A is for Affordance

1 01 2012

Last week I went for a walk with friends in the Swiss Alps – seven kms along a marked trail with panoramic views of mountains, lakes and mist down below in the valley. We were five people, and as we walked we talked, in different groupings and in different languages, stopping frequently, to rest, snack, and note interesting features of the landscape, such as the ripple effect in the snow from recent rain, the way the snowcap on a rooftop was slowly sliding off as it thawed, footprints of a fox (or some other animal) in an otherwise immaculate snowy field, and so on. But always talking.

It was the kind of conversation you don’t have sitting down.  Rather, it was a conversation that,  in the words of the poet,  se hace al andar – it was made walking. It was a product of its trajectory through time and space.

Which made me think: we invest a lot in the learning opportunities afforded by conversation (it’s a core tenet of the dogme approach, after all). Yet conversations in classrooms are necessarily constrained, both by the relative immobility of the participants and by the lack of the kind of stimuli you get simply by taking a walk.

In short, classroom talk (as Leo van Lier has frequently observed) is challenged in terms of contingency and affordances. By contingency, I mean a sense of connectedness – where everything that is said is connected both to what has already been said, and to the context in which it is said – taking context to mean everything from the ‘here-and-now’ to the ‘then-and-there’, i.e. the  knowledge and experience that the speakers have in common.

And by affordance, I mean (to quote An A-Z of ELT)

a particular property of the environment that is potentially useful to an organism. A leaf, for example, affords food for some creatures, shade for others, or building material for still others. It’s the same leaf, but its affordances differ, depending on how it is regarded, and by whom. The term has been borrowed from ecology to describe the language learning opportunities that exist in the learner’s linguistic ‘environment’…

And all this reminded me of something I wrote a while back about what I called ‘The Robinson Crusoe Method’ of language learning. If you recall, Crusoe meets and befriends the “savage” Friday on his island:

 I was greatly delighted with him, and made it my Business to teach him every Thing, that was proper to make him useful, handy, and helpful; but especially to make him speak, and under stand me when I spake, and he was the aptest Schollar that ever was…

Unfortunately, Defoe/Crusoe does not go into the details of what he did “to make him speak”, but it is not difficult to imagine how it evolved. As the two went about their daily business – hunting, fishing, gardening, exploring – conversations would splutter into being.    At first these conversations would tend to focus on the “here-and-now” and be mainly lexical, of the ‘Me Robinson, you Friday’ type.  But the continuous contact between “teacher” and “learner” would ensure optimal opportunities for interaction, feedback, and recycling, while the situated nature of the talk would guarantee comprehension. Repeated phrases would start to release their internal structure, and grammar would begin to emerge.  Over time – and propelled by their need to do things together  – their individual idiolects would align and merge (although the power imbalance would mean that Crusoe’s language would exert the greater attraction and, ultimately, predominate).

All in all, the Robinson Crusoe method, enriched and enlivened by the learning opportunities offered by real talk in the real world, must surely be the best language learning method ever devised.

So the question is: how can you replicate these conditions in a typical classroom? How can you turn the classroom into a hike through the snow, or a walk around the island? How can classroom talk achieve the degree of contingency that Crusoe and Friday achieved?

Is this perhaps where technology comes into its own? Can, for example, Second Life or video games offer a simulacrum of the mountain walk? Or are simulacra, by their very nature, insufficient?

Or is this  (yet another) argument for task-based learning, where the focus is on collaborative activity, with language, not as the goal, but the means?  Because, as van Lier (2002, p. 159)  notes, “when we design our lessons using activity as the focal unit, language becomes a constituent alongside movement, gesture, experiment, manipulation, focusing, planning, judging, and so on.  Language is naturally supported by and supportive of social activity”.

Or, in the end, is there no getting away from the fact that classrooms are just not good places to learn languages in?  And that, instead of flogging the present perfect continuous to death, it might not be better simply ‘to take a walk around the block’?


van Lier, L. 2002. ‘An ecological-semiotic perspective on language and linguistics’. In Kramsch, C. (ed.) Language Acquisition and Language Socialization: Ecological Perspectives. London: Continuum.