Social learning and second language acquisition

Woman with a study groupTo understand the latest thinking in second language acquisition (SLA) theory don’t think of the student who is diligently studying French grammar and verb conjugation in the hope of someday traveling to Paris and speaking flawless French.

Think instead of the immigrant from Mexico or India or the Middle East who is less concerned with speaking flawless English than with negotiating the challenges of daily life. Unlike the student of French memorizing verb tenses for a future conversation, the immigrant is a language learner and language user all at once and is working with the concept of verb tenses while buying food, getting directions, assimilating in a new community and holding down a job.

Social interactions are not so much occasions to “practice” language skills that have already been acquired but are the true source of learning a second language, according to a recent issue of The Modern Language JournalThe special issue on SLA focuses on the impact on second language acquisition theory of a landmark 1997 article by Alan Firth and Johannes Wagner, “On discourse, communication, and (some) fundamental concepts in SLA (second language acquisition) research.”

“We want to be clear on this point,” write contributors James Lantolf and Karen Johnson of The Pennsylvania State University who write about the impact of the latest theory on classroom practice. “The argument is not that social activity influences cognition, but that social activity is the process through which human cognition is formed.

“From this perspective, the activity of teaching and learning language is not focused on language as a stable, rule-governed linguistic system that must be acquired before people can engage in communication,” they write. “Instead, it is concerned with enhancing language learners’ communicative resources, which are formed and reformed in the very activity in which they are used–concrete, linguistically mediated social and intellectual activity.”

Linguists have viewed language as a pristine skyscraper rising above the chaos of the streets, write Lantolf and Johnson. Culture was “airbrushed out of the picture. What remained inside the circle, the now proper domain of linguistic science, included grammar, sounds, and formal meaning.” The term “languaculture” has been coined to refer to the reunification of language and culture. With the 1997 article by Firth & Wagner, there’s been a growing emphasis on the social and contextual aspects of second language acquisition, contributing authors say.

Implications for classroom

In the classroom, does this mean that language teachers should no longer be teaching their students the rules of grammar and verb conjugation?

Of course not, say Lantolf and Johnson, but it does mean that language instruction should be situated in concrete human activity rather than in the

language itself. In other words, teachers should use a concept-based approach to language instruction similar to what is used in science. Scientific concepts are coherent and generalizable (e.g. gravity) and allow students to function appropriately in the concrete circumstances in which they find themselves. Language learning should entail language use guided by conceptual knowledge, they explain.

“From the perspective of concept-based instruction, grammatical mastery is not about typical uses of grammatical forms in particular contexts; it is about conceptually understanding how grammar can be deployed in the service of the meanings a speaker (or writer) wishes to (co)construct in a particular circumstance,” the researchers write.

In the case of verb tenses, for example, learning to choose the proper verb form could be a lot easier and a lot more interesting if students developed a conscious knowledge of when to use a verb tense instead of relying on intuition or a memorized rule.

Two important features of concept-based instruction, visualization and verbalization, are different from most approaches to language instruction, the researchers say.

To visualize and verbalize their understanding of the use of a verb tense, students can use a schema such as the Schema for the Orienting Basis of Action developed in previous research. Students learning Spanish, for instance, could ask and answer the following questions to guide the choice of verb tense:

  • Is the action cyclic?
  • Does the verb emphasize the beginning of an action?
  • Does it emphasize the action as ongoing?

How the students answer these questions determines the appropriate verb tense.

Meaning and constructing meaning are in the foreground of learning and teaching in most courses. The same should happen with language courses, if second language acquisition is viewed from the social learning perspective of Firth & Wagner’s work, according to the authors.

“We would expect L2 teachers to spend less time explaining whether an utterance is right or wrong and more time exploring with learners how an utterance positions the speaker in relation to others,” they say.

“Extending Firth and Wagner’s (1997) Ontological Perspective to L2 Classroom Praxis and Teacher Education,” by James Lantolf and Karen Johnson, The Modern Language Journal, Volume 91, 2007, pp. 877-892.

Published in ERN April 2008 Volume 21 Number 4

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