E is for Ecology

14 02 2010

… or Ecological Linguistics, or even Ecolinguistics. There’s no entry for any of these in An A-Z of ELT, but I think there ought to be. (There are entries for the related concepts affordance and emergence, however).

Why ecology? Since its first application to linguistics, two decades ago, the ecological perspective has offered an alternative to the somewhat mechanistic and de-contextualised ‘computing’ metaphor for language learning, with its inputs, outputs and feedback. The ecological perspective situates language and language learning, not in the head, but in its social and cultural contexts – the linguistic ecosystem, if you like.  Just as organisms adapt to their environments, and in so doing shape their environments, so to do speakers use language both to integrate into, and to influence, their discourse communities.  Through this reciprocal process of interaction and mutual adaptation, the linguistic system (both the individual’s and the community’s) evolves.

This, at least, is the view propounded in a number of recent publications, including Leo van Lier’s The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning (2004) and Larsen-Freeman and Cameron’s Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics (2008).

Van Lier, for example, identifies the following concepts that underpin an ecological approach to language and language learning:

1. Relations: “If we see language as a system of relations, rather than a collection of objects, a number of consequences follow in terms of… how we conceptualize learning” (p. 5) e.g. that it involves acquiring the capacity to relate more effectively to people in the world.

2. Context: Ecological linguistics (EL) “regards context as not just something that surrounds language, but that in fact defines language, while at the same time being defined by it” (ibid.).

3. Patterns, systems: “EL sees language as patterns of patterns, and systems of systems” (ibid.)

4. Emergence: “EL regards language learning not as gradual, linear acquisition, but as emergence. Emergence happens when relatively simple elements combine together to form a higher-order system” (ibid.)

5. Diversity:  “In biology, diversity is essential in an ecosystem” (p. 7) Van Lier argues for “the value of having different learners and teachers in a class (or school)” and that the target language should not be presented as “one monolithic standardized code, but a collection of dialects, genres and registers” (ibid.)

6. Activity: Language is activity, and emerges out of activity: “We visualize a community of practice in which learners go about the business of learning by carrying out activities of various kinds, working together, side by side, or on their own” (p. 8 )

Van Lier uses, as an analogy, the self-organizing nature of learning how to play a game:

How do kids learn the rules of playing soccer?  Certainly not by being lectured on them for several years.  They learn by participating in certain practices.  Two pivotal practices in this respect are a) playing the game; and b) participating in stories and comments about the game perhaps combined with watching games.  When they start playing, children tend to run after the ball in a single swarm, kicking it around in seemingly random directions.  Then at some point a ‘feel for the game’  emerges.  The game reorganises itself (not for all players at once, but for some) from ‘running after the ball where ever it rolls’ to ‘moving the ball around collaboratively in strategic ways.’  At that point the rules of the game become learnable, in an interaction between bottom-up discovery, and top-down instruction, within the social context of playing the game (p.81).

Arguably this analogy applies as much to language learning as it does to soccer. (In fact, playing games using language may be the best of both worlds).  In short, an ecological perspective argues that learning involves “aligning one’s resources with situational demands and shaping the environment to match the language resources one brings. …  In sum, acquisition is social practice” (Canagarajah, 2007).

This is all very well – in the kinds of non-classroom situations in which becoming socialized is a strong motivating factor. But how do you turn the classroom into an eco-system where “relating in a second language” matters? How, in short, do you create the conditions where language emerges in the way that football emerges in the playground?