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.

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