Methodology: community language learning
An explanation and advice on how to use the Community Language Learning method.
Community Language Learning (CLL) is one of the ‘designer’ methods of language acquisition that arose in the 1970’s (along with The Silent Way, Suggestopoedia and TPR) and forms part of the Humanistic Approach to language learning. The key features of these methodologies is that they flout orthodox language teaching, they have a guru (regarded by devotees of the method with something approaching religious awe), and they all developed from outside language teaching. Additionally they are all rigidly-prescriptive and emphasise the learners’ responsibility for their own learning.
The founder figure of CLL was Charles Curran, an American Jesuit priest, whose work in Counselling Learning (a general learning approach based on Rogerian counselling ideas and practices) was applied to language learning.
The key idea is that the students determine what is to be learned, so the teacher is a facilitator and provides support. In the basic form of CLL, a maximum of 12 students sit in a circle. There is a small portable tape recorder inside the circle. The teacher (who is termed the ‘Knower’ ) stands outside the circle. When a student has decided they want to say something in the foreign language, they call the Knower over and whisper what they want to say, in their mother tongue. The teacher, also in a whisper, then offers the equivalent utterance in English (or the target language). The student attempts to repeat the utterance, with encouragement from the Knower, with the rest of the group eavesdropping. When the Knower is satisfied, the utterance is recorded by the student. Another student then repeats the process until there is a kind of dialogue recorded. The Knower then replays the recording, and transcribes it on the board. This is followed by analysis, and questions from students. In a subsequent session, the Knower may suggest activities springing from the dialogue. Gradually, the students spin a web of language.
Space does not permit me to describe in detail the psychological system on which CLL is based, but essentially, the learner is supposed to move from a stage of total dependence on the Knower at the beginning to a stage of independent autonomy at the end, passing through 5 developmental stages along the way. It is the Knower’s job to provide the supportive and secure environment for learners, and to encourage a whole-person approach to the learning.
There are clearly some major problems with CLL. It can only be done with small numbers of students. The students have to share a single mother tongue. The teacher (Knower) has to be highly proficient in the target language and in the language of the students. The teacher also has to have enormous reserves of energy – both physical and psychic. (I have used CLL to teach French and Italian in the beginner stages, and I can assure you I was exhausted after each session!). Arguably, too, it is unwise to undertake CLL as a teacher without some counselling training.
It has also been pointed out that this is a methodology exclusively suitable for adult learners, not for children. Also, most descriptions of it in action focus on the early stages of learning the new language. What do teachers do after that? As for many methods, it gets more difficult to distinguish between one method and another the more advanced the learner becomes.
Perhaps the enduring value of CLL has been its emphasis on whole-person learning; the role of a supportive, non-judgmental teacher; the passing of responsibility for learning to the learners (where it belongs); and the abolition of a pre-planned syllabus.
If you want to read more about CLL, the most easily-accessible reference is:
- Jack C.Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers. ( 2001), Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. (2nd edition) Cambridge University Press. pp 90-99.
(This book has an excellent bibliography should you wish to read further.)
- Earl W. Stevick (1976) Memory, Meaning and Method: some psychological perspectives on Language Learning. Newbury House.
- Earl W. Stevick (1980) Teaching Languages: a Way and Ways. Newbury House.