On language development and affordances

4 05 2014

One of the highlights of the 2014 International TESOL 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. For her, 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.

Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

OBS: This was originally posted on ctjconnected.blogspot.com as my contribution to the TESOL 2014 series.




8 responses

4 05 2014
Marco Rodrigo

Extremely interesting!! It really sounds terribly complicated at first; but possibly due to your academic background in journalism, you have managed to render this theory into something digestible and you have sparked my interest in this topic in a most decisive way! Your skill to deliver complex information in a comprehensible format reminds me of Daniel Goleman, who also has a strong background in journalism… That is a very unusual skill requiring both in-depth knowledge and skill! Thank you!

4 05 2014

How flattering, Marco. I don’t think I deserve it, though, for all I did was to take extensive notes during the talk. I guess Larsen-Freeman deserves the credit! Thank you for reading my summary and your feedback!

6 05 2014

Great summary, Isabela! You can imagine how much I wish I could have attended TESOL this year to hear Larsen Freeman’s plenary. My very first encounter with complex/dynamic accounts of SLA was also by reading one of her articles (her 1997 seminal article “Chaos-Complexity Science and Second Language Acquisition” published in Applied Linguistics) and it simply blew my mind! It’s amazing how this broad theory, which has been applied to so many phenomena in different sciences, is able to explain/predict SLA so thoroughly. Because of the dynamic nature of interlanguage and the different attractor/repeller states at play, the theory has serious implications to the teaching-learning relation that some teachers tend to take for granted. Also, the theory has some serious implications to research design, favoring almost exclusively longitudinal studies due to the dynamic nature of SLD (Second Language Development), which is a challenge I’m trying to embrace now.

I agree that Larsen Freeman’s chapter in Atkinson’s book is a great start for someone who is interested in Complexity Theory applied to SLA. I would also recommend De Bot et al’s 2007 article “A Dynamic Systems Theory approach to second language acquisition” published in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 10 (1) as an easy-to-read introductory summary.

Hope we can keep talking about SLD and sharing projects!


6 05 2014

Dear Ronaldo, thank you for taking your time to read my humble notes on a topic you are such an expert in! I’ll be sure to read the additional references you suggest. Yes, let’s keep in touch and keep collaborating. Hope everything is well with you. We miss you here!
Best wishes,

13 05 2014
Henry W. Grant

Thank yiou for sharing this. The subject had had generated a spark. Now you have made it exciting:-)

13 05 2014

Glad you liked it, Henry. Now you can dig deeper into the topic by reading her articles or Ronaldo’s suggestion. Cheers!

4 05 2016

Can you provide a link (if available) to the video of that TESOL conference ?

5 05 2016

Sorry. I don’t think it is available anymore.

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