3.6 Learners and Users

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Concept

English learners are inevitably users, and users never stop learning

All human beings are constantly using and learning their languages, both L1(s) and L2(s). The natural kinds of interaction that children like Barbara engage in (as documented in CHILDES) are far from the English class and homework activities she will have experienced at school, but they are by far the richest learning environments for her in terms of becoming an efficient and effective user of the language for her day-to-day purposes.

Of course, what children like Barbara learn deliberately at school is also critically important: formal literacy skills, together with the norms of ‘Standard English’ that underpin essential aspects of them, are necessary attributes in the technologically and informationally rich workplaces and civic spaces of most Inner Circle countries. ‘Educated usage’ is also extremely highly valued by most people, operating as they are under what Hall (2005) calls the ‘spell’ of monolithic beliefs about language.

But throughout the processes of natural and institutional learning that they experience, children are also using what they have learned, and the using is itself learning, as we have seen. Furthermore, the learning never stops. Although most of the grammatical resources that users need are proceduralised in childhood, the process of acquiring new lexical, stylistic, and strategic resources continues throughout life, as new conceptual and communicative needs are experienced. Also, the cultural encounters NSs have with other users of English are constant, and in these globalising times they tend to be increasingly diverse. So children like Barbara grow up to learn the Englishes of others, and if the encounters are frequent enough, they constantly enrich their own English repertoires (if only passively) as a result.

Activity

Make an inventory of how your own mental lexicon is expanding as a result of taking this course, by going through the glossary and noting newly acquired lexical depth (new word meanings for word forms you already knew) and breadth (new forms as well as meanings).

L2 learners of English are inevitably users of English, and users of L2 English never stop being learners. This is not the traditional way of thinking about these concepts. It is often assumed that what language students do in an educational environment is only learning, and that using the language only starts once they have finished learning: in ‘real life’. But in fact language learning and use operate in parallel, if they can be separated at all (Fig. 3.20).

Conceptions image
Figure 3.20: Two conceptions of the relationship between language learning and use: (a) consecutive; (b) parallel


The consecutive conception of learning and use is reinforced by the monolithic view of English and its language subject status in school curriculums. Divorced from use, English is an externally-imposed set of facts which most students won't learn well if at all. And even those who succeed in internalising the forms so that they can pass standardised tests will be ill-equipped to communicate effectively in our globalised world of plurilithic English users.

Activity

Ask your students about the contexts in which they encounter and use English outside the classroom. Are they different from the ones you listed in the earlier activity? Reflect on how they might build on these English experiences in classroom learning activities.