T is for Turning point

28 04 2013
natalies journal

from ‘Some Writings: December 1946 – December 1947’ by Natalie Luethi Peterson (click to enlarge)

This was written by a young American woman, visiting Europe for the first time, and speaking the German she had learned at school. It describes an experience many second language speakers will attest to: the turning point – that moment when suddenly the language that had been so long a struggle, suddenly grows wings and takes flight.

For the writer Alice Kaplan (1993: 55), the turning point in her learning of French was triggered by her mastering of the elusive French ‘r’ sound:

It happened over months but it felt like it happened in one class. I opened my mouth and I opened up; it slid out, smooth and plush, a French ‘r.’ It was the sound my cat makes when she wants to go out: between a purr and a meouw, a gurgling deep in the throat. It wasn’t loud, it didn’t interrupt the other sounds. It was smooth, and suave. It felt — relaxed. It felt normal! I had it. With this ‘r’ I could speak French, I wouldn’t be screaming my Americanness every time I spoke. ‘R’ was my passport…. The ‘r’ was the biggest hurdle; my system was now in place.

For other learners, the process is less dramatic, but there is often the sense that a qualitative change has occurred. Dick Schmidt (in Schmidt and Frota 1986: 247) records this moment in his learning of Brazilian Portuguese:

Journal entry, week 18

Last night I was really up, self-confident, feeling fluent…. At one point, M said to F that she should speak more slowly for me, but I said no, please don’t, I don’t need it any more.

Natalie Lüthi Peterson 1946

Natalie Luethi Peterson in 1946

In information-processing models of language acquisition, these ‘great leaps forward’ were explained in terms of restructuring, i.e. the qualitative changes that result when information is reorganized into new categories.  As McLaughlin (1987: 138) explains it: ”Whereas some learning is seen to occur continuously by accretion … other learning is thought to occur in a discontinuous fashion, by restructuring. This discontinuity would account for second-language learners’ perceptions of sudden moments of insight or “clicks of comprehension”.  … Often learners report that this experience is followed by rapid progress, as old linguistic information and skills are fitted into this new way of understanding’ .

More recently, and according to complex systems theory, these turning points represent what are called phase shifts in the system.  Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 45) use the example of a horse changing gait from walking to trotting, or from trotting to cantering, and so on: ‘Dramatic and sudden changes of this kind are called phase shifts…. The states of the system before and after a phase shift are very different.’  And they add (2008: 59), ‘what emerges as a result of a phase shift is something different from before: a whole that is more than the sum of its parts and that cannot be explained reductively through the activity of the component parts.’

Unlike the concept of restructuring, where the system ‘yields’ to external inputs and accommodates them accordingly, a phase shift is the result of self-organization: ‘it is the dynamic properties of the system that lead it to happen, not some external organizing force’ (p. 58). Nevertheless, certain conditions seem to be conducive to phase shifts, notably a period of instability, when the system is ‘teetering on the brink of chaos’ (Larsen-Freeman and Cameron 2008: 148) – what’s otherwise known as ‘the tipping point.’

Phase shifts would seem to account for the fact that, in first language acquisition, lexical ‘spurts’ typically precede the onset of grammatical development: it seems that a critical mass of vocabulary is necessary before the grammar ‘coalesces’, as it were. Likewise, the acquisition of literacy is often experienced as a breakthrough or turning point, nicely captured in this quote from the writer Penelope Fitzgerald: ‘I began to read just after I was four. The letters on the page suddenly gave in and admitted what they stood for. They obliged me completely and all at once’ (quoted in Wolf 2010: 96).

Eadweard-Muybridge-horse-gallopingApart from these anecdotal accounts, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of literature on turning points. Under what circumstances do they tend to occur, for example, and what triggers them?  The answer to this question must be of key interest to teachers, often frustrated at learners’ lack of progress, yet aware of the possibility that a well-timed intervention on their part might be sufficient to tip the balance.

The lack of research into turning points must owe, in part, to their capricious nature: they are, almost by definition, spontaneous, swift, and unpredictable. Nevertheless, as Ke and Holland (2006: 712) observe:

Nonlinearity has two significant implications: (i) in order to understand how learning progresses, we have to pay special attention to capturing such abrupt transitions, and find out if there are particular conditions or prompts that trigger such transitions; (ii) we will expect plateau periods, and provide continuing support to learners even though at times there seems to be no significant progress.

And they quote Larsen-Freeman (2003: 112) to this effect: ‘Of course, since the language development process is non-linear, interaction may be followed by more interaction with little obvious lasting change in learners’ interlanguage. Then, one day, for any given learner, the penny will drop. All we can say for sure is that it is a very lucky teacher who is there to witness its happening.’

Have you experienced or witnessed a turning point?


Kaplan, A. (1993). French lessons: A memoir, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Ke, J. & Holland, J.H. (2006) ‘Language origin from an emergentist perspective,’ Applied Linguistics, 27/4.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003) Teaching Language: From grammar to grammaring, Boston, Thomson Heinle.

Larsen-Freeman, D., & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McLaughlin, B. (1987) Theories of Second-Language Learning, London: Arnold.

Schmidt. R., and Frota, S. (1986) ‘Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner,’ in Day, R. (ed.). Talking to Learn: Conversation in a second language. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Wolf, M. (2010) Proust and the squid: the story of the reading brain, Cambridge: Icon Books.

Thanks to the Luethi family for permission to quote from Natalie’s archive.