Community Language Learning: An overview.

Community Language learning is a humanistic method that emphasizes the role of human values and the understanding of the learner’s feelings and emotions in the teaching/learning process. In such a method, the learner is perceived as a ‘whole learner’. That is to say, teachers consider not only students’ feelings, but also their physical reactions and desire to learn.

The CLL method was developed by Charles Curran. The latter was a specialist in counseling and a professor of psychology. Curran managed to apply the psychological counseling techniques to learning aspects, which resulted in a ‘Counseling-Learning theory’ represented by the CLL in teaching languages. Among the problems that impede foreign language learning are anxiety and negative emotions of defense. The learners undergo such emotions when they feel ‘threatened’ in an unfamiliar situation. In this respect, Curran asserts that learning is a social phenomenon that should take place ‘within the supportive environment of a “community” of one’s fellow learner’. The teacher is viewed as a counselor who is also responsible for creating a non-defensive environment and overcoming negative feelings towards learning a new language. To successfully foster non-defensive learning in the classroom, Curran suggests six psychological requirements referred to as SAARRD. These are Security, Aggression, Attention, Reflection, Retention, and Discrimination. According to Richards and Rodgers (2002), these aspects of Curran’s learning philosophy address ‘the personal commitments that learners need to make before language acquisition processes can operate’.

The CLL method is based on principles that reinforce the communication between learners rather than the production of ‘correct’ language. As communication requires ease and security, learners’ needs and feelings are addressed with due regard in every aspect of the teaching process. First of all, it is important to establish a mutual relationship between the learner and the teacher to create a safe learning environment; students tend to learn more effectively when they feel secure. Besides, the teacher should respect the learners’ level of confidence and transmit to them what needs to be done successfully. For the learners, they need to know the limits of the teaching activity assigned by the teacher so that they feel more secure about it. Finally, learners need also to work in groups to feel a sense of community and learn from each other as well as the teacher. In this regard, cooperation, rather than competition, is encouraged.

Equally important, the instructional practices adopted in the CLL method highly emphasize as well as encourage the aspect of communication among students. Usually, communication in the classroom is generally promoted through learners’ efforts and materials. That is to say, there are no visible textbook, prepared lesson plan, or even sometimes defined objectives. Rather, there is a group of learners, sitting in a circle, who themselves initiate oral communication mostly in the native or the target language. One of the best activities to practice communication in CLL is referred to as Dialogue transcription; this activity helps students to analyze and internalize the language which being taught. At this point, Larsen-Freeman (2003) documents that ‘‘the dialogue transcription is a particularly good way in which to raise consciousness because, since learners generated the dialogue, they are invested in it’’.

To accomplish the instructional tasks and activities assigned by the teacher, there are various techniques prioritized and employed in the CLL method. To begin with, the activities are done in group work. A group of learners sitting in a circle (not more than 12) initiates the conversation in the native language and the teacher translates it into the target language. Next, students’ conversation is recorded so that students can listen to their voices in the target language and reflect on it. Later, these conversations in the target language are transcribed by the teacher on the board, thereby providing linguistic and lexical forms to practice and analyze. Moreover, students are also offered the chance to practice pronunciation. This time, the students take the responsibility of learning and control the teacher, who becomes a ‘human computer’ and repeats students’ utterances without any correction. Finally, students can also be engaged in free conversations with the teacher or with each other. According to Richards and Rodgers 2002, free conversations might include ‘‘discussion of what they have already learned, as well as feelings they have regarding the process of how they learned what they learned’’.

The learning goal behind the use of the activities and techniques aforementioned is using the target language communicatively in an environment where students are provided with stress-free, non-dependent, and value-respecting teaching circumstances. Also, learning is expected to occur through oral activities, such as dialogues and mini-drama. The transcribed and distributed teaching materials obtained from the teacher (knower) are exploited to offer linguistic input to the learners. On one hand, the teacher is considered the counselor whose role is to respond to the ‘clients’, which are students in a helpful, positive, and supportive manner. The teacher should create a safe and non-threatening environment and be able to understand and support the learners and to overcome negative feelings that might hinder learning. On the other hand, the role of students is emphasized in five stages they undergo during the interaction with the teacher. In the first stage, students are completely dependent on the teacher. In the second stage, they begin to establish their own self-affirmation and independence by using simple expressions and phrases they heard before. They begin to understand others directly in the target language in the third stage. In the fourth stage, students begin to function independently with limited knowledge of the foreign language. In the last stage, which is the independent stage, students refine their understanding of register, as well as grammatically correct language use.

It is also worth mentioning that the setting, where learning takes place, plays has a hand in the teaching/learning process of the CLL. Students are seated in a circle around a table that has a sound recorder on it. The teacher stands behind the students to lower the anxiety that learners might have. When the student tells what he wishes to say in L1, the teacher translates it into L2 while standing outside the circle. Then the student repeats this chunk after the teacher in the target language. This shows that the use of native language has got also a significant role in facilitating the meaning for students.

Another relevant question that might be posed regarding the teaching/ learning process and the lesson focus is where do grammar, fluency, and accuracy fit in? Taking into consideration the importance of understanding and speaking the target language, the focus is on vocabulary, pronunciation, and some grammar points ‘that are derived from the student-generated language’. ‘As language is for communication, the materials need to be authentic and should allow students to express their desires, wants, beliefs, opinions, and ideas easily’. When it comes to the teacher’s feedback, he becomes a ‘human computer’ that recasts students’ errors in a supportive and non-threatening way. Concerning evaluation, it is documented that in the CLL, there is no place for a formal evaluation of a written or oral exam, unless the school requires a formative evaluation at the end of the course. Rather, learners are encouraged to evaluate themselves through alternative assessment techniques such as writing a paragraph, oral interviews, presentations, role-plays, and so on.

When it comes to the implementation of CLL in the EFL context, the method can be applied to some extent to overcome barriers, like anxiety, which impede language teaching. In most schools where English is taught as a foreign language, learners are not treated as ‘whole persons’ but as’ empty vessels to be filled with knowledge’ by the teacher. Thus, adopting CLL techniques like translation, reflection, reflective listening, recording, and being in a supportive community would be of great help.

Finally, there have been researching attempts that investigated the learners’ outcomes in CLL. In some foreign language classes, CLL was entirely used, while in other settings, the method was used just partly. Action research conducted with low- intermediate students learning Japanese as a foreign language revealed that the use of the experience and reflection techniques kept the balance between the learner-centered environment and a teacher-cantered environment, and provided learning opportunities by addressing diverse learning style modalities. In another comparative study, three Japanese college students were interviewed with an aim to elicit the diverse opinions which might be present between a traditional class and CLL. Two of the participants expressed that they felt no anxiety when they belonged to the learning community, while one student commented that she felt uneasy among others when she could not discriminate the sounds and produce unfamiliar utterances.

To conclude, the CLL method is among the teaching methods that adopt peculiar activities and techniques to ‘take care’ of the learner, his feelings, and his physical reaction. Interestingly, the teacher is not only limited to deliver content to the learners but also he is a counsellor who can handle the problems learners face while learning something new in.

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Ait Oumghar Elghali

Do not seek to master the language. Do not fight the language or it will defeat you. If you devote yourself to the language, you will be rewarded.