Multilingualism and education

Learning To Use Experiences Systematically – The Tertiary Language Teaching Concept

Researchers into multilingualism are convinced that foreign languages can be learned more effectively if students consciously draw on their existing linguistic and language-learning experiences. This concept has now been incorporated into teaching practice – though by no means everywhere.

The brain of a person who has already learnt a second language besides their native tongue is full of varying types of experience. For one thing, they are experienced in the art of learning as such, and for another have experience of how language works as a system.

If that person can actively tap into this wealth of experience, this will help them to learn other languages more quickly. This, at least, is what is assumed by language learning researchers and teachers who have studied the phenomenon of multilingualism and devise concepts for what is known as tertiary language teaching.

A different approach to tertiary language teaching

Generally speaking, tertiary languages are those languages which are learnt after the first foreign language. According to tertiary language tutors, teaching of these languages – one example is German as a foreign language (GFL) after English – should follow a different approach to lessons designed to teach students their first foreign language.

Britta Hufeisen, who holds the chair in GFL at the Technical University of Darmstadt, is also convinced that this is the case. She calls for the language skills and language-learning experience that a learner already has to be consistently and systematically incorporated into the lesson.

Awareness is the key

However, students tend not to activate entirely of their own accord the wealth of experience they have acquired while learning their first foreign language. "They have to be systematically trained and encouraged to exploit their linguistic repertoire at different stages in the learning process – especially in schools, where teachers have pupils with many different native tongues", explains Professor Hufeisen. "The key here is to make them aware of how to transfer their experience and knowledge in the first place. They need to practice how to draw on foreign languages they have learnt in the past – besides the transfer process itself, intelligent guesswork and hypothesizing play an important role in this context."

Interlinking languages

The concept of tertiary language teaching is embedded in the idea of a common language teaching curriculum in which different languages interact with one other. Ultimately, this notion emerged from the results of neurolinguistic research which found that all languages are interlinked in the brain of the learner.

The idea is to have learning groups take advantage of this interlinking process which is already in place. "One possibility, for example, is to organize a project based on the tenses. Schools could introduce joint lessons on past and present tenses for several languages at once", explains Britta Hufeisen. "Though this, of course, presupposes that the school in question has teaching staff who are willing to cooperate and work together."

Within the tertiary language teaching concept, teachers of the first foreign language have a particular responsibility, because it is in their lessons that the foundations for the learning of subsequent foreign languages are established. "This can open the door to a common language curriculum and the learning of several different languages, which is why teaching of the first foreign language must be given especial consideration."

Implementing the new concept in textbooks

Some more modern textbooks and teaching programmes already follow the tertiary language didactic approach, for example by involving other languages through recourse to internationalisms. More and more textbooks are also providing useful language strategy notes, with tips making reference to experience already acquired in foreign language learning. Students are trained to think consciously about how to learn vocabulary most effectively or to approach a new text in the foreign language.

Tertiary language research findings, however, are also used to promote German as a second or third foreign language. "Like in the Swedish textbook Lust auf Deutsch", reports the multilingualism researcher. "The first chapter of the book is called 'German for free', and argues roughly as follows. 'Dear student, take a look at the following text. Although it is in German, you already understand three quarters of it, because you know Swedish and English. In other words, if you take advantage of everything you already know, German isn't all that difficult any more."

A European concept?

The latest research, however, shows that the concept does not function equally well in all cultural settings. "A PhD student found that pupils in Malaysia – on account of their traditional learning systems – are entirely unable to distance themselves from a subject in order to view it, as it were, from above", says Britta Hufeisen.

In Burkina Faso, too, the notion of awareness does not seem to work as well as it does in Europe, North America and Australia. "As far as foreign language teaching is concerned, we need to bear in mind that the things we regard as ideal are not going to make the entire world happy", concedes Britta Hufeisen. "However, this shouldn't mean that we return to our old pigeonhole manner of thinking, with different pigeonholes reserved for each language. We should continue to try to channel, control and thus better exploit the potential which this interlinking makes available in the learner's brain."

Dagmar Giersberg
works as a freelance journalist in Bonn.

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion
December 2007

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