What is 'Learner Language'?
Second language acquisition (SLA) research has shown that no matter what syllabus teachers use, learners of all languages have their own “built-in syllabus,” a common cognitive sequence of learner language development (Corder, 1967; Ellis, 2008; Lightbown & Spada, 2006). By observing patterns in the learner language produced by their students, teachers can fine-tune their pedagogy to better promote language learning (Tarone and Swierzbin, 2009).
What does it mean to know a language?
To acquire communicative competence in a language, one must master four components of that language:
- grammatical competence: sentence-level grammar -- accuracy & complexity
- discourse competence: text, or groups of sentences -- coherence
- sociolinguistic competence: politeness, pragmatics, and social register -- appropriateness
- strategic competence: getting messages across -- effectiveness
One cannot be said to be competent in a language without mastery of all four components. It is not enough to be able to produce accurate sentences if those sentences are not complex, or coherent, or appropriate or effective.
Focusing only on sentence-level accuracy can lead students to avoid trying to produce more complex sentences. In addition, an overemphasis on sentence-level accuracy may cause students to avoid learning how to group sentences together into coherent paragraphs or discourse chunks. They also need to learn how to do things with the language: how to perform speech acts appropriately, how to be polite, and how to effectively get messages across. A focus on sentence-level accuracy doesn’t do students much good if they cannot use the language for these real-world purposes.
How do students acquire communicative competence in a second language?
Fortunately, when second-language learners do communication activities in the classroom that focus on the authentic exchange of information, and invite the expression of critical thinking skills, their ‘built-in syllabus’ appears to spur the development of these four areas of communicative competence. The role of the teacher is to provide fertile ground for this language growth.