April 4, 2024

Autonomy in Language Learning

by Mateusz Wiącek

When we talk about autonomy in learning, we mean how much control learners have over their own learning process. Autonomous learners take charge of setting goals, deciding what to learn, how to learn it, and even how to measure their progress. This idea isn’t just about studying alone—it’s about learners being able to manage their learning whether they’re in a classroom or learning on their own.

For instance, in a self-access language learning program, learners might create their own study plans tailored to their needs. In traditional classrooms, teachers might guide students to become more independent in managing their learning, even within the curriculum’s boundaries.

Developing learner autonomy shares similarities with collaborative and humanistic learning methods. It’s about empowering learners to go beyond the confines of their immediate learning environment and apply what they’ve learned in real-life situations.

In language learning, being autonomous means not only using the language outside the classroom but also being able to use it effectively and independently. These two aspects—autonomous learning and autonomous language use—go hand in hand and should complement each other.

Learner autonomy isn’t just about thinking and planning; it also involves emotions and motivation. Teachers help learners reflect on their learning journey, considering their individual needs and interests. Positive motivation plays a vital role in fostering autonomy.

Various teaching methods can support learner autonomy, but they typically share some common practices. For instance, they prioritize using the target language for teaching and learning and encourage activities like keeping learner journals and group discussions to promote reflection and critical thinking.

The idea of learner autonomy isn’t new and has been explored under different names like ‘humanistic language teaching’ or ‘collaborative learning.’ What sets it apart is its focus on each learner as an individual with unique needs and backgrounds. It reminds teachers that success in language learning isn’t just about following a curriculum but about integrating the language into the learner’s identity.

However, learner autonomy isn’t absolute. It’s influenced by various factors, including social interactions and the specific learning context. Learners can only be as autonomous as their knowledge and skills allow, and their level of autonomy can vary depending on the situation.

The concept of learner autonomy has roots in both educational and psychological theories. It emphasizes the importance of learners being actively engaged in the learning process and making connections between classroom knowledge and real-life experiences.

Despite its benefits, there are some misconceptions about learner autonomy. It’s not the same as self-instruction, nor does it mean learners must work in isolation. Instead, it’s about empowering learners to take control of their learning while still being part of a supportive learning community.

While learner autonomy is increasingly recognized as a valuable educational goal, its implementation remains a challenge for teachers. It requires ongoing support and encouragement to help learners become independent and confident in their learning journey.

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