This Distributed Language Group (DLG) research cluster addresses issues, contexts, pedagogies, and empirical conditions related to second/foreign language development. The genesis of the cluster is a two-year scientific workshop titled Agency and languaging (2010-2012), organized by the University of Jyväskylä (and sponsored by the Finnish Ministry of Culture), where interdisciplinary views on applied linguistics and second language development are being discussed and further developed (link to website).
In particular, dialogism – including the work of the Bakhtin Circle as well as more recent scholarship – has been a primary catalyst for many of the discussions that have led to the formation of this cluster and provides a starting point for theorizing learning in non-invididualist terms. This set of perspectives connects individuals as language learners with their environments, with other human agents and artifacts, and involves processes that at the core of language developmental.
Broadly and non-restrictively, in its current formation, the cluster draws primarily upon the following research traditions:
- The Russian school, including sociocultural and cultural-historical theories of language and development (Cole, 1996; Volosinov, 1973; Vygotsky, 1981, 1986; Wertsch, 1991, 1998), activity theory (Engeström, 1987, 1999; Engeström & Sannino, 2009; Thorne, 2005, 2009; Thorne & Lantolf, 2007), and as mentioned above, dialogical perspectives (Bakhtin, 1986; Dufva et al. 2011; Dufva, 2010; Linell, 2009).
- Non-Cartesian, distributed, and ecological views of language, development, and cognition, including social practice theory (Bourdieu, 1991; de Certeau, 1984; Hanks, 1996), DLG-inspired reconceptualizations of language, communication, human sense-making and values realizing (e.g., Cowley, 2009; Hodges, 2007 a&b, 2009; Järvilehto, 1998; Thibault, 2011; among others), and ecological approaches to language and development (e.g., Bateson, 1972; Kramsch, 2002; van Lier, 2004).
- Dynamic and adaptive systems approaches to language and language learning that emphasize emergence, complexity, self-organization, and non-linear development (Five Graces Group, 2009; Ellis, 2011; Ellis & Larsen-Freeman, 2006; Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008; de Bot, 2008; Spivey, 2007; Verspoor, De Bot, & Lowie, 2011).
- Sociocognitive research in applied linguistics, which elaborates non-individualist, integrative, and ecological perspectives on language, body, and mind as they relate to second language development (e.g., Atkinson, 2002, 2010, 2012).
The above viewpoints resonate with contemporary approaches to mind and cognition. Distributed cognition (Cowley, 2007; Hutchins, 2005) provides a perspective in which learning and development can be examined as a cognitive event that is shared, co-created by the participants, and co-created by agents working with the culturally shaped tools in digital environments (Thorne, 2003; Zheng, 2012; Zheng & Newgarden, 2012). Further, systemic psychology (Gibson, 1979; Järvilehto, 1998) provides an opportunity to regard learning as a function of dynamics comprising organism-and-environment systems. This points out the need for exploring learning holistically and suggests that the conceptualization of embodiment, situated sense-making, and their role(s) in learning are more adequately addressed. If learners are not only rational agents but also as embodied and dialogical ones, this allows us to reconsider not only how learners act in their environments but how they interact with other agents, different modalities, and materialities, a view which also corresponds with how ‘language’ itself is conceptualized.
New perspectives on language
The cluster also draws upon recent critiques of essentialist and/or formalist and structuralist views that regard language as a bounded system of decontextual relations, rules and items. Related objections that challenge the “national language bias” (e.g., Joseph; Blommaert), “monolingual bias” (Cummins; Blommaert; Heller; Hinnenkamp), “written language bias” (Linell 2005), are also highly relevant to second/foreign language research projects that may arise from within this cluster.
Additional alternative formulations of language, also present in other DLG clusters, aim at dismantling the reifying views of language as code or object and seek to point out its inherent dynamicity and event-like nature. This aspect is present, for example, in the discourses of emergent grammar (Hopper, 1998), languaging (Maturana, 1978; Becker, 1988), translanguaging (Creese & Blackledge, 2010), language understood as a complex adaptive system (Five Graces Group, 2009; Ellis, 2011), usage-based and Vygotsky-informed approaches to communicative activity (e.g., Thorne & Lantolf, 2007; Tomasello, 2003), and Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia, which sees language as inherently varying across space and changing over time. Each of these perspectives to a greater or lesser degree reject the view of language as an abstract system and thus suggest that it is possible to see “language as many”, as linguistic/semiotic resources (Blommaert, 2005), and by extension, to understand learners’ second/foreign language competences in terms of emergent and distributed communicative repertoires.
Dialogue between viewpoints: challenges and options
To summarise, the above views suggest certain starting points for second/foreign language learning and development, but they may also bring to the fore conceptual and practical incommensurabilities among them. We suggest that in broad brush strokes, they sketch a view of learning as agency-in-the-environment, or, learning-in-the world that require us to address many new challenges.
We hope to achieve further discussion, to name only a few, around the following topics: If learning is a sociocognitive, embodied process involving ‘distributed’, ‘systemic’, ‘emergent’, ‘adaptive’, ‘dynamic’, and ‘ecological’ qualities, what further issues and concepts need to be rethought? In this regard, we particularly need to (re)consider questions such as – what is the ‘language’ that is learned? What else counts for learning in addition to gains in form? How are language learning and linguistic actions assessed (other DLG clusters can help here)? Further, if language/ semiosis/ sets of communicative practices (activities to reflect Linell’s work) are not characterized as individual possessions, how is learning to be redefined and remodeled so as to avoid resurrecting monadic cognitivist arguments?
To address these and other questions, we invite participation in a dialogue aimed at sharing our ideas in a distributed fashion, for seeing what views of applied linguistics may be re-used and recycled, and for assessing what may be reinvented and what simply needs to be replaced.
The cluster is open to all researchers, educators and others with an interest in second language development that draws upon, expands, and potentially contests the orientations and perspectives described above. As a site for scientific inquiry into language and L2 development, our main objectives include the sharing of ideas, research, and resources (i.e., data, opportunities for collaboration), possibilities for organized dissemination of research (colloquia at conferences, publications), and more generally, supporting critical dialogue related to L2 research, teaching, and learning that are in part informed by distributed language principles and perspectives.
Hannele Dufva (University of Jyväskylä),
Steve Thorne (Portland State University & University of Groningen)
Dongping Zheng (University of Hawai’i).
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