Showing posts with label complexity theory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label complexity theory. Show all posts

Sunday, May 04, 2014

TESOL 2014 - On Language Development and Affordance

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 (Larsen-Freeman, 2007).

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!


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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Saturday, April 12, 2014

TESOL 2014 Through Gamification and Complexity Theory

Going to the TESOL Convention in Portland last March made me feel realized as an English teacher for two reasons: first, that was the second time I had the pleasure of attending an international convention; second, I was there as a presenter! Last year, my friend and co-worker Carolina Barreto and I decided to submit our workshop and, fortunately,  it was accepted to the TESOL 2014. Both of us were anxious to be presenters in a foreign country to an audience from all over the world. The result could not be better - the spectators were engaged for 1h45 minutes, actively participating in the hands-on activities we were demonstrating in the workshop named BREAKING THE ICE - Going beyond simple icebreakers through motivation.

I am a teacher who loves creating games to use in class with my students, so the topics that caught my attention were the ones related to the use of technology or practical games. I have to confess that I did not see many innovations in terms of technologies in the classroom. For this reason, I have to admit that the work we do at the Casa may be considered at par with the most recent trends in terms of Mobile Learning.

One of the presentations I attended drew my attention because it was called The Gamification Of Learning Outcomes  ( . In that presentation, 3 professors from Colorado first clarified that gamification is not game. After briefly mentioning some theoretical aspects of language and technology, they exemplified with their work with foreign students, using facts, statistics and results.  They ended their presentation showing the survey they did with those students about that work, and, at that time, did another survey with the audience. ( Each person had to use his/her own mobile phone to send his/her opinion about the presentation.  The results were shown on the screen. It was dynamic, easy and interesting.

Attending  the session Think like a Video Game Designer to Build Better Courses, by Josh Wilson, from the Kansai Gaidai University, I became aware of many concepts about games that I had never realized before, such as: games are fail positive environments; games escape from the real world; games are learning tools and learning platforms; games design the experience for choice and to be won; and some others. These concepts are certainly going to help my reflection upon the games I create to use in class.

In my opinion, the top presentation was the one by the famous linguist Diane Larsen-Freeman, Complexity Theory: Renewing Our Understanding of language, Learning, and Teaching. Besides admiring her ideas and her culture for a long time, I liked the fact that she spoke for about an hour about how language changes day-by-day, and we, teachers, have to be aware of those evolutions and adopt them in our classes. In her words, she manages to introduce some humor to make the audience feel comfortable and engaged in her lecture. It was a blast!