M is for Mind

22 04 2012

Words come out of the mouth and go into the ear. But they’re stored in the mind. And retrieved from the mind. And understood in the mind. They’re also learned in the mind.

That, at least, is the conventional wisdom – especially from the point of view of cognitive psychology. ‘Language is instantiated in the minds and therefore the brains of language users, so that linguistics is to be regarded as a branch of psychology’. Thus argues Ray Jackendoff (2002: xiv). Chomsky, of course, took this view to an extreme: the observable messiness of language in use (or performance) ‘surely cannot constitute the actual subject matter of linguistics’ (1965: 4). Rather, ‘linguistic theory is mentalistic, since it is concerned with discovering a mental reality [or competence] underlying such behaviour’ (ibid.).

Theories of second language acquisition follow suit: ‘Second language acquisition is first and foremost a mental process – one that occurs in a behavioural and social context, to be sure, but fundamentally a matter of acquiring a new knowledge system.  Cognition and cognitive factors, therefore, are central to any account of how and why SLA works’ (Long & Richards 2001, p.vii) . Anything else, such as the social contexts in which language is used, or the physical stuff of the brain itself, or even the body in which the mind/brain is housed, are considered marginal, messy, uninteresting – mere noise.

The earliest example I could find of a computer in a coursebook: Headway Intermediate (1986)

Not only is language a mental phenomenon, according to this view, but the ‘mind’ of which it is a product is construed as a kind of computer (or as Pinker [1997: 92] charmingly puts it ‘the on-board computer of a robot made of tissue’). Hence, ‘mental life can be explained in terms of a computational process’ (Johnson-Laird, 1988: 26). Or, put another way, cognition – and, by extension, learning – is basically information-processing.  Furthermore, because of the limitations on the amount of attention that humans can allocate to any particular cognitive task at any one time, this processing is necessarily controlled before it is automatic. In short, humans are ‘limited capacity processors of information’.

This applies equally to language learning, both first and other. As McLaughlin (1987: 133) puts it:

Within this framework, second-language learning is viewed as the acquisition of complex cognitive skill.  To learn a second language is to learn a skill, because various aspects of the task must be practised and integrated into fluent performance.  This requires the automatization of component sub-skills.  Learning is a cognitive process, because it is thought to involve internal representations that regulate and guide performance.

Because learning is a cognitive process, this ‘information processing’ view of learning is known as a cognitivist one, and the metaphor that best captures it is MIND IS COMPUTER.  Associated with this model, therefore, we find a host of information-processing terms like input, intake, output, feedback, automatization, filters, as well as the term processing itself. And, because cognition is implicated, we find a further set of terms like noticing, attention, consciousness-raising, and restructuring.

from Reward (1994)

How does this actually impact on current methodology?  On the one hand, you could argue that all these various models of mind and language operate at a level far removed from actual classroom practice, and that teachers carry on doing what they’ve always done – that is, teaching effectively.  On the other hand, you could also argue that the ‘mind is a computer’ metaphor has percolated down (or up?) and underpins many of our methodological practices and materials, including the idea that language learning is systematic, linear, incremental, enclosed, uniform, dependent on input and practice, independent of its social context, de-humanized, disembodied,  … and so on.

It is a model of language learning that, arguably, turns the learner into an automaton –  ‘a robot made of tissue’.  As David Block (2003: 97) notes, ‘in the ideal world of cognitive scientists, the human mind is still conceived of as dependent on external stimuli to which it responds…The adoption of the computer metaphor of input-output does not disguise the fact that there is still a view of mental behaviour as systematic and mechanistic’.

Is there an alternative model – an alternative metaphor, even?

Block (2003: 93) goes on to argue that there are ‘a growing number of scholars who subscribe to the view that mental processes are as social as they are individual and external as they are internal’. (Some of these approaches I’ve referenced in previous posts, such as E is for Ecology, A is for Affordance and B is for Body). Contrasting cognitive with what they loosely call sociocultural approaches, Foster and Ohta (2005:  403) note that, for the latter

Language development is essentially a social process.  These approaches view mind as distributed and learning as something inter-mental, embedded in social interaction.  This means that individuals and environments mutually constitute one another and persons are not considered to be separable from the environments and interactions through which language development occurs.  In this view, knowledge is not owned solely by the learner, but is also a property of social settings and the interface between person and social context.

Elementary Matters (1997)

The distributed nature of mind is a core tenet of theories of ‘situated cognition’, neatly captured here by Clark (2011: 70):

Extended systems theorists… reject the image of mind as a kind of input-output sandwich with cognition as the filling….  Instead, we confront an image of the local mechanisms of human cognition quite literally bleeding out into body and world.

What, I wonder, would be the characteristics of a methodology that subscribed to this distributed, ‘leaky’, and co-adaptive view of mind? And, specifically, what are the correlates of input and of noticing, in this alternative to a computational, information-processing model of language learning?


Block, D.  (2003) The Social Turn In Second Language Acquisition, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Clark, A. (2011) Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.

Foster, P. and Ohta, A. (2005) ‘Negotiation for meaning and peer assistance in second language classrooms’, Applied Linguistics, 26, 3,

Jackendoff, R. (2002) Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson-Laird, P.  N.  (1988) The Computer and the Mind: An Introduction to Cognitive Science, Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Long, M. and Richards, J. (2001) ‘Series editors’ preface’, in Robinson, P.  (Ed.)  Cognition and Second Language Instruction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLaughlin, B. (1987) Theories of Second-and Language Learning, London: Edward Arnold.

Pinker, S. (1997) How The Mind Works, London: Penguin.



31 responses

22 04 2012
Jason West (@EnglishOutThere)

Social data for the brain, lots of it. Linguistic cognition in terms of speech production is inherently social. Feeding in the right data is v important. This might interest, posted this week https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aox9BY_O5WE&feature=youtube_gdata_player

23 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jason. I’m not sure I understand what you mean by ‘social data’ — judging by the video, what you describe is very much an information-processing model of communication, in which data streams are unscrambled and decoded in the disembodied computer of the mind. That this takes place in a social context doesn’t reduce the force of the computational metaphor you seem to subscribe to, and the one that I was attempting to challenge. But thanks for kicking the discussion off!

22 04 2012
Gareth Knight

Blimey, Scott. The analogy of the computer could upgrade to an analogy of the ‘conscious quantum computer’: a Unified Field of thought and spirit. The method can be called ‘learning by heart’, and should assume cognitive and affective cannot be separated (many cultures have known for millennia not to separate these). As a learner my process becomes one of asking how does the discourse relate to my beliefs, thoughts, and intentions, and how do these affect the world around me?

23 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Gareth. In fact both Pinker and Johnson-Laird (see references in my original post) factor emotions into their computational model of mind. Johnson-Laird, for example, argues that ‘feelings can be explained within a framework that brings together natural selection and computational view of the mind. And so perhaps a robot could have feelings’ (p. 383). But he adds that ‘the only way in which a robot could experience the same feelings as we do would be if it had the same needs and social goals and was controlled by the same internal codes as we are’ (p. 384).

22 04 2012
James Quartley

Another interesting post, Scott (aren’t they always?)

The Block book is a fine discussion on the narrowness of SLA research generally (following other socially minded views Firth & Wagner 1997, 2007, Zeungler & Miller 2006). By examining what we mean by second, language and acquisition, Block raises questions which serve to highlight how these loaded terms have affected the SLA research and the apparent vacuum that much research resides in (characterised by the unit level analysis of language –a computational view of language learning as proposed by structuralism, generativism, functionalism, etc) and how the Input-Interaction-Output (IIO) model, as described by Block, has largely divorced itself from both the influence of the social dimension of learners and language and the practical experiences of teaching practitioners in the classroom. Taking account of the social and practical has enormous repercussions for the relative ‘success’ of an individual in the SLA process, although it may not take us any closer to a ‘universal’ theory or approach for SLA as a whole, which I suspect is the driving force behind the narrow (‘traditional’?) field of SLA of Long, Gass, etc -the search for the ultimate answer to the ultimate question.

The introduction of sociolinguistic questions adds a layer of complexity and variability that may mean that a grand-unifying theory may be impossible to achieve or, at best, either dismissive of the possible scale of sociolinguistic influences in SLA outcomes (on any measure of assessing language competency), or be over generalised to such an extent that it does not accurately describe a useful universal for language acquisition as a whole. Accounting for and weighting the social elements in accordance with the needs of a general theory are potentially difficult and I believe that resistance by some to fully incorporating sociolinguistic ideas in to SLA is because these social dimensions take us further away from an all-encompassing theory. In much the same way as results from research in corpus linguistics have shown a much deeper level of intricacy and variation than had hitherto been recognised (Stubbs 2003), the notion that we may be able to abstract SLA in to small fixed building blocks that describe the language learning process at work seems to miss the elephant in the room –all of learners’ individual social and cultural identities– and how they impact on the nuts and bolts of the fixed system.

23 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, James. And thanks for that lucid summary of the gist of Block’s argument. Just to follow up, here is a bit of a cut-and-past of stuff I had to leave out of the original post, in the interests of length:

In her recent book on SLA (2009), Lourdes Ortega summarises the net effect of these ‘new social perspectives’ in which “additional language learning is not only shaped by the social context in which it happens; it is bound inextricably to such context” (p. 217).

Likewise, Atkinson (2010a: 611), explores the way that learning – and in this case, second language learning – is a socially-situated, adaptive behaviour, a process “of continuously and progressively fitting oneself to one’s environment, often with the help of guides”. Atkinson proposes what he calls ‘the alignment principle’: “Learning is more discovering how to align with the world than extracting knowledge from it” (2010a: 610). According to this view, “cognition is a node in an ecological network comprising mind-body-world – it is part of a relationship” (Atkinson 2011, p. 143). Thus, what learners notice is what they want or need to notice: “We devote attentional resources to something not because it exists, but because it is potentially important for our survival and prosperity …. What really matters to a person — what is adaptive — is what gets attended” (Atkinson, 2010b, p. 35).

Atkinson, D. (2010a) ‘Extended, embodied cognition and second language acquisition’, Applied Linguistics, 31, 599-622.

Atkinson, D. (2010b) ‘Sociocognition: What it can mean for second language acquisition’, in Batstone, R. (ed.) Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp24-39.

Atkinson, D. (2011) ‘Sociocognitive approaches to second language acquisition: How mind, body, and world work together in learning additional languages’, in Atkinson, D. (ed.) Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition, London: Routledge, pp 143 – 166.

Ortega, L. (2009) Understanding Second Language Acquisition, London: Hodder Education.

23 04 2012
James Quartley

Scott, thanks for alerting me to those articles.

22 04 2012
Naomi Epstein (@naomishema)

Sorry to trouble you again with Deaf students learning a foreign language but they simply exemplify the intricacy of those nuts and bolts you mention. How else can it be explained that one can find a deaf child of deaf parents who are immigrants and communicate in a foreign sign language (not one used in school) can acquire top level reading and writing skills in English as a foreign language? While a hearing peer, exposed to a society in which English as a foreign language is visibly present has a dismal mastery of the language?
There are so many elements involved! I for one, do not find that the “computer model” is able to describe the huge variety I see in my classes.
Naomi Epstein

23 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Naomi – don’t apologise! This perspective is fascinating – and, as you say, suggests that there is a lot more going on here than simply computation. As James (above) so neatly puts it: “The notion that we may be able to abstract SLA in to small fixed building blocks that describe the language learning process at work seems to miss the elephant in the room –all of learners’ individual social and cultural identities– and how they impact on the nuts and bolts of the fixed system”.

23 04 2012

Mindfully, Scott asks: What, I wonder, would be the characteristics of a methodology that subscribed to this distributed, ‘leaky’, and co-adaptive view of mind? And, specifically, what are the correlates of input and of noticing, in this alternative to a computational, information-processing model of language learning?

Great questions that in my view re-instate the role of the teacher as central to classroom language learning activity. To me a key response to these questions is to understand the PROCESS of mediation thoroughly, and then apply it to the classroom using dialogic teaching principles. A great place to start, as I’m sure you, Scott, already have in “mind” is Lantolf & Thorne (2006), a fairly heavy theoretical read but with plenty of practical applications built in.

IMHO: Correlate for input/output = co-constructed language (or joint languaging), which when effectively mediated (by teacher and/or co-learners) will lead to “noticing” of gaps in meaning-related language use.

Of course, pedagogy associated with genre-based teaching works with these principles.

Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

Lantolf, J.P. & Thorne, S., (2006), Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development, Oxford University Press, Oxford

23 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Phil – for painting in the sociocultural background.

I’m particularly interested in studies that reinterpret data, originally analysed from a cognitive, input-output perspective, from a sociocultural perspective of joint construction and assisted performance. For example, Merrill Swain (2000), re-construes an earlier study of learner-learner negotiation for meaning (NfM), in which she hypothesised that NfM caused noticing, as ‘collaborative dialogue’, in which ‘the issue is NOT one of making a message more comprehensible, but rather of building, and building on, what each interlocuter has said to create new knowledge and solve problems’. (This is summarised in an excellent new book by Swain, Kinnear and Steinmann, called Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education: An Introduction to Narratives, Multilingual Matters, 2011).

Likewise, Foster and Ohta (2005) analyse the same classroom data from the two different theoretical perspectives, and find that, in many instances, there was very little negotiation for meaning in various paired information gap tasks, but instead ‘learner assistance to one another often resulted in assisted performance — the creation of utterances that incorporated the assistance of another’ (p. 414).

23 04 2012
Carol Goodey

Thanks Scott and everyone who’s commented for a very interesting discussion. It’s such a complex area that it can’t be enough to reject one metaphor or view of language learning and simply look to replace it with another. It seems that we may have to approach things and see things differently. Think of it as a mess rather than a difficulty, as Adrian Underhill suggested at IATEFL in Glasgow this year, and rather trying to control, connect.

23 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Carol — and I agree that simply replacing one metaphor with another Is probably not the way to go.

Merrill Swain has this to say: ‘I am sympathetic to the view that metaphors guide our work, in ways in which we are often unaware. In an article analysing two metaphors for “learning” — the “acquisition metaphor” and the newer “participation metaphor” — Sfard (1998) concluded that the conceptual frameworks generated by each offer “differing perspectives rather than competing opinions”, incomensurabability rather than incompatability. This provides me with some hope that differing perspectives will be seen as enriching and complementary’.

(Swain, M. 2000.’The output hypothesis and beyond: mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue”, in Lantolf, J.P. (Ed.) Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning, Oxford University Press, p.103)

23 04 2012
Wolfgang Butzkamm

Dear Scott, right at the beginning you are being terribly unfair with regard to the cognitivist position. “SLA is first and foremost a mental process, one that occurs in a behavioural and social context, to be sure…The social contexts in which language is used… are considered marginal, messy, uninteresting – mere noise.” Nobody in his right mind has ever said that or meant it in that way. You are putting up a strawman here , I’m afraid. The social contexts, after all, are the products of other minds, which may be messy and uninteresting at times, but only very rarely for infants picking up their language from them, and never mere noise. In fact what infants get is high doses of comprehensible, meaningful and grammatical input (not foreigner talk), and they come equipped with minds able to detect the patterns behind meaningful utterances. In learning a language, we learn to use these patterned constructions, in other words we make “infinite use of finite means” (as Humboldt put it). Pinker , in the fascinating book you quote, calls this “compositionality”, for him the quintessential property of language, which, translated into methodology, is the “generative principle”. Here we come close to real classroom practice , see Butzkamm & Caldwell The bilingual reform…(2009) .

Yes, in comparison, the social contexts which shape the input may be called “marginal”, but only in a certain sense. First language acquisition is rather a robust thing and does occur also in contexts of little love and parental concern. But don’t we all know that parent child interactions normally occur in a context of love and care, and these emotions (facial expressions, quality of voice, body contact etc.) must also be seen as pieces of mental information to be processed by human minds. Thus, it makes no sense here to revive the romantic dichotomy of cold intellect (“automaton”, “dehumanized”) and our social and emotional lives, because, from a cognitive point of view, we are always dealing with mental phenomena to be processed as incoming information.

23 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Wolfgang, for your corrective comment. Maybe I exaggerated the ‘noise’ issue, but isn’t it true that the diehard cognitivists are failry resistant to the idea of (second) language acquisition being anything other than a mental phenomenon, and a mental phenomenon fairly immune to social and contextual influences. Thus, Michael Long: ‘Given … that most SLA researchers are, in my view, correctly, endeavouring to understand a mental process and a changing mental representation of the L2, or interlanguage grammar, cognitive variables are for them inevitably and justifiably a central focus’ and he voices a strong scepticism ‘as to whether greater insights into SL use will necessarily have much to say about SL acquisition‘ (Long, M. 1997. ‘Construct validity in SLA research: a response to Firth and Wagner’, Modern Language Journal 81).

This seems to me to be a very similar position to Chomsky’s, i.e. performance data (use) is of little interest in terms of identifying competence (and the acqusition thereof). It is — if you like — noise.

23 04 2012
James Quartley

Scott, I think you rightly point out an obstructive attitude from the cognitivists.
Long (1998) wrote about SLA being ‘under siege’.
Gass (2000), in a challenge to Firth and Wagner’s (1997) discussion on ‘learner’s other identities other than learner’, states;
‘these categories are not included [in the SLA empirical paradigm] because they are not deemed to be relevant to the question at hand, which is: How are second languages acquired and what is the nature of the learner systems?’

Sounds pretty defensive and not plausible, unless you learn language in a laboratory. Given some of the discussions in this thread and the increasing number of ‘challenger’ literature picking holes in the cognitivistic stance, the process of language acquisition is clearly more complex than any one theory has managed to account for. Invitation enough for social factors to lend a hand in the process.

23 04 2012

‘Language is instantiated in the minds and therefore the brains of language users, so that linguistics is to be regarded as a branch of psychology’.

This view ignores the root word ‘psyche’ in psychology, a word that does not mean brain. Psyche was the lover of Eros, after all. Just as Freud has been accused of placing too much emphasis on the phallus (not saying he actually did), cognitive science seems to fixate on a larger organ, relating everything we feel and say to a particular part of the brain. Brain science is exciting, and inherently materialistic, part of the dominant myth of our times.

As a teacher, I’d prefer my colleagues to help sort out ‘the mess’ (Thanks, Carol, for the Underhill reference) rather than resolve the ultimate difficulty, whatever that may be. We don’t have to be heroes, just compassionate and thoughtful professionals, to carry on teaching and learning.

Is this why Earl Stevick got out of ELT? 🙂

Thanks, Scott, for this post, and all the others.


23 04 2012

Sorry for posting here twice, Scott, but this article seemed ever so timely: http://www.salon.com/2012/04/23/post_literate_media//

24 04 2012

And again, I must apologize for yet a third consecutive post, but this synchronicity seems to be rippling out. This evening, I started a book by Hillman, which I’ve been eager to delve into. Hillman cites a passage from How the Mind Works (Pinker, 1997) as a prime example of how the “hustlers of materialism” purvey their goods.

Hillman goes on to this quotation from physicist Richard Feynman’s as part of a sound and persuasive dismissal of “the [cognitive scientists’] idea that we are complex pieces of biotechnology, best compared with the newest computer chips”:

“The thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance…. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance and then go out – there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.”

Our bodies are constantly changing, yet we remain the same. We are more than a physiological phenomenon. Hillman turns to the Greek classics and philosophers of the centuries for metaphors. We might do well to follow suit.

Hillman, J. (1999), The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, New York: Random House, pp. 3-10.

Feynman, R. (1998), What Do You [italicized] Care What Other People Think?, New York: Bantam, p. 244.

24 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob – never too many comments from you!

The metaphor of the dancing atoms is evocative – but it also puts me in mind of connectionist models of how neural networks presumably become strengthened by repeated synaptic firings, behaving as if they were operating according to acquired rules, as in a cognitivist model, but in fact operating purely probabilistically, on the basis of previous experience. I’d always been attracted to this model, as it seemed to be consistent with the complex systems position that order is an emergent property, and seems to explain how frequency of encounter impacts on systems formation, including language acquisition (or, better, language emergence). But, at the same time, this seems all very ‘brain-centred’ – and the fact that human neural networks are being modelled by computer programs should be cause for alarm!

How does a connectionist model square with a social-ecological one, which, in the words of Churchill et. al, holds that “brains are in bodies, bodies are in the world, and meaningful action in these worlds is in large part socially constructed and conducted” (2010: 237).

Churchill, E., Okada, H., Nishino, T., and Atkinson, D. (2010) ‘Symbiotic gesture and the sociocognitive visibility of grammar in second language acquisition’. The Modern Language Journal, 94, 234-53.


25 04 2012

Interesting post as always. I don’t usually leave comments because of limited time (and limited insights on my part). I seem to remember something I read by Chomsky where he said that European culture tended to have its world-view shaped by the prevalent tools of the time. He used as example Descartes’ analogy of animals being highly complicated clocks, with the gears being too fine for human eyes and minds to understand. I suppose that computers have been our new lens for viewing the human mind.

I always enjoy reading posts that touch on the idea of “emergence”, order arising through large amounts of interaction. Not to get too metaphysical, but from atoms to cells, organs to person, people to environment, the human experience seems to be a collection of interacting systems of emerging patterns. I like watching my students’ minds at work because it reassures me that they are engaging deeply with the language, but without a good classroom environment, their minds wouldn’t be “processing” much. If the mind is a cellular computer, someone needs to be at the keyboard… or at least turn the machine on, right?

26 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

“Not to get too metaphysical, but from atoms to cells, organs to person, people to environment, the human experience seems to be a collection of interacting systems of emerging patterns.”

Thanks for the comment Nick. Judging from the above, you seem to have anticipated next week’s topic!

25 04 2012

Is it again that we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater? While
I base my methodology around Vygotsky’s SCT of ‘MIND’ I use other methodologies/approaches as and when needed. Not one approach is always the best. Hence, the whole Ecclectic argument. Could this not be the same with insights gained from other theories of SLA?

26 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Roger. Without necessarily being eclectic (which has shades of being unprincipled) It does seem possible to combine a cognitive account of learning with a socially-situated one, and this is very much the thrust of some recent articles and books, e.g. the collection Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning, edited by Rob Batstone (Oxford University Press, 2010) in which the claim is that “neither language use nor language learning can be adequately defined or understood without recognising that they have both a social and a cognitive dimension which interact” (p.5).

26 04 2012
Richard Gresswell

Hi, Scott, great post as always. At the end of your article you suggest a need for alternative or perhaps complementary metaphors beyond perceiving second language aquisition (SLA) as a ‘mental’ process. You then go on to consider what the implications of broadening our understanding from a social perspective might hold for methodology in the ELT (English language teaching) classroom.

To me language learning is inseparable from its social use, after all as Wittgenstein famously said,

‘the meaning of the word is in its use’,

and I don’t think the cognitivists would disagree with that either.

But as you point out it’s the view of SLA as a mental process that remains central and dominant and is clearly reproduced in the day to day classroom practices of English language teachers. So how about alternative metaphors then? Well, I would like to mention the work of Norman Fairclough and in particular his book ‘Discourse and Social Change’ (1992). The reason why I mention Fairclough’s work is because of the way he so clearly articulates the significance of the ‘language in use’ perspective in his ‘social theory of discourse’. This is what he says (p63):

In using the term ‘discourse’, I am proposing to regard language use as a form of social practice, rather than a purely individual activity or a reflex of situational variables. This has various implications. Firstly it implies that discourse is a mode of action, one form in which people may act upon the world and especially upon each other, as well as a mode of representation.

Language as ‘social action’ is the metaphor I would like to bring into this important discussion, one that ties language use and of course language learning to the lives of the learners in every respect. But what does this mean for the ELT classroom, why is language as social action significant?

As an ESOL teacher, my position has been, over the last few years at least, that the way the learners can construct themselves as people in the classroom is so fundamental. I became aware through my work, that ESOL literacy learners, those who had been denied opportunities to education as youngsters were being further marginalised in mainstream adult education in the UK, on account of the challenges ‘written text’ posed for them. What struck me was the way these often ‘multilingual learners’ constructed their identities as ‘illiterate’ within the ‘skills’ driven perspective of ESOL provision. Educationally, literacy is considered as a skill, a quality of the individual, a sub-set of skills, acquired by the individual through mental processes. The implications of this are that learners are identitfied as being good, able, motivated, lazy, stupid etc etc, identities that are falsely ascribed as a consequence of an understanding that ‘learning’ of any kind is an ‘ability and responsibility’ of the individual. Incidentally these are the same ‘ascriptions’ of identity that are levelled at teachers, good teachers, bad teachers and all that – and we all know the challenges of working within the walls of educational social structures, don’t we? So we can’t and mustn’t ignore the social perspective – we must take on board a notion of language as social action.

But what does this mean for the classroom and everyday practice. If language is action, i.e. we act on the world, ourselves and each other, then we must consider the significance of the access learners have to language resources in the classroom that enable them to act, what it is they can use, what it is they can ‘bring in’. For instance, in my opinion, first language(s) (L1) is a resources that the learners may need to draw on in order to negotiate their language learning tasks, it is also a language they construct their identities through as a human being. Banning L1 in the ELT classroom is like handcuffing a student behind their backs. The forbidding of L1 in the ELT classroom is a practice based on ‘immersion’, skills’ perspectives (practice makes perfect) and an imperialism to boot in ELT.

There is a lot more I would like to say about this, but at I recognise that I’m moving well beyond a ‘blog comment’, I do think this discussion in relation to SLA and methodology should be brought in more centrally to teacher education. What I mean is that we need to address our core beliefs regarding how we understand language learning in formal education and how these understandings permeate our practices as teachers – central to language teacher education.

Scott, as always you seem so able to hit the most fundamental discussions in the most interesting way – thank you.

Richard Gresswell

26 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, Richard for your characteristically thoughtful and stimulating comment. I can’t do it justice, but will simply make the point that the cognitivists would take issue with the ‘social action’ metaphor, on the grounds that this is a theory of language use, not language acquisition.Of course, a sociocultural view argues that such a distinction is invalid, and that acquisition is use, and vice versa. Moreover, use implies contexts of use, and contexts of language use are always social. The absence of a social dimension in the cognitivist account seems to be its biggest weakness.

27 04 2012
Richard Gresswell

Scott, thank you for your reply, I would like to take the opportunity to build further on the point you make, being

…a sociocultural view argues that such a distinction is invalid, and that acquisition is use and vice versa. Moreover, use implies contexts of use, and contexts of language use are always social.

In taking a metaphor of language as social action we can make that connection between language in use and language acquisition through a notion of ‘identity’ – i.e. we are who we are through what we say and do, being not only representative of who we are but is also constructive of who we are. Hence we can say we are constructed as individuals, socially, in dialogue with others.

But how does this all relate to learning, and in this case language learning (or language acquisition for the purists)? Well, if we understand individuals as being socially constructed through the language they use, then their identity shifts according to the language they have access to (or not). Language learning therefore requires the ‘taking on’ of new identities. I see language learning as an embodied process, this means that as we learn we understand the world in new ways, and our relationship with that world changes in some slight way, as it very much does when we learn languages. Through language learning we are able to see the world in a different light – there is a shift, however slight, in our identity (Kress, 2010 – Multimodality). Our learning is part of us – it is not an isolated process, and therefore cannot be defined solely in cognitive terms.

As I’m aware that I’m probably not making any sense at all, I’m going to illustrate this concept through personal experience and in relation to the teaching of academic writing.

Learning to be

Over the last couple of years, my own professional life has very much been in transition from my work as an ESOL teacher to working in EFL contexts to university tutor. During that time, I’ve become aware of my own shifting identities, which on occasions are very much odds with the circumstances at that moment. Being a teacher requires coming across as ‘credible’ to the students, being credible in ESOL, EFL and in the university context requires a taking on of new language, new ways of speaking and acting in each case.

Taking on new language and behaving differently requires the taking on of new identities. You may well feel like the same person as an ESOL teacher or a uni tutor, but you have to be someone different in each case, at least in the sense of how you claim to be credible in each case. For instance, personally, there is a huge tension between ‘being academic’ while retaining my ‘learner-centred’ outlook on teaching, and that tension exists in the way I speak and behave generally, and one that exists because of the changing relations of power in each case.

And in the way I write. This tension is for me at the heart of teaching English academic writing to speakers of other languages as writing academically requires a taking on of the academic identity (at least the one which is identifiable in academia). Therefore, writing in any form cannot be understood (nor taught) as a ‘neutral skill’, it cannot and does not exist in isolation from the individual. Learning to write academic English is an embodied process of learning.

Language learners in all situations experiences these tensions, in being someone else through new language. Language should never be understood as an inanimate object to be acquired but rather as a living part of who you are.

Thank you for your time in reading this and the opportunity to engage in these lively discussions on your blog.

Richard Gresswell

27 04 2012

Interesting thoughts, Nick. I think our metaphors and analogies matter because they tell us not only about our worldview but about ourselves. I doubt ELT-ers run the risk of getting too metaphysical, but I’d love to see at least a bold attempt. 🙂


6 05 2012

Just came across this article. I couldn’t agree more: http://commonhealth.wbur.org/2012/05/questioning-popular-neuroscience

7 05 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the link, Rob. Well worth pondering on the conclusion that “we have misplaced our desire to understand our world with an over-emphasis on looking for answers in the brain”.

14 05 2012
Amany Emam

I really appreciate regarding language as a mental phenomenon since words are powered by minds.

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