I is for Intersubjectivity

22 03 2015

edmund whiteIf I had to reduce language learning to the bare essentials and then construct a methodology around those essentials, it might look something like this (from Edmund White’s autobiographical novel The Farewell Symphony):

“[Lucrezia’s] teaching method was clever. She invited me to gossip away in Italian as best I could, discussing what I would ordinarily discuss in English; when stumped for the next expression, I’d pause. She’d then provide the missing word. I’d write it down in a notebook I kept week after week. … Day after day I trekked to Lucrezia’s and she tore out the seams of my shoddy, ill-fitting Italian and found ways to tailor it to my needs and interests.”

Whatever theoretical lens you view this through, Lucrezia’s ‘method’ contains the right mix. Those who subscribe to the ‘learning-is-information-processing’ view will approve of the output + feedback cycle and the covert focus on form. Those of a sociocultural bent will applaud Lucrezia’s scaffolding of learning affordances at the point of need. Dynamic systems theorists will invoke ‘the soft-assembly of language resources in a coupled system’. What’s more, my own recent experience of trying to re-animate my moribund Spanish suggests that the single most effective learning strategy was ‘instructional conversation’ with a friend in a bar. That is to say, the same kind of ‘clever method’ that White celebrates above.

But, of course, unless you have a willing partner, such intensive one-to-one treatment is costly and not always available. Could this kind of conversation-based mediation be engineered digitally? Is there an app for it?

alan turingInteractive software that replicates human conversation has long been a dream of researchers ever since Alan Turing proposed the ‘Turing Test’ in the 1950s, which challenged programmers to design a machine that could outwit a jury into thinking that they were interacting with a real person.

While no one has yet met Turing’s conditions in any convincing way, programs such as ‘chatterbots’ have certainly managed to fool some of the people some of the time. Could they substitute for a real interlocutor, in the way, say, that a computer can substitute for a chess player?

It’s unlikely. Conversation, unlike chess, is not constrained by a finite number of moves. Even the most sophisticated program based on ‘big data’, i.e. one that could scan a corpus of millions or even billions of conversations, and then select its responses accordingly, would still be a simulation. Crucially, what the program would lack is the capacity to ‘get into the mind’ of its conversational partner and intuit his or her intentions. In a word, it would lack intersubjectivity.

Intersubjectivity is ‘the sharing of experiential content (e.g., feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and linguistic meanings) among a plurality of subjects’ (Zlatev et al 2008, p.1). It appears to be a uniquely human faculty. Indeed, some researchers go so far as to claim that ‘the human mind is quintessentially a shared mind and that intersubjectivity is at the heart of what makes us human’ (op.cit. p. 2). Play, collaborative work, conversation and teaching are all dependent on this capacity to ‘know what the other person is thinking’. Lucrezia’s ability to second-guess White’s communicative needs is a consequence of their ‘shared mind’.

It is intersubjectivity that enables effective teachers to pitch their instructional interventions at just the right level, and at the right moment. Indeed, Vygotsky’s notion of the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) is premised on the notion of intersubjectivity. As van Lier (1996, p. 191) observes:

‘How do we, as caretakers or educators, ensure that our teaching actions are located in the ZPD, especially if we do not really have any precise idea of the innate timetable of every learner? In answer to this question, researchers in the Vygotskian mould propose that social interaction, by virtue of its orientation towards mutual engagement and intersubjectivity, is likely to home in on the ZPD and stay with it.’

alexander hide and seek01Intersubjectivity develops at a very early age – even before the development of language – as a consequence of joint attention on collaborative tasks and routines. Pointing, touching, gaze, and body alignment all contribute to this sharing of attention that is a prerequisite for the emergence of intersubjectivity.

In this sense, intersubjectivity is both situated and embodied: ‘Intersubjectivity is achieved on the basis of how participants orient to one another and to the here-and-now context of an interaction’ (Kramsch 2009, p. 19). Even in adulthood we are acutely sensitive to the ‘body language’ of our conversational partners: ‘A conversation consists of an elaborate sequence of actions – speaking, gesturing, maintaining the correct body language – which conversants must carefully select and time with respect to one another’ (Richardson, et al. 2008, p. 77). And teaching, arguably, is more effective when it is supported by gesture, eye contact and physical alignment. Sime (2008, p. 274), for example, has observed how teachers’ ‘nonverbal behaviours’ frame classroom interactions, whereby ‘a developed sense of intersubjectivity seems to exist, where both learners and teacher share a common set of gestural meanings that are regularly deployed during interaction’.alexander hide and seek02

So, could a computer program replicate (as opposed to simulate) the intersubjectivity that underpins Lucrezia’s method? It seems unlikely. For a start, no amount of data can configure a computer to imagine what it would be like to experience the world from my point of view, with my body and my mind.

Moreover, the disembodied nature of computer-mediated instruction would hardly seem conducive to the ‘situatedness’ that is a condition for intersubjectivity. As Kramsch observes, ‘Teaching the multilingual subject means teaching language as a living form, experienced and remembered bodily’ (2009, p. 191). It is not accidental, I would suggest, that White enlists a very physical metaphor to capture the essence of Lucrezia’s method: ‘She tore out the seams of my shoddy, ill-fitting Italian and found ways to tailor it to my needs and interests.’

There is no app for that.

alexander hide and seek03References

Kramsch, C. 2009. The multilingual subject. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richardson, D.C., Dale, R. & Shockley, K. 2008. ‘Synchrony and swing in conversation: coordination, temporal dynamics, and communication’, in Wachsmuth, I., Lenzen, M. & Knoblich, G. (eds) Embodied communication in humans and machines, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sime, D. 2008. ‘”Because of her gesture, it’s very easy to understand” – Learners’ perceptions of teachers’ gestures in the foreign language class.’ In McCafferty, S.G. & Stam, G. (eds) Gesture: Second language acquisition and classroom research. London: Routledge.

Van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy & authenticity. Harlow: Longman.

White, E. 1997. The farewell symphony. London: Chatto & Windus.

Zlatev, J., Racine, T.P., Sinha, C., & Itkonen, E. (eds) 2008. The shared mind: Perspectives on intersubjectivity. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Illustrations from Alexander, L.G. 1968. Look, listen, learn! London: Longman.

 A version of this post first appeared on the ELTjam blog in November 2014.


A new beginning

23 08 2013

As promised, blogging resumes shortly… but in a new site and with a new format.

You can find the new blog here: it’s called The (De-) Fossilization Diaries, and charts the attempts I’m making to improve my faltering Spanish. Hope to see you there!

Según lo prometido, mis blogs se reanudan en breve … pero en un nuevo lugar y con un nuevo formato.

Se puede encontrar el nuevo blog aquí: se llama The (De-) Fossilization Diaries, y documenta mis  esfuerzos para mejorar mi español titubeante. ¡Espero veros allí!

I is for Imitation

25 03 2012

Listen!  Repeat! Understand! The sequence below comes from an advert for a self-study language course – an advert that I have used countless times on training sessions to (gently) mock the folk theory that language acquisition (both first and second) is primarily a process of imitation – and imitation in advance of understanding, no less. The text of the advert spells it out: ‘You probably can’t remember, but at that time [i.e. when you were a child]  you first reproduced sounds, then words, and then entire phrases without really understanding anything. Very quickly you were able to speak, understand and make yourself understood’.  And of course they add, ‘This is the best way to learn any language’.

It’s amazing how this notion has resisted the hatchet-job that Chomsky and his followers inflicted upon it so long ago. Mindless reproduction of the type described cannot of course account for the almost limitless creativity that even quite young children allegedly exhibit. Summing up the evidence, Lightbown and Spada (2006: 14) confidently declare that ‘imitation and practice alone cannot explain some of the forms created by children’, citing a figure of less than 10 per cent of children’s output as being directly imitative.

So, if, in Chomsky’s terms, language use is rule-based creativity, and if performance is contingent upon competence, then it follows that we should teach (or have learners figure out) the rules of the language, so that they can generate their own meanings, rather than have them simply imitate a model. The learning sequence might better be summed up as Listen! Understand! Figure it out! Create!

It’s something of a shock, therefore, to come up against this sentence in Vygotsky’s Thought and Language ([1934], 1986: 188, emphasis added): ‘In learning to speak, as in learning school subjects, imitation is indispensable’. Or, as Lantolf and Thorne (2006: 166) gloss it, ‘Imitation is the process through which socioculturally constructed forms of mediation are internalised’. That is to say, the transition from skills (including linguistic ones) that are initially other-regulated to those that are self-regulated is engineered by – hold your breath – imitation.

In fairness, and as Swain et al (2011: 58) point out, Vygotsky’s notion of imitation was a far cry from mindless parroting: ‘Vygotsky differentiated imitation from automatic copying.  In Vygotsky’s view, imitation is a potentially transformative mechanism that is applied consciously and is goal-directed. Intentionality of the imitation, the reflection and examination of the results, and the subsequent revisions differentiates the action from simple mimicry’. This is reminiscent of Bakhtin’s (1981: 428) claim that, to make an utterance is to ‘appropriate the words of others and populate them with one’s own intentions’.

Imitation, then, is like a benign form of plagiarism, in which the child cobbles utterances together, in a kind of cut-and-paste fashion, using whatever linguistic affordances are available in order to achieve their immediate communicative purposes.  These linguistic affordances include, not only words, but multi-word chunks, such as lemme-see, I-wanna-do-it, etc, that, initially at least, are unanalysed into their component parts (Tomasello 2003). In this sense, they constitute what one scholar (Clark 1974: 1) has called performance without competence: ‘The important question is no longer whether imitation can help children to acquire syntax, but precisely how a child gradually extracts grammatical information from the repertoire of imitated sequences at his [or her] disposal’.

So, to tweak our learning sequence yet again, maybe what’s happening is more like Listen! Imitate! Understand! Figure it out! – not a million miles from the Listen! Repeat! Understand! formula that I habitually mock.

The question then is (as ever): how does this apply to the learning of a second language? How does one ‘populate the words of others with one’s own intentions’?  Eva Hoffman (1998: 220), a Polish teenager learning English in the United States, describes the process of appropriation:  ‘Since I lack a voice of my own, the voices of others invade me… By assuming them, I gradually make them mine. I am being remade, fragment by fragment, like a patchwork quilt’.  In a similar, patchwork fashion, a student of academic writing will selectively imitate (or copy) features, both micro- and macro-, of a model text as a first step in discovering her own academic ‘voice’.

If imitation is fundamental to first language acquisition, should we be integrating more imitation-type activities into our second language classrooms? And how can we ensure that, in order to be ‘transformative’, imitation meets the criteria that Swain et al. establish (2011: 59), i.e. that it is ‘deliberate, reflective, and accompanied by some kind of instruction’?


Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Clark, R. (1974) ‘Performing without competence’, Journal of Child Language, 1, 1.

Hoffman, E. (1998) Lost in Translation: A Life in a  New Language, London: Vintage.

Lantolf, J.P., and Thorne, S. (2006) Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lightbown, P.M. and Spada, N. (2006) How Languages are Learned (3rd edn.), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swain, M., Kinnear, P., and Steinman, L. (2011) Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education: An Introduction through Narratives, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A Usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition, London: Continuum.

Vygotsky, L. ([1934] 1986), Thought and Language, edited by Kozulin, A., Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.