Definitions page

This bank of definitions aims to describe terms as they are most often used when talking about language learning and teaching. I want to avoid technical definitions and so I focus on common usage, making generalisations from time to time, if necessary.

Linguistic terms are often misappropriated and so may differ from what you read elsewhere, but at the very least these definitions are relevant to the usage within the articles on this site. I'll be adding to this over time, but feel free to let me know if there's anything you'd like clarity on!

Accent
In contrast to pronunciation (which suggests accuracy), accent refers to the identity of the speaker, such as in the distinction between an American or British accent. If we're talking about foreign language learners, the question ‘Does he have a good accent in Spanish?' really means ‘To what extent does he sound like a native speaker?'

Authentic material
The concept of authentic material is important to grasp when selecting study material.

A non-authentic, or “display”, piece of material would be anything written especially to showcase certain grammar, vocabulary, or other piece of language. This would include, for example, almost everything ever written for a CD audio course, language podcast or textbook. The criticism of non-authentic materials is that, because they are not natural examples of language, they miss out many naturally-occurring features that are vital for language learning, such as ‘umms' and ‘ahhs', or natural ways of interrupting.

Authentic material, then, is best explained as anything which is produced by native speakers and intended for a native speaker audience. Examples include TV shows, radio programmes and novels.

There is a big ongoing debate as to which type of material is most valid and under what circumstances. What's important is to understand the distinction and make your own choices about what you want to use for your own learning.

Chunk

A set of words that come as a phrase, rather than existing simply as independent words. For example: How's it going?; I was wondering if…; In spite of…;. It is thought that a large proportion of what native speakers say is actually taken from a bank of ‘memorised' chunks like these. This is important for learning a language because it suggests we shouldn't learn words on their own, but as part of a set phrase.

Closed question

A question that allows a yes/no answer. For example: “Do you agree?” Closed questions are best avoided if you want to engage someone in conversation. Opposite of open questions.

Comprehensible Input

There is a theory in language acquisition that says in order to improve you need to listen or read to material that is slightly above your current level. If it's too easy, it won't challenge you. If it's too hard, it'll go over your head. Something that is pitched just right is known as comprehensible input.

Exposure

This is the language that we encounter through listening or reading. Having enough exposure to language is a key part of building proficiency.

Extensive reading

Reading to long texts for pleasure, general information etc. This is as opposed to intensive reading, which is when you focus on the detail (grammar etc.) of a small amount of text. There are lots of benefits to extensive reading, and similarly, plenty of risks involved in not reading extensively. If you always limit yourself to short texts, you never get a chance to see a large amount real language in use. By reading long texts (and focusing mainly on the message rather than the detail) you expose yourself to new language, see how writers use and manipulate grammar, and become familiar with natural ways of expressing yourself in the language (opening sentences, telling a story, explaining things and so on). Extensive reading is not the be-all-and-end-all of language learning, but it is the key to moving beyond an intermediate level and towards advanced.

Graded material

As opposed to authentic material. This is material which has been made easier, or else specially written for language learners, such as Teach Yourself type books. Graded materials have been criticised for omitting important features of language that are present in authentic materials, giving the learning a false impression of simplicity.

Input

Input is the single most important factor in learning a language. It is the language that a learner receives through either reading or listening. Evidence for the importance of input comes from the self-evident fact that people live a long time in a foreign country tend to learn more, and from studies (Krashen, S. 2004) that show that people who voluntarily read a lot significantly improve their grammar, vocabulary and writing.

Intensive reading

Reading a short amount of text (perhaps a few sentences at most) and focusing on the detail: analysing the grammar, looking up the meaning of words in the dictionary etc. Compare with extensive reading above.

Interlocutor
The person you are speaking to.

Natural language

Natural speech contains many important characteristics that are quite separate from the words themselves. Some of these are: hesitation, repetition, fillers, self-correction, connected speech, false starts. These features of language are what makes it hard to understand native speakers in the beginning. Learning about them can help us improve our listening ability.

Noticing
So simple, but so powerful. Noticing is one of the keys to language learning – it is the ability to spot how language is being used and to learn from it. You might notice something about grammar, pronunciation, spelling etc. The point is that by developing the ability to notice you can take control of your own learning by constructing your own understanding of how language works – infinitely more powerful than relying on a teacher to teach it to you!

Open question

A question that does not permit a yes/no answer. For example: “What do you think about this?” Asking open questions is a great strategy for extending conversations. Opposite of closed questions.

Production, productive skills
This is your ability to ‘produce' language, either by speaking or writing. Opposite of reception.

Pronunciation
This usually refers to how accurately you produce the component sounds of a language, and is most often used to describe how we form individual words. As in the question ‘How do you pronounce coracão?'

Reception, receptive skills
This is your ability to ‘receive' language – to understand it. You can do this by listening or reading. Opposite of production.

Scaffolding

A technique used by teachers to improve their student's understanding by gradually adding information in a way that's easy to take in. What it isn't: a long, complicated grammar explanation. What it is:  helping someone say something in a language by feeding in words one by one, building up to a complete sentence, giving plenty of opportunities to repeat, and checking understand at each stage.

Spaced Repetition System (SRS)
A system for memorisation (particularly useful for vocabulary). When studying using flashcards, SRS controls the frequency that certain cards appear and reappear. You indicate to the computer/smartphone app how well you know each card that comes up. If you know it well, the card will reappear in a few days. If you don't know it at all, it'll pop up a few minutes later. This way, you maximise your time by only studying those flashcards which you don't know well. As one proponent puts it: a technique that ensures nearly perfect recall with minimum possible investment of time via computing optimum inter-repetition intervals.

Struggle

‘Struggle' is the sensation you feel when your brain grapples with difficult or unknown language in an effort to understand it. Although frustrating, it is a sign of progress and an essential part of learning. Your brain is adapting to the language and your comfort zones expanding accordingly.

Sympathetic Listener

Most people we interact with on a daily basis are quite impatient with us, if you think about it. People expect us to say something meaningful and relevant, and if we don't, they won't be in a hurry to talk to us again. A sympathetic listener, is that rare person who will listen kindly to what you're saying and try to understand you, no matter how much rubbish you're talking. When we learn a foreign language, the first type of person represents a significant obstacle for us – we want to talk to them, but we're not much good at the language, so they're not going to have any patience with us. This can really damage confidence, even at advanced levels. Finding a sympathetic listener is the key to practising with a native speaker and thereby build confidence. Language exchanges are the best way to do this, but you can also pay people for their time (my preferred strategy), either face-to-face or using services such as iTalki. Because these people don't have to be trained teachers, it can be quite cheap.