N is for Nora

19 11 2017

anonymous_girl_facebookIn a talk that I do on case studies in second language acquisition, one of the stars of what I call ‘The SLA Hall of Fame’ is Nora. She was one of the five immigrant children that Lily Wong Fillmore observed as they interacted and played with their English-speaking peers at a school in the US in the mid-70s (Wong Fillmore 1979). It’s a study that has deservedly been called ‘seminal’, and I never get tired of re-visiting it – not least because of the way Nora herself comes alive in the transcripts of her emergent L2. (Nora was barely 6 at the time, so would be approaching 50 now – I wonder how she’s getting along?).

The background:  The researcher paired five Spanish-speaking children, newly arrived from Mexico, with five English-speaking ’buddies’ and regularly observed them at play in a well-equipped playroom over three months – the purpose of which was ‘to discover what social processes might be involved when children who need to learn a new language come into contact with those from whom they are to learn it – but with whom they cannot communicate easily’ (p. 205).

Of the five non-English speaking children (three boys and two girls), Nora was the youngest; the eldest was just over 7. None of the children were receiving any formal English instruction during the period of the study. Wong-Fillmore comments that, ‘by the end of 3 months of observations, it became quite clear that there would be enormous differences among the five children in what they would achieve during the study year’ (p. 207). These individual differences were the primary focus of her study. Nevertheless, the children all seemed to share a number of social and cognitive strategies, albeit with varying degrees of success.

These she summarises in the following table – with the proviso that it’s difficult to separate the social from the cognitive, the cognitive being the way that language was enlisted to achieve the social:

Wong Fillmore

What was notable about Wong Fillmore’s study was that it was one of the first SLA studies to foreground the key role played by formulaic language: ‘All five [children] quickly acquired repertoires of expressions which they knew how to use more or less appropriately, and put them to immediate and frequent use… This new material was learnable and memorable by virtue of being embedded in current, interest-holding activities over which the learners had already acquired some mastery, and from which they have already received social rewards’ (p. 211). Typical expressions included:

Lookit. Wait a minute. Lemme see. Gimme. You know what? Shaddup your mouth. Knock it off.

As Wray (2002, p. 170) comments, ‘formulaic sequences are the key to being perceived as belonging, and making yourself understood’.

More interesting still was the way that these memorized strings were, in many cases, reanalysed into their constituents, and hence ‘provided  the data on which the children were to perform their analytical activities in figuring out the structure of the language’ (p.212). This was achieved in part by cognitive strategy #3: Look for recurring parts in the formulas you know. The way that, for example, Nora’s memorized formula How do you do dese? provides the ‘raw material’ for subsequent productivity is summarized in this table (from Ortega 2009):

Ortega on Nora

And it is often by means of language play that control of these formulae is achieved, with gains in both fluency and analysis. Here is Nora’s use of what has subsequently been called ‘private speech’ in which she plays with the pattern by creating her own substitution drill:

She said me that it wa’ not too raining by she house.

She said it wa’ not too raining by she house.

She said she not raining by she house.

Wong Fillmore comments that ‘Nora was especially quick in figuring out which parts of the expressions in her repertory of formulas could be varied, and in analysing them.’

Nora’s ultimate success (she outstripped her peers by the year’s end) was due to other factors too, not least her lack of inhibition in speaking English coupled with (or driven by?) her strong desire to be integrated into the English-speaking group – to the point of even anglicizing the pronunciation of her own name:

(Beginning of the session. As usual, the girls are asked to record the names on the tape-recorder:)

Observer:            Wait – say your name first.

Nora:                     Uh –

Observer:            You forgot?

Nora:                     N – un –

Observer:            What’s your name?

Nora:                     Nora. (English pronunciation – [noɹə])

Observer:            Nora?

Nelia:                    Nora! (Spanish pronunciation – [noɾa])

Nora:                     Nora! (English)

Observer:            Oh!

Nelia:                    Nora. (Spanish)

Observer:            ’Scuse me, Nora. (English)

Nora:                     No – no, but my, my, but my mother tomorrow she’s gonna give me another name, Lora.

Observer:            What? Lora? Is that what your mother’s gonna do, Nora?

Nora:                     Um-hum. Lora.

Observer:            Okay, so you wannabe –

Nora:                     Lora, Lora, not Nora (Spanish). Teacher, teacher, but, but, you can call me, are, by now, Orla.

What fascinates me about this study is that, while notionally about individual differences and learning strategies, it anticipates a number of key developments in SLA theory, notably what Block (2003) calls the ‘social turn’, i.e. a re-orientation towards the view that language learning is not only a cognitive activity but is both socially embedded and socially motivated, a view that, in turn, finds support in sociocultural theories of SLA (e.g. Lantolf 2000). Associated with the social turn is the key role that identity formation plays (e.g. Norton 2013), well-evidenced in the conversation above. And the formative role of formulaic speech that is learned and deployed in contexts of use prefigures both the ‘lexical turn’ (e.g. Nattinger and DeCarrico 1992) and usage-based approaches to SLA (e.g.  Cadierno and Eskildsen 2015). Finally, the playground context is a text-book example of ‘situated learning’ and what Lave and Wenger (1991) call ‘legitimate peripheral participation.’

Given the fact, though, that the study was based on non-instructed learning, the key question (for me, at least) is: How can the kinds of social skills and cognitive strategies that Nora displayed be developed and nourished in a classroom context?


Block, D. (2003) The social turn in second language acquisition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (Eds) (2015) Usage-based perspectives on language learning. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Lantolf, J.P.  (ed.) (2000) Sociocultural theory and second language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nattinger, J.R. & DeCarrico, J.S. (1992) Lexical phrases and language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Norton, B. (2013) Identity and language learning: Extending the conversation (2nd edn). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Ortega, L. (2009) Understanding second language acquisition. London: Hodder.

Wong Fillmore, L. (1979) ‘Individual differences in second language acquisition,’ in Fillmore, C., Kempler, D., & Wang, W. (eds) Individual Differences in Language Ability and Language Behavior, New York: Academic Press. p. 203 – 228.

Wray, A. (2002) Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



9 responses

19 11 2017
Justin Willoughby

These strategies may lend themselves to Community Language Learning, where “learner exchanges deepen in intimacy as the class becomes a community of learners. The desire to be part of this growing intimacy pushes learners to keep pace with the learning of their peers.” (Richards & Rodgers 1986). So if the learner wants to be a part of the group and not be isolated from it ,ie, intergrate, they need language (formulaic expressions and structures) to belong and make themselves understood. From my point of view, if all the learners get along well and enjoy interacting, we should try to provide them with fun and meaningful activities to do together as a group. We should make sure learners have the appropriate language to perform the activity. For higher levels, we should stand back and avoid intervening unless asked. We should just allow the level of intimacy to grow and grow. Thanks Scott for the post and the SLA Hall of Fame talk, which I saw on YouTube.

RICHARDS JC & RODGERS TS. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. 1986. CUP.

20 11 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Justin. Yes, CLL is predicated on the idea of community building through talk, which in turn generates more talk, and so on. As a technique it is under-researched – it would indeed be interesting to know the extent to which it provides a context for the emergence of the social and cognitive strategies identified by Wong-Fillmore.

21 11 2017
Justin Willoughby

Yes, I read that there is limited research on CLL and that there is also limited reading material on it. I think CLL teachers had to undergo very special training at very particular training centers. Mind you, as you mentioned in your book (An A-Z of ELT), “group-generated conversation has become a much used classroom technique”, so the core of CLL is not so hard to come by.

19 11 2017

Thank you. Food for thought. Yes, maybe through this Nora will be found – like the girl from Afghanistan on the National Geographic cover. 🙂

19 11 2017
J.J. Almagro

Thanks, Scott, for a new SLA reflection challenge.

Thinking out loud:

As an EFL learner I am aware now that I may have gone through the same social and cognitive processes as Nora did: sink-or-swim in weekly conversation exchanges with American students at my university in Madrid, carry around a notepad where I would write down ‘chunks’, anglicize the pronunciation of Spanish words like ‘Juan’, ‘metro’, or ‘churros’. I still keep some of those notepads and I see a special preoccupation with the pronunciation of words, frequent collocations, and idiomaticity. Research-wise, the interesting thing is that I was 22 years old in a non-immersion context.

This could be the rationale behind my choice as an EFL practitioner of textbooks/handouts/self-study materials which foster a more inductive, intuitive approach to L2 learning, usage-oriented, based on the lexical approach, with systematic conversational competence work, and pronunciation features that pivot around intelligibility, fluency, and identity as an L2 user.

On a more practical note, this year my students are encouraged to use ‘Word-it-Out’, an on-line vocabulary-recording tool with which they can create their own word clouds. They make decisions about which word combinations are more productive to discuss certain topics, and also for their overall communicative competence.

As a modest classroom research piece, I’m exploring students’ perceptions and use of chunking. When creating word clouds, you must input chunks as a single unit (‘makeanassumption’). If you don’t, when you click on the ‘generate’ tab, words will appear spread out unconnected. An interesting visual feature is word cloud customization linked to frequency: lay-out, color, word size.
Not sure about how this spelling ‘distortion’ will play out in terms of the fluency-accuracy balance…

20 11 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, J.J. Fascinating – your own experience as a ‘grown up’ version of Nora!

Apropos of inputting chunks into word clouds, the original word cloud tool, Wordle, allowed you to use a tilde (ASCII code 126) to link the separate elements of a multi-word unit, e.g. a phrasal verb, so that they are always arranged together. Try it.

21 11 2017
J.J. Almagro

I definitely will.
Thanks a lot.

24 11 2017
julia cidfuentes

I’m so glad to read this post. If you allow me, should it be mine another study case to research on?

When I started University, I was a 0+ – level L2 user…, meanwhile, my mates were so fluent and accurate, B2-level users or even bilingual… Not only did I exchange Americans’, (Berkley’s) conversation, but I also got by on my own, fighting for the FL. I didn’t grasp my teachers’ points at once but I did ‘grasp the nettle’ and struggled to carry on with my degree, my ‘well-equipped playroom’, where I couldn’t communicate easily at all.

The clue, the crux was ‘the cognitive way that Language was enlisted to achieve the social’. I try to experience it with my Advanced Ss. Take Jeremy Harmer who urges us to break rules…, a non-stop exploring devotion…

I can remember Meta-strategy using, expressions, recurring parts, whole work-out. I acted as if I understood what was going on, gave the impression and best…, I counted on my friends, my ‘English-speaking peers’, as Nora’s group.

Thus, now, you will take in why I’m so grateful to you for all your help, (like’Indian helpers’ to make me survive on my enterprise, (as to yesterday’s Thanksgiving …).

Thank you indeed for all ‘this reflection challenge’ for real…

Giving an answer to the keynote question, Ss first need the cognitive memorable embedded input formulae to output their ‘raw material’ through Language-negotiation oriented Learning for mindful purposes, firing up their imagination, with meaningful context exposure, acculturating them – though, even taking up on today’s own-life cultural contexts.

Thanks again and for the post.

23 11 2017

Hi Scott, an interesting post with some great references. The “Social Turn” in SLA seems to be pretty consistent with Michael Halliday’s work in first language acquisition, also based on case study rather than “lab” research (and much more efficacious in my humble opinion), and his “Language as a Social Semiotic”.

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