Research Bites: 16+ Lessons from the Pros

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is known as one of the best language learning institutions in the world. The FSI trains American diplomats and other professionals and takes them from zero knowledge in a foreign language to general professional proficiency (“able to speak accurately and with enough vocabulary to handle social representation and professional discussions within special fields of knowledge; able to read most materials found in daily newspapers”) in about 44 weeks. That’s quite impressive. Their military counterpart, the Defense Language Institute, does the same with military personnel. According to NPR, only the Mormon religion’s Missionary Training Center surpasses them, getting missionaries fluent in about nine weeks.

The FSI has been teaching language for over 60 years and the lessons they have learned, many informed or supported by research, are impressive. This article, written by two members of the institute, discusses ten important lessons that apply to language teaching. The content, however, has a fair number more. I present to you below all a summary of all the interesting and important lessons learned from more than a half century of effective language teaching.

Twitter Summary
16+ important tips for teaching language #researchbites

Jackson, F. H., & Kaplan, M. A. (2001). Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching. Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1999, 71-87. [link]

  1. Adults can and do learn additional languages very well.
    • This is particularly true because they come to class knowing how to learn.
  2. Native-like proficiency should not be the goal of language learning.
  3. Aptitude can be defined as knowing how to learn a language efficiently in a classroom, despite effort.
  4. Many aspects of what is considered language aptitude can be learned.
  5. Motivation, self-discipline, and concentration may be more important than aptitude.
  6. There is more than one way to learn a language.
    • In the past, the FSI has used the audiolingual method with just as much success as modern, more communicative methods
  7. As language skills build, there needs to be a change in pace from slower to more rapid language learning and use
  8. Breaks in routine, a change of pace, and “immersions and excursions” may help break through language plateaus
  9. Explicit grammar instruction is helpful and makes learning more efficient, especially if focus on form is early on in the language learning.
  10. In terms of the classroom:
    • four hours a day, five times a week with three or more hours of self-study is required.
    • At lower proficiencies, class sizes of six are ideal for easy language (languages similar to English).
    • At higher proficiencies, class sizes of four or less is more efficient.
    • Prior classroom learning experiences are important.
  11. Focused practice in the form of drills is important for automaticizing language.
    • This practice should be used alongside other communicative techniques.
    • The internalizing and automatic recall of language and structures is considered essential for efficient learning.
  12. Sometimes, students need to complete easy tasks and read easy things because this not only reinforces their skills but builds up “stamina”.
  13. Immersion is useful one basic vocabulary and grammar has been learned.
  14. Metalanguage may also effect the speed of learning.
    • This is related to the concept of knowing how to learn.
    • Metalanguage affords greater access to textbooks, dictionaries and other tools that make use of words like noun, object, case, etc.
  15. Students can be primed for complex grammar early on by creating awareness for them. This is despite the perceived natural sequencing of grammatical order.
    • This is another reason why focus-on-form early in the language learning process is important.
  16. Teachers are important:
    1. Teachers must be supportive.
    2. Teachers must use authentic and non-authentic materials.
    3. Teachers must give constant feedback.
  17. Conversation is a high level task, as it entails listening, speaking, unplanned speech, turn taking, topic shifting, and so on.


One thought on “Research Bites: 16+ Lessons from the Pros

  1. talkingbusinesshuelva says:

    Thanks a million for that Anthony! I’m sure you’ll agree there’s rather a lot to think about here. Teaching students how to learn is quite a paradigm shift with far reaching implications in the classroom and course design.

Comments are closed.