Four language learning theories have been prevalent in Western Education over the past century. One primarily informs the MAST process, but each has relevance either in what it has to offer or the limitations made evident in its use. Let’s take a look at each one.

Behavioral Theory: This theory can be visualized by the story of Pavlov’s dogs. These dogs learned to respond to stimulus through rote repetition and reinforcement. B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist of the early 20th century propagated the theory that behavior which is received with a positive response will be repeated, and conversely that which receives a negative response will not be repeated. He called this reinforcement. Applying this idea to education, especially the learning of language, the theory suggests that learning takes place as an individual is given a positive and negative reinforcement for behaviors. The learner is given an exact set of responsibilities and as he progresses through them he receives reward for what he does correctly and punishment or neglect for what he does incorrectly. This reinforces positive behavior and minimizes negative behavior. Language learning methods that rely heavily on this theory will make use of drills, vocabulary and spelling lists, rote-response Q&A, and fill-in-the-blank quizzes and tests, all based on gratification through reward.  Although much modern study and years of practicing methods based on this theory, have made it clear that this is an erroneous and limited view of learning, it is still the primary theory employed in American education today.

Cognitive Theory: This theory is sometimes referred to as “sink or swim”. It is based on the idea that when we are forced into a situation of application we will discover how much we can actually learn and do. “Total immersion”–a person moving to a foreign country and living amidst a language he has never spoken in order to learn it–is based on this theory. Cognitive theory has proved effective in some ways. Certainly under extreme pressure a person sometimes realizes how much he actually can do or learn. However, it also has serious limitations. The input stage of this theory is so intense it can actually be overwhelming, resulting in  “sink” rather than “swim.” The stress can result in a hatred of what was supposed to be learned or complete emotional detachment from the learning. In  cases where learning has taken place using a method based on one of the other theories, an episode of cognitive theory, often does produce a high yield of output.

Universal theory: This theory is encapsulated in the phrase, “The world is my teacher.” The idea behind this theory, especially related to language acquisition, arose from the way children learn their first language. They are surrounded by examples of communication in that language. They watch, listen, and imitate. Their curiosity and desire to communicate fuel their learning. This theory is based on the natural curiosities and desires within humans to learn new things, and the idea, that when self-motivated a learner will actually accomplish more. It will take the learner as far as he/she wants to go, but no farther. Once the internal motivation to learn from one’s environment wanes or is extinguished learning halts. One aspect of this theory that is being used in modern education is the individualizing of learning to meet the desires, interests, and curiosities of diverse learners. The value in this is an awareness of the differences among learners, and an effort to foster environments that feed curiosity instead of quelling it.

Monitor Theory: This theory has been developed over the last several decades by several education theorists, linguists and psychologists, among them, David Sousa, Stephan Krashen and Lev Vygotsky. It’s primary tenet is that a learner will grow in his knowledge base most effectively when he has a mentor who is one step ahead of him in the process. A guide will open up learning for the student. What the student can do on his own is enhanced by what he can do with the aid of someone who has just learned this material. This theory relies on teamwork and that individuals can be both learners and teachers at the same time. It also suggests that the educator’s  job in a classroom is to creative an environment conducive to learning, one that removes barriers, creatives curiosity, and invites participation. Learning by doing, rather than merely by hearing instruction, is emphasized.

The MAST methodology relies most heavily on Monitor theory. This is seen in the following:

  1. Grouping of translators according to their assessed ability.
  2. Working in teams.
  3. Learning by doing.
  4. Providing a least restrictive environment.
  5. Creating interest and expecting participation.

Consider the eight MAST steps in light of what these language learning theories promote. Do you see aspects of the other theories?  Where?

Which learning theories have you experienced as a learner? Which have you employed in teaching?

What successes have you experienced in learning or teaching using these theories?


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