Teaching philosophy

My teaching philosophy reflects everything I have learned, seen, and experienced about language learning as a learner, as a teacher, and as a researcher. Here, I discuss three primary principles of my language teaching, each of which comes from me as a language learner, teacher, and/or researcher.

Main points: (i) Respecting learner needs, (ii) Working with(in) specifics, (iii) Usage-based, practice, and explicit and implicit learning, (iv) Building the road as we travel.

Respecting learner needs. As a learner, I advocate that language teaching must be always accountable to learner needs. We know that learners, when they decide to learn a language (whether actively or passively), have specific goals or reasons of doing so. What they need therefore is a functional command of a language in a specific socio-cultural and -political environment wherein learners wish to use the language effectively to fulfill their communicative needs. Furthermore, there is mounting evidence from the field of English for Specific Purposes that a kind of language frequent and critical in a given discourse is different from one domain to another. In this light, I agree with Long (2016) in stating that people learn specific language for specific purposes, and that language for nebulous purposes is no use for anyone. Throughout most of my career, I have adopted task-based language teaching (TBLT) to realize this goal due to its focus on needs analysis as the initial step in developing course curriculum and materials.

When I previously taught Japanese as a foreign language at tertiary levels, I often conducted a small-scale needs analysis of why my students wanted to learn Japanese. It quickly turned out that the students had a variety of language learning needs on their part (e.g., study abroad, traveling, job application, learning culture, etc.), and I therefore strived to structure my curriculum in such a way that respected their goals (e.g., buying train tickets for traveling, writing a Japanese resume for job application in Japan). Although the curriculum may not have been the true TBLT (as discussed by Long, 2015), which, prior to actual teaching, requires extensive research on learner needs, I was successful in respecting learner needs, therefore building their competence to function better in the target language.

Working with(in) specifics. Despite my preference and passion for TBLT, I also acknowledge as a teacher that its core principles and methodology may not be as practical in some teaching contexts as often claimed by advocates of TBLT. In such contexts (e.g., English education in East Asia), there are many challenges that can constrain the applicability of TBLT, ranging from classroom constraints (e.g., size of class, limited teacher proficiency in English, etc.) to societal and institutional constraints (e.g., top-down national curriculum, washback effect from examination system, etc.) (Butler, 2011; Sato, 2010). I agree with R. Ellis (2017, 2018) in this light that task-supported language teaching (or communicative language teaching in general: Butler, 2011 or PPP: Sato, 2010) would be a better fit than TBLT. As a teacher, we all work within a specific personal, societal, cultural, political, and institutional environment. After all, as Brown (2007) cautiously reminds us, we are teaching a specific group of learners in a specific sociocultural context. It is us teachers (in communication with students) who must stay keen on particularities of our teaching contexts so as to get the best out of whatever resources available for students and us.

Usage-based, practice, and explicit and implicit learning. There is an emerging consensus among researchers working within usage-based linguistics that people learn language to use it and by using it. As they argue, language constructions emerge from “the collaboration of the memories of all of the utterances in a learner’s entire history of language use and the frequency-biased abstraction of regularities within them” (N. Ellis & Larsen-Freeman, 2009, p. 92). What this implicates for us language teachers is that we must provide with learners a plenty of opportunities to use the language communicatively in various usage-contexts. Speaking from a cognitive linguistics and language ecology perspective, our job as a teacher is to afford linguistic environments that surround language learners, facilitating and scaffolding their learning processes (Tyler, 2012; van Lier, 2000).

As a learner myself, my long learning history of language learning (i.e., 15 years of EFL in Japan and 5 years of living abroad in America) also drives me to believe that we need to use the language, but that is not enough: We also need deliberate practice to further progress through the course of language development. Practice here does not refer to the old notion of mind-numbing “drill-and-kill”, but to “specific activities in the second language, engaged in systematically, deliberately, with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language” (DeKeyser, 2007, p.1). Whether we are learning naturalistically (e.g., study abroad, immersion, etc.) or under some kinds of language instruction, it is clear to me from my experience that language learning entails  active and deliberate effort to practice using the language. Back when I studied abroad at Dartmouth College, everyone else around me was a very proficient L1 or L2 speaker of English (I mean, they were Ivy League students!) and I had a self-perception about myself at the time that I always fell short in English proficiency, compared to my friends and colleagues there. So I started watching American talk shows (mostly Conan) and TV shows, memorized phrases and vocabulary items I thought would be useful, and deliberately practiced using them every time I conversed with my friends. To me, that is how language learning is done, an effortful process of trial and error.

To compound this fact, my experience as a SLA researcher also reinforces my belief as a language learner. It is known that L2 learners, especially adults, are naturally inclined to approach the language learning task with explicit, deductive strategies and expectations even under conditions maximally conducive to implicit learning (e.g., study abroad: DeKeyser, 1994, 2010). As I argue elsewhere, there is no experimental study yet in SLA that has provided robust evidence of implicit learning of form-meaning mappings (at least in morphosyntax) and of acquisition of implicit knowledge accessible and usable in fluent communication, to the same extent as that of L1 and advanced L2 speakers (Maie & DeKeyser, 2018) (such studies need to be longitudinal, something almost impossible to do experimentally, but see DeKeyser, 1995 for an exception). Here, I am not denying that adult L2 learners can learn language implicitly − sure they can. However, what SLA research has clearly shown is that implicit learning takes time in the first place (considerably) and that adults are not as competent at implicit, statistical learning as younger learners. As a consequence, I hold that the role of instruction is to create learning opportunities that facilitate the gradual transition of controlled use of language (or explicit knowledge) to more spontaneous and fluent production accompanied by automatic processing, while a  slow and long process of implicit learning takes place (this means that explicit and implicit learning take place in a parallel fashion, but the extent, degree, and speed to which they occur differ substantially). This is where the idea of practice comes in. Obviously, this contradicts with what most proponents of TBLT proclaim to underlie SLA (as represented by R. Ellis, 2018; Long 2016). I am nowhere near reconciling this contradiction, but I believe the day will come eventually (but see DeKeyser, 2018, for an argument that they are in fact not inconsistent with each other).

Build the road as we travel. Lastly, I would like to note that my teaching philosophy (as described here) is very likely to change in future. In Japanese, the word ‘education’ can be translated as 教育 (‘kyo-iku’: = teach + = develop), the transliteration of which implicates that you teach and students grow. Throughout my teaching career, however, I have also developed my own view of education, 共育which is pronounced the same as the one above, but an amalgamation of two graphemes, (together) and (develop). This means that education is not just you teaching students so they would develop, but it is about you and students developing together: I help students as a facilitator of their language learning and they help me learn how I can be better the next time. People sometimes tell me that my teaching philosophy often changes and fluctuates (therefore inconsistent), but to me, that is only logical. After all, there is no universal theory or law of language learning (yet!), and the field of SLA is still developing. Therefore, teaching philosophy should always be flexible to reflect that fact, and the best thing we could do is to build the road as we travel − Isn’t that what ‘kyo-iku’ (in either sense) is all about?


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Ellis, R. (2018). Towards a modular language curriculum for tasks. Language Teaching Research, First Published March 23, 2018, 1-22.

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Maie, R., & DeKeyser, R. (2018). Beyond boundaries: Combining methodological approaches to acquisition of explicit and implicit knowledge under an incidental condition. Paper presented at the Second Language Research Forum, Montreal, QC, October 2018.

Sato, R. (2010). Perspectives: Reconsidering the effectiveness and suitability of PPP and TBLT in the Japanese EFL classroom. JALT Journal, 32(2), 189-200.

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van Lier, L. (2000). From input to affordance: Socio-interactive learning from an ecological perspective. In J. P. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural theory and second language learning (pp. 245-259). Oxford: Oxford University Press.