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Autonomy in Language Learning and Teaching

New Research Agendas


Edited by Alice Chik, Naoko Aoki and Richard Smith


London: Palgrave Pivot, 2018

Hardcover. xi+116 p. ISBN 978-1137529978. £39.99


Reviewed by Claire Tardieu

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3





Alice Chik, Naoko Aoki and Richard Smith’s Autonomy in Language Learning published by Palgrave in 2018 is a rather short book (116 pages with an index) that aims to shed new light on the concept of autonomy put forward by Holec in 1981. Much has changed since, of course, and researchers including Benson (2004, 2011) and Littlewood (1999) have already revisited the concept. The authors of Autonomy in Language Learning build on these developments to provide an overview of learner autonomy in relation to recent pedagogic features such as groupwork or digital practices in multilingual, multicultural contexts. The originality of the book also lies in the fact that editors and authors come from diverse backgrounds, thus enlarging the scope of the research to include African and Asian countries: Naoko Aoki, a specialist of autonomous language learning, is a professor at the Graduate School of Letters at Osaka University where she teaches Japanese as a second language. Alice Chik is a senior lecturer in Educational Studies at Macquarie University in Australia, and Richard Smith is a reader at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. In Chapter 1, they start with Benson’s more recent definition of autonomy as “the capacity to take control of one’s own learning” (Benson, 2011 : 58) before listing a number of questions that will be addressed by the different authors throughout the book. The reader is invited to ponder issues like autonomy as a typical Western concept or the role of affordances and social practices in the development of learner autonomy.

Chapter 2, “Learner autonomy in developing countries” is written by Richard Smith, Kuchah Kuchah (Department of Education, University of Bath, UK), and Martin Lamb (School of Education, University of Leeds, UK) and points to the fact that “autonomy research has been mainly carried out with learners in well-resourced Western or East Asian settings” [8]. Their own data consists of interviews in Cameroon on what they consider to be good English Language practices. The results prove similar to data collected in Bangladesh showing a discrepancy between “state provision of English and what young people desire” (Hamid & Baldauf, 2011; Hamid, Sussex & Khan, 2009). Another finding concerns the important role of out-of-class learning in the context of provincial Indonesia. Even more interestingly, the authors put to question the Western model of language education which often gives pre-eminence to methods over educational conceptions and traditions. Indeed, this leads to a number of questions: Who owns English? Who is allowed to teach such a global language to whom and how? Furthermore, who is allowed to conduct research in language learning in developing countries? Nevertheless, the authors’ findings are worthy of attention. They explain in particular how the argument about the incompatibility of the very concept of autonomy with an African “communal aspect of learning” can be shown to be irrelevant, thus disclosing a collective dimension of learner autonomy. Teachers are engaged in “pedagogies of autonomy not for autonomy” (Kucha and Smith, 2011). Avoiding the trap mentioned supra, Smith et al. consider that the existing networks of teachers are the most legitimate to conduct research with their pupils in their specific contexts. More generally, student-centred and autonomy-oriented teacher training appears to be a necessity in developing countries. Smith et al. finally suggest that further reflection is needed on the question of whether learner autonomy is fostered deliberately or whether it is a kind of “by-product” of school language education. The same question could well be applied to Western contexts confronted with economic decline and, more often than not, with a redefinition of educational priorities detrimental to foreign language learning.

In Chapter 3 on “Language Teacher Autonomy and Social Censure”, Xuesong Gao analyses the concept of teacher autonomy in the Chinese context of increasing bureaucracy where social pressure enhances professional vulnerability. Considering that teachers are expected to contribute to the development of learner autonomy (Benson, 2010; Lamb, 2008), they are de facto obliged to challenge themselves more and more and to assume multiple roles. The pressure on teachers is all the higher since teacher autonomy and the ability to reflect on one’s own teaching have been reported to correlate with the development of learner autonomy (Lamb & Reinders, 2008). The author points to three main factors causing teacher vulnerability in contexts such as China: educational reforms with two important concepts, self-directed professional action, and self-directed professional development. Educational reforms also tend to place teachers in vulnerable positions when they are threatened by parents, or school principals. Furthermore, Chinese cultural traditions “burden them with heavy social expectations” in relation with their high social status (even though Chinese teachers are underpaid). In a previous study (2008), Gao identified that “good teachers are expected to be not only experts in their subjects but also caring figures to the students” (33). Indeed, they are traditionally expected to be “role models and mentors for students” (33). Here, Gao, emphasises the fact that “professional lives are subject to increasingly tight administrative monitoring” (35). Again, even if the contexts are different, the same sort of evolution is observable in Western countries (see: SAES, Livre blanc de la formation en études anglophones, 2018) where teachers are required to perform administrative duties such as filling in forms and writing reports in addition to their usual workload. Gao then relies on interviews with teachers in China and Hong Kong to underline the increasing marketizing of school education. He shows that this results in teaching no longer being the main activity of teachers who become otherwise occupied upgrading their professional skills and promoting their schools (Gao, 2011 : 493). He also highlights the negative impact of Internet and online social networks that enable “netizens” to post violent criticism and slandering comments on the web. To find solutions to this uncomfortable situation, Gao calls for the development of teacher educators more able to help teachers and for a powerful and respectful dialogue between all parties: language teachers, parents, and stakeholders.

Interestingly, Chapter 4 relates the topic of learner autonomy with that of group learning. Learner autonomy has historically been associated with an individual attitude to learning which could be promoted by teachers. For instance, in the nineties, Brammerts et al. defined it as a founding principle of Tandem Language Learning. Here, Palfreyman considers that autonomy is not just a matter of independence but also of responsibility and engagement. According to him, learner autonomy means that “the learner engages meaningfully with those around her / him on the basis of some personal commitment and authenticity” [54]. He adds: “From this point of view, social norms and structures, rather than being a confining frame (or needing to be ‘balanced with’ individual autonomy), can be viewed as affordances: essential elements which (may) form the basis for real cases of autonomous action and learning” [54]. Palfreyman pursues an exploration of the literature on group work starting with a reference to Tassinari’s social autonomy skills. He then quotes the UK National Qualifications Authority who defined the ability to work in a group as a “soft skill” (2012). He also very relevantly refers to the four processes undergone by the group – namely “forming”, “storming”, “norming” and “performing” (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977) to introduce the notion of “collective intelligence” (Heylighen, 1999). This seems in keeping with the seminal notion of “community of practice” coined by Wenger (1998) whose characteristics, as Palfreyman reminds us, are “engagement in particular practices, imagination of possibilities and alignment of meanings” [56]. Accordingly, Palfreyman’s theoretician framework appears to be Vygotsky’s sociocultural framework as well as Lantolf’s theory of the social mind. He also relies on Johnson, Johnson & Holubec’s seminal notion of “positive interdependence” (1998). The chapter insists on the importance of shared values, trust and friendship among peer interactants. The distinction made by Littlewood (2002) between cooperative learning – more teacher-controlled – and collaborative learning – more student-controlled – makes Palfreyman’s point even clearer. The author concludes his chapter by calling for more research on learner autonomy and group work in the wake of recent investigations by Bielaczyc and Collins (learning community, 2013) and Panadero et al. (2015) or Reichert & Hawley (2014) on the impact of class, power, and gender.

In Chapter 5, entitled “Learner Autonomy and Digital Practices”, Chik does not only aim to explore the relationship between learner autonomy and digital practices but also to consider new affordances for informal language learning. A previous project caused her to change her conception of language learning. She sought to develop her ideas and investigate from closer up the autonomous practices in which learners engage on language learning social network sites (LLSNSs). The chapter presents an overview on the benefits of out-of-class language learning (Richards, 2014; van Lier, 1988; Benson & Nunan, 2004; Murray, 2008; Richards, 2014; Benson & Reinders, 2011; Nunan & Richards, 2015). Most strikingly, Chik reports how she has gained knowledge of the matter by experiencing the real thing herself. Her initial question reads: “When learners want to learn a language, where do they start?” She then establishes a connection between the learners’ ability to select relevant learning resources and their ability to identify their own needs. She underlines the great diversity of digital practices whether they be “digital games, photo, and media sharing, or (...) digital tools” [76]. In fact, it appears that the concept of learner autonomy involving metacognitive strategies such as “planning, directing attention self-monitoring, self-evaluation…” [77] has been associated with Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) since the nineties (Barnett, 1993). Then, Chik reports about her using one LLSNSs – Duolingo – from 2013 when she took online Italian and German (and English) lessons. She explains how she completed the 300 Italian lessons (“the tree”), and how she also “learned English” as an Italian speaker (“the reverse tree”) in order to consolidate her proficiency in Italian. Duolingo is a free platform with no advertising banners gathering 200 million members (2018) and providing lessons in 23 languages. Chik then uses her learning experience to show how this type of online networking enhances learner autonomy.

She reports her findings through a 5-dimension model elaborated in a previous study (2014): location, formality, pedagogy, locus of control, and trajectory. “Location refers to the place in which a learning activity occurs and it includes both physical and learning environments” [80]. Formality has to do with “the extent to which a learning activity is part of an institutional programme…” [82]. Pedagogy deals with activities involving “instructions, structured progression of materials, explicit explanation, and assessment” [83]. Locus of control refers to “the degree to which learners direct their learning activities, or others direct the activities”. Trajectory focuses on the temporal dimension of the involvement of learners.

Finally, in Chapter 6, “Researching the Spatial Dimension of Learner Autonomy” (2018), Murray (Okayama University, Japan) offers a useful distinction between space and place, the former being the spatial location of an English Café (EC) where international and Japanese students can gather and share different activities in a friendly atmosphere, the latter place being “space to which meaning has been ascribed” (Carter, Donald & Squires (1993 : ix). Furthermore, a useful reference is made to Scollon’s “sites of engagement”, spaces where social actions repeated over time transform into social practices. Such “a network of social practices, as well as the point where these practices intersect”, is referred to by Scollon (2001) as a “nexus of practice”. Murray assumed that the EC would support autonomous language learning beyond the classroom. His research focused on the place itself as an “ecosocial system” offering the potential to foster autonomous learning” [97]. According to Murray, since places are “social constructions”, one had better use the “retrodiction” approach (Dörnyei, 2014) which means examining the practices and discourses that develop in a special space to understand how it turns into a place favourable to autonomous learning. The author thus explains how their EC gave rise to a community of practice (Wenger, 1998), a community soon endangered by the physical transformation of the space when the EC ceased to focus on the English language only to become the L-café (LC) with a wider scope of language learners and different communities of practice. Murray then refers to the notion of “linguistic landscape” put forward by Landry & Bourhis (1997 : 23), and to the fact that “people embody places” [104].  He quotes Cresswell (2004 : 37) stating that “Places are constructed by people doing things and in this sense are never ‘finished’ but are constantly performed”. In accordance with Varela’s concept of auto-poiesis (1989), feelings, emotions, movements occurring in a space as well as colour and design, seem to self-organise and create a place favourable to autonomous learning.

Chik, Aoki, and Smith’s Autonomy in Language Learning is indeed an enriching read for anyone seeking to update and diversify their understanding of the concept of autonomy in the field of language and culture learning.  


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