, as the students sit by their computers and they may seem to be very severe adults completing severe studies, although they are actually part of a drama happening in a restaurant. Role-play also allows them to speak directly instead of describing what I would say in a situation like this, which leads to more accurate genre. Playfulness leaves room for language variation as well.
Language variation can be seen in the situation learnt. For example, ways to really order something in a coffee shop are multiple. Still in most situations, the book dialogues forget the variation and use simple ways to order or more importantly: simple structures for the teacher to explain in a certain level. Again, the author of that book gets quite big authority over learning, giving examples of good and right ways to order something and maybe even giving pre-assumptions such as certain form like conditional -isi- is the only polite form in Finnish, which is not true. And what if we would really need to be impolite? Which book teaches you that?
A second, and larger problem of book dialogues is that the concept of a written dialogue, especially if the student needs to produce his own written dialogue of that situation after learning the example. The majority of people don’t need a written dialogue anywhere in their life. The only written dialogues are written in the chats on social media and these are certainly important. But most likely those dialogues’ function will not be how to order a coffee.
As a result: shouldn’t there be any dialogues in teaching? Shouldn’t there be any written texts of a dialogue if it helps the students to adapt the language? Of course they should be, but the dialogue should not be the main point in the learning situation. Using one’s own language should be. Building up the student’s confidence that he can interact in a real life situation in a coffee shop should be. This can be done very efficiently in the online learning environment.
Many online language courses advertise themselves to be easy and quick way to learn a language. They advertise that you become fluent in three months. This is also something that polyglots advertise, but often this fluency is artificial, it is built on confidence and courage to speak out, which obviously is important as well. What makes us different from these is that we build students’ skills around themes and targets which cover the learner’s entire life. We guide them from one level to another, thus creating a true fluency of language. We don’t try to advertise ourselves as a super-easy and quick way to learn a language but we promise to make the hard work fun and thus worthwhile.
Dufva, Hannele & Aro, Mari & Suni, Minna & Salo, Olli-Pekka 2011: Onko kieltä olemassa? Teoreettinen kielitiede, soveltava kielitiede ja kielenoppimisen tutkimus. – Esa Lehtinen., Sirkku Aaltonen, Merja Koskela, Elina Nevasaari & Mariann Skog-Södersved (toim.), AFinLa-e, Soveltavan kielitieteen tutkimuksia 2013 (n:o 5) s. 57-73. AFinLA: Jyväskylä. http://ojs.tsv.fi/index.php/afinla/article/view/8739 20.11.2012
Dufva, Hannele, Suni, Minna, Aro, Mari & Salo, Olli-Pekka 2011: Languages as objects of learning: language learning as a case of multilingualism. Apples. Journal of Applied Language Studies 5, 1, s. 109–124. https://jyx.jyu.fi/dspace/handle/123456789/27270
Lantolf James P. 2011: Integrating sociocultural theory and cognitive linguistics in the second language classroom. – Eli Hinkel (toim.) Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning, Volume II. s. 303-318. New York: Routledge.