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Understanding Second Language Acquisition


Five social constructs: cognition, interaction, grammar, learning and sense of self

(Social if) L2 Learning is investigated with 5 theories: Vygotskian sociocultural theory, Conversation
Analysis, Systemic Functional Linguistics, language socialization theory and identity theory.

1. The unbearable ineluctability of the social context

L2 learning, is not only surrounded by social context, it is VITAL to its process. 
Metaphor of the chameleon, it has even been proven that, chameleon change color not
only because of environmental issues, but also for mood in a group .(humanlike in L2
The radical reorientation towards social processes in SLA, comes from social-constructivist,
sociocultural and poststructuralist theories (anthropology, sociology, education,
philosophy of science, cultural studies, literary criticism.
- Social constructivism: reality is not given naturally. Reality is created by human agents
and social groups.
- Socioculturalism: beyond social constructivism  reality is not only a matter of
interpretative construction, but it is also collective and social, appropriated and
transformed through relational knowledge; individual mind finds source of learning in
social communities, learning is available in historical and social processes and emerges
among agents in a context. Only processes, events and activities are real. Structures
and patterns are epiphenomenal (sth that is occurring parallely). This means that,
reality is processual and social, it emerges each time and again because of specific
interactions with the world.
- Postructuralism beyond socioculturalism: structures of human meaning and human
social activity proposed by structuralist thinkers (Freud, Marx, Saussure), are not
enough to explain human condition. Power is caught in knowledges and discourses.
Reality is not only socially constructed and distributed, but multiple, intersubjective,
discursively constituted over power interests.

Nothing can be known if it is not known in a given social context- out of the social, nothing
can be known.

2. Cognition is social: Vygotskian sociocultural theory in SLA

Vygotskian theory was designed in reaction against behaviourism; focus on lower level
mental operations; mentalism; duality of mind and environment (Piaget).
Its main goal was to enable the study of consciousness: higher level mental operations 
language, literacy, numeracy, categorization, rationality and logic. It RECONCEPTUALIZED
In the context of L2, Lantolf applied Vygotsky´s insights to SLA, spreading it to SLA
audiences. Swain in Output Hypothesis, changing it to sociocultural meanings.
The Vygotskian social approach is the only one that has been welcomed as an SLA theory.
Vygotskian sociocultural theory posits that consciousness has its basis in the human
capacity to use symbols and tools. Metaphor of spider and architect.
- Mental activity is always mediated by tools (physical and symbolic)
- Tools change human beings, humans change tools.
- Cognition and consciousness are always social, and so are the tools.
- Language is also a process and it is the most important of all symbolic tools. Language
is used to create thought, but it also transforms thought and is the source of learning.

3. Self-regulation and language mediation

Consciousness helps humans regulate problem solving and: what, why, how (goals,
reason, means).
Regulation can be of 3 kinds: Object, other and self-regulation.
When people have to learn HOW to control their world and themselves in the context of
an activity, they orient towards objects  object regulated. It can be negative (to lose the
objective by means of objects), or positive (use of objects to accomplish sth.)
People can also orient during an event towards other people: other-regulated. This
happens in new, complex activities with the aid of other co-participants.
The highest level of regulation: people orient to their own mental activity  self-
Language mediates all three kinds of regulations. There are also different kinds of speech
in self-regulation. Private speech (talking to oneself in a challenge), social speech (talking
to others (In addition to private speech), and inner speech which cannot be observed by
Vygotskian SLA researchers see the learning of an additional language as a process that
involves appropriation of the L2, to make it a tool for self-regulation and thinking. There is
interest in understanding regulation during L2 activity through the study of social, private
and inner speech. They focus on the degree to which regulation of the 3 kinds can happen,
and whether each happens in L2 and L1, while doing activities in the L2. Lantolf and
Thorne noted that the ultimate accomplishment of self-regulation in the L2 is if mediation
can be performed LINGUISTICALLY SUCCESFULLY in the L2.

4. Some findings about inner, private and social speech in L2 learning

We are aware of inner speech when we listen to ourselves thinking.
Brain imaging studies have captured brain activity in the left inferior frontal gyrus during
inner speech, an area associated with self-awareness.
Inner speech can only be studied indirectly.
Private speech in L2 is central to the study of mental functioning because it is a link
between inner speech and social speech.
Lantolf and Thorner studies: at higher levels of L2, more self-regulation, less private
speech in retellings. Affective markers (omg, oh boy, etc.) were more used by lower-level
proficiency learners. More proficient learners showed less object regulation and more
evidence of self-regulation as shown in their language choices.
- Less proficiency level: progressive  they are ‘’discovering’’ the story while they tell it.
- Higher proficiency level: past simple  sense of unified, distant gaze towards the
story, which allows a better story-telling.
- Advanced learners: historical present  self-regulation because it carries distance and

Swain concentrates her study in social speech using the Vygotskian theory; verbalization
changes thought, leading to development and learning.

 Languaging: language as a process and not as a product. (Typicall from the Pushed
Output Hypothesis) Example: by using object regulation and other-regulation, people
achieved successful results in language proficiency.

5. Social learning in the zone of proximal development

Any knowledge and capacity to engage in regulated activity appears always first at the
social, interpersonal level and only later it can be operated also at the psychological,
intrapersonal level. ‘’The individual and the environment form an inseperable dialectal
unity that cannot be understood if the unity is broken. As Vygotsky often said, if we want
to understand the property of water that allows it to extinguish fire, we cannot reduce it
to its component elements – oxygen and hydrogen.’’
- Microgenetic method: the study of the situated change in real time.
- Zone of Proximal Development (ZDP): distance between what a learner can do in L2 if
assisted by others (other-regulated), vs what it can do alone (self-regulated).
Before, it was a study of retrospective elements, now it is prospective study.
The ZPD emerges among peers, not only with an expert, it does no imply an intention
to teach or learn, although it does in instructional formal settings.

6. Negative Feedback reconceptualized

ZPD applied in error correction in L2.
Purpose of the study: to investigate negative feedback as other-regulation that is related
to provide assistance within the ZPD of a given learner and encourages the emergence of
Optimal negative feedback starts with implicit prompts to aid self-discovery and then it
provides clues as needed. This, to encourage the learner to use his/her tools at the
potential level of ‘ability’  Graduated. There is also feedback that is withdrawn as soon
as the novice show signs of self-control and ability to function independently. 

Graduation and Contingency were formalized. It begins with the most implicit or inductive
prompts to encourage self-regulation. For example, to try to find errors before the
The microgenetic method should help capture how it comes from other-regulated to self-

There is always debate on deductive and inductive instruction, explicit and implicit
instruction, and instruction that integrates form with meaning vs. that which isolates form
from meaning. A benefit of exploring negative feedback in L2 instruction with ZPD is that
these dichotomies blur, which can change the same interactional activity dynamically, as co-
participants jointly facilitate the gradual and non-linear appearance of self-regulated

7. Interaction is social: conversation analysis and SLA

Vygotskian Sociocultural Theory: Social respecification of cognition and puts consciousness
at the center of inquiry.
Conversation Analysis: social respecification of interaction and has its center in the study of
sociability as a mundane and orderly accomplishment. Applied to SLA, characterizes L2
learning as socio-interactional practices and focuses on analysis on what is naturally
happening in spoken interactions.
 Ethnomethodology: approach of Garfinkel to refer to his approach to the study of social

8. The CA perspective in a nutshell

A goal of CA: discovery of universal mechanisms by which organized talk is possible.
CA practitioners believe that ‘context-sensitive social actions’ offer evidence for a ‘context-
free machinery’, which helps explain human’s capacity to engage in interaction and display
social actions in a context. (rules as turn taking, repair, and sequential design).
Language is social action: people do not use language to communicate, they DO language
and they DO communication.
Radically emic perspective: attitudes, relevancies, etc. should be grounded in empirically
observable conversational conduct.
Etic (researcher´s perspective)
Emic (insider´s perspective)
CA is highly technical in its transcriptions conventions.

9. Some contributions of CA for SLA

Insight of CA: L2 interactions are accomplishments in doing communications (not random).
CA reconceptualizes linguistic problems to interactional resources.
CA study of L2 interaction posits that actions and categories can be relevant or irrelevant to
particular L2 users and their interlocutors in specific interactional events.
The notion of error becomes obsolete in CA approach, nothing can be treated as error a
priori. CA analysts talk about ‘repairables’, but only when the participants display evidence
that they orient to sth in the talk as a source of trouble from them. A negotiation for
meaning is not necessarily a priority in L2-L2 talk-in interaction. Speakers orient to normality
in most cases. L2 speakers orient to themselves as ‘novice’ when they are talking to an
‘expert’. They don´t ask explicitly, but with rising intonation, explicit expressions of
ignorance, raised eyebrows and so on.
Roles of expert and novice are taken naturally. External contexts cannot impose particular
roles in the interaction of L2 speakers. Identity in CA is an achieved feature of interaction.
10. Learning in CA for SLA?
It is unclear if CA helps understanding L2 learning. One way: study interactions longitudinally
(over time) to see if speakers are able to transform and expand resources displayes in past
interactions. Also it provides evidence on socio-interactional development of L2.
Conclusively, CA only answers the question: when is L2 learning happening? And How?

11. Grammar is social: systemic functional linguistics

SFL is a school of linguistics that respecifies grammar as a social semiotic process. The social
action of meaning-making always occurs in communities and contexts. It investigates the
relation between meaning and form, content and wording, context and text, integrally. It is
thought that they are inseparable, complementary counterparts that explain how people
mean and construe their experience through meaning making.
The meaning-making potential is enabled by the interpretative expectations of the use of a
larger society in particular contexts.
SFL redefines additional language learning as semiotic development in an L2, or the
development of flexible meaning-making L2 capacities across contexts.
SFL founded by Halliday. It is European functionalism, but international.

12. Learning how to mean in an L2

L2-oriented SFL scholars have focused on how users of language gradually develop the
capacity to transform and mobilize language to formal and written registers for academic
Study: Spanish speakers in USA: lexical density (use of more content words), grammatical
metaphor (more expressions that ‘pack’ meaning), grammatical intricacy (language that
relies on subordination to express logical connections).
- Functional recasts offer semantic paraphrases that make a discourse sound more
academic. Described as a complex editing process with the student as author and the
teacher as editor.
- Study of social identities as indexed in expanding language choices. Done by analyzing
interpersonal language resources  appraisal systems.
- The SFL approach is useful for SLA purposes, but will academics use it as a tool?

13. Language learning is social learning: language socialization theory

Theory says social learning is fundamental for language learning.
-Ethnographic and longitudinal
-Connection between language and culture
-Straddling micro and macro dimensions of context, and analytically centred around
routines, rituals and other human activities in community.
-Narrative, identity, ideology  sociocultural and postructuralist approaches
14. The process of language socialization: access and participation
Social distance a known phenomena for linguists, was seen by teachers and by ESL learners
as shyness and limited language ability. (if you don´t know the topic, how are you going to
Second language socialization studies have revealed that learning outcomes can be
improved when L2 learners are not construed as definitional novices and instead their
invisible expertise is made visible during socializing events.
These results are usually seen when students are ‘experts’ and teachers don´t seem to know
anything about the topic.
Both expert and novice contributions are always co-constructed, not predetermined, and
that success or failure is also co-shared.

15. The outcomes: what is learned through L2 socialization?

What is learned: discourse, pragmatics, non-linguistic resources, appropriate identities,
stances, ideologies, behaviors associated with target group and its normative practices.
 Linguistic competence: socially situated language use (say the right thing, do the right
thing, and expressing right beliefs, values and attitudes). Is it the necessary goal of L2

16. Sense of self is social: Identity theory

Identity theory is part of SLA, but also of applied linguistics.
Identity theory respecifies sense of self as socially constructed and constrained.
Identities must be understood as socially constructed and situated. People cannot choose
who they want to be, but they have to negotiate identity positions in the structures that
they inhabit (economy, politics, historical, etc.)
Much of second language identity research, is oriented towards macro dimensions of
context and explicitly theorizes the social as a site of struggle in need of transformation 
exploration of ways in which scholarly knowledge can become a platform for advocating
social justice for L2 learners.
Model of L2 identity theory: investment: if learners invest in a L2 they do so with the
understanding that they will acquire a wider range of symbolic and material resources.
The investments are affective and symbolic affiliations to various communities of practice.
Others are imagined communities, which learners forge on the basis of past memberships
and life history.
The right to speak: some people do not have it  unequally distributed.

17. L2 learners’ identity and power struggles: examples from circumstantial L2 learning
Circumstantial L2 learning involves situations where members of a language minority must
learn the majority language for reasons over which they have little choice. (Immigrants for
Learners fight to construct positive identities for themselves from marginalization, and
that they do it from options available: family, school, workplace, media and so on.
Discourses and narratives through which possible identities are available to L2 learners are
always contradictory and heterogeneous, and that identity positioning is subject to
Research has shown that not only surrounding discourses and ideologies, but also actual
imagined communities of practices help structure investments and vary learning
trajectories and outcomes.

18. Close impact of identities on L2 learning: examples from elective L2 learning

Elective L2 learning is engaged by people who learn a language from a majority position of
equal power.
Identity research is focused on relations between the learner and the social context of the
target language, by means of residence.
Many foreign language learners embrace the emulation of an idealized native speaker as a
goal. (nativelike proficiency)
Others, feel a clash between the self and the target language/culture.
Studies show that the social constructs of gender, race and class are relevant for elective
L2 learning, because they affect foreign language learners’ investments, desires and
identity negotiations.

19. Technology-mediated communication as a site for socially rich L2 learning

Technology as medium. It creates sites for interpersonal communication, multimedia
publication, distance learning, community participation and identity formation.
Students are seen to develop cultural knowledge about L2.  Telecollaboration among
geographically and culturally distant classroom communities, but also less structured and
more casual L2-L1 online encounters.
Students are able to confront stereotypes and prejudice and increase cultural self-
awareness. Technology-mediated crosscultural partnerships generate healthy doses of
intercultural discomfort and tension, that should be carefully addressed by language
Research about the use of out of school technology by immigrant youth.
Technology may help minority L2 learners to convey positive identities that can counter
negative positioning available in school.

20. Never just about language

For many, the important thing about an additional language has to do with attaining
material, symbolic and affective returns that they desire for themselves. Also about being
considered by others as worthy social beings. To change one´s world.
L2 Competence according to Norton: L2 learners need to struggle to appropriate the
voices of others, learn to command the attention of their listeners, need to negotiate
language as a system and as a social practice, need to understand the practices of the
communities with which they interact. Also, the ability to claim the right of speech, and
awareness of how to challenge and transform social practices of marginalization.
To be able to exercise agency and productive power, and transform one´s world in and
through the L2. L2 learners may have affiliative or antagonistic engagements.
Social contexts for L2 learning are sites of struggle and transformation.

Closing question: should we do something about L2 learning being an agent of

-Applied linguistics says yes
-Postructuralism identity authors think of social justice for L2 learners.

- Since the mid-1990s, there is an ongoing social turn in SLA that has its roots in social
constructivism, socioculturalism and poststructuralism and posits that we can only
understand L2 learning if we examine it fully embedded in its social context.
- Vygotskian sociocultural theory respecifies cognition as fundamentally social and
proposes consciousness as the central function of human cognition and the main
object of inquiry; language is used to create thought, it also transforms thought, and it
is the source of learning.
- The main concepts to remember in Vygotskian sociocultural theory are: language as a
symbolic tool; mediation through object, others and self; Social dimensions of L2
learning social, private and inner speech; the emergence of self-regulation; and the
Zone of Proximal Development.
- The Vygotskian approach to SLA conceives of L2 learning as joint activity in which
construction of co-knowledge is enabled and in which self-regulation is facilitated and
negotiated through different kinds of mediation.
- L2 learning is captured through the microgenetic method during meditated thought
and talk in L2 and L1 and it is evaluated not as already attained development but as
potential improvement towards self-regulation for the future.
- CA-for-SLA investigates the socio-interactional accomplishments of L2 learners as they
do communication, and it reconceptualizes into interactional resources actions and
solutions that other approaches may take for evidence of deficiency.
- By following the radically emic imperative of grounding interpretive claims in the
observable or witnessable evidence of interactional actions, CA-forSLA proposes that a
number of categories (e.g. error, negotiation for meaning, learner identity, linguistic
expertise) have no constant value but are made relevant or irrelevant anew in each
local interaction and each turnat-talk.
- Co-participants in an L2 interaction typically, but not always, co-orient to joint
interactional action and interactional identities. The external contexts and settings
make some orientations, identities and goals more available than others, but they do
not completely determine them.
- Systemic Functional Linguistics respecifies grammar as a social semiotic process, that
is, as the social action of meaning making. The framework has been applied to L2
learning more readily in order to describe the textual challenges of L2 learners but less
often to investigate semiotic development in the L2.
- The development of academic repertoires can be studied by inspecting textual
changes in lexical density, grammatical metaphor and grammatical intricacy
longitudinally; all three qualities are related to semiotic processes involved in making
formal language less grammatically congruent and more informationally dense than
everyday language.
- Functional recasts and appraisal systems are two other areas in which some SFL-
inspired efforts at studying semiotic development in an L2 have been made.
- Language socialization theory sees language learning and social learning as
constitutive of each other; it investigates how, through social activity with willing
experts, newcomers gain not only language knowledge but also membership and
legitimacy in a given group or community.
- In L2 studies, language socialization researchers have concentrated on studying what
kinds of access to the new language and what conditions of participation in the new
community support or hinder L2 learners’ appropriation of the linguistic and cultural
resources needed to be accepted in a new context as a competent member.
- The outcomes of language socialization are far reaching and include normative ways
of viewing the world. That is, by increasingly participating more actively in activities
with others, learners acquire new ways of saying, doing and being.
- Identity theory reconceptualizes sense of self as socially constructed and socially
constrained and shows how this construct helps explain different language learning
trajectories and their outcomes.
- The main concepts to remember in identity theory are: investment, communities of
practice, imagined communities and the right to speak.
- Identity, ideology and power are intertwined and help understand L2 learning.
- In contexts for circumstantial as well as elective L2 learning, learners struggle to
fashion identities that allow them to exercise their agency and be viewed positively by
others; possible identities are made available by surrounding discourses in social
structures that yield unequal power; learners have some agency to negotiate, resist,
accommodate or change their identities across time and space.
- Technology-based communication affords L2 learners rich opportunities for identity
negotiation and reconstruction and social and cultural learning, as well as
unprecedented support for literacy development.
- The social perspectives on L2 learning discussed in this chapter, and particularly
among them the poststructuralist approaches, suggest that L2 learning is never just
about language; for many, perhaps most, people who undertake to learn an additional
language, it is about succeeding in attaining material, symbolic and affective returns
that they desire for themselves and it is also about being considered by others as
worthy social beings. In both cases, learners are engaged in changing their worlds, and
thus L2 learning is always transformative.