Learner autonomy and second/foreign language learning

Author: David Little


This article defines the autonomous learner; summarises arguments in favour of helping language learners to become autonomous; briefly considers the process of 'autonomisation' in language classrooms and self-access learning schemes; identifies some principal lines of research; and concludes by suggesting that the Council of Europe's European Language Portfolio may bring 'autonomisation' to much larger numbers of learners than hitherto and in doing so may provide an important focus for research.

Table of contents


Learner autonomy is a problematic term because it is widely confused with self-instruction. It is also a slippery concept because it is notoriously difficult to define precisely. The rapidly expanding literature has debated, for example, whether learner autonomy should be thought of as capacity or behaviour; whether it is characterised by learner responsibility or learner control; whether it is a psychological phenomenon with political implications or a political right with psychological implications; and whether the development of learner autonomy depends on a complementary teacher autonomy (for a comprehensive survey, see Benson 2001).

There is nevertheless broad agreement that autonomous learners understand the purpose of their learning programme, explicitly accept responsibility for their learning, share in the setting of learning goals, take initiatives in planning and executing learning activities, and regularly review their learning and evaluate its effectiveness (cf. Holec 1981, Little 1991). In other words, there is a consensus that the practice of learner autonomy requires insight, a positive attitude, a capacity for reflection, and a readiness to be proactive in self-management and in interaction with others. This working definition captures the challenge of learner autonomy: a holistic view of the learner that requires us to engage with the cognitive, metacognitive, affective and social dimensions of language learning and to worry about how they interact with one another.

Why learner autonomy?

There are two general arguments in favour of trying to make learners autonomous. First, if they are reflectively engaged with their learning, it is likely to be more efficient and effective, because more personal and focused, than otherwise; in particular, what is learned in educational contexts is more likely to serve learners' wider agendas. Second, if learners are proactively committed to their learning, the problem of motivation is by definition solved; although they may not always feel entirely positive about all aspects of their learning, autonomous learners have developed the reflective and attitudinal resources to overcome temporary motivational setbacks.

In the particular case of second and foreign languages there is a third argument. Effective communication depends on a complex of procedural skills that develop only through use; and if language learning depends crucially on language use, learners who enjoy a high degree of social autonomy in their learning environment should find it easier than otherwise to master the full range of discourse roles on which effective spontaneous communication depends.

Helping language learners to become autonomous

Attempts to theorise the process of 'autonomisation' (e.g., Little 1999, 2000a, 2000b) have been strongly influenced by neo-Vygotskian psychology, which sees learning as a matter of supported performance and emphasises the interdependence of the cognitive and social-interactive dimensions of the learning process. According to this model, the teacher's role is to create and maintain a learning environment in which learners can be autonomous in order to become more autonomous. The development of their learning skills is never entirely separable from the content of their learning, since learning how to learn a second or foreign language is in some important respects different from learning how to learn maths or history or biology.

Dam's (1995) account of the gradual 'autonomisation' of teenage learners of English in a Danish middle school provides a classic illustration. Her key techniques are: use of the target language as the preferred medium of teaching and learning from the very beginning; the gradual development by the learners of a repertoire of useful learning activities; and ongoing evaluation of the learning process, achieved by a combination of teacher, peer and self-assessment. Posters and learner logbooks play a central role in three ways: they help learners to capture much of the content of learning, support the development of speaking, and provide a focus for assessment.

How to support the development of learner autonomy is also a key issue for self-access language learning schemes. Where self-access learning is not embedded in a taught course, it is usually necessary to provide learners with some kind of advisory service: learner counselling is central to the self-access literature. The most successful self-access projects tend to be those that find effective and flexible ways of supporting learners; particularly worthy of note is the approach developed at the University of Helsinki (Karlsson et al. 1997).


It is sometimes assumed that the central research question to be answered is: 'Does learner autonomy work?' But this is to confuse 'autonomy', which works by definition, with attempts at 'autonomisation', which can take many different forms and may or may not succeed. Similarly misguided are attempts to measure the development of autonomy in learners as if it could be detached from the goals and content of learning.

For more than a decade Leni Dam and Lienhard Legenhausen have studied the linguistic development of Dam's learners using empirical techniques derived from second language acquisition research. They have provided a wealth of evidence to show how and why Dam's approach is more successful than mainstream teacher-led approaches (see, e.g., Dam and Legenhausen 1996, Legenhausen 1999a, 1999b, 1999c). Approaches that equate the process of 'autonomisation' with 'strategy training' have been less successful: the benefits of teaching learners strategies have still to be demonstrated.

Another important research question has been whether learner autonomy is an exclusively Western cultural construct and thus alien to learners in other cultures. There is convincing evidence to support the view that learner autonomy is a psychological phenomenon that can transcend cultural difference, though learning behaviour is always and inevitably culturally conditioned (see, e.g., Aoki and Smith 1999, Littlewood 2001).

Current developments and future trends

Despite the ever-expanding literature, learner autonomy remains a minority pursuit, perhaps because all forms of 'autonomisation' threaten the power structures of educational culture. The Council of Europe's European Language Portfolio (ELP; Little 2002), however, is a tool that may bring 'autonomisation' to much larger numbers of learners. The ELP was first launched as a concept in 1997 and has since been realised in almost 40 different models, all of which conform to Principles and Guidelines laid down by the Council of Europe (http://culture.coe.int/portfolio). The ELP has three obligatory components: a language passport, which summarises the owner's linguistic identity; a language biography, which is designed to provide a reflective accompaniment to the process of learning and using second and foreign languages; and a dossier, in which the owner collects evidence of his or her developing proficiency in second and foreign languages. Perhaps because regular goal setting and self-assessment are central to its effective use, the ELP has been shown to engage teachers as well as learners in processes likely to lead to more autonomous learning (see Schärer 2000, Little and Perclovŕ 2001, Ushioda and Ridley 2002). It seems probable that in the next few years much of the research relevant to learner autonomy will be prompted by the desire to explore the impact of the ELP on learners, teachers and educational systems.


Aoki, N. and R. Smith (1999). Learner autonomy in cultural context: the case of Japan. In D. Crabbe and S. Cotterall (eds), Learner Autonomy in Language Learning: Defining the Field and Effecting Change, 19-27. Frankfurt: Lang.

Benson, P. (2001). Teaching and Researching Autonomy in Language Learning. Harlow: Longman/Pearson Education.

Dam, L. (1995). Learner Autonomy 3: From Theory to Classroom Practice. Dublin: Authentik.

Dam, L. and L. Legenhausen (1996). The acquisition of vocabulary in an autonomous learning environment - the first months of beginning English. In R. Pemberton et al. (eds), Taking Control: Autonomy in Language Learning, 265-80. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Holec, H. (1981). Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon. (First published 1979, Strasbourg: Council of Europe.)

Karlsson, L., F. Kjisik and J. Nordlund (1997). From Here to Autonomy. A Helsinki University Language Centre Autonomous Learning Project. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press.

Legenhausen, L. (1999a). Language acquisition without grammar instruction? The evidence from an autonomous classroom, Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 38: 63-76.

Legenhausen, L. (1999b). The emergence and use of grammatical structures in conversational interactions; comparing traditional and autonomous learners. In B. Mißler and U. Multhaup (eds), The Construction of Knowledge, Learner Autonomy and Related Issues in Foreign Language Learning, 27-40. Tübingen: Stauffenburg.

Legenhausen, L. (1999c). Traditional and autonomous learners compared: the impact of classroom culture on communicative attitudes and behaviour. In C. Edelhoff and R. Weskamp (eds), Autonomes Fremdsprachenlernen, 166-82. Munich: Hueber.

Little, D. (1991). Learner Autonomy 1: Definitions, Issues and Problems. Dublin: Authentik.

Little, D. (1999). Developing learner autonomy in the foreign language classroom: a social-interactive view of learning and three fundamental pedagogical principles, Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 38: 77-88.

Little, D. (2000a). Learner autonomy and human interdependence: some theoretical and practical consequences of a social-interactive view of cognition, learning and language. In B. Sinclair, I. McGrath and T. Lamb (eds), Learner Autonomy, Teacher Autonomy: Future Directions, 15-23. Harlow: Longman/Pearson Education.

Little, D. (2000b). Learner autonomy: why foreign languages should occupy a central role in the curriculum. In S. Green (ed.), New Perspectives on Teaching and Learning Modern Languages, 24-45. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Little, D. (2002). The European Language Portfolio: structure, origins, implementation and challenges, Language Teaching 35.3: 182-9.

Little, D. and R. Perclová (2001). European Language Portfolio: guide for teachers and teacher trainers. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Also available at: http://culture.coe.int/portfolio

Littlewood, W. (2001). Students' attitudes to classroom English learning: a cross-cultural study. Language Teaching Research 5.1: 3-28.

Schärer, R. (2000). European Language Portfolio: final report on the pilot project. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Also available at: http://culture.coe.int/portfolio

Ushioda, E. and J. Ridley (2002). Working with the European Language Portfolio in Irish post-primary schools: report on an evaluation project. CLCS Occasional Paper No.61. Dublin: Trinity College, Centre for Language and Communication Studies.

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