What is 'Learner Language'?

Learner language is what learners produce when they are trying to communicate using a second (or non-primary) 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," or systematic developmental sequence (Corder, 1967; Lightbown & Spada, 2013). 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).

Along what dimensions does learner language develop?

Learner language can be described in terms of 3 dimensions: accuracy, complexity, and fluency. Learner language is accurate when it conforms to target language norms; it is complex when it contains a range of vocabulary and grammatical structures; it is fluent when it is produced quickly and with few pauses. These three dimensions affect each other: for example, too much focus on accuracy can reduce fluency or complexity. Too much focus on complexity can reduce accuracy or fluency. We want to see our students’ language improve along all three dimensions.

What does it mean to know a language?

Communicative competence, or the knowledge of a language, has four components:

  • grammatical competence: sentence-level grammar -- accuracy & complexity
  • discourse competence: patterns of paragraph and text structure -- cohesion and coherence
  • sociolinguistic competence: politeness, pragmatics, and social register -- appropriateness
  • strategic competence: ability to get a message across -- effectiveness

One cannot be said to be competent in a language without mastery of all four components. Sentence-level accuracy and complexity are not enough. Communicative competence must also include the ability to construct a coherent story or text, to be polite and appropriate, and to clearly get one's message across.

How do students acquire communicative competence in a second language?

Fortunately, when second-language learners communicate in activities that require the improvised exchange of information and the expression of critical thinking skills, their 'built-in syllabus' appears to spur the development of communicative competence. The role of the teacher is to provide fertile ground for this language growth.

Learning more

To read more about accuracy, complexity and fluency, and how they can be measured, read Ellis & Barkhuizen (2005, 139-164).


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