Glossary of ESL and Language Terminology

List of words you may come across in the ESL field. Check back often for updates: this is a work in progress!

acculturation model: model proposed by John H. Schumann that attempts to explain influence of social and affective variables on language learning. The model proposes a link between language acquisition and the extent to which the learner adapts and integrates himself into the new culture. In short, a higher level of acculturation (adaption and integration) results in a greater degree of language acquisition. See also: assimilative motivation, instrumental motivation, integrative motivation

acoustic phonetics: branch of phonetics that studies the properties of sound waves produced by the human voice. These sound wave properties include frequency, period, amplitude, and speed. See also: phonetics

acquisition-learning hypothesis:

affective variables: non-cognitive factors such as emotion and feeling, which influence second language acquisition. See also: acculturation model, affective filter

affective filter: refers to a learning barrier created by a learner's negative feelings and emotions. Such feelings may include boredom, anxiety, shyness, embarassment, or low self-esteem. See also: affective variables

allophone: any one of the vairous possible pronunciations of a particular phoneme. These variances are usually determined by the phoneme's position in a word. For example, there are subtle variations in the pronunciation of the phoneme /p/ in the words: pill, spill, lip. Thus, each variation is considered an allophone of the phoneme /p/.

analytic-linguistic approach: one of the two general approaches to teaching pronunciation. In this approach, students are given explicit information about how to produce the sounds and rhythms of the target language. Instructors may employ a variety of tools and techniques, including charts, phonetic alphabets, contrastive exercises, and articulatory descriptions. See also: intuitive-imitative approach



articulatory phonetics: branch of phonetics concerned with the study of how articulators function and work together to produce human speech.

assimilative motivation: motivation for second language acquisition based on a desire for complete assimilation to the target culture. This desire entails becoming linguistically indistinguishable from the culture's native speakers, and is arguably one of the most powerful motivations for language acquisition. See also: acculturation model, affective variables, instrumental motivation, integrative motivation

Audiolingualism: method of foreign language instruction based largely on the work of psyschologist B. F. Skinner. In this method, language acquisition is viewed in terms of stimulus and response, and classes consist of drills, dialogue memorization, and cue and response activities. Pronunciation is taught both implicitly (intuitive-imitative approach) and explicitly (analytic-linguistic approach). See also: Behavorism, Oral Approach

auditory phonetics:

avoidance: refers to the strategy, often employed by language learners, that allows one to avoid using diffult words, phrases, or structures. This can be accomplished through techniques such as simplification, substituion, or paraphrasing.

back chain:




Cognitive Approach: approach to foreign language instruction based on the development of cognitive psychology and the linguistic contributions of Naom Chomsky. Often viewed as a reaction to the behavorist underpinnings of Audiolingualism and the Oral Approach of the 1940s and 1950s, proponents of the Cognitive Approach hold that language is not the result of conditioning and habit formation, but based on mental processes involving the application of rules. Thus, grammar is taught explicitly as well as implicitly. See also: transformational-generative grammar

Communicative Approach: approach to foreign language instruction based on the assumption that the fundamental goal of language is to communicate. Classroom activities are "communicative" in nature, and designed to facilitate the use language through genuine exchanges of information.

Community Language Learning (CLL): learner-centered method of foreign language instruction developed by Charles A. Curran. Best suited to adult learners and monolingual classes, the method involves having students dictate the pace and content of lessons, and is marked by a strong emphasis on repetition, with pronunciation developed through an intuitive-imitative approach. See also: human computer


contrastive analysis hypothesis (CAH): hypothesis formulated by Robert Lado, it supposes that a learner's first language influences aspects of second language acquisition. According to the hypothesis, a first language displaying features similar to those of the target langugage will serve to facilitate second language acquisition. On the other hand, if the learner's first language displays features that differ from those of the target language, acquisition of the target language will be hindered through "interference" from the first language. See also: interference/negative transfer

contrastive distribution:

critical period: period of life, just before the completion of lateralization that offers the absolute optimal conditions for language learning and acquisition.


Direct Method: method of foreign language teaching that came to prominence in the late 1800s as a reaction to the traditional Grammar Translation Method. Based in part on observations of first language acquistion, the Direct Method relies on more natural ways of language learning, with speaking and pronunciation taught using an intuitive-imitative approach. See also: naturalistic methods


ego permeability:

error analysis:

Fidel wall chart: wall chart useful in teaching pronunciation. The chart uses color blocks to highlight sound-spelling relationships that exist in the target language. See also: sound-color chart



front chain:



Grammar Translation Method: Method of teaching a foreign language where speaking and pronunciation play little or no role. This method often entails rote memorization of lengthy vocabulary lists, systematic translation of texts, and lectures involving detailed grammar explanations in the student's mother tongue. Emphasis is placed on translation, and not on communication or exchange of information. See also: reading-based approach

homograph: a word that has the same spelling as another word but has a different meaning. It may or may not have the same pronunciation as the other word.

homophone: a word that has the same pronunciation as another word but has a different meaning.

human computer: pronunciation technique whereby the teacher acts as a computer that students can turned on and off to practice words, phrases, and sentences. This technique is often associated with Community Language Learning (CLL).

information processing theory:

instrumental motivation: motivation for second language acquisition based on the desire to attain a goal, and not for reasons related to integration or assimilation into the culture. Goals may include job promotion, career opportunity, or ... See also: accultuarion model, affective variables, assimilative motivation, integrative motivation

integrative motivation: motivation for second language acquisition based on the desire or need to participate socially in the target culture, to be able to interact and exchange information freely with other members of the community. See also: acculturation model, affective variables, assimilative motivation, instrumental motivation

interference/negative transfer: refers to caused by certain grammatical, syntactical, or phonological features of a learner's native language. It is generally acknowledged that interference/negative transfer presents significant impediments to the acquisition of pronunciation. See also: contrastive analysis hypothesis (CAH)

interlanguage: refers to an intermediary language arising in the process second language acquisition. This interlanguage between learner's first language and the targed language.

Interlanguage Structural Conformity Hypothesis (ISCH):

International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA): internationally-recognized alphabet, applicable to all languages, used to represent the full range of sounds that occur in human speech. First developed by the International Phonetic Association (IPA) in the late nineteenth century, today it is often used as a tool by teachers and students to aid in achieving an acceptable pronunciation.

International Phonetic Association:


intuitive-imitative approach: one of the two general approaches to teaching pronunciation. It assumes that students will develop acceptable pronunciation and speaking skills when exposed to the target language through accurate models. This approach relies heavily upon imitation and repetition, without any explicit information provided by the instructor. See also: analytic-linguistic approach

IPA: see International Phonetic Alphabet.

language universals:

lateralization: This related to language teaching, known as the critical period, offers the absolute otimal conditions for language learning and acquisition.


manner of articulation

markedness theory:


minimal pair: a term used to describe two words that differ by only one sound (phoneme). For example, the words sell and shell form a minimal pair, as they can only be distinguished from one another by their first position sounds. Minimal pairs are often used to teach pronunciation by contrasting two similar sounds. See also: minimal pair drill

minimal pair drill: a technique used to teach pronunciation by contrasting similar or troublesome sounds. This can be done through word drills or sentence drills, the latter of which may be either syntagmatic or paradigmatic in nature. Click here for some examples of minimal pair drills. See also: minimal pair


naturalistic methods: refers to methods of foreign language instruction that rely on reproducing conditions similar to those under which first language acquisition occurs. This is done by creating a more "natural" learning environment, one in which students first focus on listening, only later learning to speak. In these methods, instructors use an intuitive-imitative approach to teaching pronunciation. See also: Direct Method, Total Physical Response (TPR), Natural Approach.


open-pair drilling:

Oral Approach:

paradigmatic: refers to the "vertical" structure of a language, and is primarily concerned with how meaning changes when one element is substituted for another. Click here to see some examples of paradigmatic exercises using minimal pairs. See also: syntagmatic

perceptual phonetics:


phoneme: refers to the smallest sound segment that differentiates one word from another. For example, the word hit has three phonemes, each of which can be represented using sybols from the phonemic alphabet: /hIt/. A change render it incomprehensible or would See also: minimal pair

phonemic alphabet:

phonemic chart:

phonemic coding ability:

phonemic transcription:

phonetic alphabet:

phonetics: the study the sound properties of human speech, and includes the perception and production of these sounds. Phonetics should not be confused with the field of phonology, which is concerned with the study of sound systems (languages), and how sounds function within these systems. See also: acoustic phonetics, articulatory phonetics, physiological phonetics, perceptual phonetics


physiological phonetics:

place of articulation:

positional variation:



reading-based approach: any approach to foreign language instruction that makes extensive use of texts and reading materials, with little or no speaking. These approaches emphasize translation and comprehension and are often used in teaching classical languages such as Latin or Ancient Greek. See also: Grammar Translation Method

Received Pronunciation (RP):


Reform Movement: movement in language teaching that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. It was led by a number of prominent phoneticians who stressed the importance of the spoken language and advocated the application of phonetics, especially the recently devised International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to aid in pronunciation and language skills.



segmental: refers to the individual sounds (segments) of a language that are arranged to construct words or utterances. See also: suprasegmental

sensitive period: period in which language learning and acquisition take place. Some researchers have suggested that there are several of these sensitive periods in which the brain is more receptive to language acquisition. Others have argued in favor of a single critical period occuring before lateralization is complete.

Silent Way: method of foreign language instruction developed by Caleb Gattegno in the 1970s. It involves extensive use hand gestures and signals, thus limiting teacher talking time (TTT) and maximizing student output. It has resulted in a surprising number of learning inovations, including the development of the sound-color chart which supports the method's strong emphasis on accuracy of pronunciation.

sound chart:

sound-color chart: chart developed by Caleb Gattegno to support Silent Way's strong emphasis on accuracy of pronunciation. The chart color-codes all sounds of the target language, helping students distinguish similarities and differences in pronunciation. See also: Fidel wall chart


substitution drilling:


syntagmatic: refers to the linear, "horizontal" structure of language, and is concerned with the sequence, combination, and relationship of elements within the structure. For example, examining the word order of a sentence would be a syntagmatic examination. Analyzing the arrangement of letters in a word could also be considered syntagmatic in nature. Click here to see some examples of syntagmatic exercises using minimal pairs. See also paradigmatic


transformational-generative grammar:






voice quality:


vowel: sound of human speech produced with an open vocal tract. See also: consonant

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