Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mindful learning and second language acquisition

Mindful learning and second language acquisition.


Mindful learning is a theory of learning with a number of applications for Second Language Acquisition (SLA). In the present paper we juxtapose (mis)conceptions and givens of SLA with myths of learning and mindful alternatives.


Contemporary theories of second language teaching have benefited greatly from perspectives that transcend the discipline of language. Task-based instruction is gaining ground in language instruction in particular, but also in other disciplines that recognize the need to apply learner knowledge to some task in order to promote a more complete integration of systematic knowledge and to improve retention of that knowledge. In The "Power of Mindful Learning," Langer (1997) presents a compelling case for a mindful approach to teaching and learning that has valuable insights for teachers in all disciplines. Lee and VanPatten (2003) present (mis)conceptions of second language acquisition in much the same way that Langer (1997) exposes and debunks myths of learning. The present paper draws parallels between mindfulness and acquisition-oriented instruction for the purpose of demonstrating the relevance of mindful learning theory for second language instruction.

Intelligenee and Learning vs. Mindfulness and Acquisition

Langer (1997) challenges the notion that the best possible outcome of learning is intelligence. According to her, intelligence is defined as knowing what is out there and being able to fit that knowledge within that environment. She argues that what teachers should be cultivating in learners is mindfulness. Mindfulness requires that individuals define their relationship to the environment. When individuals become mindful they not only see the world, but also re-see it from their own experiences and with their own insights. By looking through the lens of intelligence and mindfulness we can better understand the likely outcomes of different approaches to language teaching and make more informed pedagogical choices.


Intelligence is often defined and assessed as the ability to fit knowledge to increasingly discriminating slots according to some preexisting standard of fit. We are intelligent when we can answer a question, make an observation, or solve a problem consistent with those who wrote the question, been in the field, or lived through the problem before us. While we rely upon the voices of past experts, it is the reality of the situation that dictates what is an appropriate response. We are matching the environment, as a stable reality, to the categories of knowing we have been taught. When we are intelligent we have a means for achieving those outcomes that we have been told are important. We can quickly identify the relevant characteristics of the situation based upon facts and skills we learned in the past, apply those to a "novel" situation, and move to a resolution. In sum, intelligence asks students to know A, B, X and Y, know the conditions by which to recognize X or Y in the environment, and know under what conditions to apply either A or B in order to get the desired outcome form X or Y.


Mindfulness is the ability to create options. We are mindful when we broaden the possibilities by looking at reality through several different perspectives rather than trying to fit reality into the categories we have been taught. Mindfulness requires that the students rely upon their own, not the expert's, experiences to shift perspectives for themselves. When they do so, students will come to see the novelty of the situation rather than the null set of characteristics that a single perspective prescribes. They will come to determine for themselves what is a desirable outcome and find their own sense of meaning in the process. They will recognize the advantages and disadvantages of the skills and knowledge they have come to know such that they will be able to rely upon their own goals when selecting which to call upon. In sum, mindfulness asks students to see for themselves, personally determine how to use their knowledge or skills, and determine what is a meaningful outcome.

Second language (L2) acquisition theory is built on models of first language (L1) acquisition and on learning theory. As each field evolves independently of the other, it is important to return to the source and integrate insights from relevant developments. In this paper we propose a model of language instruction that integrates Langer's work on mindful learning and VanPatten's (2003) summary of the givens and (mis)conceptions of SLA. Using this model, we argue that teaching to develop explicit knowledge is best suited for developing intelligent second language speakers, while acquisition-oriented language teaching encourages the development of mindful second language learners. To do this we first begin by comparing and contrasting the myths and beliefs about general learning with the misconceptions and givens about language learning.

General Myths and Beliefs about Learning 

There are multiple pedagogical theories and approaches that can guide the decisions we make in the classroom. For our purposes, we have focused upon Langer (1997) for its strong heuristic value for understanding the instructional decisions teachers make. Langer (1997) first asks us to look at our beliefs about learning to make better choices about how we approach teaching. She argues that as teachers we need to recognize that we hold myths that have come to us through our culture and our past experiences as students. Once teachers acknowledge that these myths frame and delimit our beliefs about how learning happens, we can replace them with alternatives that provide a different pedagogical outcome. For a complete list of these myths, see Langer (p. 2). Langer (1997) presents the following myths of learning:

* The basics need to be learned so well that they become second nature

Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time

* Delaying gratification is important

Rote memorization is necessary for education

* There are right and wrong answers 

Myth: The Basics Need to be Learned So Well That They Become Second Nature

In the classroom, teachers offer repetitive exercises that ask students to perform a task the same way regardless of the context or students. Teachers often present the task as if it can only be performed one way. Langer argues that when individuals are told that there is only one right way to perform a task it limits their ability to make the material their own and use information in creative ways. In reality, no individual performs a task the same way. Athletes don't do a jump shot the exact way as others, musicians hold their instruments slightly different every day, and teachers explain material in new ways. In fact, we need to help students make the material their own so that they can use it according to their own abilities or experiences and the context.

Myth: Paying Attention Means Staying Focused on One Thing at a Time According to Langer (1997), teachers believe that paying attention means "holding a picture still" (p. 38), yet when we hold a mental or visual image still it eventually fades from view. Novelty sustains interest. This does not mean that students do not need to pay attention, but rather that teachers need to encourage soft vigilance rather than hyper vigilance. Hyper vigilance requires focusing on the details, soft vigilance allows for the exploration of ideas that are relevant to the concept in focus. This means that although learners still are attending to the concept, their attention is not static--connections and ideas relating to the concept are examined, kept or discarded.

Myth: Delaying Gratification is Important

Many of our educational activities are premised upon, or justified as, providing a foundation for students to build upon--later. Teachers apologize for the tedium associated with the current task and promise that, in the future, learners will receive rewards for their current investment. Or we add fun elements on top of the unpleasant task, which only serves to encourage students to frame the task as arduous in comparison. Moreover, when we tell students that what they are learning is boring or only useful in the future, we are denying them the opportunity to find the intrinsic value or meaning in the experience for themselves.

Myth: Rote Memorization is Necessary for Education 

"Memorization is a strategy for taking in material that has no personal meaning" (Langer, 1997, p. 69). When we ask students to memorize material, we are asking them to understand it without context or only within the context we provide. Yet, psychologists have noted that when information is connected to individuals' concept of themselves, they are more likely to remember it. As teachers, we recognize that when students see the relevance of the material they are more likely to engage with the material. However, as teachers we tend to shape or interpret the material to our beliefs about our students' lives and interests rather than helping them to make it meaningful for themselves. In doing so, teachers are training learners to either; 1) look to others to give information meaning or, 2) when others are not available to revert to rote memorization.

Myth: There are Right and Wrong Answers

Teaching students that there are right and wrong answers encourages them to scan the world to determine which answer fits within the framework of the expert/teacher. Learners do not, however, develop their own framework for determining what is or is not the right answer, nor do they come to recognize that there may be more than one right answer, just as there may be more than one way of performing a task. As Longer argues, our beliefs about how to teach emerge out of and sustain a set of assumptions about what we think the learning process looks like and the desired goals for that process. It is, therefore, imperative that we continually reflect upon our assumptions, both at the general pedagogical level as well as within each content area, to ensure a consistency between and among our assumptions, teaching behaviors, and desired outcomes.

General Beliefs about Second Language Teaching

While Longer (1997) presents myths of learning and alternatives for teaching, Lee and VanPatten (2003) present (mis)conceptions and givens of second language acquisition. Although other scholars have summarized SLA theories and research, VanPatten (2003) and Lee and VanPatten (2003) have provided a concise summary that parallels Langer's (1997) analysis. We will begin with the givens. The five givens about SLA presented in Lee and VanPatten (2003) and in VanPatten (2003, p. 15) are the following:

* SLA involves the creation of an implicit (unconscious) linguistic system.

* SLA is complex and consists of different processes.

* SLA is dynamic but slow.

* Most L2 learners fall short of native-like competence.

* Skill acquisition is different from the creation of an implicit system.

From Givens to (Mis)Conceptions

As Langer demonstrates, comparing our practices with our beliefs can reveal that we are not always consistent. Similarly, if we accept the givens of SLA, then many of our conceptions about language learning really are misconceptions. They are inconsistent with both our assumptions about and desired outcomes for language learning. We discuss each of the (mis)conceptions described by Lee and Van Patten's (2003) below.

(Mis)conception: "That's the way I learned, so.."

Teachers who attribute their success in foreign language to their traditional instruction fall into the logical fallacies of establishing a false cause and effect relationship and generalizing from personal experience. As a self-selected group, teachers also have greater commitment to and affinity for language learning, more exposure to input and more interaction in the target language because this was successful for them. Lee and VanPatten (2003) suggest another possibility, that these teachers were successful learners in spite of their previous instruction. Processing Instruction (PI) research has demonstrated that learners can develop implicit knowledge of the target language with a combination of instruction aimed at improving their processing strategies (Processing Instruction) and interpretation tasks (Structured Input) that provide feedback on the correctness of their interpretations (VanPatten & Cadierno, 1993). Classroom applications of this research include (1) redirecting grammar instruction away from the production (output) phase and toward the processing (input) phase and (2) keeping meaning in focus. A traditional output-oriented approach forces production before learners have internalized their language knowledge and encourages learners to consciously manipulate grammar rules. Processing meaningful input encourages the development of implicit language knowledge that learners can apply to subsequent output tasks. This focus on internalized knowledge is a mindful approach to language instruction because learners make the material their own.

(Mis)conception: Drills are Effective Tools for Learning Grammar

Lee and VanPatten (2003) identify three types of drills: (1) mechanical, (2) meaningful, and (3) communicative (p. 120). Mechanical drills, such as transformation and substitution drills, do not promote acquisition because learners do not have to attend to meaning in order to produce language. Learners performing mechanical drills need not even understand their own utterances. They work to learn the basics through rote memorization without personal relevance. In meaningful drills, meaning is in focus but the answer is known before the question is asked. Learners engaged in meaningful drills display knowledge of form but do not necessarily use language creatively. Subsequently, they search for the one right answer the think the teacher is looking for. In communicative drills, the answer depends on the learner and is not already known. Learners engaged in communicative drills, however, often abandon the message when they come to understand that the purpose of the drill is to produce grammatically correct utterances. Rather than deferring meaningful language use until the second stage of instruction, as a traditional sequence of drills does, a Structured Input/Structured Output sequence begins with meaning. In a Structured Input task, learners process and respond to meaningful language without producing the target forms. Then, in Structured Output, learners produce the target forms in the course of a form-focused information-exchange task. A Structured Input/Structured Output activity sequence also differs from a traditional sequence of drills in that production, not meaning, is deferred until the second phase of instruction. This focus on meaning is a mindful approach to language instruction because it makes outcomes meaningful to the learner, avoids rote memorization, and recognizes the possibility of multiple correct answers.

(Mis)conception: Explicit Explanation is Necessary

Processing Instruction research has demonstrated that activities without explanation are sufficient to acquire certain structures (VanPatten & Oikennon 1996). Moreover, the complexities of language do not always allow for simple explanation. Although explanation may speed up acquisition, there is no evidence that it is necessary. A Structured Input/Structured Output activity sequence promotes inductive learning via application rather than an over reliance on abstract knowledge. This emphasis on application over abstraction is a mindful approach to instruction because allows learners to make information meaningful for themselves. Explicit explanation presents a single reality rather than allowing students to view situations as novel and construct their own meanings.

(Mis)conception: The First Language is the Source of all Errors

Many errors attributed to "interference" are due to conscious monitoring of production and do not reflect the state of the learner's implicit linguistic system. Lee and VanPatten (2003) refer to this production strategy as "dressing up" a first language utterance in second language vocabulary. Research has demonstrated that less than one half of learner errors are first language-like errors. There is reason to believe that LI transfer plays a role in second language acquisition, but errors are generally considered to be a natural part of second language development. A contrastive analysis between the native language (LI) and the target language (L2) is the basic unit of instruction in traditional language instruction. A more mindful approach seeks to develop a second language system that is independent of the first, so that learners can use language creatively without mentally translating. Such a system can only develop via meaningful interaction in the target language that promotes tacit form-meaning connections. This approach to learner errors as developmental is mindful in that it allows for continuous reevaluation of the learner's tacit language knowledge

(Mis)conception: Acquisition Involves the Learning of Paradigms

Charts containing verb conjugations and other forms such as pronouns, typically organized by first-person singular (1) to third-person plural (they), are widely referred to by language teachers as paradigms. As Lee and VanPatten (2003) argue, paradigms are "abstractions and generalizations (p. 127)." Paradigms are not psycholinguistically real and do not exist in native speakers" heads unless they are explicitly taught. Rather than internalizing paradigms, learnersinternalize whole words that contain inflections. Structured Input activities are guided by the principle of presenting "one thing at a time" (Lee & VanPatten 2003, p. 154). Lee and VanPatten (2003) caution against using a paradigm as a previewing device because it may undermine the interactive aspect of the learning task. Paradigms may be useful as a summary, but learning tasks should emphasize a manageable number of forms associated with a particular function, such as the first person for a narration task or the first and second person for an interview task. Presenting "one thing at a time" is a mindful approach because the learner acquires and retains target forms via meaningful interaction, rather than learning them via rote memory as basics that need to be gotten out of the way only to discard them later.

Mindfulness and Acquisition

When teachers make intelligence, as defined by Langer, the goal of education they enact specific classroom behaviors. In the case of language learning, these behaviors include transformation and substitution drills that require learners to demonstrate knowledge of a pattern without necessarily understanding the very utterances they are producing. These techniques develop students' skills in a particular area and yield a specific form of performance that draws on consciously controlled knowledge, not on acquired knowledge.

In contrast, when teachers make mindfulness the goal of education, their behavior in the classroom shifts to create an environment that promotes language acquisition. In such a classroom environment we begin with meaning, not delaying it until learners have mastered the basics. Instruction is aimed not at learner performance, but at the competence that underlies that performance. This model not only offers a means for understanding the relation discussed above, but it also suggests that by looking at performance errors--errors that reflect monitoring, not language competence--we can better understand what we might be doing in the classroom.

The key to understanding the model is to recognize that an approach directed at mindfulness and language acquisition and an approach directed at intelligence and language learning will lead to qualitatively different kinds of performance. A learner who depends on consciously controlled knowledge will be less fluent and will tend to produce utterances that resemble the first language grammar "dressed up" in second language vocabulary. A learner whose performance is based on an underlying second language competence will produce utterances that are more spontaneous and native-like.


In this article, we have argued that mindfulness has a number of applications for second language teaching. On a theoretical level, the myths of learning closely parallel the (mis)conceptions from SLA. These myths and (mis)conceptions reveal deeply ingrained notions about the nature of learning and knowledge.Pedagogically speaking, teaching merely to intelligence parallels language instruction oriented tovard learning rather than acquisition. Teaching to mindfulness parallels acquisition-oriented teaching.

Language teachers and theorists have always benefited from insights from other disciplines. Langer (1997) offers valuable insights on teaching and learning with direct applications to second language teaching. The persuasive power of an SLA theory is reinforced by insights from a learning theory that transcends the discipline of language acquisition. Approaching the endeavor of language teaching from the perspective of mindfulness can give language teachers a different vantage point on the insights from SLA theory. Language teachers can find inspiration and renewed conviction in a broader perspective on their chosen profession. For the reader approaching mindfulness from the perspective of another discipline, the insights presented here from second language acquisition have much to contribute to the discussion.


We gratefully acknowledge the support of the VOICES project at Saint Louis University.


Langer, E. J. (1997). The power of mindful learning. Reading, MA: Peruses.

Lee, J. F., & VanPatten, B. (2003). Making communicative language teaching happen. New York: McGraw-Hill.

VanPatten, B. (2003). From input to output: A teacher's guide to second language acquisition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

VanPatten, B. & Cadierno, T. (1993). Explicit instruction and input processing. Studies in second language acquisition, 15,225-244.

VanPatten, B. & Oikennon (1996). Explanation vs. structured input in processing instruction. Studies in second language acquisition, 18,495-510.

Tony Houston, University of Missouri-Rolla

Paaige K. Turner, Saint Louis University

Tony Houston is Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri-Rolla. Paaige Turner is Associate Professor of Communication at Saint Louis University.
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