Learner Autonomy in Developing Countries

(Published in Learner Autonomy in Language Learning (https://ailarenla.org/lall), December 2012)

Note: The statement below launches Topic 3 in the ReNLA Research Agenda Project. Please feel free to join in with discussions and research work in this area and to share your ideas and findings via the ReNLA website or via AUTO-L, the Research Network’s email discussion list at AUTO-L[at]JISCMAIL.AC.UK, if you are a member of the ReNLA,  Comments in the comment box below are also very much welcome.

Martin Lamb, University of Leeds, UK

Paginated PDF version

It seems to me timely to look specifically at autonomous language learning in rural areas of developing countries (and possibly resource-poor urban areas – refining the focus geographically/socio-economically would be an early task). Graddol (2006) and others have pointed out how the urban middle-classes around the globe are enthusiastically appropriating English, helped often by the liberalization of education policy and increasing privatization, enabling them to access the fruits of cultural and economic globalization and so in the long-term possibly contributing to social division and greater inequality. David Block’s upcoming book on class in Applied Linguistics will no doubt help illuminate this issue, while two recent volumes on English in developing countries (Coleman, 2011; Erling & Seargeant, 2012) reflect a growing – or returning – interest in the relationship between English language and socio-economic development. Often the value of English in local societies lies not in facilitating economic exchange; it is the way it is used for gate-keeping purposes, for example allowing access to higher education or prestige careers.


Learner autonomy is relevant to this discussion because state education in rural areas is frequently under-resourced compared to urban provision (cf. Hu, 2003 on China) and individuals or groups who seek proficiency in English often have to do so through independent enterprise. Where urban families can easily supplement school with private tuition and/or with direct parental guidance, families in underprivileged contexts are often painfully aware of their own inability to support their children in learning English; it really is up to the children themselves. It is also true that learner autonomy research has in the main focussed on relatively well-resourced contexts, possibly because that is where researchers and practitioners tend to be based. In fact one of the challenges of this research agenda would be obtaining sufficiently extended access to remote sites to gain a deep understanding of what is going on there; the research would benefit greatly from having local people involved and argues for collaboration between urban and rural educationalists in-country as well as with universities in the developed world.


Research on autonomous learning in rural/under-resourced areas could draw on a number of different theoretical approaches and research areas, in addition to autonomy itself e.g. psychology (motivation and other individual differences), learning strategies, social learning theories, ecological approaches, complexity theory…

Topics of interest would include:

·      How some individuals (and not others) become autonomous learners at a relatively early age

·      The way individual learner autonomy is mediated by social processes in remote contexts, such as family language practices, local communities of practice, school admission policies etc

·      The relationship between independent learning in remote sites and school teaching, in particular what Kuchah & Smith (2011) call ‘pedagogies of autonomy’ i.e. teaching not directly intended to develop autonomy but which has that effect.

·      The role of new mobile technologies; some fascinating experiments introducing ICT into remote areas – such as Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ in India and MIT Media Lab’s tablets in Ethiopian villages – have caught the media’s attention recently, and surely have something to say to us about learner autonomy.


Coleman, H. (Ed.). (2011). Dreams & realities : Developing countries and the English language. London: The British Council.

Erling, E., & Seargeant, P. (Eds.). (2012). English and international development. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Graddol, D. (2006). English next. London: The British Council.

Hu, G. (2003). English language teaching in China: Regional differences and contributing factors. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 24(4), 290-318.

Kuchah, K., & Smith, R. (2011). Pedagogy of autonomy for difficult circumstances: From practice to principles. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 5(2), 119-140.


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