Feedback in Language Learning
A critical element to effective language learning, in fact to any learning, is feedback. Without feedback, we just could not learn. We would not know the results of our actions and hence would not know if any adjustment was needed. Feedback is what tells us whether we are on the path leading to our intended destination or have deviated. It is what tells us whether we have achieved our mark or not.
We need to recognise feedback in all areas of learning languages, from the sounds we make to the sentences we form, to the meanings we intend to utter, to the writing that we do and so on. It is too easy to overlook the importance of feedback and concentrate on learning more and more. I have seen language learners accumulate enormous amounts of knowledge about language and a variety of language skills but they don’t seem to be able to put it all together. One reason for that is that they have not been using the feedback they get to effectively and appropriately modify what they do, say or learn.
There are 2 kinds of feedback:
1. The kind that we perceive through our senses and perception.
2. The kind we are given by others, such as our teachers, peers or even, these days, computer programs.
When we were learning our first language, 98% (Ok, this is not scientific! But it is an extremely high percentage though, to be sure) or more of our language learning happened via the first means. Parental input is always talked about as being important, especially in the beginning. However if one considers the breadth, complexities and subtleties of any language, it is clear that children learn nearly everything through their own devices.
We can go further into the notion of how important our perceptions are for our own learning. Just consider, a lot, if not virtually all, of what we learn about how to make our relationships work (with our parents, friends, colleagues, children etc) is learned via our powers of noticing. It is through noticing that we get the feedback which informs us about:
- our own reaction to what we said or did. An example of that maybe thinking, “Oh, that didn’t come out right.”
- how our words or deeds were taken, Feedback from others may be seen by the words they respond with, by the tones in their words, by their facial gestures or even by a non response.
Say, for example, we say something that we don’t see as disrespectful, but others do. An example might be saying something like, “I don’t believe you”. When we don’t recognize the feedback we are given after we say this, we probably will keep repeating this kind of sentiment in other similar kind of situations where we disagree. This will only stop when we recognise it ourselves as being a bit too abrasive, or when we become aware of some feedback from the person we were talking to ( like a raised eyebrow, unexpected silence, etc).
Virtually no one goes to classes about learning from life (though if course it could be argued that we would be better off if we did! 🙂 ). However we learn an enormous variety and amount of skills and understandings. The more we look at our lives, the more it becomes apparent that it is only in very limited situations do we ever turn to teachers to help us learn.
It is exactly the same in learning a language. Feedback has a critical role that is too easily interpreted in a very narrow way. The developing of sensitivities in all areas of language is the hallmark of an effective language learner. Relying on others for feedback is the hallmark of a poor language learner. The good thing is that this can be readily turned around.
Feedback put to good use and to no use!
Let us look at an example of what happens in the learning of pronunciation.with:
A. An effective language learner
You want to say “cart”. When you utter it, you notice that the sound you make in the middle of the word does not approximate to the sound that you hear others make. You notice this because as you listen to yourself and listen to how others say the sound, you notice a difference. To make the right sound you start experimenting with moving the sound around your mouth and by varying the length of the sound. After some time you realise that by
- putting more energy into the middle sound and
- taking more time to make the sound
you can make the transition, from “cut” (what you are saying before) to “cart”.
Feedback is the information that comes back to you ( from yourself or from someone else), which you can take and use to refine what you do. Of course you can also chose to ignore the information. Recognising it is the first part, but without acting on it, no change will happen.
B. A poor learner
This kind of learner does not change their pronunciation until someone instructs them to. S/he continually repeats the wrong pronunciation and remains oblivious to the problems. They may change what they say because:
- they were told to say the word another way
- their pronunciation causes them embarrassment as people keep asking them to repeat the word, so they do something to change what they say. Many times though the change produces little or no improvement as they lack the awareness to check themselves. It is like stabbing in the dark.
This kind of learner is looking for correction from their teacher but do not realise that they can correct themselves.
The two kinds of learner that I have just described are two extremes and the reality is that we sit somewhere between these two extremes. At different times we get closer to one end and at other times, we may be closer to the other.
Factors that encourage or inhibit feedback
It is how attentive we are to the information that comes our way that permits us to learn from what we do. This can be readily seen with infants. Sometimes we may not take notice of or learn so well from our experiences, so we keep on repeating the same “mis-takes”. This can happen not just because we are not attentive but also if, for example, we(in no particular order):
- have preconceived notions about how things should be, which prevent our awareness from recognising important signs telling us that something needs attention
- have beliefs that prevent us from looking at those things which could teach us
(we may not give sufficient attention to that which falls outside of our interests or attachments)
- are too tired
(our life’s circumstances can just be too much at times, or maybe we just need to consider our lifestyle)
- have no real interest in learning – maybe we are doing it for reasons not that clear to us
(we may think that a new language is not useful to us)
- pre-judge events, people, ourselves
(first language interference can be seen as an example of this – so maybe we think the way we understand or express something has to be in certain way )
- are overly concerned about our own image
(hence we may not be paying sufficient attention to the feedback that we are getting)
- are too concerned about what others might think about us
(here we may be focusing too much on them, rather than the feedback we get)
- have emotional pressures placed upon us
(either self imposed or put on us by others)
If some of these forces are at play in our lives then our learnings may well be constrained and limited. In these situations we may not recognise the feedback that is coming our way. Hence we may only confirm what we already know or see some distorted picture, instead of seeing things as they really are.
Feedback and formal education
Another significant issue is that as a result of our schooling, a belief that only feedback of the 2nd type (experienced as formal learning) can result in learning becomes the dominant belief. At school we are so used to looking to the teacher for guidance, for input, for feedback that our ability to guide ourselves from our perceptions and feedback diminishes and in some instances may even get lost.
This is not the inevitable outcome of formal education I hasten to add. It is the result of the type of education that most of us have been subjected to.
An excellent timeless book, written some ago, looking into this in a lot more detail is How Children Fail by John Holt
Although all of us learn so much outside of formal education, the classes we were in can and do have powerful effects on our perceptions about what learning is. One of these is the belief that teachers are the only ones who can provide the sort of input ( including feedback) that we need. This is despite that fact that so many of us have had teachers who gave us negligible feedback or feedback of the kind that only disheartened us.
From all these experiences at school most of us learn to devalue our own input. The understanding that we in fact can learn all the time through what we do and the feedback we get from that is too easily lost. How we can learn languages through whatever we do is something that most people do not easily come to once they have been consciously and unconsciously shown that that the “teacher”, the books and the courses knows best. The value of our own immensely powerful learning system is ignored.
Even when they learn by themselves, most people turn to the kinds of exercises that we associate with language classes. Many people regard this as real learning. The other kind is not usually given the importance it deserves.
Very few teachers themselves understand the importance of informal learning in the life of language learners, so it is only in the rare classes that learners are actually shown how this can work. The students hence are not shown to value the feedback they receive when they are talking to shopkeepers or their neighbours, when they are reading books, when they are watching movies, when they are on Skype and so on.
In fact this is a key reason why there are such poor results in many classes. Many students keep waiting for the teacher, the exercise, the book to help them, rather than understand that it is what they do with what they hear or read (including from the teacher) that can create the results they are looking for. Or they think they have not learned enough, or they are poor learners. They don’t tend to think that the way I am approaching learning is the problem.
Even when the teacher is giving feedback, the learner can miss the value. The value can be missed for any number of reasons, including:
- The feedback given was not what the learner was focussed on at the time it was given.
- The learner may not have been ready for the feedback as their understanding could not make real sense of it.
- The feedback itself was not appropriate to the problem that the student was facing.
- They got flustered by the kind of feedback they were given and so became too concerned how they were perceived by others.
Learners need to look for feedback in whatever they do, including in classes, and make changes to what they do, in accordance to what they hear, feel and see. Developing this ability is a key for anyone who wishes to become an effective learner. These type of learners are always looking for feedback to confirm what they know ( or don’t know), to refine what they know (or don’t know) or to open their eyes to something new.
Once we learn to value feedback we start to be empowered language learners. We can then learn from anything we do, see hear or feel. We then keep learning rather than get stuck at a level far below what we wanted. Each new learning can then open up new areas for discovery, areas that before would not have been evident. This is the power of valuing (and learning from) feedback.
“The things that have been most valuable to me
I did not learn in school.”
First published: 15/12/2014 – Comprehensively elaborated on 23/6/2016