How can complexity inform ELT? Diane Larsen-Freeman has some ideas

Yesterday, I blogged about this symposium that aims to explore the ‘connectivities’ of ELT, i.e, the ways in which ELT bridges languages, cultures and disciplinary boundaries. The more I think of the symposium topic, the more interesting it seems; but at the same time, I am becoming increasingly conscious that ELT theory has perhaps failed to provide a convincing account how to straddle the faultlines that run across the field.

And this reminded me of a video I watched recently, where Diane Larsen-Freeman, the co-author of Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, discusses complexity theory, and the ways in which it can help us to think beyond the dichotomies that are somewhat too prevalent in ELT theory. I’ve embedded the video below and written up an overview, in the hope that it may be of help in case anyone is interested in preparing an abstract for the symposium (or if you just have a general interest in how complexity can inform ELT).

The video

Just to provide a brief summary, Larsen-Freeman starts by defining complex systems as systems that are made up of many interacting components, which produce higher-order phenomena through their interaction. She uses a bird flock as an example of a complex system: when you approach a feeding flock of birds, they all rise in unison like a single super-organism, and perhaps unexpectedly, they evidence coordination despite the fact that there is no central organiser.

She then goes on to point out that complexity can help to challenge dichotomies that have pervaded our thinking about English Language Teaching, such as process vs. product, form vs. meaning, etc. She argues that while these dichotomies often provide us with useful heuristics, but can unhelpfully obscure any connections between the phenomena they describe.

With this in mind, she suggests that complexity can offer a way to look into the connections between three dichotomous pairs that come up often in the ELT literature:

  • grammar process & product: Complexity helps us to understand how grammatical regularities originate in language use, rather than from the top-down imposition of formal rules. Emergent regularities then become sedimented into patterns, through a process of ‘grammaring’, and it is these patterns that then constrain future use.
  • lexis & grammar: This dichotomy has already been challenged by empirical work in corpus linguistics, which has raised awareness of lexico-grammatical phenomena. Lexico-grammar ranges from fixed phrases to semi-lexicalised patterns, and complexity theory can help to account for their use.
  • learners & learning: Larsen-Freeman cites evidence from emprical research including her own, which have suggested that while learners share a common learning process, they also go through unique developmental trajectories. In this case too, complexity can help us understand how the trajectories interrelate with shared learning processes.

Larsen-Freeman concludes her talk by suggesting some implications of these insights for English Language Teaching. For example, she suggests using iterative learning processes, that allow for creative repetition of language. She also recommends creating affordance-rich learning experiences, from which each learner might learn in different ways.

A word of caution

When engaging about a new, analytically powerful, and somewhat broad theory such as complexity, there is a danger of believing that this is the ‘correct’ way of thinking, and that previous approaches were ‘wrong’. I would argue that complexity is neither the ‘right’ way to thing about ELT, nor is it ‘wrong’; it is just one tool, out of many that make up our analytical toolbox. There are times when using complexity may not be the most appropriate analytical choice – to build on the toolkit metaphor, this might be like using a spanner to hammer a nail on a wall. There are other instances though, for which complexity is ideally suited to generate new insights, and I would argue that exploring the ‘connectivities’ across ELT theory one of them.

Featured image credit: Fractal flame (Wikipedia) CC BY-SA

4 thoughts on “How can complexity inform ELT? Diane Larsen-Freeman has some ideas”

  1. Mea parvitas on your writing – just nothing, not a thought to be rephrased, not a word, a punctuation sign, to be added or removed.

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