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What are language learning strategies? Are they legit?

The first thing to note is that this is a huge topic in linguistics. There are entire books and studies devoted to this topic and since this is a blog post, I have to be selective in what I mention. That said, there are sure to be future posts related to this topic!

So, what are language learning strategies? Hold on! Before that, we need to mention who Rebecca Oxford is a professor who focuses on ESL and, more broadly, language education. She is a key figure in the area of language learning strategies. Why? She just so happens to be a pioneer in the field and has conducted numerous studies, published several books, and given many lectures/talks I'm certain. She defines language learning strategies as...

The methods and processes that learners use to better learn and use a foreign language.

So what are these exactly? There are 2 main categories, each with 3 types of strategies that entail different types of activities.

Let's take a look!

A. Direct strategies: related to how learners store and retrieve linguistic information. Key in understanding the use of a foreign language.

  1. Memory: creating associations, flashcards, acronyms, using pictures and sounds, reviewing frequently

  2. Cognitive: Practicing, manipulating, transforming, analyzing, reasoning, summarizing the foreign language content

  3. Compensation: Guessing well, employing techniques to improve speaking and writing such as 'chunking', these are the strategies learners use where their knowledge of the language is incomplete

B. Indirect strategies: related to how learners control, organize and regulate their learning.

  1. Metacognitive: planning your learning, focusing on specific tasks/goals, evaluating your learning progress, and monitoring errors.

  2. Affective: everything related to emotion, attitude, motivation, and even values when it comes to language learning. Keep anxiety low, go easy on yourself, and most importantly stay cool.

  3. Social: asking questions, cooperating, and empathizing. All 3 very important aspects to learning a foreign language.

While there is a multitude of ways to utilize this research, the best is to make use of a bit of everything. Using various memory techniques, combined with having your learners manipulate the information (changing stems, contexts, word forms, etc), and teaching common cognate formation patterns (for example, English words ending in 'tion' can be changed to 'cion' for their Spanish equivalent), is a great start to improving learner retention!

For the indirect strategies, try to foster positive learning environments where learners feel at ease, encourage organization, and facilitate a social atmosphere.

At the end of the day, all of these strategies are great learning techniques and habits.

There is a lot of debate in the field regarding the terms and definitions. There is also a lot of research about the use and effectiveness of various activities within each category. However, at the end of the day, all of these strategies are great learning techniques and habits. They certainly won't make your students forget what they've learned!

Well! That was a ton of info and a great flashback to my Master's studies so let's leave it there for now. I hope you can use some of this to improve your lessons and teaching success!


Oxford, R. (1990). Language learning strategies: what every teacher should know. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

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