One of the highlights of the 2014 TESOL International Conference was Diane Larsen Freeman’s plenary entitled Complexity Theory: Renewing Our Understanding of Language, Learning, and Teaching. Complexity Theory in Second Language Acquisition is not an easy topic to digest, but Larsen-Freeman made it easy to understand by way of her outstanding presentation skills and the illustrative slides that helped visualize the actual simplicity of the theory and how much sense it makes.
My first more in-depth encounter with Larsen-Freeman’s discussion of Complexity Theory as an approach to second language acquisition, or rather, development, was through her chapter in Dwight Atkinson’s book on Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition
(Larsen-Freeman, 2011). I have to admit I
had to read it three times to really grasp the essence of the theory and how it
related to second language acquisition.
If you’re not familiar with Complexity Theory and its relationship with Second Language Acquisition, I’d like to share with you my short summary of Larsen-Freeman’s fantastic TESOL Plenary, particularly regarding the topics of language acquisition and language input. Then, if you’re interested in more in-depth reading on Complexity Theory, I recommend Larsen-Freeman’s chapter in Atkinson’s book or this article
Complexity theory seeks to explain complex, dynamic, open, adaptive, self-organizing, nonlinear systems (Larsen-Freeman, 2011, p. 52). Fractals are the signature of complex systems; as we go deeper and deeper into the structure, the same pattern occurs.
Larsen-Freeman’s main thesis in her plenary is that, within the Complexity Theory framework, we can’t really say that language is acquired, but rather, it is developed. Acquisition implies language as a commodity that you ingest somehow. Language development is the emergence of language abilities in real time. A pattern arises from the interaction of the parts; emergence is the spontaneous occurrence of something new. The edges of language are blurry; there is no end and there is no state. Acquisition suggests completion and a one-way process, while development is bidirectional.
Larsen-Freeman also finds the term input problematic because it dehumanizes the learner. For her, acceptability is interlocutor-dependent. Input is problematic because it is inert knowledge. She asks us why it is that students can do something in the classroom but then can't do it outside the classroom later on. It's because we don't teach language as dynamic. Meaningless repetition contributes to the inert knowledge problem. She points out that iteration is different from repetition. As a learner's system develops, it functions as a resource for further development.
Students need to adapt their behavior to an increasingly complex environment. This can be done through iterative activity under slightly different conditions. Input suggests a one-way action between an individual and the environment. Affordance is a better term to use in this case - providing a language-rich environment where students will find their own affordances; language develops from experience, afforded by the learner's perceptions of the environment.
This development is individual; learners define their own learning path. For this reason, we can't average out data. What should be taught is not only language but also learners. We need to design spaces with learners specifically in mind.
Above all, we transform; we don't transfer!
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Larsen-Freeman, D. (2007). On the complementarity of Chaos/Complexity Theory and Dynamic Systems Theory in understanding second language acquisitin. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 10 (1), pp. 35-37.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (2011). A Complexity Theory Approach to Second Language Acquisition/Development. In D. Atkinson, Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition (pp. 48-72). New York, NY: Routledge.
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