What is independent language learning?

Aug 26, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

A common misunderstanding of independent language learning, partly due to its name, is the assumption that teachers are not involved in a learning experience. Students are sometimes left alone to learn with little or no guidance from their teachers in the name of independent language learning. This scenario is an example of how misunderstanding a particular concept can lead to negative consequences.

Another common misunderstanding of the concept, unfortunately, is the idea that learners should not interact with one another because they are supposed to be learning independently. While there is room for individual activities (e.g., reflection, journal writing), most teachers and researchers would agree that interaction is essential for learning to take place.

A holistic view

Independent language learning is also referred to as autonomous learning, self-directed learning, independent study and self-regulated learning (Morrison, 2011). In this approach, learners develop an awareness of their strengths and weaknesses by interacting with their environment (e.g., teacher feedback, group activities). This awareness allows learners to set learning goals, identify learning needs and evaluating their own progress (Morrison, 2011).

As we move towards a more learner-centred classroom practice, independent language learning acknowledges and takes into consideration individual learner’s needs and rights (White, 2008).

Theory and practice

One of the ways to promote independent language learning is to guide learners in setting relevant and realistic learning goals. Because learning is a dynamic process, learners should revisit their goals from time to time. If learners’ needs have evolved, they can modify their goals. This process can involve learners reflecting on and discussing their progress and new goals with their teachers.

Some teachers reason that the independent language learning approach is not suitable for their students because they are not capable of learning independently. In my view, this situation reflects a greater need for introducing this approach. It is important to note that learning to be independent learners is a process.

As the proverb goes: give people a fish and you feed them for a day; teach people to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.


Morrison, B. (2011). Building on experience, seeking new perspectives. In B. Morrison (Ed.), Independent language learning (pp. 3-10). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

White, C. (2008). Language learning strategies in independent language learning: An overview. In S. Hurd & T. Lewis (Eds.), Language learning strategies in independent settings (pp. 3-24). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based independent researcher and an education consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/gpointstudio