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University language centres, self-access learning and learner autonomy

Centres de langues à l’université, apprentissage autodirigé et autonomie de l’apprenant
David Little
p. 13-26


L’apprentissage autodirigé et le concept d’autonomie de l’apprenant ont joué un rôle majeur dans l’histoire des centres de langues à l’université. Depuis la fin des années 1970, la manière d’appréhender l’autonomie de l’apprenant dans les centres de langues est assez largement influencée par les questions relatives à l’apprentissage autodirigé et les restrictions dues aux technologies disponibles. Selon moi, l’autonomie de l’apprenant de langue est à l’œuvre dès que des apprenants usagers de la langue exercent leur agentivité, y compris dans la gestion de leur apprentissage, à travers la langue cible. Pendant plus de deux décennies, il a été nécessaire d’ancrer l’apprentissage d’une langue en centre de ressources dans une interaction en face à face afin de donner corps à l’autonomie de l’apprenant, les technologies disponibles ne permettant alors qu’une interactivité limitée. Aujourd’hui, cependant, le Web 2.0 fournit une multitude d’affordances pour favoriser l’exercice et le développement de l’autonomie de l’apprenant de langue, et le défi pour les centres de langues est de trouver des moyens d’agencer ces affordances afin de répondre aux besoins académiques des étudiants.

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Texte intégral

Where it all began: the self-instructional language laboratory and learner autonomy1

  • 1 This article is based on the keynote talk that I gave at the XXe Congrès de RANACLES, Université de (...)

1By the end of the 1970s most universities had been equipped with language laboratories. It was unclear, however, what use they should make of them. For one thing, most commercially available learning materials were aimed at beginners or intermediate learners rather than the advanced learners universities were usually concerned with. For another, university staff with an interest in the emerging discipline of linguistics were likely to be aware that the language laboratory had been invented to serve an already discredited theory of language learning. The four-phase structure drill fundamental to the audio-lingual method – recorded cue, learner’s response, recorded correct answer, learner’s repetition of correct response – was based on the behaviourist theory elaborated in Burrhus Skinner’s Verbal behavior (1957). But already in 1959 Noam Chomsky had published a devastating review of the book, arguing that language acquisition was a cognitive rather than a behavioural process. By the early 1970s the cognitivist view of second language acquisition that still dominates the field had taken shape, for example in the foundational work of Pit Corder (1967), and the first empirical studies of “interlanguage” development were beginning to appear (e.g. Selinker 1972). In these circumstances, how could universities best use their language laboratories? The answer seemed obvious: make them available to students for self-instructional use. Thus was the university self-access centre born.

2Also in the 1970s, the Council of Europe’s modern languages project was grappling with an entirely different question: how can we ensure that adult language learners develop the communicative proficiency they need? The answer came in several parts. Functional-notional inventories – The Threshold Level (van Ek 1975), Un niveau seuil (Coste et al. 1976) – shifted the focus from linguistic form to communicative purpose. Effectively the beginning of the “communicative turn” in language teaching, this shift was intended to facilitate the development of a modular approach to language course design via a unit/credit scheme (Trim 1978). In order to be effective, communicative course design must be informed by an analysis of learners’ needs (Richterich & Chancerel 1978); and in keeping with the ethos of the Council’s work in adult education, learners themselves must be fully engaged with the learning process. The report on the Council’s adult education project, Organisation, content and methods of adult education (Janne 1977), argues that adult education should acknowledge the contribution that learners’ existing knowledge, skills and experience can make to the educational process and is strongly committed to “self-learning” and self-assessment. This is the context in which Mats Oscarsson’s Self-assessment in language learning (1978) and Henri Holec’s Autonomy and foreign language learning (1979, cited here as Holec 1981) were born. Holec’s concept of learner autonomy, with its connotations of independence and maturity, seemed tailor-made to inform the development of self-access learning in newly established university language centres.

  • 2 Elsewhere Holec argues that self-directed learning can be carried out in groups (e.g. Holec 1979: 5 (...)

3According to Holec (1981: 3), an autonomous learner is “capable of taking charge of his own learning”, which entails “determining the objectives; defining the contents and progressions; selecting methods and techniques to be used; monitoring the procedure of acquisition properly speaking (rhythm, time, place, etc.); evaluating what has been acquired”. Although Holec quotes approvingly from Janne’s report on his first page, his conception of learner autonomy contrasts interestingly with the “self-learning” recommended by the Council of Europe’s adult education project group. Whereas self-learning “generally refers to the practice of working in groups” (Janne 1977: 27), Holec’s conception of learner autonomy as presented here is individual, cognitive and organizational; it does not include an interactive, social dimension2.

4According to Holec (1981: 3) the ability to take charge of one’s own learning is “not inborn but must be acquired either by ‘natural’ means or (as most often happens) by formal learning, i.e. in a systematic, deliberate way”. Holec identifies two quite distinct objectives for foreign language teaching, to help learners to achieve their linguistic and communicative goals and to become autonomous in their learning. He notes: “This raises the problem of how far the methods adopted to achieve the first objective and to achieve the second objective are compatible” (idem: 23). According to this view, the learner’s control of the learning process remains external to his or her developing proficiency in the target language; in other words, Holec’s concept of learner autonomy does not include a theory of language learning. Its key features can be associated with two fundamental principles: learner involvement (taking charge, accepting responsibility, investing effort, etc.) and learner reflection (planning, monitoring, evaluating; engaging metacognitively with the learning process and the target language). Autonomous language learning takes place when these two principles shape the use of language learning materials and the learning procedures and activities embedded in them.

5It is worth briefly considering the resources that were available for self-access language learning in 1979. At the centre were the audio-lingual courses (books and tapes) designed for use in the language laboratory. As I have already noted, most of them were aimed at beginners or intermediate learners; they often made use of four-phase structure drills that learners were expected to repeat ad nauseam. It was also possible to buy, but also to create in-house, supplementary audio exercises, e.g. to practise pronunciation and intonation. In the early days of affordable video the language centre at the University of Cambridge developed an ingenious device for pronunciation practice. The learner sat facing a nine-inch monitor that played a close-up video recording of a phonetician articulating the sounds of English. Beside the monitor was a nine-inch mirror, the idea being that the learner should pronounce the sounds with the phonetician and compare his or her articulation with that of the professional. In principle it was also possible to provide students with supplementary input materials in video, audio and print so that they could practise viewing, listening and reading; in practice, however, video and audio materials were difficult to come by. The development of self-access resources created a need for cataloguers and librarians, though in many language centres this role had to be taken on by secretaries.

6The concept of learner autonomy may have seemed tailor-made for university language centres. But on the whole university students didn’t rush to make use of self-access facilities and resources; and when they did it usually turned out that they were not well equipped to be autonomous learners as defined by Holec. A widely adopted solution to this problem was to offer students an advising or counselling service, and pioneering work was done in this area by the CRAPEL, Université de Nancy 2, of which Holec was director. This gave rise to a new pedagogical role, that of advisor or counsellor.

But how are languages learnt and how should we teach them?

7In 1979 I was appointed director of the newly established Centre for Language and Communication Studies (CLCS) at Trinity College Dublin. Unlike the majority of university language centres, CLCS had three roles. Besides providing self-access language learning facilities and resources for all members of the university, it was also required to teach postgraduate and undergraduate courses in theoretical and applied linguistics, phonetics and speech science, and to engage in research in these disciplines. I myself was working at the pedagogical end of applied linguistics, and I was acutely aware that our self-access centre faced the challenges I have just described. I had previously been a member of the College’s department of German, with traditional responsibilities to teach language, literature and the history of language. Many years previously my own deeply unsatisfactory experience of studying German and French at university had led me to abandon translation as the principal language learning activity in my classes and to experiment with a variety of alternatives. But as I attempted to establish self-access language learning facilities and persuade students to use them autonomously, I was uncomfortably aware that I had no very clear idea of how languages were learnt.

8At my grammar school and at university I had been taught according to what I shall call Belief 1. This assumed that the development of L2 proficiency was a matter of learning grammatical rules and vocabulary. Grammatical rules were necessarily taught in the learners’ L1 (how else could they possibly understand them?), and vocabulary was thought to be best learnt on the basis of equivalence between L1 and L2. The L1 of teachers and learners was the obvious medium of classroom communication, so spontaneous L2 use was not part of what happened in the classroom. Learners taught according to Belief 1 were expected gradually to acquire the knowledge necessary to be able to use the L2 for purposes of communication. In practice this meant that what they learnt at school or university was destined to lie dormant until they found themselves among native speakers of the target language and were challenged to put their mental toolkit to practical use.

9At university some of my fellow students were taking the Postgraduate Certificate in Education in order to become school teachers. Their course included a term of teaching practice, from which some of them returned with stories of language laboratories and an entirely new teaching method. This was Belief 2: audiolingualism, based on Skinner’s behaviourist psychology, according to which L2 learning is a matter of acquiring verbal habits (L2 structures and their transformations) via drill and practice. According to Skinnerian orthodoxy, efficient habit formation does not require introspection and analysis, so there is no need for the explicit treatment of linguistic form; and because efficient habit formation is impeded by use of the learner’s L1, new meanings must be conveyed visually rather than via translation. According to Belief 2, after repeating lots of drills many times over, learners were expected to be able to use the L2 for communicative purposes. Again spontaneous L2 use was not usually part of what happened in the classroom.

10In my early years as a university teacher, Beliefs 1 and 2 were challenged by Belief 3, the communicative approach. In its cruder versions, Belief 3 claimed that L2 learning is a matter of mastering functions and notions, which were presented in dialogues and practised as role plays. The “communicative turn” had come about chiefly in response to the disappointing fact that very few language learners at school achieved the ability to communicate orally in their target language(s). It was thus not surprising that Belief 3 often gave the impression that listening and speaking were more important than reading and writing. Most communicative textbooks assumed that it was appropriate for learners to use someone else’s words when speaking the target language in the classroom. “Weak” versions of Belief 3 continued to devote time to the explicit treatment of linguistic form, usually in the learners’ L1, or the language of schooling. “Strong” versions, on the other hand, recalled the Reform Movement of the late nineteenth century in their belief that communication in the target language should be sufficient to secure the successful development of proficiency. The extent to which spontaneous use of the target language was part of what happened in the classroom depended on the position occupied by the teacher on the continuum from “weak” to “strong”.

11By the time I assumed responsibility for my university’s self-access language learning provision, I had rejected Belief 1 and was profoundly sceptical of Belief 2, not least because drill and practice was so mind-numbingly boring. I was convinced that use of the target language must play a central role in successful learning, but was unsure where I stood between “weak” and “strong” versions of Belief 3. And then, around the middle of the 1980s, I encountered Belief 4, which may be summarized as follows. Teachers can tell learners many things about language, but they cannot tell them language itself. The most effective L2 learning arises from learners’ sustained attempts to use the target language for their own communicative purposes; in other words, success in L2 learning depends crucially on authentic and spontaneous L2 use. What is more, L2 learning is optimal when learners are fully involved, have access to a wide range of discourse roles, initiating as well as responding, and are encouraged to think about what they are doing. In other words, L2 learning is optimal when learners are autonomous. (I would now argue that when learners taught according to Beliefs 1-3 become proficient in their target language, they do so because they have exercised autonomy regardless of method and teacher.)

12Belief 4 did not present itself to me fully formed. I first encountered the essentials in 1985, when Leni Dam, a teacher of English in a Danish middle school, gave a seminar for a language teaching project of which I was chairman. Her description of her classroom, liberally illustrated with learners’ logbooks, posters and video recordings of learners at work, was easily the most convincing I had ever been confronted with (for a summary of her approach, see Dam 1995). All of my subsequent work on learner autonomy as theoretical construct and pedagogical goal (e.g. Little 1991, 2001, 2007, 2009) has arisen from a continuing effort to understand the processes that produced such startlingly successful learning outcomes and to implement them in the various language learning contexts for which I have been responsible.

13Superficially the view of learner autonomy that emerged from sustained exploration of Dam’s classroom practice has much in common with the view expounded by Holec. Within the framework of the official curriculum, learners set their own goals, choose their own learning activities and materials, monitor the learning process, and evaluate learning outcomes. But it differs from Holec’s view in three essential features. First, learners are required to manage their own learning not because they are learning without a teacher, but because we believe that self-management will produce the most effective outcomes. This belief is encouraged by the constructivist argument that all learning is a matter of accommodating new knowledge to what is already known: only you can know − implicitly as well as explicitly − what you know, and only I can know what I know. And it is encouraged by the finding of social-psychological research that self-motivation depends on satisfying one’s need for autonomy (“feeling free and volitional in one’s actions”; Deci & Flaste 1996: 2).

14Secondly, we see learning not only in individual and cognitive terms, but also as a social phenomenon grounded in interaction and collaboration; we believe, in other words, that L2 proficiency is collaboratively constructed. Learners have an individual responsibility to set individual learning goals, but the products of individual effort are always added to the learning resources of the class as a whole, and individual learning is pursued within the interactive framework of pair and group work. This part of Belief 4 draws support from a variety of sources, including the writings of Vygotsky (1978, 1986), pedagogical theory that insists on the dialogic nature of classroom communication (e.g., Barnes 1976; Alexander 2008; Mercer & Littleton 2007; Wells 2009), and Lave & Wenger’s (1991) theory of “situated learning”.

15Thirdly, from the beginning the target language is the principal medium of all classroom communication: discussing and agreeing on goals; selecting and carrying out learning activities; evaluating learning outcomes. In other words, from the beginning the target language in its metacognitive as well as its communicative function is the channel through which the learners’ agency is required to flow. Thus according to Belief 4 the development of learners’ capacity to manage their own learning is integral to the development of their L2 proficiency; effective learning depends on target language use that is spontaneous and authentic, communicative, metacognitive and self-regulatory.

16It is worth pointing out that this view of language learner autonomy, which assigns a central role to agentive use of the target language, is licensed by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR; Council of Europe 2001). The CEFR adopts an action-oriented approach to the description of language use, of which language learning is a part. It summarizes the approach as follows:

Language use, embracing language learning, comprises the actions performed by persons who as individuals and as social agents develop a range of competences, both general and in particular communicative language competences. They draw on the competences at their disposal in various contexts under various conditions and under various constraints to engage in language activities involving language processes to produce and/or receive texts in relation to themes in specific domains, activating those strategies which seem most appropriate for carrying out the tasks to be accomplished. The monitoring of these actions by the participants leads to the reinforcement or modification of their competences. (Council of Europe 2001: 9)

17These three sentences claim that L2 proficiency develops from sustained interaction between the learner’s existing competences and the communicative tasks whose performance requires him or her to use the target language. But note the last sentence and the role it assigns to “monitoring”. Like Belief 4, the CEFR proposes that language learning depends on language use that is metacognitive as well as communicative. The CEFR does not elaborate further, but Belief 4 does: channelled through the target language, the learner’s agency plays an essential role in terms of (i) involvement – accepting responsibility, taking charge, investing effort, etc.; (ii) reflection – planning, monitoring, evaluating; (iii) interaction – learning as a collaborative process in which learners support one another; and (iv) motivation – intrinsic motivation is strengthened by being in control.

How my own practice contributed to the development of this understanding of autonomy in language learning

18As I have explained, Belief 4 took shape and assumed theoretical substance over many years; as it did so it influenced but also drew on various language learning projects for which I was responsible. I had not yet encountered Belief 4 when our School of Engineering asked us to provide a two-year self-instructional course in German for those of its students who wished, as an optional extra, to learn a new language or revive what they had learnt at school. We agreed to do so, using the BBC German Kit (Sprankling 1979) and supplementing it with authentic texts relevant to engineering drawn from popular science magazines. Based on materials drawn from the BBC’s television and radio German course Kontakte, the BBC German Kit comprised a bilingual course book (English and German), a reader (containing informational texts that learners could use for reading practice, in German only), and audio cassettes (listening material and drills). Although Kontakte had impeccable communicative credentials, the Kit was primarily designed for use by individual learners working in the privacy of their own home. In other words, it coincided with the view of learner autonomy as an essentially individual, cognitive and organizational phenomenon. We attempted to compensate for this in two ways. An advisor was available to students at fixed times each week, which gave them a regular opportunity to ask questions about things they didn’t understand in the Kit, discuss learning strategies and problems, and practise their spoken German. The advisor also recruited a number of native speakers of German (visiting students) to meet with our engineering students once or twice a term to discuss themes that arose in the Kit and the supplementary materials. When the course was launched, at the beginning of the academic year 1982-1983, 63 students expressed an interest and most of them came to our self-access centre at least once. By early 1983 the number of participants had dropped to 36 and by the end of the academic year to 18. Numbers dropped again, to 15, at the beginning of the second year, and by the summer of 1984 just 9 students were still attending regularly (Little & Grant 1986). They all passed the end-of-course exam, and one of them, a beginner, went on to study in Germany.

19Shortly after our self-instructional German experiment I had my first encounter with Belief 4. Although we were pleased with the learning outcomes achieved by those engineering students who stayed with us to the end, reflection on Dam’s classroom practice could only highlight the limitations of self-instructional language learning of the kind we had provided, notwithstanding the efforts of the advisor and our students’ meetings with native speakers of German. Inevitably, my thinking had moved on significantly by 1993, when I was asked to design and implement extra-curricular foreign language modules for freshman students. To begin with we offered modules in French for non-beginners (almost all students entering university in Ireland have a school-leaving qualification in French) and in German for non-beginners and beginners. Up to 40 students were admitted to each class, where they worked in groups of 4 or 5. The modules lasted for one academic year (three terms, 22 weeks), and were built on 4-week project cycles that owed much to the example of Dam (1995). Groups selected their own project themes and at the end of each cycle presented their projects to the rest of the class, who scored them using the same rating grids as the teachers. Native-speaker assistants (again visiting students) were recruited to support target language use (communicative but also metacognitive) during project preparation. Working individually or in small groups, students were encouraged to use our self-access facilities, which now included a computer network with Internet access. In this way they could quickly source authentic materials to inform their projects. Students were required to submit written materials that showed the development of their project and the role they had played in it. In due course the version of the European Language Portfolio that we developed for CercleS was introduced as a tool for managing learning, and our assessment procedures were expanded to include self-assessment based on the ELP’s checklists. By the late 1990s the success of our language modules encouraged us to write a short guide to the design, implementation and evaluation of institution-wide language programmes from the perspective of Belief 4 (Little & Ushioda 1998).

  • 3 Muti-User Domain Object Oriented.

20The Internet gave students taking our language modules access to a wealth of materials in French and German; e-mail made it possible for them to engage directly with native speakers. In 1995 we joined the International E-mail Tandem Network, co-ordinated by Helmut Brammerts at Ruhr-Universität Bochum and funded under the European Union’s Lingua programme. Early experiments suggested that nothing much would come of tandem partnerships if students were left to their own devices; in order to succeed they needed organizational support. So we embedded tandem learning in our language modules, which we twinned with similar courses in French and German universities, so that tandem partnerships were able to contribute to the development of group projects on either side. In due course tandem learning via e-mail was complemented by tandem learning in the MOO3, a virtual environment in which students could engage in text-based communication with their tandem partners in real time. These developments provided us with new research opportunities that were directly linked to the further development of Belief 4 (e.g., Little & Brammerts 1996; Little et al. 1999; Little 2003; Appel 2004; O’Rourke & Schwienhorst 2003; Schwienhorst 2004). The focus on written communication, whether asynchronous or synchronous, was likely to encourage and facilitate a focus on linguistic form. In particular, we found that the requirement to provide one’s tandem partner with feedback on his or her use of one’s mother tongue stimulated reflection on both mother tongue and target language and helped to ensure that the social and metacognitive dimensions of learner autonomy interacted in a mutually reinforcing way.

The rush to the present

21During the fifteen years or so that separated our experimental self-instructional German course for students of Engineering Science from our involvement in the International E-mail Tandem Network, the technology available to support self-access language learning underwent a major shift. In the early 1980s we still depended crucially on the language laboratory, which used a specially developed industrial version of a technology originally designed for the consumer market, the universal audio cassette. This in itself marked an important change: originally language laboratories were built on technology that was not often found in private households. At the same time, in the early 1980s video materials were still difficult to come by. Fifteen years later the analogue technology of the language laboratory had been superseded by the digital technology of the computer network, satellite television had arrived, and – especially important for language learning – the Internet made it possible for language learners to communicate directly with speakers of their target language.

22We were still digesting the implications of our experiments in tandem language learning via e-mail and in the MOO, when electronic communication began to go through another series of rapid developments, and in some cases transformations. Laptops became increasingly portable, the first smartphones began to appear, and in due course tablets were upon us. In ways that most of us still struggle to comprehend, this latest revolution in electronic communication has changed the norms of social interaction and impacted on the way we use language. We no longer have to embed ICT-supported language learning in real-time, face-to-face interaction in order to ensure that our learners engage in spontaneous target language use; and the provision of self-access language learning is no longer dependent on the self-access centre as a physical location equipped with technology and a library of resources.

23The ease and portability of Internet-based communication has created new opportunities for language learning, especially informal learning that takes place as a by-product of some other activity. Sockett and Toffoli (2012) provide an illuminating account of the informal learning of English by French adults participating in virtual communities, convincingly associating the emergent nature of informal language learning with dynamic systems theory (Van Geert 2008; Larsen-Freeman & Cameron 2008). What they describe seems to be an informal version of the kind of language learning that Belief 4 aims at. Their French adults learn English by using it receptively, interactively and productively to participate in Internet communication that is driven by their interest. The effort they invest in this learning presupposes reflective control, and it seems reasonable to assume that their interest and engagement are reinforced by the sense that their efforts are being rewarded. A key feature of Belief 4 is that language learning is likely to be optimal when learners’ agency is channelled through the target language: that seems to be exactly what is happening in the case of Sockett and Toffoli’s French learners of English.

24It thus comes as a surprise when Sockett and Toffoli suggest that “the learner autonomy model is no longer pertinent to the learning of English in France today, since language use and implicit learning are already taking place through everyday communicative activities in virtual communities” (2012: 140). It becomes clear, however, that for them the concept of learner autonomy is synonymous with the traditional self-access centre: “the learner autonomy paradigm sees the need for learning resources to be made available in the context of a resource centre” (idem: 149). But as I have attempted to show in this article, the concept of learner autonomy, at least as I understand it, entails a great deal more than a historically outmoded approach to self-access language learning.


25Individual, cognitive and organizational in orientation, the version of learner autonomy introduced by Holec in 1979 was a good match for the technology available to support self-access language learning at that time. Its operationalization entailed the development of self-management skills that were seen as separate, or at least separable, from proficiency in the target language. By contrast, my own conception of learner autonomy, developed under the impact of successful classroom practice, is individual and collaborative, cognitive and affective, organizational and communicative. Its operationalization is essentially a matter of helping learners to exercise agency − communicative, metacognitive, self-regulatory − through the target language. This version of learner autonomy challenges those responsible for developing the foreign language skills of university students to discover convincing and effective ways of exploiting the dialogic, creative, autonomy-enhancing potential of electronic communication to the advantage of formal and academic language teaching and learning.

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1 This article is based on the keynote talk that I gave at the XXe Congrès de RANACLES, Université de Reims, 29 November–1 December 2012.

2 Elsewhere Holec argues that self-directed learning can be carried out in groups (e.g. Holec 1979: 51), but I am not aware that his conception of learner autonomy ever explicitly included the dialogic dimension that is central to my own understanding (see below).

3 Muti-User Domain Object Oriented.

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David Little, « University language centres, self-access learning and learner autonomy », Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité, Vol. XXXIV N° 1 | 2015, 13-26.

Référence électronique

David Little, « University language centres, self-access learning and learner autonomy », Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité [En ligne], Vol. XXXIV N° 1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 23 janvier 2015, consulté le 28 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/apliut.5008

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David Little

David Little retired in 2008 as Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and Head of the School of Linguistic, Speech and Communication Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. His principal research interests, on which he has published extensively, are the theory and practice of learner autonomy in second language education, the exploitation of linguistic diversity in schools and classrooms, and the use of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages to support the design of second language curricula, teaching and assessment. He played a leading role in the development and implementation of the European Language Portfolio, and he remains a member of several Council of Europe expert groups. David Little was president of CercleS from 1995 to 2000.

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Droits d’auteur

Association des Professeurs de Langues des Instituts Universitaires de Technologie

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