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.

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“Un croissant, s’il vous plaît.” – What it takes to take it in

13 05 2012



I learned French for three years over twenty years ago, thus reaching a low-intermediate level that enables me to fairly understand written texts and conversations on familiar topics. My production, however, is miserable, and my last visit to France enabled me to experience many of the second language acquisition (SLA) and learning theories I have studied in my twenty-odd years as a teacher, teacher trainer and researcher. One of them has to do with input, intake, output, interaction and corrective feedback within Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (1978).


Contrary to what Krashen (1982) has posited, input alone does not lead to second-language acquisition (SLA). There must be intake and subsequent uptake – which require some sort of noticing (Schmidt, 1990) or input saliency (Doughty and Williams, 1998). Also, according to Swains’ output hypothesis (1985), the act of producing language constitutes, under certain circumstances, part of the process of second language learning.  It is by speaking and interacting that the learner receives feedback, for example, and can learn from it. According to Lyster and Ranta (1997), more explicit types of feedback are more likely to result in intake.  However, in naturalistic settings, not all interlocutors are actually willing or able to provide the feedback the leaner needs. In other words, the quality of the interaction and what the learner will take from it depends fundamentally on the interlocutor’s disposition and ability to create an ideal Zone of Proximal Development.


Here’s my experience that confirms this assertion:


I stayed in Paris for seven days and had breakfast every day at the same café, where I always ordered a croissant. An avid language learner eager to put my meager French into practice, I always placed my order in French, despite knowing that the sales clerks spoke English. For five consecutive days I said, “Une croissant, s’il vou plait.” For five consecutive days my interlocutor acknowledged my order, handed me my croissant, and charged me the usual amount of money, in English, by the way.


It was only on the sixth day that, after my usual line, I was met with a different reaction: “Oh, UN croissant. C’est UN croissant, n’est pas? UN croissant.”  I immediately said, “Oui, UN croissant. Mercy! UN croissant!”  I couldn’t thank the guy enough for finally showing to me that I was using the wrong gender marking for the determiner.  Why hadn’t anyone told me before? Why did I have to stupidly order “une croissant” for five days before a blessed soul cared enough to show me I was wrong!


As I kept thinking about the situation, I wondered whether the other clerks had actually used a recast that I hadn’t picked up, or whether they had perhaps repeated the order correctly to their peer who was to get the croissant and give it to me. Though I ‘m never going to be sure, I probably did hear “un croissant” in the input on the previous days, but I didn’t notice it – maybe because there were other things to attend to, maybe because it just wasn’t salient enough.


The fact is that I only learned that it was “un croissant” rather than “une croissant” because that particular sales clerk was willing to become a “meaningful other” (Gonzalez-Rey, 2004) in our interaction, an “other” who didn’t only respond to the meaning of my utterance by giving me my croissant, but who also kindly pointed out how my request was malformed so I could learn the language. But then I wonder if someone else in my shoes would have benefited from this corrective feedback the way I did. Maybe another non-native speaker not so interested in speaking more correctly wouldn’t have cared. Perhaps a third one with a high affective filter would have felt intimidated. Someone else might even have felt offended by the correction. Who knows?  Interactional competence has to do with “how (linguistic and interactional resources) are employed mutually and reciprocally by all participants in a particular discursive practice; (…) it is co-constructed by all the participants in a discursive practice and varies with the practice and the participants” (Young, 2011, p. 428). Thus, the meaning that such interaction had to me would certainly have been different to another participant.


Are we teachers, then, always willing and able to be our students’ “meaningful others”, who will give them the feedback they need at the time they need it, so they won’t feel stupid the way I did having repeated the same mistake every day and not being told? How many times should a student make a mistake before the teacher decides it’s time to correct it? Are all our students, in their turn, ready and willing to receive the feedback and turn it into uptake?


All I know for sure is this: had it not been for my experience ordering the croissant and receiving negative evidence of my malformed noun phrase, I would have come back to Brazil saying une croissant!



Doughty, C. & Williams, J. (Eds.).(1998). Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gonzalez-Rey, F. (2004). O sujeito, a subjetividade e o outro na dialética complexa do desenvolvimento. In L. Simão, and  A. Mitjáns Martinez (eds). O outro e o desenvolvimento humano, pp. 1-28. São Paulo: Thomson

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language learning and acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon.

Lyster, R. & Ranta, L. (1997). Corrective feedback and learner uptake: Negotiation of form in communicative classrooms. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 19, 37-66.

Schmidt, R. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, 129-58.

Swain, M. (1985) Communicative competence: Some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In Gass, S. and Madden, C. (Eds.), Input in Second Language Acquisition, pp. 235-256. New York: Newbury House.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Young, R. F. (2011). Interactional competence in language learning, teaching, and testing. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (Vol. 2, pp. 426-443). London & New York: Routledge.

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