Globalisation and the need to interact with various cultures means people have to learn how to communicate in different languages these days.
However, becoming proficient in a second language is a challenge that requires commitment and a lot of practice and not everyone learns at the same speed and through the same process.
Dr Jase Mousa Inaty, Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology at Zayed University (ZU), has been studying this problem here in the UAE. Her recent study was focused on native speakers of Arabic, mainly ZU students, who were in the process of learning English as a Foreign Language (EFL).
Her research has led to the publishing of a book titled The Impact of Spoken English on Learning English as a Foreign Language.
Dr Inaty found that learning was not the same for everyone in the study. Some were better learners than others and some learned one skill better than another. The level of proficiency was dependent on the person's ability to comprehend, retain and use information.
"Teaching methods vary but, in general, we learn using one or a combination of these major skills: listening, speaking, writing and reading."
However, using more than one mode can be detrimental to learning, says Dr Inaty. According to her research, the human brain is limited in its capacity to process information, and learners, whether Emirati or otherwise, have the same human cognitive architecture with a limited working memory and an unlimited long-term memory.
"The human cognitive architecture indicates a working memory that is limited in both capacity and duration. When EFL materials are presented in ways that exceed working memory capacity, the learning may be hindered. These hindrances may come from a split-attention effect or even more so a redundancy effect, which was the case in my research."
An area of her studies focused on students' learning ability when teaching listening skills using a traditional method of presenting written material simultaneously with auditory material.
"The thinking is that our students would benefit more since they are both listening and reading the materials at the same time. My research has shown that at least under some circumstances, students will learn best when only one mode of learning [eg reading only] is presented," she said.
Her research shows that teachers should recognise pupils' abilities and cautions them not to overload their students with material.
"The condition is that when a vast amount of material or information is being presented simultaneously, it should not contain identical information. Otherwise, the learner is wasting his/her working memory space on two things that contain identical information — which in turn may not enhance comprehension," she said.
"Her studies of Emirati students show that the majority of learners are not using most of that working memory space that is available to them. She calls it "cognitive underload".
A possible cause is that students are not being provided with material rich enough to maintain their interest in learning.
"We need to provide stimulating and rich learning experiences for our human cognitive architecture to reach its potential and flourish. Teachers can do this by selecting and designing materials that are motivating, interesting and relevant to students," she concluded.