Digging deep: Developing second/foreign language expertise

14 August 2017
Professor Lawrence Zhang
Professor Lawrence Zhang

Ever tried to learn a language but failed miserably? It may not be your fault, according to a University of Auckland academic, who has attempted at learning five languages himself.

Professor Lawrence Zhang will traverse his 40 years’ experience in language teaching and learning in his Inaugural Lecture this month.

Professor Zhang will present the lecture, “Digging Deep: Developing Second/Foreign Language Expertise” at the University’s Epsom Campus on Tuesday 22nd August.

“Language learning is a complex human endeavour,” Professor Zhang says.

“This complexity has been widely acknowledged by academics in the field of second and foreign language education, but not by the general public.”

While he himself has attempted at learning five different languages ranging from Russian, French, German, Japanese, to Tibetan, he has only successfully mastered English and achieved an adequate level of French for entry into the Graduate School as a requirement, in addition to his mother tongue, Mandarin Chinese. He says that because of the complicated nature of language learning, many people can become experts in the language or languages they are learning, but others struggle.

In his Inaugural Lecture, Professor Zhang will examine the dynamism of how language learners develop their expertise in a second and/or foreign language and how a myriad of factors play a significant role in the learning process.

He will do so by exploring the language learning enterprise through multiple angles and theories. He will discuss how there is a close relation between cognition (thinking and learning) and metacognition (thinking about thinking and learning). And how developing second and foreign language expertise is in effect a complex process that engages learners at all these levels. As a result of this process, an inevitable pattern of learner individual differences (LID), such as working memory, motivation, anxiety, learning style, among others, is demonstrated in the way that some learners become “successful”, whereas others do not. This is because some people are “risk-takers” in learning and using additional languages, and they are also people of a higher level of motivation than others, for example.

Understanding individual learner differences in the context of second language learning will enable teachers to deepen our understanding of the possibility of theory-practice nexus for improving pedagogical practice.

Professor Zhang joined the University in late 2011. In 2014 he was promoted to become the first Professor of Linguistics-in-Education/TESOL in the Faculty of Education and Social Work. A stellar scholarship student, he earned a Postgraduate Diploma in ELT (Distinction) on a full Singapore Government scholarship and PhD with a full scholarship from Nanyang Technological University.  

His Post-Doctoral research at Oxford University was published in TESOL Quarterly. That paper was selected for the TESOL Award for Distinguished Research in 2011 by the TESOL International Association, USA. Lawrence has had extensive international experience. In 2016 his dedicated leadership led to the award of "50 at 50", which acknowledged 50 outstanding leaders around the world in the TESOL profession when the Association celebrated its 50th anniversary in Baltimore, Maryland.

“Digging Deep: Developing Second/Foreign Language Expertise” is on Tuesday 22 August 2017, 6:30 - 7:30pm, J1 Lecture Theatre, Epsom Campus.


To listen to Lawrence Zhang's latest interview on Radio NZ about the complexities of learning a second language, visit here.  


Anna Kellett, Media Relations Adviser

Email: anna.kellett@auckland.ac.nz