Interpersonally Mediated: Metacognition at Work

Interpersonally Mediated: Metacognition at Work

By: Harumi Kimura

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what your students think about their language learning and develop their own ideas about it? In fact, human beings can think about their own thinking, a function which is termed metacognition (Flavell, 1979). This is the ability to consciously and unconsciously monitor and control our cognition and cognitive processes. Metacognitive knowledge, or beliefs, fosters higher order reasoning and problem-solving skills; thus, it helps us abandon unhelpful ideas and activate useful and effective strategies to achieve goals. In SLA, Kalaja et al. (2018) defined beliefs about SLA as “the conceptions, ideas and opinions learners have about L2 learning and teaching and language itself (p. 222).” These beliefs play an important role in L2 learning, and healthy beliefs can promote L2 learning by pushing learners into effective learning behaviors (Wenden, 1999). However, beliefs can be wrong, unfortunately, pushing learners away from effective learning behaviors.

When I conducted research on L2 pronunciation anxiety among Japanese university learners (Kimura, 2021), I found, by chance, that some unproductive beliefs about L2 learning troubled learners and induced negative emotions, including anxiety. In fact, sources of anxiety varied, but I was dismayed to know that some learners experienced anxiety because of the way they were taught English pronunciation in the class called “English Phonology,” which was a combination of theory and practice. Surprisingly the class focused almost solely on accuracy in pronouncing segmentals: individual sounds. I found out that some of the students were distressed by their ingrained beliefs that (a) their English pronunciation should be as good as that of native speakers to be a skillful user of the language and that (b) mastering pronunciation entails, first and foremost, learning individual sounds. Although these ideas have been shown to be invalid and unproductive by empirical research (See Derwing & Munro, 2015 for a summary), these conceptions, or beliefs, apparently run deep in students’ minds. They basically think that being good at a foreign language means sounding like a native speaker, which we know, is an almost impossible goal, at least for most of us.

It is not constructive to use native-speaker proficiency as the one-and-only yardstick to measure L2 learning success (See e.g., Ortega, 2019) and L2 learners need to learn both individual sounds (segmentals) and prosody (suprasegmentals; the rhythmic and intonational aspects of language) to attain comprehensible speech (See e.g., Pickering, 2018). The students should unlearn what they wrongly consider to be true. They need to get rid of unproductive beliefs about L2 learning and develop healthy thinking habits.

I teach a seminar course named “Applied Linguistics Seminar.” Thirteen students who wanted to become English teachers and/or to learn how to improve their English skills took the course in 2020. To make small but significant changes in students’ beliefs about L2 pronunciation, I used Pronunciation Myths by Linda Grant (2014) as a course book. The chapters list seven common myths about learning/teaching L2 pronunciation and refute them, referring to research findings. Among the seven, Myth 6 is related to one of the unproductive beliefs (a) and Myth 3 is associated with another belief (b).

Myth 6: Accent reduction and pronunciation instruction are the same thing.

As past research shows (See Derwing & Munro, 2015, for a summary), accentedness (how different the speech is from standard varieties), intelligibility (how much listeners understand), and comprehensibility (how easy the speech is to listen to and understand) are different concepts, which are concerned with distinct aspects of L2 pronunciation skills. Accentedness refers to the extent to which listeners judge L2 speech that differs from the L1 norm. Intelligibility concerns the extent to which listeners catch the speech word by word. Comprehensibility involves not only pronunciation per se but also appropriate choices of words and grammatical patterns (Saito et al., 2016). Accentedness and comprehensibility are measured by listeners’ perception, or their subjective judgement, while intelligibility is usually measured by transcribing speech and counting the number of words listeners caught in the stream of speech. Among the three, what most L2 listeners should aim at is comprehensibility, since if listeners find the speech difficult to listen to, it is less likely they will continue interacting with the L2 speaker(s) and communicative goals cannot be achieved. Accented speech can be fully comprehensible since accent is only partly connected to comprehensibility and intelligibility.

Myth 3: Pronunciation teaching has to establish in the minds of language learners a set of distinct consonant and vowel sounds.

This is a myth because both individual sounds and prosody contribute to understanding and producing comprehensible speech. Researchers do not seem to agree which is the more significant, but it is probably enough for practicing teachers to know that (a) both are of importance and (b) both can be taught (Derwing & Munro, 2015). It is just that, historically, pronunciation teaching has focused on mechanical drills of individual sounds; thus, more time and effort should also be allocated to exercises to practice prosodic features such as sentence stress and intonation (Gilbert, 2012; Grant, 2017). Moreover, teaching prosody cannot happen without appropriate contextual and interpersonal information. Thus, it matches the goal of teaching languages for communication (Pickering, 2018).

Class Activities and Assignments

In my class, students made small groups to examine the empirical evidence referred to in Grant’s (2014) book to refute the myths. They also reflected on their learning experiences, attitudes, and behaviors in relation to each myth. In discussion, they verbalized their thinking in order to share their ideas among group members. I used a cooperative leaning technique, named “Traveling Head Together” (Kagan, 1994). Cooperative learning techniques are procedures that structure group work step-by-step to ensure members’ individual accountability and equal participation to maximize learning outcomes through peer scaffolding. The procedure used in the class was as follows:

Stage 1: Students make groups of, for example, four. Each member is assigned a number like 1, 2, 3, or 4.

Stage 2: Each group has a discussion, putting their heads together to find an answer to a question. This is where the name comes from.

Stage 3: The teacher calls out two numbers, for example, Students 1 and 2. Student 1 moves to one group and shares what they have discussed and Student 2 goes to another group to do the same. For the group, Student 1 from one group and Student 2 from another join Students 3 and 4 who stay in their home group.

Stage 4: Next, Students 1 and 2 go back to their home group. Student 3, who stayed in her home group, explains to them what they heard from the Student 1 from another group. Student 4 explains what they heard from Student 2.

Stage 5: The groups have another discussion, informed by the reasoning and views of the other groups.

We followed this procedure twice. In the first round, students shared their understanding of the text content. In the second, they reflected critically on their own thinking and learning behaviors in relation to each myth.

Generally speaking, students’ metacognitive knowledge about L2 learning and teaching have been cultivated in their cultural and social situations and also shaped by their past experiences; thus, they are both socially and personally constructed (Kalaja et al., 2018). However, oftentimes, students are not entirely conscious of them. Small group sessions gave them opportunities to put their thinking into words and evaluate whether their beliefs were consistent with what research had demonstrated or not. Students kept a reading log during the semester. I hoped that keeping a log would help them to monitor their thinking. At the end of the course, students wrote an essay based on their log entries. The title was “My Pronunciation Learning/Teaching Goals, Updated.”

Was the course effective in adjusting their beliefs? The answer seemed to be yes, but it came with two caveats. First, although Myths 6 (accentedness vs. comprehensibility) and 3 (segmentals vs. suprasegmentals) were mentioned by quite a few students and any text analysis of their writing would demonstrate they were popular themes, they were, by far, not the most popular myth. Another seemed even more important to them, and revealed quite a bit about their metacognition. It was Myth 1.

Myth 1: Once you have been speaking a second language for years, it’s too late to change your pronunciation.

There has been a rather widespread misunderstanding that older L2 learners, usually beyond the so-called critical or sensitive period, cannot benefit from pronunciation practice and/or instruction since their speech pattens are fossilized and further improvement is unlikely to happen. However, research has demonstrated, for example, that it was possible for adult immigrants to Canada to make positive changes to their speech so that their listeners could understand it more easily (Derwing et al., 1997).[1] Furthermore, focused instruction which prioritizes troublesome areas such as /l/ & /ɹ/ for Japanese learners of English2 has been shown to be beneficial for improving production in spontaneous speech (Saito & Lyster, 2012)[2].

After reading students’ essays, I realized that the most important message among those debunking the seven myths., thereby changing their beliefs, was the idea that their ability is not fixed and that they always have potential to improve their skills, including L2 pronunciation. Thus, so-called fossilization is a myth, not the truth. This idea is important for their learning. When they adopt a growth mindset (Dweck, 2017), they can persevere.

[1] The participants in Derwing et al.’s (1997) study were 13 adult immigrants to Canada: 5 Mandarin speakers, 2 Vietnamese, 2 Cantonese, 1 Farsi, 1 French, 1 Spanish, and 1 Ukrainian. The average length of time they had lived in English-speaking Canada was ten years, with a range from two to 20 years. There was no information about their ages in the article.

[2] The participants Saito and Lyster’s (2012) study were 65 Japanese learners of English (age: M = 29.7, SD = 6.9).

“…learn from each other and with each other”
Harumi Kimura
TT Author

The second thing I understood from the students’ essays was that it was likely that, through the group discussions, they successfully discarded unproductive ideas about learning L2 pronunciation. I think if they had just read the book chapters individually, without discussion, they might not have understood the text well enough to nurture evidence-based beliefs. Quite a few students wrote about the value of co-constructing understanding among group members through critical examination of the myths, the research findings, their own thinking, and others’ thinking. This is similar to a case with math learning through collaborative engagement (Goos et al., 2002). The researchers demonstrated that metacognitive knowledge about math was, at least partly, interpersonally mediated. Humans are social beings and they learn from each other and with each other. In fact, learning is a reciprocal process of exploring each other’s views and reasoning. One student wrote: “Talking with other group members, I thought, ‘Isn’t it stupid to think that way?’” Although thinking about our own thinking is an inside-the-head issue, metacognition can be collaborative too. Were they able to think outside the box (their own heads)? I believe so.

We sometimes have distorted ideas, like L2 learning myths, which can stop us from reaping the benefits of hard work. However, learners have the potential to fix wrong beliefs and nurture productive ones. Beliefs are not fixed, but fluid or dynamic (Kalaja et al., 2018), and multidimensional as well. Flavell (1979) classified metacognitive knowledge into three dimensions; person knowledge, task knowledge, and strategy knowledge. The mindset that learners can work their way into higher proficiency, as in L2 pronunciation, if they work hard is part of person knowledge in Flavell’s terms. The comprehensibility principle and contribution of both individual sounds and rhythm to better speech belong to task knowledge. Empowered by both person knowledge and task knowledge, learners will be able to develop and activate appropriate strategy knowledge as well.

That is why knowing about our students’ language learning beliefs, their metacognition, is so important for us teachers. It gives us a better picture of things we might teach, and how. Let us not underestimate the power of beliefs. I hope my students will continually evolve as L2 learners through monitoring, and when necessary, revising their beliefs about SLA, sometimes by themselves and at other times working with others.


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Harumi Kimura (EdD.) is a professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University. She studied L2 listening anxiety in her doctoral study, and her academic interests include second language acquisition, learner development, learner psychology, multilingualism, and cooperative learning. She thinks that her mission is “to make learning another language less intimidating and a bit more rewarding, plus fun.”

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