E is for Ecology

14 02 2010

… or Ecological Linguistics, or even Ecolinguistics. There’s no entry for any of these in An A-Z of ELT, but I think there ought to be. (There are entries for the related concepts affordance and emergence, however).

Why ecology? Since its first application to linguistics, two decades ago, the ecological perspective has offered an alternative to the somewhat mechanistic and de-contextualised ‘computing’ metaphor for language learning, with its inputs, outputs and feedback. The ecological perspective situates language and language learning, not in the head, but in its social and cultural contexts – the linguistic ecosystem, if you like.  Just as organisms adapt to their environments, and in so doing shape their environments, so to do speakers use language both to integrate into, and to influence, their discourse communities.  Through this reciprocal process of interaction and mutual adaptation, the linguistic system (both the individual’s and the community’s) evolves.

This, at least, is the view propounded in a number of recent publications, including Leo van Lier’s The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning (2004) and Larsen-Freeman and Cameron’s Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics (2008).

Van Lier, for example, identifies the following concepts that underpin an ecological approach to language and language learning:

1. Relations: “If we see language as a system of relations, rather than a collection of objects, a number of consequences follow in terms of… how we conceptualize learning” (p. 5) e.g. that it involves acquiring the capacity to relate more effectively to people in the world.

2. Context: Ecological linguistics (EL) “regards context as not just something that surrounds language, but that in fact defines language, while at the same time being defined by it” (ibid.).

3. Patterns, systems: “EL sees language as patterns of patterns, and systems of systems” (ibid.)

4. Emergence: “EL regards language learning not as gradual, linear acquisition, but as emergence. Emergence happens when relatively simple elements combine together to form a higher-order system” (ibid.)

5. Diversity:  “In biology, diversity is essential in an ecosystem” (p. 7) Van Lier argues for “the value of having different learners and teachers in a class (or school)” and that the target language should not be presented as “one monolithic standardized code, but a collection of dialects, genres and registers” (ibid.)

6. Activity: Language is activity, and emerges out of activity: “We visualize a community of practice in which learners go about the business of learning by carrying out activities of various kinds, working together, side by side, or on their own” (p. 8 )

Van Lier uses, as an analogy, the self-organizing nature of learning how to play a game:

How do kids learn the rules of playing soccer?  Certainly not by being lectured on them for several years.  They learn by participating in certain practices.  Two pivotal practices in this respect are a) playing the game; and b) participating in stories and comments about the game perhaps combined with watching games.  When they start playing, children tend to run after the ball in a single swarm, kicking it around in seemingly random directions.  Then at some point a ‘feel for the game’  emerges.  The game reorganises itself (not for all players at once, but for some) from ‘running after the ball where ever it rolls’ to ‘moving the ball around collaboratively in strategic ways.’  At that point the rules of the game become learnable, in an interaction between bottom-up discovery, and top-down instruction, within the social context of playing the game (p.81).

Arguably this analogy applies as much to language learning as it does to soccer. (In fact, playing games using language may be the best of both worlds).  In short, an ecological perspective argues that learning involves “aligning one’s resources with situational demands and shaping the environment to match the language resources one brings. …  In sum, acquisition is social practice” (Canagarajah, 2007).

This is all very well – in the kinds of non-classroom situations in which becoming socialized is a strong motivating factor. But how do you turn the classroom into an eco-system where “relating in a second language” matters? How, in short, do you create the conditions where language emerges in the way that football emerges in the playground?



12 responses

14 02 2010

I’m interested in the diversity idea you mention here. I wonder if there isn’t an optimum time for one teacher to have the same students, much as there appears to be an optimum time for most managers to manage a football team effectively – say, three years. After that, the lack of diversity tends to corrupt what has hitherto been a mutually profitable relationship.

15 02 2010
Mike Harrison

Or diversity in relation to the optimum number of teachers to a group. Is it best to have one teacher for a group for a period of time (say, the academic year) or several? What are the concrete benefits of being exposed to different teaching styles and ideas as opposed to any confusion that may be caused by having several teachers (‘Teacher X said we should give this homework to you’ ‘I didn’t do the work because I thought it was for Y’s class’)?

16 02 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comments on diversity: I found van Lier’s ecological perspective refreshing, i.e. the notion that diversity (as in mixed abilities, mixed levels, different learning styles etc) should be viewed less as an inconvenience and more as a resource (or set of affordances). Of course, diversity is only a problem if you are trying to frog-march everyone towards a very narrowly-defined objective, such as “mastering the present perfect continuous.” If your goals are defined in terms of a collaborative task outcome (as in football) then everyone brings to the task their particualr skills, and it is in the interests of those with many skills to induct those with fewer.

15 02 2010
Fernando Guarany Jr

Hi, everyone! 🙂

Interesting post, Scott.

Re: “. . . how do you turn the classroom into an eco-system where “relating in a second language” matters? How, in short, do you create the conditions where language emerges in the way that football emerges in the playground?”

Seems like part of the answer has already been given in the post above: “They learn by participating in certain practices. Two pivotal practices in this respect are a) playing the game; and b) participating in stories and comments about the game perhaps combined with watching games.”

Any resemblance to Dogme ELT is not purely coincidental: “play the game of” speaking the language naturally with your students”; monitor for the learners’ output and make it the input of the “game”; ask players to write a summary of the match and recycle the language in future meetings; don’t be the know-all coach “who lectures the players for several years.”; don’t simply follow and pour your football coach manual ideas on the players, but jointly construct learning and knowlege with them . . .

Ring any bells? 😉


15 02 2010
Luke Meddings

Fernando I don’t know what you are referring to! Well the metaphor is a dangerous one if we extend it to the British School of soccer management. That involves throwing plenty of tea-cups at the players and shouting a lot.
One of my favourite moments as a junior football coach was when a frustrated opposition manager screamed at his 8 year-olds, ‘Everybody, RUN TO THE BALL!’ Having read Scott’s posting, I now understand that he had regressed to the swarm stage.
Well I would say the metaphor might be this: the ball is conversation. The key is to keep the ball moving. Every so often you stop and focus on one aspect of ball control. But then let the game/conversation carry on – it’s no good focusing on trapping the ball with the instep and then telling people to do it all the time in the next bit of match practice. Like fitting the present perfect continous into a conversation, it can’t be done. Or should I say it hasn’t been being done.
Finally, all footballers really want to do is play football (I am talking about amateur footballers and not their professional counterparts who spend so much time texting photographs of themselves to admirers). It’s no good spending all the time on skills and none on having a match or everyone will get bored.
That metaphor was a bit mixed. Time to throw some teacups.

15 02 2010
Fernando Guarany Jr

Ouch, Luke!

Just been hit by one of your teacups!

I’d hoped my comment wouldn’t come across as totally nonsense, but would add to the discussion. Seems like I’ve embarassingly missed the mark.

What I had in mind was kids playing football on a Sunday afternoon with possibly the neighbourhood coach managing them. No “British School of soccer”, no “photograph texting”, “no teacup throwing”, no hooligans whatsoever.

16 02 2010
Luke Meddings

Hi Fernando, not at all! I loved your post. It just led me to think about football and I was trying to be humorous – in a pretty clumsy way – whilst running with your metaphor. I wasn’t aiming a tea-cup at anyone, least of all you. I think football makes me over-excited. Luke

4 03 2010

Interesting post – what Scott says about seeing learner variables as a resource rather than a hinderance is refreshing. Also, the football metaphor can be applied in so many ways and to so many aspects of our work – not least in that it recognises differing learner purposes and goals (no pun intended). Not all players need the silky skills of Messi or Ronaldo to do their job well – some player, in particular defenders in what Luke refers to as the “British School”, just need to be able to get hold of the ball and kick it as far up field as possible in order to relieve pressure on their golalkeeper!

Likewise, students have different language goals and purposes…hopefully you get the point.

17 03 2010
R. Suresh Babu

Dear Sir,
I would like to share some ideas of mine. I am a School teacher, teaching English as a second language.
“I don’t think it is possible in a classroom, where the language is not the mother tongue of the students. The synthesis of a language (second language) with social practices, customs, or culture is practically unfeasible. Relating in a second language is not possible, when the child can’t think; assimilate into the language due to the cultural and customary differences. Perhaps, there may be some exceptions too. Situations can be simulated in the classroom where students can comprehend, interact and even make opinions. But, this may also be possible outside the classroom only in an urbanized society, where the values and life style are westernized”.
With highest regards,

17 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

Interesting point, Suresh, and thanks for making it. If I understand you, children can only think and interact in one language at a time – their home language, primarily. Yet this argument would seem to be contradicted by the countless numbers of children who grow up with two or more languages concurrently – e.g. immigrant children, children with mixed nationality parents, children in immersion classroom settings etc – where the capacity to switch codes and even cultures is seemingly effortless. Of course, you could argue that these are all cases of multi-lingualism in optimal settings, with maximum exposure and support. But this is the precisely the argument that advocates of “ecological language teaching” would make – that the classroom dynamic can also be constructed and nurtured in such a way as to promote the social (including ludic) uses of language, where the emphasis is less on the code and more on use.

19 03 2010
Alastair Grant

Being a fan (not a hooligan, I wear glasses) of Ecolinguistics, I’d say that the effects, or even “symptoms” of these ideas are often more down-to-earth and visible than we give them credit for.

Last year I had a student who was a big fan of the English pop group McFly. On hearing the line “I should’ve known much better”, she asked me what the expression was trying to say, and then liberally deployed it in spoken and written work for weeks afterwards. This was, incidentally, months before she would have encountered modals for past criticism in the syllabus.

The American cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser, pointed out that if a person wants to pick a particular apple from a tree, the others aren’t filtered out, the person just doesn’t pick them. I think our students often pick and choose what they see as necessary and useful from the ecolinguistic environment, depending on their personal motivations.

Responding to that (the shadow of Dogme suddenly falls across this post!) is part of being a good teacher. I’m trying!

20 03 2010
Scott Thornbury

I think our students often pick and choose what they see as necessary and useful from the ecolinguistic environment, depending on their personal motivations.

Which is what Dick Allwright might call ‘learning opportunities’ and Leo van Lier would call ‘affordances’. Either way, a classroom ecology – like a biological one – that is both diverse and dynamic – would seem to offer more affordances than one that is not. Put another way, a lesson that is focused almost exclusively on the teaching of an isolated grammar item (like the third condtional) is unlikely to supply abundant affordances.

Thanks Alistair, for your comment!

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