Wissenschaftlicher Sammelband, herausgegeben von Thomas Tinnefeld unter Mitarbeit von Ines-A. Busch-Lauer, Hans Giessen, Michael Langner, Adelheid Schumann. Saarbrücken: htw saar 2012. ISBN 978-3-942949-00-2.

Challenges in Tertiary Language Learning

Veronica Smith (Klagenfurt, Austria)

Abstract (English)

Knowledge of foreign languages has decisively improved student and professional mobility within the EU. Thanks to the research in the field of foreign and second language acquisition, our knowledge regarding adult language learning has increased considerably in the last few years. In spite of this, university curricula show that the teaching of foreign languages is still based on traditional methods, which tend to separate the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking. These methods are not suitable for advanced learners (B2 – C2 of the CEFR), since they do not take into account the complex structures of linguistic interaction. In this contribution, an alternative concept of language acquisition is presented –Scenario-based Language Learning – that enables advanced students to master complex cognitive tasks within a global linguistic approach.
Key words:  Foreign and second language acquisition, adult language learning, language teaching, Scenario-based Language Learning 

Abstract (Deutsch)
Fremdsprachenkenntnisse sind ein wesentlicher Faktor, der die Mobilität in Studium und Berufsleben im EU-Raum erleichtert. Durch die Fremdsprachenerwerbsforschung ist unser Wissen über Lernprozesse und Sprachverarbeitung bei Erwachsenen in den letzten Jahren stark gestiegen. Dennoch werden an vielen Hochschulen, wenn man die Veranstaltungstitel zum Anhaltspunkt nimmt, eher traditionelle Unterrichtsmethoden, die auf den vier Fertigkeiten basieren, bevorzugt. Diese Methoden sind nicht dazu geeignet, bei fortgeschrittenen Lernenden (B2 – C2 des GER) dem komplexen Gefüge von sprachlichen Interaktionen Rechnung zu tragen. In diesem Beitrag wird ein alternatives Sprachlernkonzept - Scenario-based Language Learning - vorgestellt, das es fortgeschrittenen Studierenden ermöglicht, kognitiv-komplexe Aufgaben ganzheitlich sprachlich zu bewältigen.
Stichwörter: Fremdsprachenerwerb, Erwachsenenunterricht, Fremdsprachenvermittlung, alternatives Sprachlernkonzept

1   Introduction

Foreign and second language learning have changed substantially in recent decades. Language learning has become more democratic in that access to learning other languages is far more widespread than it was a generation ago. We know much more about the cognitive processes involved, about learner differences, about the importance of emotional factors, including motivation. Most of us have experienced at first hand a range of different teaching methods and approaches intended to improve learning, some of which worked, others which failed miserably. So the question remains: as language professionals, could we be doing better?

In this paper, I intend to survey some recent developments in Second Language Teaching and Learning and pose the question to what extent tertiary language learning is changing to take account of new insights or whether tertiary language learning is a special case with its own parameters and should be approached with an eclectic mix of innovation and tradition. This survey will be subjective rather than comprehensive, and will focus on language learning in a foreign language environment rather than a second language context, in particular, on teaching English in German-speaking countries.

My claim is that tertiary language learning is a largely neglected field. I realise that this is quite a bold claim to make in a book on language teaching and learning. However, I detect a paradox: a great deal of research is being conducted into what makes adults successful learners but nevertheless, language teaching in university language departments, if the course titles available on institutional websites are anything to go by, does not appear to be changing much, if at all.

2   Current Practice in Tertiary Language Learning

I base my claim on an admittedly unsystematic survey of tertiary level language teaching in English departments in German-speaking universities drawn from AREAS (The Annual Report on English and American Studies). My survey shows that language instruction is a part of all Bachelor and some Masters programmes in English or American Studies. There is usually a basic or general introductory language course and the subsequent classes are divided up along fairly traditional lines such as Grammar, Oral Practice, Essay Writing, Creative Writing, Discussing Current Events or Sport or something in English-speaking countries and Translation, occasionally with a distinction between ‘Introductory’ and ‘Advanced’. Now I realise that course titles never tell the whole story, but it appears that students spend week after week doing more or less the same activities in class during the course of a semester; in other words, more of the same, which may not be particularly motivating, may not address their particular needs and may not enable them to function well in the real world where linguistic demands are not so easily compartmentalised. A further random survey of English for Specific Purposes at German Universities of Applied Sciences yields a similar picture: (Fachsprache) English 1 or 2, where the focus appears to be on terminology or classes on intercultural communication, concentrating on learning about cultural differences through the medium of English – studying the What rather than the How.

Before I proceed any further, I want to make it clear that I am interested in the top of the range, those who in the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) come into the B2 to C2 range. I realise that tertiary level language teaching includes all levels of language learners, including absolute beginners, but I want to consider the group of learners who, in the past, would not necessarily have received any language instruction at all, with the possible exception of practice in translation. They would have been largely left to their own devices to polish their language skills as they thought best.

Two survey articles in the journal Language Teaching reporting on PhD theses on language learning and teaching in England and Germany support my claim that tertiary language learning is a neglected field. The English survey covers the year 2006 (Marsden & Graham 2009) while the German survey covers the years 2006 to 2009 (Behrent et al. 2011). Of the German language theses summarised (Behrent et al. 2011), the largest group (15) dealt with primary school teaching. Context and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) in secondary schools came next with eight theses while the remaining eleven covered particular aspects of teaching, such as attitudes to learning, learner autonomy, learning styles and multi-media, including Blended Learning. Of these eleven theses, seven were concerned with tertiary level learners, but the research done in a tertiary context dealt mainly with learners in lower CEFR bands, including complete beginners. Among the 13 English PhD studies (Marsden & Graham 2009), similar areas of interest can be isolated, for example six relating to attitudes to learning and motivation. Other topics were process-product studies relating the teaching of particular items of grammar or vocabulary to the outcomes achieved. And there were also studies on the effectiveness of feedback, learning by editing machine-translated texts, or research into input processing. In contrast to the German research, only two of the theses referred to learning by primary or secondary aged pupils, but the adults who were studied included students on pre-university courses and beginners, i.e. not the advanced learners who are being considered here.

What emerged from reading these two articles was that research into language learning is alive and well but that the constraints of PhD research lead to the design of relatively small-scale projects which can be accomplished by an individual, even if that individual recruits other colleagues to assist in data collection. So we either find studies which take place in laboratory conditions where, for example, a linguistic item such as the use of modal verbs is taught to an experimental group whose performance on various tests is compared to the performance of a control group which did not receive the special treatment; or we find a case study approach with a small group of learners, which permits the study of more global learning factors such as motivation, but is not generalizable to other learners or learning contexts. Without wanting to criticise this kind of study, since such research renders important insights into language learning processes, I would question its ecological validity in terms of helping advanced learners to operate effectively in another language. These studies offer too small a slice of language use for learners in the upper bands of the CEFR to benefit from. And, although individual students may benefit from the type of in-depth teaching that these studies imply, others in the class may not need the selected item at all but a different one and hence be unable to benefit from the specific treatment. What is missing and needed by advanced learners is access to more and better opportunities for language use so that they can ascertain where their limitations lie. As Littlemore & Juchem-Grundmann (2010) recently stated:
  • Knowledge of language emerges from language use
  • Language is a product of physical interaction with the world (Littlemore & Juchem-Grundmann 2010: 1)

Working with advanced tertiary level language learners is a special challenge. Unlike working with beginners, it is never entirely clear what they already know. They themselves do not readily admit the extent of their knowledge, as they are often beset by doubts and fears of making a fool of themselves. Unlike the case of working with beginners and using a course book, instructors never have access to all of the input these learners have received, nor is there way of discovering what language input they have received informally. They all possess a stock of language which would be the envy of any beginner, but they still tend to have some area or areas which need working on, like pronunciation, fluency, vocabulary or grammar. This is where the problems arise since, in order to help these students, it will be necessary to detect on what occasions lapses in pronunciation occur, or fluency is impeded, or in which contexts there are vocabulary gaps. For this reason, it is essential to have access to extensive language production by these learners. They are not easy to pigeon-hole and, to some extent, need individual study plans. They have probably experienced a range of teaching methods during their school careers and believe they know what works for them and what does not. They are also critical learners in the sense that they seek a learning experience that engages them cognitively and enhances their knowledge. As well as providing language input and cognitive challenge, learning for them should be both rewarding and enjoyable.

These learners’ experience of language learning in the past impinges on their expectations of how further learning is to proceed. For the most part, tertiary language learning is a matter of personal volition, with the possible exception of students on LSP courses in non-philological majors. Students usually choose to study another language. This means that a certain degree of positive motivation can be assumed. Nevertheless, as studies have shown (e.g. Dörnyei 2001), motivation is something that needs constant nurturing. Learning styles and learning strategies also need to be taken into account. In one of the PhD theses in the German survey reported on above, it was found that learning style is not a fixed trait or even a relatively stable one, but varies not only according to the task, teaching method, language focus and perceived difficulty, but also according to the social network (Roche 2006). This is an important finding as it indicates the potential for using peers as a reference group and resource for learning.

3   A Framework for Tertiary Language Learning

Since the membership of the group in any given classroom situation is likely to be heterogeneous in terms of language gaps, learning styles and interests, it is important to provide a learning space which allows the learners to take the initiative for their learning, because they are the ones who know best what they lack and need. Only by means of a learner-centred approach can the learners’ cognitive sophistication be taken into account. The framework to be presented later is based on a cognitive, interactive model of language learning, and relies on a collaborative working mode which allows the learners’ individual strengths to contribute to a successful outcome. This means that not only language proficiency but also personal skills, individual knowledge and experience are drawn on. If cooperation in the group is to work satisfactorily, the learners must learn to rely on each other for knowledge, feedback and support during the course of the interaction. Ultimately, as David Block writes in The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition:

Learning is about more than the acquisition of linguistic forms; it is about learners actively developing and engaging in ways of mediating themselves and their relationships to others in communities of practice (Block 2003: 109).

3.1  The Peer Group

Michael Long suggested as long ago as 1983 that linguistic and conversational adjustments that occur in interactions might promote language learning. Many learners, however, believe that speaking to native speakers is the optimal way of gaining access to language input and hence reject teaching formats where they are expected to interact with their fellow students. Many even fear that their language proficiency will deteriorate if they interact with learners who are less proficient than themselves. This is certainly a problem as learners’ perceptions of the learning situation are an important source of motivation. Nevertheless, there is an increasing body of studies which shows the benefits of peer interaction. And, if one considers that most people will use English as a lingua franca with non-native speakers more often than with native speakers, peer interaction makes a lot of sense.

Peer interaction appears to be qualitatively different from native speaker / learner interaction inasmuch as the partners are more equal than in learner and native speaker pairs. In a study by Sato and Lyster (2007), it was found that the learners who were paired with a native speaker did more listening than speaking, and did not modify their output as frequently as the learners who were paired with peers: the interaction was one-sided. The peer dyads, however, negotiated meaning more often and had to work harder to complete the task than the learners paired with native speakers as the latter were better able to guess what the learners they were paired with wanted to say, thus reducing the effort required by the learners. But the benefits of interaction are not limited to language learning: they are also to be found in the educational value of learning how to collaborate, negotiate and produce a joint outcome of the work accomplished.

Returning to my survey of English language classes in Germany and Austria, it seems that the potential benefits of peer-learning may be being overlooked in many tertiary institutions. The titles of courses listed in the AREAS report suggest that language learning tends to be fragmented and decontextualized: one skill, be it reading, listening, speaking or writing, is practised at the expense of the whole picture. This is not particularly surprising: international exams such as the Cambridge Advanced and Proficiency exams also promote this type of compartmentalisation and publishers have been quick to exploit this situation by producing advanced level course books divided up along these lines. Nevertheless, tertiary language learners need opportunities to integrate these skills in meaningful interactions. 

What now follows is a pedagogical framework setting out how language can be contextualised and learning can proceed in a way which exploits the level of proficiency which advanced learners have already achieved and challenges them to stretch themselves even further. I start by explaining the basic thinking behind this mode of teaching.

3.2  Enabling Skills

I want to propose the notion of enabling skills as the basis for my concept of scenario-based language learning. The word skills has a long history in language teaching – e.g. the four skills or active and passive skills. But more recently, it has been used more closely to its dictionary meaning of something you can do well because you have learned and practised it (cf. Longman DCE 2003). In this particular case,

enabling skills are those cognitive skills which are actively drawn on by learners to learn a new language. They are developed and refined in the process of interactive confrontation with a different linguistic system and furthered by motivation to learn the language and use it for intercultural communication. (Smith 2010: 45)

In language learning, like in other types of learning, there is a need to draw on cognitive abilities such as the powers of analysis and synthesis, the ability to deduce, infer, abstract, select and evaluate. These faculties, along with individual learning awareness and individual learning strategies, are what make up the cognitive component of my enabling skills model. The second component, mega-skills for language learning, involves the ability to deal with communicative input and respond appropriately. This entails distilling and abstracting ideas from linguistic and non-verbal signs, interpreting information from both channels to produce a pragmatically relevant response in speech, writing or non-verbal communication. The appropriate response will depend on the communicative situation, according to whether there is no direct interlocutor, as in the case of presenting or editing text, or whether communication is dialogical, as in a telephone call or correspondence, or whether group interaction as in meetings or writing for a wider readership is involved. 

The final component of the model is the methodological realisation. Since all interaction is intended to be meaningful, it is essential to create a framework that will require genuine communication. This is the scenario. But along with the scenario, which is learner-driven and largely independent of instructor intervention, language-related activities devised by the instructors in the light of on-going observations of the language being produced during the scenario, particularly in lexico-semantics and discourse pragmatics, are envisaged. These will be demonstrated later in conjunction with the scenario outline.

4   Scenario-Based Language Learning

Scenario, like skills or communicative competence, is a word used in a wide range of contexts with more or less precision. My use of the word scenario draws on its use in the business world. Scenarios were first developed by the energy company Shell in the 70s as “a method for summarizing alternative future trends” (Senge 1990: 179). The scenarios were projections of how the business might look in a certain number of years if the operating conditions were to change dramatically. The problem with the early scenarios, according to Senge, was that the Shell managers found them too contradictory and simply dismissed them. As a result, the planning team started to create scenarios which would induce the managers to question their models of reality. In the new scenarios, the planners made the managers’ own thinking the starting point. Scenarios were developed to move the thinking beyond the managers’ personal world views and open it up to other interpretations of reality. So the scenarios work as a tool for revealing gaps in knowledge or exposing entrenched thinking among the members of the group, allowing them to question their beliefs and explore a situation unconventionally without prejudices. The scenario depends not on a fixed plan or order, but on the process of communication between the participants. As such, the scenario culminates in a description of possible futures rather than an action plan. It is a way of coming to terms with complexity by inviting unorthodox thinking through communication and dialogue with others who hold different world views. The emphasis is on unleashing participants’ creativity through the process of communication.

Scenario-based language learning is conceived of as a framework to enable small groups of language learners to engage in a similarly creative process. The scenario takes a whole term, which gives the participants time to develop their scenarios in greater depth and rework them both in terms of conceptualisation and language. Time is an important factor in the learning experience as it makes for continuity, allows the learners’ ideas to evolve and permits opportunities to reflect on this evolution. Scenarios are embedded in a real-world situation in the learners’ immediate environment and reflect the space and time they currently inhabit. In my case, this is the university, Klagenfurt or Carinthia. The advantage of this restriction to the here and now is that the students’ starting point is their own world knowledge. It means that they work from a baseline of common knowledge among the group participants[1] and are not required to engage in some flights of fancy. The scenario provides a framework for a series of inter-related activities which are contextualised and, in a step-by-step process, build on what has gone before. This means that the cognitive complexity of the task is reduced at the beginning and the students’ final production reflects the sophistication of the developing process.

A number of learning objectives underlie the scenario. The first is to develop independent study skills, such as research and planning. Although these skills may be presupposed in university students, they are actually tested and refined in the group since the scenario outcome can only come about if each member has contributed effectively: downloading a few pages from Wikipedia with no thought about how the information is relevant to the scenario will soon be exposed as useless. The second objective is to develop a holistic approach to learning, exploring different sources of knowledge and finding ways to integrate that knowledge. The third is to learn to analyse and structure a complex problem so that resolution becomes possible. Fourthly, the students should use the group for sharing ideas and reflecting on them. Finally, they should develop an awareness of their personal language needs through the interaction in the group so that they can seek appropriate help.

Scenarios are planned as work cycles in which the students work largely autonomously. After deciding on the general theme for the term’s work, the students, working in groups of about four, commence on a cycle of activities, which is repeated as many times as necessary. The first stage consists of brainstorming ideas and sharing knowledge. In the first round of the cycle, the group members get to know each other’s interests and expertise and hence can fine-tune the general theme to suit their particular group[2]. Each member of the group is allocated responsibility for a particular part of the scenario. Fact-finding on an individual basis is the next stage. This is followed by a group session where the material or information collected is analysed and organised in preparation for a first draft report. The first draft is only one of many, because the idea of the scenario is to refine the conceptualisation and the language of the documentation as the term progresses. The first draft, however, is the basis for the instructor’s feedback and suggestions for the next repetition of the cycle.

At this stage, the focus of the feedback is on the viability of the scenario and the clarity of the presentation for outside readers. The instructor does not necessarily have to bring in any particular expertise; ordinary common sense and knowledge of the local constraints and opportunities are usually enough although qualified feedback will obviously lead to greater sophistication as long as the students are not intimidated by it. The first feedback need not involve criticism; it can take the form of additional ideas for the group to take on or reject as the members think appropriate. Language feedback should not be foregrounded at the stage since there will be many more drafts in which the ideas will be expanded and improved. Moreover, the students should learn to rely on their own resources to proofread and improve the language of their texts.

The timing of the scenario is established by the instructor who negotiates deadlines at regular intervals for handing in written drafts, presentations and any other tasks for assessment. Scenarios can be organised as regular weekly sessions, or with less frequent in-class meetings using a learning platform like Moodle, or Facebook, to maintain communication. However, the in-class meetings are important because they give the instructor a chance to monitor progress in the groups[3], offer praise or criticism and check whether there is a need for some explicit help on some language problem which is shared by the group or the whole class. This is where the language-related activities for the whole class in the areas of lexico-semantics and discourse pragmatics come in, such as YouTube clips to demonstrate real-life interaction.

The final outcome is a group report based on individual texts which the group members have written during the term on the area that they have been responsible for in the scenario.[4] The final report should naturally be free of repetitions and inconsistencies which have resulted from multiple authorship. Since the work leading up to this written outcome will involve different activities such as individual research as well as plenary sessions and group work, it is important that the learners know exactly what will be expected of them for their final grade. It is also important that the students document their meetings in the form of minutes so that everyone knows what has gone on and can check on misunderstandings. These minutes can be a part of the assessment, too.

5   Conclusion

The scenario concept means a break from conventional teaching practice and may be more suited to subjects like languages for business or economics, rather than technical subjects. It is also a challenge for instructors, who have to relinquish a certain amount of control. However, by allowing students to be largely responsible for creating their own learning framework instead of merely consuming what the instructor has to offer, the learning experience is enhanced and the learners gain a more realistic insight into their proficiency in the foreign language.

In a study of non-native telephone communication, Alan Firth was able to show that “interactants provide resources for each other, which may then be utilised, adopted and adapted as the interactional exigencies dictate” (Firth 2009: 133). The important point here is that as in real life, the scenario creates such interactional exigencies as the learners stretch themselves linguistically to achieve the performance goals they have set themselves. And that is why scenarios belong in a tertiary level learning environment.


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Block, David (2003). The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Dörnyei, Zóltan (2001). Teaching and Researching Motivation. Harlow: Longman.

Firth, Alan (2009). Doing not being a foreign language learner: English as a lingua franca in the workplace and some implications for SLA. IRAL, 47, 127-156.

Littlemore, Jeannette & Juchem-Grundmann, Constanze (2010). Introduction to the Interplay between Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Learning and Teaching. AILA Review, Vol. 23, 1-6.

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Martinez, Hélène (2008). Lernerautonomie und Sprachlernverständnis: Eine qualitative Untersuchung bei zukünftigen Lehrerinnen und Lehrern romanischer Sprachen. Tübingen: Narr.

Roche, Thomas (2006). Investigating Learning Style in Foreign Language Classrooms. Berlin: Langenscheidt ELT.

Sato, Masatoshi & Lyster, Roy (2007). Modified Output of Japanese EFL learners: Variable Effects of Interlocutor versus Feedback Types. In Alison Mackey (ed.), 123-142.

Senge, Peter M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline. The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Smith, Veronica (2010). Tertiary Language Learning. Changing Perspectives and Practical Responses. Tübingen: Narr.

[1]  This does not mean that every participant shares the same local knowledge at the beginning of the scenario, but that the local environment becomes the common denominator as the scenario progresses.
[2]  A general theme could be to find ways to attract tourists to the city. Whether this is achieved by infrastructure measures or events is left entirely to the group.
[3] Group work does not always run smoothly and so it is sometimes necessary to defuse conflicts or at least channel them productively. The language of conflict is rarely dealt with in the classroom and so it can enrich the learning experience if dealt with appropriately.
[4] The individual texts can provide the basis for individual assessment. The final grade need not consist exclusively of the written group report. It can be made up of various items, including individual texts, group texts, individual presentations, such as the ‘Elevator Pitch’ or performance in group meetings, depending on institutional requirements. Further information on assessment procedures can be found in Smith (2010).