Guest Post: Ljiljana Havran Reflects on Learning English as an L2

A few days ago, in reply to a comment by Aleksandray Grabowska, I invited bloggers for whom English is an L2 to tell us how they learned English. Today, I’m delighted to introduce Ljiljana Havran, the first to respond to the challenge (to be followed soon, I hope, by Aleksandray and others).

Ljiljana has an MA from the University of Belgrade and has been teaching General and Aviation English at the Aviation Academy in Belgrade for the last 18 years. She has a great blog,  Ljiljana Havran’s Blog: My English language teaching & learning adventure, where she combines excellent practical advice and teaching tips with critically acute, progressive views of ELT.  Apart from sharing many views on ELT, Ljiljana and I also like the same poets, jazz bands, parts of the UK and Belgrade pastry shops.

Over to Ljiljana.

It is my great pleasure to write this guest post. The post is inspired by Geoff’s recent posts on explicit and implicit learning and knowledge. My main aim is to reflect on my L2 learning experience, especially in relation to the role of explicit and implicit learning. I want also to support the claim that implicit learning is the default mode in second language acquisition and that therefore the use of a synthetic syllabus and a PPP methodology is very inefficient in instructed SLA.

My L2 Learning Experience

Dorset Jurassic coast @elt_pics used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license 

I started learning English in primary school when I was ten years old. In my primary and secondary school we would often listen to the teacher read a text from the textbook, and then after reading the text we would be called on (one at a time) to read several sentences. After we had finished reading we were asked to translate the text into Serbian. The teacher helped us with new vocabulary items by writing the meaning of the words on the board, in Serbian.  Afterwards, we would do reading comprehension questions in our textbooks: one by one each student would read a question and then give his/her response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would ask another student to provide the correct answer, or the teacher her/himself gave the right answer. There was a lot of “chalk and talk” in classes, and a lot of L1 use, especially while doing grammar exercises and preparing for tests.

My secondary (grammar) school teacher struck me as special because of his teacher personality: he was well educated, more proficient in English and excellent at encouraging a friendly, relaxed learning environment. His grammar explanations were short and to the point, he often used synonyms and explanations in L2 while teaching vocabulary, and his pronunciation was very clear and correct. We revised grammar structures and vocabulary by doing grammar drills, re-telling the paragraphs of the literary excerpts in the textbook, and we practised translating (isolated) sentences from L1 into L2 while preparing for tests.

During my primary and secondary education my English classes were very teacher-centred (grammar-translation method was a common method in our schools). We used textbooks (with literary excerpts and grammar exercises out of context), based on a linear model of language acquisition which operates on the premise that learners acquire one target language item at a time, in a sequential, step-by-step fashion. This implies concentrating on explicit knowledge and spending most of the time treating the L2 as an object of study. Thus after the eight years of learning L2 I was better at doing grammar tests and translating some (abridged) literary excerpts (intermediate level) than using English in everyday situations; I could not understand the TV programmes or the films with standard dialect.

Before enrolling at the Belgrade Faculty of Philology (English and Italian language and literature), I went to Brighton on a summer course for exchange students. I spent a month with a local family, immersed in the English culture and language. I enjoyed listening to beautiful English language (which to my great surprise was a lot different from the English language I had been taught in Serbia). A communicative language teaching approach was used by the teachers during the summer course: a lot of interesting listening and speaking activities, role plays and games, chatting with English teachers and foreign students at school and during our school trips and parties, were really refreshing and an invaluable experience for me. English use in everyday situations rapidly broke down my inhibitions; I became more confident and truly motivated to improve my language skills and be more fluent in English.

Moving from the intermediate to an upper-intermediate and advanced level of language proficiency required years and years of work and effort. After graduating from the University of Belgrade, when I started teaching English to secondary school students, I was much more confident about the language theory (particularly grammar) than my language skills.  I was genuinely interested in going to ELT seminars and conferences to improve my teaching techniques. Very soon I realized that I needed to improve my language proficiency level, too, if I wanted to use the CLT approach that I found more useful for my students. I had a strong desire then to sound more like a native English speaker. I found a very good native English teacher in Belgrade and really enjoyed the one-to-one classes for about a year. We negotiated the topics, I brought to classes some interesting texts/ newspaper articles, we discussed the English books he recommended, and some films I loved, etc. We focused especially on conversation in order to enrich my vocabulary and improve my pronunciation. I was well aware that having a native like competence meant speaking idiomatically and using frequent and familiar collocations and phrases, so my main goal was to learn and use automatically these familiar word sequences.

I succeeded in acquiring an advanced level of proficiency, and practising connected speech and intonation (the most challenging part of learning L2) helped me a lot to improve my listening. However, I got to grips with the fact that native like speech and intonation was an unattainable goal for me and, actually, completely unnecessary for my profession. I have been teaching English and ESP (Aviation English) for more than 20 years (my MA thesis was on ESP: Language-related Miscommunications and Misunderstandings in Pilot/Controller Communications). I created the aviation English syllabus in my school and wrote two Aviation English workbooks for 3rd and 4th year students, with my own materials used in the classroom.

During the last four years I have improved my writing through blogging. Since I don’t have the time to read SLA research I found Geoff Jordan’s blog very useful. I have got a lot of insights on learning L2 also through teaching English to teenagers and talking to them about teaching/ learning.The teenage (intermediate level) students who are fluent in English when asked to explain how they study the language, usually say that they have never studied it. This may sound strange to someone, but it is completely true. They have been immersed in English for years: watching Cartoon network and other popular English/American channels (films are not dubbed into Serbian!), listening to music on the YouTube channel, playing games and chatting with their foreign friends, reading e-books, and news articles. They have acquired fluency by being exposed to many Englishes (varieties/ dialects/accents) on a daily basis since they were very young.

This young generation of EFL learners has learned L2 without learning the grammar rules first (as my generation did). They find learning English from a coursebook boring and outdated because a lot of English is available online and outside the classroom. I strongly believe that EFL classes will be much more interesting and effective if teachers provide opportunities for students to use L2 communicatively and spontaneously. Students will be more motivated if their teachers devote most of the class time to negotiating meaning and meaningful tasks and only a small proportion of time to explicit teaching of grammar or vocabulary, and if they use mostly English in classes and react to linguistic problems as they arise, thus respecting the learners’ ‘internal syllabus’.

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Ljiljana Havran Reflects on Learning English as an L2

  1. Thanks for a really interesting post.

    I was intrigued by this comment you raise at the end:

    “This young generation of EFL learners has learned L2 without learning the grammar rules first (as my generation did). They find learning English from a coursebook boring and outdated because a lot of English is available online and outside the classroom.”

    It reminded of some research by Graham Hall and Guy Cook that the British Council put out a couple of years back (“The English language needs and priorities of young adults in the European Union: student and teacher perceptions” –

    You might possibly be interested in some of the comments they made about the experience of learning online – from the perspective of students as well as teachers – in relation to that comment of yours I mentioned just now:

    ” … there was recognition [by both students and teachers] that the English that students used online was somewhat different to the English taught in class or encountered in more formal settings, with a particular emphasis on lexical expressions [ … ] Yet there was also a general sense, among
    both students and teachers, that taught English classes did not need to deal with or include
    emergent, online forms of English; indeed, that online English was separate from the English of
    the classroom, …

    “In all three countries [Germany, Romania, Turkey], participants agreed that classroom learning should be more concerned with accuracy, with formal varieties, and involve such activities as the study of grammar, literature and translation; online communication was seen as more to do with fluency, new and fashionable forms, and international English. As with the issue of international varieties, this was not a matter of disagreement between teachers and students, who saw the two kinds of English as different rather than in conflict, and with each age group recognising that the other had knowledge and skills in English that complemented their own.” (Hall and Cook, 2015: 17)

    Just something to think about.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Thanks very much for reading the post and for your thought-provoking comments.

    My comment “the young generation of EFL learners that has learned L2 without learning the grammar rules first” refers to those students who are fluent in English (B1/B2 level) because they have been immersed into English from their childhood. They find the coursebooks boring because the texts and audio recordings seem unnatural to them in comparison with some authentic materials they can find online or in a school library (e.g. English books/ magazines etc.). There are, also, some other students who learn English only for tests, by doing grammar and vocabulary exercises in their coursebook/ workbook; such students are usually good at standardized tests but cannot speak English.

    Thanks for the research (by Graham Hall and Guy Cook) you suggested reading. The findings in the research provide some valuable insights into the contemporary English language needs and priorities of young-adult learners in the EU. I found it very interesting that the young-adult students and their teachers in the three contexts share generally similar attitudes towards English, and that they accept both different native English language varieties and non-native English as a lingua franca for communication. They recognise the need for English language proficiency for employment and study. I find the next insight somehow strange/illogical: “… young adults and their teachers identify a tension between learning English for real-life use, and teaching/learning English to pass a test, for further study or for future employment.”

    In my view, different contexts and students’ needs affect the way the English language is taught. The content and methodology clearly depend on such things as the age of a learner, whether English is to be used for international communication (as lingua franca), or just for survival communication with native speakers perhaps while on holiday, or for living and working in UK or some other English-speaking country, or as a necessary requirement of current and future academic study.

    Liked by 1 person

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