Language Learning and the “Other” Learning Theories

If you’ve been around language learning for a while, then you’re probably aware of some of the popular language acquisition concepts: comprehensible input, the communicative approach, graduated interval recall, universal grammar, and on and on and on.

However, there are other learning theories out there that don’t get nearly enough attention in language-learning circles.

A couple weeks ago, I started a masters in education program in instructional design. (I’m an instructional designer at my day job.)

I’m finding out some interesting things about learning theories–in particular, behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. These three theories share some common practices, but at their core, they are very different.

By kimubert, [CC BY-SA 2.0], Image Source

By kimubert, [CC BY-SA 2.0], Image Source

I’ll share this with you because:

  • You can design your own programs better
  • I find this interesting
  • Writing this out is good review for my upcoming exam

Caveat: I’m keeping this short, so I’m bound to be making errors by omission. I think this is a reasonably accurate representation of the ideas, though, and if you want more details, click the link above for an academic article and in-depth discussion.

The Quick and Dirty


What: Acquiring knowledge by reinforcing behavior.

Why: The idea is that by reinforcing desired behaviors (such as correctly producing state capitals or shooting a basketball with proper form), we retain knowledge and build fluency.

How: Drills; feedback; tasks broken up into small, logical steps; repetition; drills

Examples in language learning: Flashcards (including Anki); repetition-focused programs such as Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, and Duolingo; speaking and grammar drills; teacher correction; curriculum that builds sequentially



What: Acquiring knowledge by organizing knowledge.

Why: The idea is that knowledge exists outside the learner, and the learner gains this knowledge by organizing it in their minds in a meaningful way.

How: Explicit instruction (i.e., teaching); outlining; demonstrations; comparing a new topic to something the student is already familiar with; mnemonics

Examples in language learning: Classroom instruction; keeping language notebooks; learning vocabulary words grouped into topics (household words, describing words, pronouns, etc.); Babbel; concept mapping



What: Constructing knowledge by building upon past experiences.

Why: The idea is that students of learning age aren’t a blank slate, so when they are faced with an unfamiliar problem or situation, they use what they know to resolve it, by any means that works. Knowledge is constructed as they learn more and more ways to handle diverse problems.

How: Problem-based learning; internships; authentic situations; project-based learning

Examples in language learning: Reading, watching, and listening to authentic materials; language exchange; immersion; preparing presentations

Quick Takeaways

There are three big takeaways I want to mention.

First, all of these approaches have their pros and cons, so you shouldn’t exclude any. Behaviorism’s repetition is great for building vocab, for example, but it might not have the best transfer to actual language performance. So if you supplement behaviorism with constructivism’s authentic, real-world approach, you get the best of both worlds.

Second, the things you actually do in your learning might fit multiple categories. There are fundamental, theoretical differences among the approaches, but in practice, there is going to be some overlap. For instance, say that you learn that the Spanish word mesa is equivalent to the English word table. Establishing this analogy is a cognitivist approach. But you’re building upon your current understanding of how a table can be called, so it’s also a constructivist approach.

Third, these theories don’t tell the whole story in language learning. From what I can tell, even when considering all three of these approaches, we still don’t get the complete picture of how someone actually learns a language–which is perhaps why we need the fields of applied linguistics and second-language acquisition to help pick up the slack.

Wrapping Up

I like examining language learning through the behaviorist-cognitivist-constructivist lens because it makes me really pay attention to how I’ve been studying and why.

Ultimately, though, it looks like the conclusion is the same as it’s always been: Use different approaches and activities, don’t get too hung up on any one method, and keep making progress.

  • Natalie

    I didn’t know any of this and it’s really interesting! I think I’ve used all three of these theories and they all have their place. My flashcards and language notebook are extremely helpful—but conversing in the language is obviously indispensable, too.

    • Roman Shinkarenko

      Of course, you can use all of this without even knowing how it’s called, like Moliere’s character who spoke in prose without knowing what is prose.

  • Roman Shinkarenko

    I hope this post will motivate people to learn more about applied psychology.
    To me, behaviorism is associated with Skinner and some black box; cognitivism is used in depression treatment; and constructivism is something new.