Imitation in language learning: Good or bad?
Willy A Renandya – 11 June 2021
The word imitation has gotten such a bad reputation that most if not all teachers would perhaps say that it has no or little place in modern language classrooms.
This is because imitation is often equated with mindless copying or even worse, stealing somebody else’ work.
However, imitation can also mean “The action of using someone or something as a model” (https://www.lexico.com/definition/imitation)
If we use this definition, imitation does not look so bad, does it?
As we all know, modelling is an important pedagogical practice that can make our lesson more digestible. Students need to see how things are done before they can produce their original work.
Modelling is particularly important when we teach writing, a language skill that is cognitively and linguistically very demanding. Students need to see several model texts (also known as mentor texts) and mindfully imitate these initially.
With repeated practice and a bit of creativity, they may gradually be able to produce their own essay, which is uniquely theirs. The key thing to remember here is that this practice is likely to take months or even years before they can produce original work.
This is a bit like what an apprentice goes through when they learn their craft from their master. The process takes years, beginning with close imitation of their master’s work and gradually developing their own unique style of painting, sculpting etc.
Leonardo de Vinci for example started out as an apprentice painter before he produced his masterpieces (e.g., Mona Lisa, the girl with a mysterious smile).
Here is a quote on the role of imitation in writing from a best selling book “Writing well: The classic guide to writing nonfiction” by William Zinsser.
“Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.” – (William Zinsser, 2006, p. 34).
To answer the question posed in the title above, one can safely say that mindful imitation is actually a good thing and can support language learning, in particular at the early stage of learning or when we teach a new and challenging language skill such as writing an academic essay.
Mindful imitation fits well with recent thinking in education which suggests that good teaching should be organized around three major steps:
- Modelling (I do it first; watch closely)
- Joint construction (We do; you do it with lots of scaffoling from me)
- Independent constuction (You do on with your peers or on your own)