Making sense of autonomy in language learning

Phil Benson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)


In December 1976, a group of language educators gathered at the University of Cambridge to discuss an idea that was, at the time, largely unheard of in the field of language teaching and learning. The idea was 'autonomy' and the discussion that took place was preserved for posterity in a mimeographed collection of papers that has recently been made available once again on the Web (Harding-Esch 1977a). Reading the collection for the first time, almost 30 years later, I was struck by the fact that the issues addressed by the contributors were very similar to those that we continue to discuss today. In particular, the editor noted in her preface that "there were heated arguments about the definition of autonomy on the one hand and its intrinsic value on the other" (Harding-Esch 1977b: Iii). Although the context for discussion of autonomy in language learning has changed considerably, the questions of what exactly we mean by autonomy and how we see its value to the individual and society remain with us and are likely to do so for some time to come. It also occurred to me, however, that the contributors to the Cambridge collection could hardly have anticipated the explosion of interest in the idea of autonomy in language teaching and learning that we are now experiencing. The aim of this chapter, therefore, is to revisit the issue of what we understand by autonomy from the perspective of the difficulty that we seem to experience in agreeing upon a single definition of the term. What strategies do we have to 'make sense of' the concept of autonomy in the light of this difficulty and how are they related to the broader context of growing worldwide interest in autonomy in language learning?.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMaintaining control
Subtitle of host publicationAutonomy and language learning
EditorsRichard Pemberton, Sarah Toogood, Andy Barfield
Place of PublicationHong Kong
PublisherHong Kong University Press, HKU
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9789888052547
ISBN (Print)9789622099234, 9789622099548
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


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