Approaches to language learning

At this moment there is a huge scientific that has been collected through decades and even centuries, that reveals all the variety of approaches to learning. According to the statistics there are more than 50 approaches and at least half of them can be connected to and implemented in the language learning. Due to the amount of approaches teachers may face certain differences in choosing between them. In this article we would like to classify some of the common approaches to language learning and discuss their differences and similarities. Classification allows scholars to reveal common and special features in the methods of learning, theoretical and practical features and therefore helps us to use these approaches in more reasonable and effective way. The classification helps to understand the purpose and features of certain approaches and their combinations.

The first approach we would like to discuss is Behaviorist approach. Behaviorism is the method of learning that is based on certain psychological theories and factors. Scholars often refer to B.Skinner as to the founder of this approach. He developed the system of principles of human behavior under the certain circumstances. Skinner believed that the surrounding world (and not a genetic factor) has the strongest impact on studying process. He applied the Pavlov’s theory of conditioned reflex and introduced the notion of operant’s, by which he meant the different areas of human behavior. Skinner also pointed at the importance of reinforcement of reactions.

According to this, behaviorist approach describes studying as the operant conditioning process, in other words the process where an individual responds to stimulus with certain behavioral pattern. The future consolidation of this behavior by certain encouragement or punishment will lead to either the repetition of this behavioral pattern or to denying it in future.

It was suggested that with this approach you could expect from a learner the self-reliant pattern of actions that were accompanied with a teacher’s positive reaction and the denying of behavioral pattern that was followed accompanied with a teacher’s negative reaction.

Skinner suggested 4 basic principles that were aimed at the improvement of education level:

  1. Teachers should explain clearly, what they will teach;
  2. A task should be done step by step, in other words the process of education should include a series of tasks that are classified gradually and carefully from one stage of difficulty to the next.
  3. It is necessary to provide students with the ability to work with individual pattern with the help of individual teaching program.
  4. Teaching should be clearly ‘programmed’, include all above mentioned components provide 100% success in the consolidation of knowledge with the help of encouragement (Williams and Burden 1997, pp. 910).

Behaviorist approach provided teachers and students with elaborative program of studying and teaching of certain discipline where teaching material was gradually classified and given in small amounts. The learning process was built with the consideration of individual features of learners; it ensured the feedback what students were given either directly from a teacher or in for of a quiz.

Despite all the positive characteristics, behaviorist approach was severely criticized in the learning theory. The negative quality of this approach was the fact that it did not include the concept of consciousness; studying was concentrated mainly on imitation and mechanical repetition. The learning process was compared to actions that were based on reflexes, so the task-oriented nature of human activity and the inner motivation were not taken into account. In general, behaviorist approach had big impact on foreign language learning and lead to the creation of large variety of different approaches and methods, such as audio-lingual method in USA and audiovisual method in France.

Cognitive approach is based on the cognitive psychology and rests upon the principle consciousness in education and social constructivist approach (according to which a student is the active participant of the education process and not a subject of teacher’s instruction). In psychology there are different individual psychological features of a human being that determine a type of their personality and have an impact on the learning process. There are several types of personality:

  1. Introversive and extroversive. The typical features of the first type are calm, even-tempered behavior, analyzing of their own personality, reflection. Extroversive people prefer active communication; they aspire to leadership and express their emotions actively.
  2. Deductive and inductive. They are distinguished according to the type of conclusion: from common to particular (deductive) and backwards (inductive).
  3. Inert and labile. Inert type is closely connected to the rational thinking, the main features of this type are the usage of conscious approach, volitional attention, analyzing; labile type of personality includes mostly the emotional-intuitive way of thinking. The common features of this type are unconsciousness and non-volitional attention as well as perceptual unity of material.
  4. The type of personality which tends to overgeneralization or under generalization. The first feature appears when a certain rule is applied to a phenomenon that cannot be covered by this rule. The second feature leads to the inability to generalize to draw a conclusion.

According to individual psychological features and qualities of a personality, the learners develop a certain way of actions in learning process or cognitive style. Scholars distinguish different cognitive styles that depend on psychological characteristics of personality. In regard to the foreign language learning the basic cognitive styles are:

  1. Field independence – the ability of an individual to single out the necessary object among a number of distracting factors; field dependence – the inability of an individual to single out the necessary object.
  2. Leftand right-brain functioning. A person with left-braining functioning has the analytical mentality and tends to conclude in deductive way. A person with right-braining functioning tends to conclude inductively and uses the information blocks. He also prefers to use clearness and visual aids.
  3. Ambiguity tolerance – the ability of an individual to be tolerant and to perceive the information that contradicts his views. People with this cognitive style are also able to acquire knowledge using ways that are not common for their style of learning.
  4. Reflectivity and impulsivity. Reflectivity is common for inert type of nervous system, when learners at first think over and analyze their language behavior and then make a decision and correct themselves. Impulsivity deals with the labial type of nervous system and presumes fast, ill-considered answers that often have a lot of mistakes.
  5. Visual style and auditory style. The first style is common for learners who prefer reading and use diagrams and pictures for memorization; the second style learners prefer to memorize the material by ear or with the help of audio recordings (Brown 1994, pp. 104-113).

Some authors prefer to make connection between cognitive styles and following learners’ qualities: risk-taking, which is necessary for mastering a foreign language and overcoming the psychological barrier; the introspection and self-esteem (some learners tend to have either high or low self-esteem); the feeling of anxiety in learning, being afraid of making a mistake; empathy, which appears while making certain tasks when students should take into account the abilities and qualities of interlocutors.

A person usually uses a certain number of cognitive styles. However, for the greater progress in learning one must be able to consciously choose between different cognitive styles and use them. Those cognitive styles that are typical for a learner develop their learning style and affect the learning strategies that that learners choose.

According to cognitive approach in planning and organizing of learning process, a teacher should consider the different cognitive styles, that are common for a learner, and teaching strategies that the students use.

Cognitive approach to language learning is the theory of language learning that is based on the cognitive psychology. It was introduced as the opposite of behaviorist approach. The authors of this approach are J. Bruner and U. Rivers (Rivers, 1989). With regard to foreign language learning the cognitive approach means that the studying of a certain linguistic phenomenon should rely on mental processes and actions underlying the usage of this phenomenon in speechThis approach emphasizes the importance of language phenomena acquisition and pays attention to learners’ ability to organize their learning activity consciously.

Cognitive theory of foreign language learning is based on the following points:

  1. The development of thinking is essential part in the process of language learning. Language teaching should not be based only on mechanical repetition and learning of language units (structures, word combinations etc.) or rules. Learners should be actively involved into the process of learning and understanding the core of language phenomena.
  2. Learners should be the active participants of the education process. Their individual interests and different features of character should also be taken into account.
  3. The learning process has the sociallyinduced nature, when students, as if it happens not at the educational institution, communicate with each other and with a teacher. According to this, both students and teachers should be involved into the process of learning, cooperation and mutual assistance.

The last factor has lead scientists to the conclusion that the studying process has the interactive nature and allowed to discuss the social-interactive approach within the scope of cognitive approach.

The cognitive approach is applied to such methods as grammar translation method and to teaching with the usage of databases.

With the development of the communicative approach there was a tendency in foreign methodology to underestimate the importance of cognitive processes when mastering a foreign language. These processes were connected mostly with learning of rules and systematic language learning and this meant the underestimating of a number of important qualities of the cognitive approach.

To describe the cognitive process in more details we would like to distinguish its levels:

  1. The level of rule speaking according to the rules of language.
  2. The level of meaning – understanding the meaning of used language units.
  3. Level of speech – how speakers make sentences and what arguments they provide.
  4. Social level. The awareness of what is being said and what function does the expression have (is it an advice, request, offer, objection etc.)
  5. Culturological level – when speakers realize how the expressed information fits with the cultural norms of native language speakers.
  6. The cognitive style of learner’s activity – students’ self-assessment.

All above mentioned levels are closely connected with the components of communicative competence and indicate the impact that cognitive processes have on its formation. It helps to indicate the cognitive component in the communicative competence. That is why some scholars prefer to use such notions as ‘communicative-cognitive approach’.

The Humanistic approach has the humanistic psychology as its basis. It is based on thoughts, feelings and emotions of learners in the process of studying, upbringing and development. It also relies on cognitive processes that provide learners with self-awareness and support learning process as a whole. This approach underlines the necessity of the development of feelings and denies every limit to freedom of thoughts and creativity of learners (Stevick 1991, pp. 28-29.)

The basic principles of humanistic approach are:

  1. The learning process should develop students’ basic human values, such as empathy.
  2. Studying should have personally oriented nature and help learners to develop their consciousness. For this purpose it is recommended to take into account the individual needs of students when the collective forms of work are used.
  3. Teachers have to support the development and actualization of student’s personality. They also should encourage the learners’ independence and individuality in solving the problems that deal with the content of curriculum and choosing materials approaches of learning, in other words teachers must construct the learning process relying on the active participation of students.
  4. Teachers must treat learners with empathy and respect, they should value learners’ personality, try to understand their vision of the world, instead of imposing their own world vision and approaches to solving problems.

It is necessary to notice that some points of this approach simply contradict the common way of planning the learning process, because according to humanistic approach the planning of curriculum and ways of mastering it is the infringement upon the interests of students. Many supporters of this approach describe it as uncontrolled and assuming the full freedom of students in choosing of content and methods of teaching.

The Humanistic approach means not only the “free” nature of learning, but also the necessity to develop the learners’ sense of responsibility and the ability to organize their work and educational process. The Humanistic approach to education is reflected in different methods of foreign language teaching, such as the ‘silent’ method of teaching (The silent way, p. 52.), Community language learning (p and a number of other approaches. The most important factor in this approach is its humanistic nature, which allows teachers to construct the learning process considering the students’ personality and use some elements of this approach in many other methods of teaching (Brumfit 1982; Arnold 1998.)

Grammar-translation approach is the method of foreign language teaching that is based on the understanding of a language as a system and relies on the cognitive approach to learning. This approach was widely spread in Europe in teaching Latin and Greek and in 19th century it started to be applied to modern language teaching (French, English and German).

The basic principles of this approach are:

  1. The aim of teaching is reading literature, because a foreign language is considered to be the general subject and its role is the development of intelligence and logical thinking of students.
  2. The teaching process is concentrated on writing; speech training is poorly provided. Speaking and listening are only used as teaching tools.
  3. The basic unit of learning is the sentence. There have been a lot of attempts to use the text for this purpose, but the usage of it was very hard for students.
  4. Learning vocabulary is based on a number of words taken from authentic texts. Bilingual dictionaries are widely used. The common exercises are learning words and translation from or into the native language.
  5. Learning grammar is based on deductive and systematic approach. The basic exercises are grammar tasks, studying of rules and comparison of the grammatical phenomena of foreign language with the relevant phenomena in the native language.
  6. Translation is the aim and tool of learning, so much attention is paid to translation exercises. The exam tasks mainly consist of written translation.
  7. The principle of reliance on the native language is a leading factor; it allows to explain new language phenomenon and compare it to its equivalents in the native language.

The Grammar-translation approach has both positive and negative sides. The positive side here is that students get to read the authentic foreign literature and learn grammar in context; the native language is the means of semantization. The most important methods of studying were analysis, comparing and contrasting. However, the negative aspect of this approach is that the whole learning process was reduced to studying of grammar structure and therefore this form of work is passive and not motivating.



  1. Williams, M. & Burden, R.L. (1997). Psychology for Language Teachers: A Social Constructivist Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Skinner B.F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. Copley Publishing Group.
  3. Brown, H. Douglas. 1994. Principles of language learning and teaching. 3rd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents. 299 pp.
  4. Stevick, W (1991). Humanism in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. Brumfit, C. (1982). English for international communication. Pergamon Press. 98 p.
  6. Arnold, J. (1998). Towards more humanistic English teaching. ELT Journal.
Year: 2014
City: Almaty
Category: Philology