M is for Mind

22 04 2012

Words come out of the mouth and go into the ear. But they’re stored in the mind. And retrieved from the mind. And understood in the mind. They’re also learned in the mind.

That, at least, is the conventional wisdom – especially from the point of view of cognitive psychology. ‘Language is instantiated in the minds and therefore the brains of language users, so that linguistics is to be regarded as a branch of psychology’. Thus argues Ray Jackendoff (2002: xiv). Chomsky, of course, took this view to an extreme: the observable messiness of language in use (or performance) ‘surely cannot constitute the actual subject matter of linguistics’ (1965: 4). Rather, ‘linguistic theory is mentalistic, since it is concerned with discovering a mental reality [or competence] underlying such behaviour’ (ibid.).

Theories of second language acquisition follow suit: ‘Second language acquisition is first and foremost a mental process – one that occurs in a behavioural and social context, to be sure, but fundamentally a matter of acquiring a new knowledge system.  Cognition and cognitive factors, therefore, are central to any account of how and why SLA works’ (Long & Richards 2001, p.vii) . Anything else, such as the social contexts in which language is used, or the physical stuff of the brain itself, or even the body in which the mind/brain is housed, are considered marginal, messy, uninteresting – mere noise.

The earliest example I could find of a computer in a coursebook: Headway Intermediate (1986)

Not only is language a mental phenomenon, according to this view, but the ‘mind’ of which it is a product is construed as a kind of computer (or as Pinker [1997: 92] charmingly puts it ‘the on-board computer of a robot made of tissue’). Hence, ‘mental life can be explained in terms of a computational process’ (Johnson-Laird, 1988: 26). Or, put another way, cognition – and, by extension, learning – is basically information-processing.  Furthermore, because of the limitations on the amount of attention that humans can allocate to any particular cognitive task at any one time, this processing is necessarily controlled before it is automatic. In short, humans are ‘limited capacity processors of information’.

This applies equally to language learning, both first and other. As McLaughlin (1987: 133) puts it:

Within this framework, second-language learning is viewed as the acquisition of complex cognitive skill.  To learn a second language is to learn a skill, because various aspects of the task must be practised and integrated into fluent performance.  This requires the automatization of component sub-skills.  Learning is a cognitive process, because it is thought to involve internal representations that regulate and guide performance.

Because learning is a cognitive process, this ‘information processing’ view of learning is known as a cognitivist one, and the metaphor that best captures it is MIND IS COMPUTER.  Associated with this model, therefore, we find a host of information-processing terms like input, intake, output, feedback, automatization, filters, as well as the term processing itself. And, because cognition is implicated, we find a further set of terms like noticing, attention, consciousness-raising, and restructuring.

from Reward (1994)

How does this actually impact on current methodology?  On the one hand, you could argue that all these various models of mind and language operate at a level far removed from actual classroom practice, and that teachers carry on doing what they’ve always done – that is, teaching effectively.  On the other hand, you could also argue that the ‘mind is a computer’ metaphor has percolated down (or up?) and underpins many of our methodological practices and materials, including the idea that language learning is systematic, linear, incremental, enclosed, uniform, dependent on input and practice, independent of its social context, de-humanized, disembodied,  … and so on.

It is a model of language learning that, arguably, turns the learner into an automaton –  ‘a robot made of tissue’.  As David Block (2003: 97) notes, ‘in the ideal world of cognitive scientists, the human mind is still conceived of as dependent on external stimuli to which it responds…The adoption of the computer metaphor of input-output does not disguise the fact that there is still a view of mental behaviour as systematic and mechanistic’.

Is there an alternative model – an alternative metaphor, even?

Block (2003: 93) goes on to argue that there are ‘a growing number of scholars who subscribe to the view that mental processes are as social as they are individual and external as they are internal’. (Some of these approaches I’ve referenced in previous posts, such as E is for Ecology, A is for Affordance and B is for Body). Contrasting cognitive with what they loosely call sociocultural approaches, Foster and Ohta (2005:  403) note that, for the latter

Language development is essentially a social process.  These approaches view mind as distributed and learning as something inter-mental, embedded in social interaction.  This means that individuals and environments mutually constitute one another and persons are not considered to be separable from the environments and interactions through which language development occurs.  In this view, knowledge is not owned solely by the learner, but is also a property of social settings and the interface between person and social context.

Elementary Matters (1997)

The distributed nature of mind is a core tenet of theories of ‘situated cognition’, neatly captured here by Clark (2011: 70):

Extended systems theorists… reject the image of mind as a kind of input-output sandwich with cognition as the filling….  Instead, we confront an image of the local mechanisms of human cognition quite literally bleeding out into body and world.

What, I wonder, would be the characteristics of a methodology that subscribed to this distributed, ‘leaky’, and co-adaptive view of mind? And, specifically, what are the correlates of input and of noticing, in this alternative to a computational, information-processing model of language learning?


Block, D.  (2003) The Social Turn In Second Language Acquisition, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Clark, A. (2011) Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.

Foster, P. and Ohta, A. (2005) ‘Negotiation for meaning and peer assistance in second language classrooms’, Applied Linguistics, 26, 3,

Jackendoff, R. (2002) Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson-Laird, P.  N.  (1988) The Computer and the Mind: An Introduction to Cognitive Science, Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Long, M. and Richards, J. (2001) ‘Series editors’ preface’, in Robinson, P.  (Ed.)  Cognition and Second Language Instruction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Pinker, S. (1997) How The Mind Works, London: Penguin.

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.

P is for Practised Control

29 05 2011

Practising control

A Swiss student who I was teaching on-line produced the following short text, in response to an invitation to introduce himself:

“I like to play piano very much. I enjoy to watch TV. I love really to eat pizza. I don’t like to drink tea at all. I like to read newpapers and magazins a lot”.

This is how I responded:

Thanks H***. – nice to hear from you, and to get an idea of your interests. What kind of music do you like playing, by the way – classical or modern?

Just note that verbs like like, love usually are followed by the -ing verb. Enjoy is always followed by the -ing verb. So: I like playing the piano (note the use of the here, too); and I enjoy watching TV etc. Speak to you soon. Scott

The next day I received the following (Task 2: Describe your computer and what you use it for):

My computer is 2 years old. He has a Pentium Processor. The harddisk is unfortunately to small. My children filled the disk always with computer games. So I have not anough free disk space for important software.I really like to work with computer. My wife enjoyes to send E-mail to her friends. Our computer is in our lumber-room,so I can work also early in the morning.

It appears that the student only then received my feedback on his first task, because he immediately re-sent the above work, self-corrected, thus:

Thanks for your e-mail!

Dear Scott

My computer is 2 years old.  It has a Pentium Processor. The harddisk is unfortunately to small. My children filled the disk always with computer games. So I have not enough free disk space for important software. I really like working  with  the computer. My wife enjoyes sending  E-mails  to her friends. Our computer is in our lumber-room, so I can work also early in the morning.

Notice how the student has picked up on the -ing errors, and self-corrected them. This would seem to be an example of what, in socio-cultural learning theory (e.g. Lantolf 2000), is called self-regulation. According to this view, learning is initially other-regulated (as in the first feedback I gave the student) and then it becomes increasingly self-regulated. (Note that in the process of regulating the -ing forms the student has noticed other minor errors in the text and corrected these, too).

Central to the notion of this transfer of control is the idea that aspects of the skill are appropriated. Appropriation has connotations of taking over the ownership of something, of ‘making something one’s own’.

This is a very different process to what is often called controlled practice. In fact, rather than talk of controlled practice, it may be more helpful to talk about practised control.

Controlled practice is repetitive practice of language items in conditions where the possibility of making mistakes is minimised. Typically this takes the form of drilling.

Practised control, on the other hand, involves demonstrating progressive control of a skill where the possibility of making mistakes is ever present, but where support is always at hand.

To use the analogy of learning to ride a bicycle, it is like being allowed to pedal freely, but with someone running along right behind, just in case. In practised control, control (or self-regulation) is the objective of the practice, whereas in controlled practice, control is simply the condition under which practice takes place.

So, through drafting and re-drafting a text in the context of a supportive feedback loop, my Swiss student is practising control of –ing forms – and a lot else besides. What other kinds of activities are consistent with the notion of practised control, I wonder?


Lantolf, J. (ed.) (2000). Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Some of this post originally appeared in Thornbury, S. (2005) How to Teach Speaking. London: Pearson.

Illustrations by Quentin Blake for Success with English, by Geoffrey Broughton, Penguin Education, 1968.

Z is for ZPD

12 09 2010


There’s no entry for Z in the A-Z of ELT (which means perhaps it should be called the A to Y of ELT!) but if there were, the strongest candidate would have to be ZPD as in the zone of proximal development. This is the concept most closely identified with the work of the Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, but also, arguably, the concept of his that has been subject to the greatest number of interpretations.

Vygotsky himself defined it as:

“the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving and adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (1978, p. 86).

That is to say, it’s that point where learning is still other-regulated, but where the potential for self-regulation is imminent – the moment that the child, teetering on her bike, still needs the steadying touch of her mother’s hand. Teaching is optimally effective, the theory goes, when it “awakens and rouses into life those functions which are in the stage of maturing, which lie in the zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1934, quoted in Wertsch 1985, p. 71).

It’s important to note that the ZPD is not the learner’s ‘level’ in the traditional sense in which we grade students, nor even the level just above, but that, as Gordon Wells puts it, it is “created in the interaction between the student and the co-participants in an activity… and depends on the nature and quality of the interaction as much as on upper limit of the learner’s capability” (Wells, 1999, p. 318). Because the ZPD cannot be gauged in advance, and is a property neither of the learner nor of the interaction alone, “from the teacher’s perspective, … one is always aiming at a moving target” (op.cit., p. 319).

These elusive, emergent, unpredictable, and idiosyncratic properties of the ZPD raise the question as to whether it has any pedagogical applications at all. If it’s not the student’s level (or level + 1), what is it? And how can it be manipulated for optimal learning?

Scholars in the sociocultural tradition have suggested that the way classroom talk is scaffolded (see S is for scaffolding), with the teacher providing only the minimal assistance necessary to enable the learner’s performance, can help orient the activity towards the learner’s ZPD and thereby influence its potential for learning. Optimal experience theorists (see F is for Flow) would also argue that the ZDP is situated at the point where challenge and skill are counter-balanced. Advocates of task-based learning likewise suggest that the judicious calibration of task conditions, such as preparation time and rehearsal, can provide the optimal balance between safety and risk-taking that is associated with the concept of the ZPD, and thereby lead to learning.

Jim Lantolf's workshop: JALT 2009

Others have tried to map the ZPD onto Krashen’s concept of input + 1 and Swain’s analogous concept of output + 1 (see P is for Push). When, during an engaging question-and-answer session at last year’s JALT conference, I asked Jim Lantolf (who, more than anyone, has championed Vygotsky’s relevance to SLA: see Lantolf, 2000, for example) if there were any grounds for making this connection, he was dismissive. “For a start, input + 1 and output + 1 describe qualities of language, not of cognition. Nor do they situate this language within the context of collaborative, interactive activity”. (In fact, Krashen’s Input Hypothesis rejects the need for interaction altogether). Kinginger (2002) is even more scathing, and argues that Vygotsky’s original concept – fuzzy as it was – has been shamelessly co-opted for ideological purposes, as a way of prettifying activities “that have always been done in classrooms where speaking activity takes place as a pretext for grammar practice, only now we are calling it the ‘ZPD’” (p. 255).

Despite all this fuzziness, the notion of the ZPD permeates current rhetoric on teaching. Is it just a fairly meaningless buzz word, or does it still have some currency?


Kinginger, C. 2002. ‘Defining the zone of proximal development in US foreign language education’. Applied Linguistics, 23/2. 240-261.
Lantolf, J. (ed.) 2000. Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vygotsky, L. 1978. Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wells, G. 1999. Dialogic Inquiry: Towards a Sociocultural Practice and Theory of Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wertsch, J. 1985. Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Cambridge, MA.; Harvard University Press