W is for (language learning in) the Wild

17 09 2017

japanese hitchhikerYears ago, driving from the west to the east coast in New Zealand’s South Island, we picked up a Japanese hitch-hiker (pictured in the centre above) who, once settled in the back seat, proceeded to ply us with questions from a notebook he carried. ‘What’s your favourite snack?’ ‘When did you last go to the movies?’ Even: ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ It transpired that he had been studying at a language school in Christchurch and these were questions that his (prescient) teacher had encouraged him to formulate, in order to pursue his language learning experience ‘in the wild’.

The term ‘in the wild’ has recently been co-opted from cognitive science (e.g. Hutchins 1995) to apply to a series of projects in which a number of Nordic countries are participating. As their website describes it,

Language learning in the wild is about using the resources available in the second language life world of the newcomers to a language[i].

This, of course, is not an entirely new idea. As long ago as 1956, Peter Strevens argued that ‘language is not a sterile subject to be confined to the classroom. One of two things must be done: either life must be brought to the classroom or the class must be taken to life’ (1956: 69).

Arthurs Pass

The call of the wild

What is perhaps new in the way that this principle is being applied in places like Sweden and Iceland is that, not only are learners (or ‘newcomers’ as they are termed) being sent outside the classroom to perform certain routine tasks ‘in the wild’, but that they are encouraged to use their smartphones to record the interactions they have, as well as to collect any other linguistic data, such as signs, menus, etc, and bring these back to the classroom for analysis, discussion and strategizing for future encounters.

Moreover, many of their potential interlocutors (e.g. shopkeepers) have been primed in ways to ensure that these interactions provide optimal opportunities for learning. For example, they are encouraged not to switch straight into (global) English when interacting with the newcomer but to persist with the (local) target language. They also allow the newcomers to ‘hang out’ and watch the way the locals negotiate basic transactions.  In this way, learners learn to cope with the unpredictability of even quite routine operations, such as ordering a coffee. As Wagner (2015) explains,  ‘this means… that language experiences often are memorable and tellable, in a negative or positive sense’, such that, ‘in language encounters in the wild, newcomers create their own history of the second language and that history may linger for a while with new words and constructions’ (p.85). As Eskildsen and Theodórsdóttir (2017: 160) argue,

This, in effect, breaks with a long tradition of teaching language as a decontextualised object in classrooms and instead entails a mutually constitutive relationship between L2 speakers’ everyday practices and the classroom which then comes to be a pedagogically enhanced world in which a view of language as situated and locally contextualised is propagated.

Nevertheless, ‘long-term language learning in the wild is understudied’ (Esklidsen & Theodórsdóttir 2017, p. 160). One small study that does attempt to track the language development of such a learner over time (Barraja-Rohan 2015) reports how a Japanese-speaking university student in Australia improved her story-telling skills through repeated interactions with an English speaking fellow student. The researcher calls such interactions ‘conversations-for-practising’, which, essentially, is what our Japanese hitch-hiker was also doing. Barraja-Rohan (2015, p. 299) concludes:

Conversations-for-practising, centred on the participants’ needs to build social relationships rather than on curricular considerations, seem to be a valuable arrangement to bring the L2 speakers into situations of authentic, everyday social interaction and language use, i.e., into the wild.

She adds that such conversational  ‘affordances’ don’t normally occur in conventional classrooms. A pedagogy based on the conversations that emerge in meaning-focused activity might redress this lack. And especially if it was a pedagogy that – like my Japanese hitchhiker’s teacher in New Zealand – equipped ‘newcomers’ to become legitimate users of the local language.

Even so, I guess the question is: how do you provide ‘in the wild’ experiences – including socialization into an English-speaking community – for EFL-type learners studying in their home country and hence lacking the direct contact my Japanese hitch-hiker was able to exploit?

sea scouts oamaru

Where the wild things are


Barraja-Rohan, A-M., (2015) ‘“I told you”: storytelling development of a Japanese learning English as a second language.’ In Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (eds) Usage-based perspectives on second language learning. Mouton: De Gruyter.

Eskildsen, S.W. and Theodórsdóttir G. 2017. ‘Constructing L2 learning spaces: ways to achieve learning inside and outside the classroom.’ Applied Linguistics. 38/2.

Hutchins, E. (1995) Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Strevens, P. (1956) Spoken language: an introduction for teachers and students in Africa. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Wagner, J. (2015) ‘Designing for language learning in the wild: creating social infrastructures for second language learning.’ In Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (eds) Usage-based perspectives on second language learning. Mouton: De Gruyter.


[i] http://languagelearninginthewild.com/




15 responses

17 09 2017

Great photos!

In ESADE Idiomas, teachers used to try to provide a few ‘”faux” in the wild’ experiences by rushing into each others classes with “urgent” requests, “emergecies” etc., aimed first at the teacher and then invoving the students. We also invited English L1 ex pats living in Barcelona into class, with instructions to try to sell something or get the students to do something. I once tried to organise a dinner party with a 50-50 mix of students and ex pats with waiters bringing the wrong food and other things going wrong, but the director thought it was too risky.

Anyway, this is a great vein to explore, and I’m sure your readers will have lots of suggestions.

18 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Geoff. Your dinner party idea sounds like Basil Fawlty meets Mike Long. 😉

Yes, I’m looking forward to reading more ‘in the wild in the classroom’ suggestions.

17 09 2017
Klippel Friederike

It’s fascinating to see how ideas which have been around for centuries suddenly re-emerge as supposedly “new”. “Language learning in the Wild” was common practice for most people wanting to acquire another language up to the 19th century when compulsory schooling including foreign language classes became established throughout Europe.

18 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Yes, indeed, Friederike – the idea of language schools and modern languages as part of school curricula is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was either self-study (through grammars) or immersion ‘in the wild’ – or a combination of both: many of the great nineteenth century polyglots – often ‘orientalists’ – seem to have put in a lot of self-study time before venturing into ‘the wild’ to activate their ‘book learning’.

17 09 2017


Sent from my iPhone

17 09 2017

Good morning Scott and thank you for your Sunday morning food for thought.

I seem to remember (correct me if I’m wrong) that the learning-in-the-wild project also offered learners the option to ‘phone a friend’ when they were out interacting in the real world – a network of volunteers who could lend a helping hand in the case of linguístic and/or cultural difficulties. For those who have recently arrived in the country, often under difficult circumstances, this must be a welcome safety net.

Of course, this is beyond the resources of most ESL programmes and may not be relevant in EFL contexts. However, other aspects of the scheme are relatively easy to put into practice. Last academic year, partly inspired by this project, I asked my learners to build up their own personalised dictionaries by using their mobile devices to take photos of English used in the local urban landscape and record the context and the translations. This year, as part of an out-of-class learning project, I’m hoping to do something similar, where learners take photos of objects, activities etc. they don’t know the vocabulary for in English. I’m hoping this will promote the ‘linguistic curiosity’ characteristic of so many good learners. I’ll keep you posted!

18 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Jessica. Yes, we both attended Johannes Wagner’s talk on this topic a couple of years at the University of Barcelona, and – thanks for reminding me – he did mention the ‘phone a friend’ idea (what someone facetiously called ‘Uber teachers’).

I love your idea of building a personalized – and illustrated – dictionary, and exploiting the ‘linguistic landscape’ to do so.

17 09 2017

Hey Scott, “language learning in the wild” has been on my mind lately since starting to work with Peace Corps where we are fortunate in that most of our language learning happens in immersion environments.

Some of the promising practices that we use globally include housing volunteers with host-families during language training. Training host families on how to support language learning. Assigning homework tasks to be completed and shared in class. Teaching independent learning strategies to Volunteers.

Of course we work in very diverse contexts with over 190 different languages in over 60 countries so we can’t always do as much as we would like. Our biggest challenge is how to keep folks engaged with harvesting and learning once they are on their own.

Based on conversations with the “in the wild” researcher team we are now working on training other community members beyond host families in how to be supportive language informants. We are also exploring creative ways of getting volunteers to capture language “in the wild” to be analyzed during their service.

I’m curious what creative ways of harvesting language and ways of meaningfully using language harvested others have come up with – especially when learning “in the wild” where there isn’t a classroom or language teacher.

18 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Kevin – the work you describe sounds very exciting: I hope you are documenting as much as possible, and will write it up and/or present it at a conference. The idea of ‘capturing’ language as it occurs is so much more feasible with mobile technology (see Jessica’s idea above) and there is a range of useful apps for converting this ‘caught language’ into digital word cards for review purposes: I’m thinking Quizlet and Anki, for starters.

Maybe it’s time to revisit the literature on strategy training that was so big in the 1990s?

17 09 2017

I think that an au pair arrangement can serve the same purpose. A friend told me that at the beginning of his studentship in India he lived with his fellow countrymen (who were studying there) and spent most of the time speaking their mother tongue while together. Although he was taking English classes, he made little progress in English which was a requirement for his own studies at the university. Therefore, he decided that he should be in an environment fully conducive to learning English. The solution was an au pair arrangement where he spent most of his lifetime with a family who spoke English well enough to provide him with good exposure to the language. This situation was compelling enough for him to pick up the language. ” I did make considerable progress in English”, he said.

18 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Shahram. Yes, au-pairing and simply living with host families has a long history but is relatively under-researched, although some recent studies of learners in ‘study abroad’ contexts are starting to redress this. See, for example, Kinginger, C. 2008: Language Learning in study abroad: case studies of Americans in France (Modern Language Journal , 92: Supplement).

Apropos of the point about strategy training that I made in response to Kevin’s comment, Kinginger has this to say: ‘All of the student participants in this research were aware of the limitations on academic language development and often expressed eagerness to connect the use of French with lived experience outside the classroom. Yet, they were also remarkably uninformed of the extent to which development of advanced language competence, including the fluency they so desired, represents a long-term effort requiring a serious investment of time. Most assumed that French language immersion would be automatic, and some expressed the view that their mere presence in France would bring the language to them, as if by osmosis. By the end of the study-abroad period, these illusions had usually been dispelled, and this is in itself a learning outcome to be celebrated. However, one cannot but wonder if in some cases an orientation to language learning, including information on the nature of language and on the use of strategic approaches to learning, might have helped students to better apprehend the nature of the task they had set for themselves’ (Kinginger 2008, p. 110).

18 09 2017

Hi Scott and thank you for the interesting post!
I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘language-in-the-wild’ concept lately since I’m teaching Japanese people in Japan, and I find the Meetup website (https://www.meetup.com/) extremely useful. It’s a social networking service that allows you to join any groups that seem interesting and go to their meetups, so you can actually meet all these strangers and talk to them. In Japan, there’re plenty of Japanese-English meetups where Japanese people have a chance to meet and speak to foreigners (same as foreigners have a chance to interact with the locals). Many of these meetups are so-called language exchanges where groups switch between Japanese and English every 20 minutes. To me, it seems one of the best ways to practice English outside of the classroom no matter if you’re still studying or already working.

18 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Lina, for the comment and link. This is another example of where technology really supports out-of-class learning (rather than, as it so often does, simply interfering in in-class learning).

19 09 2017

Thanks a lot for this great article. The idea of taking the class to life is something that will provide learners with an opportunity to learn a target language authentically and in a natural way. Bringing life to the classroom is a bit too difficult task because it is not always possible to create real life like situations within four walls. But taking class to life is a pretty much possible and practical thing. It might be difficult in some countries to take learners out of the class, but students can be motivated to make groups and talk about things they have around them. I always suggest my students to frequently get together outside the class and talk. The language learned this way never goes away.

21 09 2017
Justin Willoughby

Thanks Scott for the post. Martin Bygate in his book titled “Speaking” (OUP) cites David Wilkins stating that if all language production is controlled by the teacher then the student will not be able to transfer his language knowledge and use from the classroom to real-life, which involves making their own choices and controlling their own production. I think you can bring this to an ELT classroom by setting up role-plays, discussions and impromptu conversation.

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