PULLMAN, Wash. — Even before she arrived at Washington State University last summer, Sonja Hokanson was full of ideas on how to improve the way students can learn foreign languages.
“Language learning is already one of the most difficult things a human can do,” she says. “We especially need to facilitate it in the beginning.”
The assistant professor of Spanish and head of pedagogy came to WSU after three years at Whitworth College, where she was chair of the Department of Modern Languages.
At WSU, she is applying new concepts she developed while working on her doctoral dissertation, “Individual Cognitive Styles and Acquisition of Spanish as a Foreign Language,” at the University of New Mexico.
Traditionally, language teachers have tried to prepare students to communicate in a new language by teaching from textbooks and by translating the meaning of words in English, she says.
Her research indicates that students acquire a second language better when the instructor combines teaching methods appropriate to the preferences of the individual students.
“It has been assumed that, with many students grouped randomly in classes scheduled by computer, it would be logistically impossible to individualize instruction …” Hokanson says.
However, allowing students to choose among sound teaching activities approaches the kind of individualization sought, she says. For example, students who can choose among several parts to play in a drama, or who can write their own parts, will seldom select roles that would be difficult for them to perform. This is simply a way to get students to follow their own individual learning styles or to deliberately experiment with new styles — all the while keeping the classroom focus on the exchange of new information.
The WSU professor contends students learn another language better by communicating through that new language. In a Spanish class, for instance, this means speaking only Spanish, and explaining the meanings of Spanish words in Spanish.
“The idea is we are not translating back and forth,” she says. “Instead, classrooms are used for conversations in the target language.”
In a perfect situation, a person fluent in both English and Spanish would sit next to the student in the classroom. If the student is stumped on a word, the counselor would whisper the word in the student’s ear. Then the student would continue the conversation, incorporating the new word. Hokanson admits individualizing instruction to that extent is logistically impossible. However, a variety of interactive, multi-media games and learning activities are now available in computer format so students can satisfy their preferences in a number of ways outside the classroom or in a multi-media language laboratory.
According to Hokanson, most of the major publishers now tout their website activities, “e-mail pal” lists, and CD-Rom materials. The compact disks usually include grammar tutors which students can work through or use as look-up tables when they don’t understand a word or phrase — a cyber-substitute for the counselor at the side.
Working with a computerized scene of a foreign language situation, a student can point and click to get the word they need. They can even hear the word pronounced for them by a native speaker.
Hokanson is working with publishers to bring many of these new resources to WSU.
In the meantime, a number of “low-tech” alternatives are becoming more attractive and less expensive. For instance, audio tapes are including stories and dialogues that “actually have a plot,” she says. “That is quite a contrast from the ‘listen and repeat’ mode of audiotapes prior to 1994.”
Catering to the different learning styles of students, she says, enhances a student’s ability to acquire a language. It may be learning grammar first (trying to analyze the structure of the language before using it), or learning to mimic a few phrases first (speaking it before analyzing it).
“Either way, it is the communicative use that motivates the learning of a language,” she says.
While conducting her doctoral research, she was able to document the impact of tailoring instruction to the individual student’s preferences.
In her study, she said four classes of students whose preferences were accommodated by the instruction learned Spanish faster than did the four classes taught with the usual mix of teaching methods, “regardless of which teacher the students had.”
And she adds, when she taught students via communication in the language, “they learned more for the amount of classroom time.”

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