T is for Turning point

28 04 2013
natalies journal

from ‘Some Writings: December 1946 – December 1947’ by Natalie Luethi Peterson (click to enlarge)

This was written by a young American woman, visiting Europe for the first time, and speaking the German she had learned at school. It describes an experience many second language speakers will attest to: the turning point – that moment when suddenly the language that had been so long a struggle, suddenly grows wings and takes flight.

For the writer Alice Kaplan (1993: 55), the turning point in her learning of French was triggered by her mastering of the elusive French ‘r’ sound:

It happened over months but it felt like it happened in one class. I opened my mouth and I opened up; it slid out, smooth and plush, a French ‘r.’ It was the sound my cat makes when she wants to go out: between a purr and a meouw, a gurgling deep in the throat. It wasn’t loud, it didn’t interrupt the other sounds. It was smooth, and suave. It felt — relaxed. It felt normal! I had it. With this ‘r’ I could speak French, I wouldn’t be screaming my Americanness every time I spoke. ‘R’ was my passport…. The ‘r’ was the biggest hurdle; my system was now in place.

For other learners, the process is less dramatic, but there is often the sense that a qualitative change has occurred. Dick Schmidt (in Schmidt and Frota 1986: 247) records this moment in his learning of Brazilian Portuguese:

Journal entry, week 18

Last night I was really up, self-confident, feeling fluent…. At one point, M said to F that she should speak more slowly for me, but I said no, please don’t, I don’t need it any more.

Natalie Lüthi Peterson 1946

Natalie Luethi Peterson in 1946

In information-processing models of language acquisition, these ‘great leaps forward’ were explained in terms of restructuring, i.e. the qualitative changes that result when information is reorganized into new categories.  As McLaughlin (1987: 138) explains it: ”Whereas some learning is seen to occur continuously by accretion … other learning is thought to occur in a discontinuous fashion, by restructuring. This discontinuity would account for second-language learners’ perceptions of sudden moments of insight or “clicks of comprehension”.  … Often learners report that this experience is followed by rapid progress, as old linguistic information and skills are fitted into this new way of understanding’ .

More recently, and according to complex systems theory, these turning points represent what are called phase shifts in the system.  Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 45) use the example of a horse changing gait from walking to trotting, or from trotting to cantering, and so on: ‘Dramatic and sudden changes of this kind are called phase shifts…. The states of the system before and after a phase shift are very different.’  And they add (2008: 59), ‘what emerges as a result of a phase shift is something different from before: a whole that is more than the sum of its parts and that cannot be explained reductively through the activity of the component parts.’

Unlike the concept of restructuring, where the system ‘yields’ to external inputs and accommodates them accordingly, a phase shift is the result of self-organization: ‘it is the dynamic properties of the system that lead it to happen, not some external organizing force’ (p. 58). Nevertheless, certain conditions seem to be conducive to phase shifts, notably a period of instability, when the system is ‘teetering on the brink of chaos’ (Larsen-Freeman and Cameron 2008: 148) – what’s otherwise known as ‘the tipping point.’

Phase shifts would seem to account for the fact that, in first language acquisition, lexical ‘spurts’ typically precede the onset of grammatical development: it seems that a critical mass of vocabulary is necessary before the grammar ‘coalesces’, as it were. Likewise, the acquisition of literacy is often experienced as a breakthrough or turning point, nicely captured in this quote from the writer Penelope Fitzgerald: ‘I began to read just after I was four. The letters on the page suddenly gave in and admitted what they stood for. They obliged me completely and all at once’ (quoted in Wolf 2010: 96).

Eadweard-Muybridge-horse-gallopingApart from these anecdotal accounts, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of literature on turning points. Under what circumstances do they tend to occur, for example, and what triggers them?  The answer to this question must be of key interest to teachers, often frustrated at learners’ lack of progress, yet aware of the possibility that a well-timed intervention on their part might be sufficient to tip the balance.

The lack of research into turning points must owe, in part, to their capricious nature: they are, almost by definition, spontaneous, swift, and unpredictable. Nevertheless, as Ke and Holland (2006: 712) observe:

Nonlinearity has two significant implications: (i) in order to understand how learning progresses, we have to pay special attention to capturing such abrupt transitions, and find out if there are particular conditions or prompts that trigger such transitions; (ii) we will expect plateau periods, and provide continuing support to learners even though at times there seems to be no significant progress.

And they quote Larsen-Freeman (2003: 112) to this effect: ‘Of course, since the language development process is non-linear, interaction may be followed by more interaction with little obvious lasting change in learners’ interlanguage. Then, one day, for any given learner, the penny will drop. All we can say for sure is that it is a very lucky teacher who is there to witness its happening.’

Have you experienced or witnessed a turning point?

References:

Kaplan, A. (1993). French lessons: A memoir, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Ke, J. & Holland, J.H. (2006) ‘Language origin from an emergentist perspective,’ Applied Linguistics, 27/4.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003) Teaching Language: From grammar to grammaring, Boston, Thomson Heinle.

Larsen-Freeman, D., & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Schmidt. R., and Frota, S. (1986) ‘Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner,’ in Day, R. (ed.). Talking to Learn: Conversation in a second language. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Wolf, M. (2010) Proust and the squid: the story of the reading brain, Cambridge: Icon Books.

Thanks to the Luethi family for permission to quote from Natalie’s archive.


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54 responses

28 04 2013
Ben Naismith

I’ve been lucky enough to have my own turning point in Spanish – when I realized that I could listen and take part in an argument with friends in a noisy bar without getting mentally exhausted or needing to ask for clarification.

With learners, one of the reasons I enjoy teaching low-level groups is that the turning points seem to occur more often, at least in my own experience, whereas with more advanced learners it seems like a bit more of a slow climb.

Any research on why/how learners are suddenly able to put it all together would be great.

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Ben. Your comment about the noisy bar makes me wonder if turning points aren’t (typically, at least) related to conditions of use, rather than conditions of learning. That is to say, they tend to happen, not in classrooms, but outside them. (That certainly seems to be the thrust of Schmidt’s diary entry, and of Natalie’s story.

28 04 2013
Dominique

I experienced a ‘turning point’ in my Hebrew reading when my youngest son started school (I live in Israel) and I started reading his books; at some point I was able to move on and read an ‘adult’ book – an immensely satisfying experience and needless to say a huge sense of achievement.

As far as witnessing a ‘turning point’ – this happened frequently when I taught the same classes in elementary school from 3rd to 6th grade and watched how the penny dropped for the pupils along the way – be it in reading, writing or speaking. I miss that ‘magic’ in secondary school where I now teach. It is more difficult to witness the progress or turning points at the intermediate stage.

Of course one of the draw backs in teaching is that you may not always be the one to pick fruit…

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Dominique… ‘One of the draw backs in teaching is that you may not always be the one to pick fruit…’ Yes, it’s the rare student who comes back 20 years later and says, ‘It was all because of you that I’m now so fluent in English’.😉

28 04 2013
philipjkerr

And then there are turning points in the process of learning to be a language teacher … the subject of Susan Barduhn’s doctoral thesis, if I’m not mistaken.

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Philip – I suspect in the learning of any skill (or skill set, like teaching) there are phase shifts. Dare I say it, but for me it was having to teach a lesson without any preparation, as a substitute teacher given only 5 minutes notice.

28 04 2013
Luan Hanratty (@TEFL101)

I while ago I came up with this rough graph of turning points, comparing L1 and L2 learners. It might not be completely accurate but it’s a helpful visualisation I feel. It makes the point that there are ways, as you mentioned, that turning points can be stimulated by teachers; in my opinion, mainly by dropping the crutches of text and translation at a fairly early stage and then reintroducing them later on. http://www.teflideas.com/2013/04/28/double-helix/

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Interesting thesis, Luan … I wonder if there are other crutches, the discretionary withholding of which, might accelerate learning? I’m thinking of correction, for example – especially as an indicator of the teacher’s concern for accuracy. Would beginners become more fluent sooner if they were given the message that – for the time being at least – accuracy was not an issue?

29 04 2013
Luan Hanratty (@TEFL101)

The issue with correction might be more of an affective one that would need to be addressed in the opposite way: by encouraging people to view it in a positive light, and that I would suggest has to be with a strong emphasis on self & peer generated correction. That takes away the dependency. The problem I fear with dropping correction altogether is that it is more likely to ‘stunt’ progress with learned errors and so on.

28 04 2013
osnacantab Dennis Newson

I have certainly experienced a turning period (rather than a point) and it was for a reason similar to Natalie Luethi Peterson’s – and in the same language, German – with its awkward word order, redundant article system and complex article plus prepostional system. – to take a couple of examples. I began to be able to communicate comfortably if not accurately when I was in a position to concentrate on really communicating with the people I was talking to and momentarily forget the language, focusing on the message and not the medium. As the “people” evolved into my wife, my step-children and my in-laws my fluency and comfort in using the language steadily increased though I’m pretty certain my level of accuracy remains fossilized.

Parallel to what I have described about myself ( c.f NLP: “My ideas seemed to come out of their own accord, rushingly, happily”) I several times noticed when I was running Writing in English classes for German university students that they became impressively fluent, and more accurate, when they were writing on an issue about which they felt passionately. The standard compared with other pieces of writing was uncanny..

Reflecting briefly on what I have just written I suppose I am just instancing truisms. When a foreign language is presented to learners as a tool for communicating genuine thoughts and emotions to people that are at least momentarily important to them there is likely to be more success than if they are merely doing language-orientated exercises. Though to be fair if the conditions for meaningful communication are ripe it is quite likely that bits of language that have somehow entered the learner’s system and been dormant underground will suddenly float to the surface and be made use of..

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Dennis. Your experience reflects my earlier point (to Ben) that turning points might be triggered by the need/desire to use the language, rather than simply learn it. You also bring the motivational factor into the picture – i.e. the degree of investment that learners have in a task. This would seem to me to be an under-researched aspect of task-design (researchers seem more concerned with the amount of preparation allowed, or the kinds of task outcomes, or the actual conditions of task performance, and not with the degree of commitment to the task).

28 04 2013
Nick Bilbrough

One day the head gancster made the casall look a bit beter. But then there enamis startide to atack the butefall casall.

This is an extract from a book my six year old is writing at the moment as he sits next to me at the kitchen table. It’s a huge project at over ten pages long, with each page containing a beautiful picture to illustrate what’s happening in the ongoing saga between the gangsters and the villagers. He’s massively into it and I think it shows a turning point in his writing in English as he’s suddenly enjoying using written communication to express his ideas.

Despite the fact that my own written L2 usage would probably be more accurate than his use of English (in terms of spelling at least) I’ve never really experienced this kind of rush to write in anything other than English. Will I ever get there, or is it inevitable that my obsession with getting it right is always going to get in the way?

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Nick – love the ‘gancster’ story – maybe you should publish it as an ebook! It’s true that accuracy – or rather, the fear of being inaccurate – is probably the single greatest deterrent to self-expression in an L2. Why is it that kids don’t seem to care that much (about spelling, for example) and when does a concern for accuracy kick in (and with what effects?)

28 04 2013
Avi Darkbloom

Thanks, Scott.

My experience of learning modern Hebrew (kol hakavod, Dominique!) has been interesting in the way that somehow my perception of the learning does, in fact, feel quite linear. If I have studied an expression and I don’t remember it, I have the impression that if I practice it enough, it is only a matter of time before I can recall and use it. Naturally, the more common expressions tend to be learned sooner and available for real-time speech.

Having good days and bad days (tired, stressed etc) is interesting also, as I never feel like my turning points happen on, what I consider, bad days when it’s hard for me to concentrate. So, I will have more chance of coming out with expressions I’ve learned (or even making a good guess about a new expression) when I am in a certain frame of mind.

Just going off feelings here. Would love to hear your opinion, Scott.

Thanks

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Avi. I think that the literature tends to agree with you – that a lot of learning IS a steady accretion of discrete items (although perhaps not always those that we are taught, or even that we intentionally study). The turning point seems to occur when this accumulated knowledge – which until this point had to be retrieved with almost as much attentional effort as it took to store it originally – is suddenly (magically even) available for fluent use. Even to the point that you hear yourself saying things that you have no recollection of having ever learned. (I hasten to add that it only ever happens to me in dreams).

However, this rather contradicts your point about the need to concentrate. Is it really concentration that is needed, or is it more a case of not being too distracted?

29 04 2013
Avi Darkbloom

Yes, sorry Scott – a better word to use their would be ‘distracted’, which I suppose then leads to a lack of being able to concentrate – if that makes any sense.🙂

28 04 2013
J.J. Almagro

On a more intuitive note, I would say that my phase shifts in English (and for some students, I believe) may have had something to do with ‘phonologing’ and language ownership: private speech becoming increasingly vocal, own the sounds-own the words, lexical priming develops, fluency sets in… Odd, but I don’t have the impression that any turning point was brought about by gains in communicative competence…

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Interesting point about ‘ownership’ – which is consistent, perhaps, with the sociocultural (i.e. Vygotskyan) view, that skills that are at first ‘other regulated’ need to become ‘self regulated’. Private speech, including subvocalization) seems to be an important process in this transition: do we allow our learners enough opportunities to do this, I wonder?

28 04 2013
Carol Goodey

A really interesting read and I’m looking forward to more anecdotes in the comments and to discussing them with learners to see if they’ve been aware of turning points, to raise awareness of future turning/tipping points and to reassure them about possible plateaus in their learning.

The turning point I’m most aware of in my language learning was when I was an Au Pair in France. I had learned French at school but when I arrived in Reims, I couldn’t communicate very easily. Spending time with French speakers and using French almost exclusively helped a lot. However, I got to a stage when my French was OK but I felt that I hadn’t been making progress for some time. I started to read, choosing books from the shelves in the family home. As I read, I was aware of things clicking into place. As I wrote in the introduction to a post on reading groups, not only did I finally find out how ‘Ça y est!’ was written – something that had been puzzling me for months – but I also felt more fluent. There was more French in my head and I was better able to use that French productively.

So, while I already had opportunities for the genuine communication that feature in Dennis and Natalie’s turning points, and I had learned about the language at school, perhaps what I was missing was the right kind of input. When this was added to the mix, everything came together to prompt a new language learning spurt.

As I said, I’m looking forward to hearing about other people’s turning points, and to gaining a better understanding of what might need to be in the mix to encourage the optimal conditions for language learning (while hopefully resisting the tendency to contrive or replicate such conditions through token class activities or bureaucratic requirements!)

Many thanks for the post, and for starting the discussion.

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that insightful take on turning points: I’m sure Stephen Krashen would concur that the ‘input + 1’ that your reading in French provided helped reinforce your spoken fluency – although he might be less convinced that this should have involved a conscious ‘focus on form’, e.g. noticing the way formulaic chunks were constructed. Arguably, writing (output + 1) would have helped too, but for most people (apart from Nick’s son – above!)there is less motivation to write for pleasure than there is to read for pleasure.

28 04 2013
Gareth Knight

Hi Scott,

As I read your post, these words jumped off the screen at me:

phase – dynamic – system – spontaneous – unpredictable – nonlinear – chaos

Hmmm. Seems like we’re looking for determinism in a dynamic, nonlinear system – the stuff of chaos theory. Mathematicians might have a go at finding order in the chaos but would need applied linguists to define the topology. I somehow doubt a collection of anecdotes would show us the pattern, but they might help define the territory for a mathematical analysis. Know any mathematicians?

Nice tribute to Natalie.

Cheers,

Gareth

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Gareth. I’m not sure that we’re looking for determinism, as such (in the sense that A causes B). It’s more like a search for the optimal (ecological) conditions under which there is a certain probability of something happening. To quote Larsen-Freeman & Cameron (2008: 232) again: ‘Since agents and elements in complex systems are interconnected, it is highly unlikely that a single cause will give rise to a complex event. The grain of sand may trigger an avalanche, but it does not on its own cause it. Rather, there are likely multiple and interconnected causes underlying any shift or outcome’.

Some researchers are, in fact, using mathematical models to track (or to simulate) language development. Paul Meara, for example, has been modelling vocabulary acquisition using ‘random autonomous Boolean networks’, and has shown how a lexicon might grow from initially very small networks of words. To quote Segalowitz (2010: 152), ‘Meara was able to show that, with appropriate, simple assumptions about how words link together and are activated, a self-sustaining set of activated units can emerge in a simple network… In particular, his simulations indicate that this self-sustaining vocabulary grows when the links between elements are formed at a faster rate than the rate of acquisition of new elements… As Meara points out, the link-making process (as distinct from encounters with new words) may be crucial in vocabulary development, with obvious implications for L2 vocabulary development.’

What’s more, these kinds of simulated networks often display ‘turning point’ behaviour, when a point is reached where slow accretion is succeeded by a sudden qualitative leap – a bit like the avalanche metaphor.

29 04 2013
Gareth Knight

Thanks for the reply, Scott. I didn’t mean to suggest A causes B, but rather that there is a geometry to the phase space of the shifts. Some initial conditions I deduce from anecdote would be linguistic knowledge, motivation to learn the language, opportunity to use it and a confidence in using it. Looking at what shifts occur over time when these conditions change may tell us what’s optimal. Maybe I should stop reading physics books.

28 04 2013
Stephanie

I’ve two instances of a turning point:

I remember being fascinated by the story a British friend who, on long visit to distant family in France, after a period of struggling to communicate, complained that some aspect of French grammar ‘didn’t make any sense’ to her. Her host gave her a mildly irritated look and said, ‘it is what it is’ in a ‘get over it’ type of voice. This was apparently her turning point – she stopped trying to analyse it, just accepted that French was different, and started to speak fluently.

I remember the exact moment I learned to read, and I know exactly why it happened too. I was about four, sitting in the back seat of my grandparents’ car, going from A to B down a busy, commercial Toronto street. I already knew the alphabet, but hadn’t yet started to put the sounds together. With each shop and fast food sign approaching from the distance as we drove, Grandma and Grandpa would challenge me to read what the sign said before we passed it. With each ‘What does that sign say?’ – said with great encouragment and enthusiasm – I would sound the word out and get a terrific ‘hurrah!’ from the front seat if I got it right in time. The combination of the goal, the time limit, the encouragement and the simple reward of pleasing my grandparents, plus the feeling I’d really accomplished something, had me reading voraciously from that moment on.

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Great stories, Stephanie. The first confirms an earlier point about the effect of shifting the focus away from a concern for form, while the second perhaps suggests the opposite! Certainly both stories suggest that ‘affect’ is an important determiner – in the sense of not caring too much (in the first story) and getting lots of positive reinforcement (in the second). Returning to a point I made earlier (to Gareth), the optimal ecological conditions for a phase shift may be as much affective as cognitive, and as much social as individual.

28 04 2013
Svetlana

Hello Scott,
thank you for the question.
Yes, I have, myself, and I have witnessed it happen to my students, too.
Myself — when I was 16 I was studying English at a language school, an after-school activity. After doing lots of form-focused exercises, reading-translating-retelling-learning by heart, that kind of ‘old-fashioned’ stuff, I was given a freer -writing task, something like ‘why people read books ‘. I still remember writing it without any first draft, words were pouring out of me and I felt hilarious at my ability to have enough English in my head to express my thoughts. It really seemed to me as if I were flying.

A student of mine– last autumn a friend of mine asked me for some conversational practice claiming that after so many years of English and little practice she couldn’t say much. I wondered why she thought she couldn’t speak English. She explained that her teacher asked her to retell texts from “Cutting Edge” and she was not able to remember them. After a few “a la CLL’ lessons ( I was ‘feeding’ her the language for what she wanted to say) I got a text from her , which I still proudly keep in my mobile, saying , ‘Thank you so much! I can’t stop talking’.

My son, First Language Acquisition. He started talking at the age of 2.5 years, when some of his playmates were already calling him names but he couldn’t say anything back to them — he was experiencing a ‘classical” silent period, being able to say just one or two-word sentences. One day by bad luck I happened to drop his new toy tractor and it cracked! Alex (my son) couldn’t keep silent and said his first ever sentence, ‘Grandma bought Alex a tractor and mother broke it.’ (subject-verb-indirect object-direct object word order, a compound sentence with a coordinating conjunction, perfect syntax, what a smart kid), and that sentence was a turning point. After that very quickly he became a real chatter-box who like all children at times was very difficult to keep silent.

When and why does this turning point take place? A lot a factors contribute ( a kind of activity, a teaching method, affective state). I can’t quite agree with the information-processing theories which compare the human brain to a super computer. The brain is a living organ of biological origin, the result of a long evolutionary process of natural selection which is in the long run a process of integration with the environment. The word (a symbol) is always ready when there is a concept for it (quoting Vygotsky). And a concept is the result of multiple interactions of the brain with the environment. A turning point ( and an aha-response at a micro level) takes place when the final link is made to complete the circuit of networks (oops! have to admit that I did use a computer word…)

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Svetlana! Great stories. The one about your son reminds me of the story Leo van Lier tells about his son, and which I quote in my article ‘The Learning Body’ (included in the new Cambridge book, Meaningful Action):

An anecdote of Leo van Lier’s (2002) nicely captures the way that body and world are jointly implicated in language development, when he describes how his three year old son, who had grown up speaking Spanish in Peru, uses the available semiotic tools in a supermarket to formulate his first words in English:

“One day I was wheeling my cart around the local supermarket, with him sitting in the front. I had just picked up a box of Rice Krispies, when another guy came along with a cart that also had a box of Rice Krispies in it,. A humorous coincidence, which Marcus noticed. At that point he produced his first English sentence: ‘Look! This on this!’”

Incidentally, your mention of the silent period reminds me that this is perhaps the most dramatic phase shift in first language acquisition – the end of it, I mean.

28 04 2013
Declan Cooley

As teachers we all have probably experienced how, with students learning English, at a certain stage of development, (say around intermediate level very broadly speaking) the phrase “I have a ‘barrier'” to speaking is often heard. This seems to be an resistant zone, located firmly on the ‘intermediate plateau’, beyond which ones abilities to output language seems not to want to budge much. [I do not think it is the same as ‘shyness’ – it is seen in all types of personality from the extrovert to the introvert (though students may often say they feel ‘too shy’ to speak English as a way to convey the affective dimension and effects of this barrier)].

This notion of a ‘barrier’ could be seen as (one of many ?) stable homeostatic points or set points, [similar to that one can experiencing when dieting i.e. you can find there are certain weight-points that your body ‘likes’ to stabilize around before you crack through this seemingly limiting ‘floor’ by fasting or doing a marathon]. A graph (see: http://gettingstronger.org/2010/09/how-to-break-through-a-plateau/) of these changes in weight show a series of plateaus around which weights vary a little with a narrow range, and then make sudden phase shifts, quantum leaps where there is a jump to a new plateau/level. [This article on body homeostasis makes 2 excellent analogies: (a) to evolutionarily stable populations of a species transitioning to a new divergent species under environmental pressure and (b) in complex adaptive systems to stable “nodes” or “attractors” which resist change until something moves them to a new stable “orbit”)].

If we think of the brain as a landscape populated by neurons both co-operating and competing with each other for resources (like stimuli, oxygen and glucose, information), then similar transitions may be happening. It may be when learning a language that the brain gains language chunks (analogous, in the human body, to weight gain or in an ecology, to an increase in a population of creatures of a species) up to a certain stable point but starts to pretty much fill the landscape to an extent that no more ‘creatures’ can be added to the square miles. If a species finds itself overcrowded on the jungle floor, some enterprising individuals with longer limbs and eyesight may move up a level to the trees and form a new species up there – and once fully developed, multiply the number of creatures that can occupy a given area of the landscape. In the same way, some of the lexical chunks may (Tetris-like) form a coherent coalescing whole and move to a new level of operational use. At the neuronal level, perhaps it’s like when a flock of starlings move from flying each in his own flight path to switching to flying in a murmuration – in the same way, could it be that neurons that were previously firing independently now fire together, swarming the brain with more harmonious electrical signals (and in the brain, ‘what fires together, wires together’ )?

Students who I have seen successfully break the fluency barrier were participants of 2-week residential courses who were simply constantly exposed to English (i-1 and i+1), but I think more importantly constantly under social pressure to speak in the L2, i.e. pushed output (i+1). Looking back at Push https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/p-is-for-push/ , I think we can say this kind of pushed output (outpush ?) has more than just the 3 functions that you mention Swain outlines (the noticing/the hypothesis testing and or reflective functions), but also, as you say in the main entry, “pushed to produce language in real time and thereby forced to automate low-level operations by incorporating them into higher-level routines, it may also contribute to the development of fluency”.

Based on what we have heard from other postings and comments here, the push comes both externally from other interlocuters demanding to hear the student’s side of the conversation (perhaps conducting more via scaffolded pulling and nudging rather than pushing by the teacher in class, but more pushed outside the classroom) and also internally, as we see from the episode of Svetlana’s son’s broken truck – here an internal ‘push’ to express oneself, fuelled by a wave of emotion, really produced a 1+4 utterance; Svetlana’s own outpourings were probably also the result of an internal need to express (or maybe this just co-incided with a restructuring that allowed the dam-burst). Stephanie seems to have been pushed by “the combination of the goal, the time limit” but also pulled by “the encouragement and the simple reward”. Obliquely, the newly-spawned ‘Demand-High’ meme (from Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill) seems to be a new clarion call for Pushed Output.

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Declan, for your enviably lucid summary of the main tenets of dynamic systems theory, insofar as it relates to phase shifts. The idea that phase shifts are triggered when ‘a critical mass’ is reached (as in the avalanche analogy) is a compelling one, but what, in language learning terms, does this critical mass consist of? Traditionally, it was thought to be grammatical structures, but since these have to be stored as rules, rather than as items, they are probably not good candidates for flocking-type behaviours (or murmuration – lovely word), in that they don’t easily form links with one another. Words are the obvious alternative, but better still might be both words and constructions (or chunks), especially those associated with specific high-frequency meanings and functions. Moreover, larger units facilitate fluency better than smaller ones, since they don’t require as much assembly. Where ‘pushed output’ helps is in speeding the assembly process and thereby strengthening the connections between items. A critical mass of connected chunks might be the definition of fluency. (Plus of course, the desire or need to BE fluent).

28 04 2013
Declan Cooley

Would “automating low-level operations by incorporating them into higher-level routines” resulting from Pushed Output constitute a phase shift or a restructuring (or some other kind of turning point) ? Perhaps it also depends on where we draw the line around in defining what ‘dynamic system’ is -either around the outline of the brain and body of the student, or around the dyad of the two interlocutors or around an even larger sociolinguistic ecology ?

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Where we draw the line… yes: we used to draw the line around the brain. Then the body. Now the whole ecology of communication. And its history. Phew!

28 04 2013
Nati Gonz'alez Brandi

But if learning a language is non-linear, why do we make it linear? I wonder if what you call ‘grammar mcnuggets’ which typically appear on coursebooks, does have a role after all, and it’s the role of exposure, we may not expect learners to get X point but we are exposing them, however, at the same time we are hurting them, because some people understand that learning a language is learning all of its constituent parts little by little. For the first time in my life this year, I’ve been asked by a group of learners to stop teaching in what they called a ‘disorganised’ way with lots of speaking on their part, and then feedback on maaaaany different forms, and instead, give them one rule and practice. As a believer in the brazilian’s jung psychology, I really believe learners should feel non-threatened in a classroom experience, so I’m giving them that, however, being out there listening to real people using the language is quite threatening, so I really wonder why we still insist on teaching in a linear way when language learning is not like that? I wonder if we could use any of these materials as awareness raising activities so that are students understand that there are reasons behind not advocating PPP approaches or similar ones, becuse when you get learners who’ve been taught in such styles before, they expect that from you. Thanks for posting. .

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

“But if learning a language is non-linear, why do we make it linear?”

Such a good question – but such a subversive one, Nati! Education systems are predicated on the belief that learning is both linear and incremental. Syllabuses, coursebooks and tests conspire to perpetuate this view. To suggest otherwise is to undermine the foundations of civilization as we know it.😉

5 05 2013
Nati Gonz'alez Brandi

Yes! And it sorts of suck sometimes when you are teaching and people expect you to go linear and incremental, cause I’m not giving just a service, I should feel I’m an educator, yet at language schools, we are expected to provide a service that pleases the ‘customers’ Thanks for your reply Scott, it’s really nice of you to read everyone’s comments and always have sth to say about it🙂

28 04 2013
Rob

“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions. ” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Penelope Fitzgerald’s description of her turning point in literacy nicely describes my own. Who knew ‘Fun with Dick and Jane’ could be so profound!🙂

As much as I like systems theory, scientific explanations of natural phenomena can be woefully caustic to the living tissue of experience. A ‘turning point’ is when the soul of language appears amidst (despite?) all the ‘accounting procedures’. It happens to me as a musician, too, when I’m no longer concentrating on technique or what comes next – just into the groove; a role reversal by which the music plays me.

And I think that’s what a language, inherited by so many, does as well: as we ‘master’ the language, it seduces us in most pleasurable ways until we forget time and space. Like lovemaking, this process can be described as ‘mating’, but that hardly captures the thrill and mystery of it.

I find ‘turning points’ come in all sizes. Last night, I was watching Last Year at Marienbad (Alan Resnais), which critics called either a masterpiece or utterly incomprehensible. But there’s no denying the repetition of dialogue, which (along with the visuals) helped me pick up on some French words and phrases. After a while, I started to have moments where I didn’t need to read the subtitles, and I *felt* the language. Que Magnifique!

On a larger scale, I remember my elation over the German subjunctive – Why had no one told me about this other dimension? I would no longer bump my head on the glass ceiling – the universe was truly infinite. First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlit*z*!😉

Rob

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Rob, turning points come in all sizes – this is worth bearing in mind. Just as there are avalanches, there are also barely perceptible stirrings as well. Those ‘a-ha’ moments that writers like Stevick and Faneslow celebrate.

29 04 2013
Peter Cox

Hi Scott. Last week I worked with a very talented Italian lady who owns a successful fashion business. She struggles with accuracy but is a fountain of ideas. She finds listening difficult so we used “The great British Sewing Bee” as listening material. (Yes such a thing does exist – it’s an alternative to the interminable cooking competitions!). At the start we were rewinding lots but after a while I think she became so engrossed by the topic that she forgot that she was listening to English (scots and Birmingham accents included) and just got the story. I was aware of the penny dropping.
Will it be the same for production? Alas she was only with me for a week and is now back In Napoli but I hope that she will be back for more.

30 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Peter – maybe it is in one-to-one situations where the chance of witnessing the ‘penny dropping’ is greater. Certainly, it should be easier, theoretically, to tailor instruction so as to position any mediation in the zone of proximal development, which, presumably, is where these turning points occur?

29 04 2013
tomtesol

I recall two turning points, similar to Carol’s, but with different substances, as it were, both supporting your horse-gears analogy.

1. About 3 months in to a stint in Poland in 1986, following a year of basic Polish, I found myself on my own late one night with two new friends/colleagues, warm, morose, and without a word of English between them. We spent the next several hours having the first conversation I’d ever had about freedom, humanity, and all that fabulous “life is elsewhere (Kundera)” stuff, and all of it in Polish. I must add that it was late and we had availed ourselves of the only dependably available commodity in Poland in 1986; that I can remember the event so clearly suggests I used less of it than they did, but I’m sure it helped. From then on, other than the occasional ‘not today’ days, speaking and listening were no problems, and vocabulary and basic grammar kept flooding in. I was trotting.

2. Many years later, with no coursework in between, my Polish partner and I began co-translating journal articles in both directions. We must have done five or six, but it was during the first that nearly all the complexities of Polish grammar, and the subtleties of the myriad prefixes and suffixes began to coalesce, and my proficiency in all skill areas skyrocketed as a result of much more accurate fluent communication. Shortly thereafter I was running a Polish start-up with several Polish partners, and it was all done in Polish. I was galloping, perhaps cantering.

Not sure what, if anything, you see in these tales. I recall being viscerally jazzed to get into the issues and the humanity of my two friends in the first. Far less so in the 2nd, but I think it was about a conscious desire to reach the next level, and to do something serious with my partner.

30 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Tom – it’s interesting that these turning points occurred in the context of ‘pushed output’ (both spoken and written), and that each involved an element of intrinsic motivation AND a social need as well – to transition from being a ‘peripheral’ participant in a community of practice to being a more central one. I think a way of modelling ‘turning points’ is starting to emerge!

29 04 2013
cindyhauert

As can be seen from the comments so far, this is well-known phenomenon! I too have experienced it when learning French, German (and Swiss German). But I have also had turning points when learning to drive a car, ride a bicycle and a horse, playing a musical instrument, and other examples too many to mention.
In my experience (and my students’, friends and acquaintances who have recounted their turning point experiences, it seems to happen best when one is not trying to make it happen. Sometimes, the harder you try, the less successful…then when you least expect it, it “suddenly” falls into place.
This leads me to conclude that there must be something psychological going on that is not limited to language acquisition. I recall as well Jeremy Harmer’s recent musings on the comparison between practicing music and practicing the target language.
Unfortunately, along with turning points come backslides too. One step up, two steps back…just when you think you’ve got it, you’ll have an experience that makes you think you haven’t learned anything at all.
Scott, I wonder if you could comment on this topic in connection with Krashen’s “Monitor” hypothesis.

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Cindy – the fact that the notion of the turning point can apply to a wide range of skills does suggest that it is a consequence of general cognitive processes, rather than being language specific. A purely cognitivist account would argue that it is an effect of the automatization (e.g. through practice) of routines, and the consequent restructuring of the components of the skill so as to accommodate these newly automated routines. Complex systems theorists might argue that this ‘information processing’ model of cognition is too mechanistic and unidirectional, and doesn’t take into account the learning ‘ecology’, including the role of other participants and the way they co-construct the skill and mutually align to form a ‘coupled system’, for example.

As for Krashen – I think I mentioned earlier his ‘i + 1’ with reference to the idea of ‘pushing the system’, but I assume your reference to the Monitor model is to suggest that over-monitoring may inhibit the kind of ‘flow’ experiences we have been talking about. I would agree.

29 04 2013
geoffjordan

So we now have the idea that SLA includes “phase shifts”, where Larsen-Freeman and Cameron’s (2008: 45) example of “a horse changing gait from walking to trotting, or from trotting to cantering, and so” is supposed to clarify this construct. According to Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 45), phase shifts are “dramatic and sudden changes” and “the states of the system before and after a phase shift are very different.” We are told that it is changes in the “dynamic properties of the system” rather than “some external organizing force” which cause these phase shifts.

Without attempting any review of the Larsen-Freeman and Cameron book you quote from, Scott, I think you’ll agree that the whole thing is, by their own admission, still a work in progress. Who knows if, in time, the ideas presented in this volume will develop into something resembling a coherent theory, but there’s a long road to be travelled. You make no attempt (and who can blame you!) to try to explain what this construct “phase shift” actually means, or how it might fit into any theory of SLA. Can one, in any seriousness, suggest that the development of an L2 interlanguage can be seen as analogous to a horse changing gait? While the horse is told to change gait, what triggers this change in the interlanguage? What precisely do the changes consist of? How can we distinguish betweeen someone who’s at the trotting phase and someone who is cantering? What “dynamic properties of the system” are involved? What “system” is being referred to, come to that? The whole thing is silly, and typically dressed up to sound as it it had some proper analysis and empirical testing to back it up.

Most of those who have replied to your post have preferred to ignore the weakness of its arguments and instead to swap anecdotes about “key moments” in their language learning where a “phase shift” might have occurrred . This reminds me of reading accounts of people who swap stories about having seen the face of Jesus in a bowl of cornflakes or heard their granma talking to them via the family cat. Dear oh dear.

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Everything is a work in progress, Geoff. For more on how this work is progressing check out this article, co-authored by Larsen-Freeman among others, and pay attention to the bottom of page 16 (on phase transitions): http://www-personal.umich.edu/~ncellis/NickEllis/Publications_files/**%205%20Graces%20Offprint.pdf

Btw, I seem to recall you telling me how your one-to-one immersion students experienced qualitative leaps in their language development. Or were these simply the net effect of an accumulation of short steps? One long trot, as it were.

Or would you prefer to call these qualitative changes ‘restructuring’? Is that any less ‘dressed up’ than phase shift? Whatever you call it, and judging from the comments, the syndrome is widely experienced, although maybe not as often as Jesus in the cornflakes.😉

29 04 2013
geoffjordan

There’s no doubt that people often experience some kind of “Hallelujah!” moment and the feeling that they’ve made a sudden “significant” improvement in their proficiency of the target language. And yes, I’ve had students say that they felt that their English had made some kind of “qualitative leap” (maybe they didn’t use those exact words!) at the end of an immersion course. But, if you’re going to write a book where “phase shifts” is presented as a serious construct which can, when fitted in to a certain theory which will eventually come out of adopting a “complex systems” approach to applied linguistics, inmprove our understanding of the SLA process, then surely you need to define your terms rather more carefully than Larsen-Freeman & Cameron do. The authors say that it’s only intended “to open the conversation” (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008, p. 255), but they, and you, treat the completely unsubstantial term “phase shift” as if some well-constructed theory had already been researched, tested and published. The problem is pinning down this general feeling about some sudden “leaps” in proficiency in such a way that allows research to take it beyond the realm of anecdote.

Finally (sic!); no, I wouldn’t prefer to call these changes “restructuring” because Larsen-Freeman and Cameron insist that they’re not.

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Geoff – Larsen-Freeman et al didn’t, of course, invent the concept of the phase shift (or phase transition, or bifurcation, as it’s also known): it has a relatively long history in complex systems theory, as applied in the natural and social sciences, going back to the 1980s and 1990s and the work of the Santa Fe Institute (Stuart Kaufmann, Murray Gell-Mann, John Holland, etc). It was Larsen-Freeman, however, who, in 1998, first used complex systems theory (including the notion of phase transitions) to explain aspects of language acquisition (both first and second), language variability, and language use. Since then researchers from various applied linguistics fields have been putting the theory through its paces, witness special issues of Applied Linguistics (December 2006), The Modern Language Journal (Summer 2008), and Language Learning (December 2009), all of which report empirical research (including the network models of Paul Meara, mentioned in an earlier comment) into various aspects of linguistic emergentism, of which the phase transition is a core construct.

At the same time, as Brian MacWhinney warns (in the Applied Linguistics special issue) ‘it is not enough to point to the complexity of some linguistic behaviour and to declare that it must be emergent. We may be able to agree that all patterns are emergent in some way. But, from what do they emerge and how?’ The same caution needs to be applied to a discussion of phase transitions. What was the transition from and to?

29 04 2013
geoffjordan

No, of course they didn’t invent the term phase shift; and you’re right, Larsen-Feeeman has been hinting at this, trying to drag complex systems theory into her work in AL for years, tho I think Cameron is driving the 2008 book.

I don’t agree with you if you’re suggesting that what Larsen-Freeman & Cameron (2008) argue in their book about phase shift is the same as the models of emergentism and connectionism presented and discussed in the special issues of the journals you mention. I don’t think phase shift is presented in any of these papers as you presented it in your post and I don’t think phase shift is a key construct in emergentist views of SLA.

The severe limitations of emergentist and connectionist models are highlighted by Gregg (92003) who goes to the trouble of examining the Ellis and Schmidt model in order to emphasise just how little the model has learned and how much is left unexplained. The sheer implausibility of the enterprise strikes me as forcefully as it seems to strike Gregg. How can emergentists seriously propose that the complexity of language emerges from simple cognitive processes being exposed to frequently co-occurring items in the environment?

At the root of the problem of any empiricist account is the poverty of the stimulus argument. Emergentists, by adopting an associative learning model and an empiricist epistemology (where some kind of innate architecture is allowed, but not innate knowledge, and certainly not innate linguistic representations), have a very difficult job explaining how children come to have the linguistic knowledge they do. How can general conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate? How come, as Eubank and Gregg, put it “children know which form-function pairings are possible in human-language grammars and which are not, regardless of exposure” (Eubank and Gregg, 2002: 238)? How can emergentists deal with cases of instantaneous learning, or “knowledge that comes about in the absence of exposure (i.e., a frequency of zero) including knowledge of what is not possible (Eubank and Gregg, 2002: 238)”?

This leads on to the more general conclusion that emergentists have no convincing account of what language is. To the extent that the emergentists insist on a strict empiricist epistemology, they will find it extremly difficult to provide any causal explanation of SLA. Combining observed frequency effects with the power law of practice, for example, and thus explaining acquisition order by appealing to frequency in the input does not go very far in explaining the acquisition process itself. What role do frequency effects have, how do they interact with other aspects of the SLA process? In other words, we need to know how frequency effects fit into a theory of SLA, because frequency and the power law of practice do not provide a sufficient theoretical framework in themselves. Neither does connectionism; as Gregg points out “connectionism itself is not a theory….. It is a method, and one that in principle is neutral as to the kind of theory to which it is applied.” (Gregg, 2003: 55)

Gregg, K. R. (2003) The state of emergentism in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 19, 2, 42-75. (I don’t know how to put the name of the journal in italics!)

29 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Geoff. I might postpone a response until I have blogged on E for Emergence. Can you bear the wait?😉

30 04 2013
geoffjordan

I look forward to it! I hope you’ll allow me to mention that I have recently started a blog/website for those doing postgrad. work in applied linguistics and TESOL called Aplinglink at http://canlloparot.wordpress.com/ and that in the SLA section there’s a brief discussion of Emergentism.

30 04 2013
chazpugliese

I experienced a series of turning points. When I arrived in France, I didn’t know a word of the local language, I signed up for classes but I didn’t last long. So I decided to expose myself to massive doses of French, written and spoken. The first turning point came when i realized I could read jazz magazines without reaching for the dictionary every three seconds. The second turning point was when I realized I could understand a conversation without great difficulties. The third turning point was when I found myself suddenly capable of exchanging niceties in that most threatening of places, the elevator. The game changer was going to a party, striking a conversation without mutilating the language and quoting Sartre, of course. But by far, the real epiphany happened when I was told I’d mastered the Parisian shrug, that most quintessential mark of French-ness.

30 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Your mention of the shrug (and the assumption of an L2 identity that this represents), reminds me of this extract from the memoir of the writer Ariel Dorfman, the Argentine-Chilean novelist who was brought up in the US:

And then it comes back to me — I must have been sixteen — the first time I realised that Spanish was beginning to speak me, had infiltrated my habits. It was in carpentry class and I had given a final clumsy bang with a hammer to a monstrous misshapen contraption I had built and it broke, fell apart right there, so I turned to the carpentry teacher and ‘Se rompió’, I said, shrugging my shoulders. His mouth had twisted in anger. ‘Se, se, se.‘ he hissed. ‘Everything in this country is se, it broke, it just happened, why in the hell don’t you say I broke it, I screwed up. Say it, say, Yo lo rompi, yo, yo, yo, take the responsibility, boy.’ And all of a sudden I was a Spanish speaker, I was being berated for having used that form of the language to hide behind, I had automatically used that ubiquitous, impersonal se...

Dorfman , A. (1998) Heading South, Looking North: a bilingual journey, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

30 04 2013
lmissbossy

What an interesting read!

To me, a turning point is when you realize that you are able to communicate in the language you’ve been learning or when you see that people actually understand you.
I’ve (un)willingly learned five languages – English, Russian, French, Turkish and Spanish but have experienced turning points only twice.

As a young teenage girl I had to exchange money in Venice (in the pre-euro era), so I practised saying a sentence in my head in English a million times and with a pounding heart entered the office and recited what I had to say. It was the first time I had to use English outside the classroom and they got it! After that things were a piece of cake🙂

The second time, I had to phone a Turk to ask a few questions in order to help a friend move into a new flat. I was incredibly stressed but did it all, speaking slowly and making mistakes but hey, the guy understood! Even though my Turkish level never got past A2/ B1 I still feel confident using it to get by.

Still waiting for Spanish and lost hope with Russian and French btw😉

Anita

5 05 2013
S Mohanraj

This makes for very interesting reading. I would like to share my experience. I am an Indian, and I started learning English when I was close to 13 years of age. The medium of instruction suddenly changed from mother tongue to English and everything was new, and coping with a new language and the concepts was more than what I could manage.

One day the teacher who used to teach me English asked me a question and I had to use a lot of mother tongue with a few words in English sprinkled in my answer. I was scared that my teacher would really punish for almost murdering the language he taught with love. But his reaction was very different.

He told the whole class that my answer was good because it showed that I had understood the lesson taught. Today I could make some progress, and if I tried hard, I could progress much more tomorrow. The analogy of horse progressing from a walk to canter has been true in my case and I am today a practising teacher of English

Lovely write up bringing the theories of learning with no metalanguage.

10 05 2013
icaltefl

I have had my own turning points in foreign languages. In a conversation I suddenly realise I’m chatting away and everything seems to “work” and work well. However this is often followed a few days later with a kind of step back when I realise that absolutely nothing is working and I don’t understand a word being said around me.

Perhaps this second phase is a reaction of fear, of having taken a step too far? Perhaps it’s like a mountain climber who makes a dangerous move, feels pleased with themself and then suddenly looks down and sees that they’re dangling above a long, long drop.

Jenny.

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