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About the

Multilingual Adaptive Systems Newsletter!

What I Did This Summer
Understanding Larsen-Freeman's Complexity Theory

Photograph of Dr. Robert Bruce Scott at home in Hays, Kansas

This summer I piloted a new ESOL linguistics course which is part of a redesign of our ESOL endorsement program at the university where I work. Screenshot of first page of ESOL 882 summer syllabus Here is the syllabus for this course, in which my assignment was to update and align our content with the relevant state and national (TESOL) accreditation standards. The eleven graduate students and I had a challenging agenda of readings and each week I met with students by zoom and recorded the meeting for those unable to attend. Our main assignments/assessments were blog reflections and discussion board on the Blackboard course platform which our school uses. All summer I was eagerly anticipating our consideration of an article by Diane Larsen-Freeman, called "Complexity Theory," a chapter in one of our course e-texts: Gass, S.M. & Mackey, A. (2012). The Routledge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Taylor & Francis Group. The page numbers in the following gloss of Larsen-Freeman's chapter are from that textbook. Although we had covered the concept of "complex adaptive systems" early in the summer, and her article was more accessible than some of our other readings, I could tell that a commentary would be useful. What is written below are glosses that I posted next to key sections of the Larsen-Freeman text, for students to compare with the original and hopefully understand her ideas within a richer context, building upon an ongoing discussion we had been engaged in during the summer.

[Commentary on pages 74-75]

Complexity theory and new sciences differ from the Newtonian concept of one event directly leading to and causing only one possible single next event. New sciences and CT draw our attention to the “openness” of systems with many interrelationships among agents and events, and unpredictable results and outcomes, as systems create and adapt to continually evolving circumstances which provide “feedback” influencing the ongoing development of systems. The “pattern” of interconnected systems is repeated, that is, observable at “macro” (whole ecosystem) and at every level all the way down to “micro level, such as subatomic particles.” Viewing a system at “different levels of granularity” means looking at smaller and smaller or finer and finer details within a system. Another aspect of the CT approach is a focus on dynamics and continuous as well as discontinuous (sudden, unpredictable) changes leading to new developments.

[Commentary on page 75]

The same systems approach that CT enables in various fields of science can also be used to understand the dynamics of “language evolution and change.” As we saw in the first article of this summer’s course, “language is a complex adaptive system,” meaning it is an open system. Our studies of language begin with the idea that “linguistic structure emerges as a complex adaptive system from the verbal interaction of [humans] attempting to communicate with each other.” The grammar or rules of a developing language are generated from this interaction, including an “adaptive process inherent in the interaction [that] modifies the grammatical structures to fit the brain….” There is not a universal grammar except for things like “ability to imitate…social drive to interact, to establish joint attention…to understand the communicative intention of others….” Language itself is a byproduct “emerging from the interaction of its speakers,” not causing their interactions.

[Commentary on page 76]

Language is in a constant state of change and every time language is used, this contributes new changes. Changes introduced by two speakers talking to each other contributes, in turn, to change at higher levels, such as at the level of the speech community. Not everything changes completely and at all times, because that would soon make it impossible for people to understand each other. Some patterns emerge and become stable for a period of time. This stability is the result of speakers adapting to each other when communicating together. These stable patterns become temporary norms for the speech community, and these “stable norms” become part of the environment impacting how speakers use the language. “The act of playing the game has a way of changing the rules” (Gleick, 1987). Yet variation continually arises in the ways that people use language together, so in this open system there is never a permanent structure.

[Commentary on page 76]

According to Diane Larsen-Freeman, a language system and also an interlanguage system (e.g., ELs use and create an interlanguage between their L1 and the L2) are open, self-organizing, self-perpetuating (autopoietic) systems, but they are NOT closed, entropic (changing from orderly to chaotic) systems. The second language acquisition process is self-organizing. While engaged in a “communicative interaction, [English learners] soft-assemble their language resources.” The task that brings these speakers together for communication purposes helps to guide them in “soft-assembling” their language resources as each participant adapts to the needs and interests of the other participant(s). Their task or purpose becomes a context that the speakers are also adapting to in their interactions.

[Commentary on pages 76]

The interlanguage elements and patterns are being “soft-assembled” to adapt to the needs of each participant and may change again and again during interaction as learners adapt to what is needed for completing the task. “Co-adaptation” means the ways in which participants imitate and adapt to how the interlanguage is being used by other participants. English learners “draw on what they know,” and “cobble together constructions” which Larsen-Freeman calls “Form-meaning-use composites.” What they are doing as they use their developing interlanguage to communicate is “much more complex and diverse” than the basic grammars typically presented in ESL textbooks. ELs need multiple opportunities to “repeatedly soft-assemble” by revisiting similar areas of language, as they develop their language resources. As they find some of the same elements repeatedly useful, those become “emergent stabilities.” Through frequent use, these elements are “automatized as neuromotor routines” (Beckner et al., 2009).

[Commentary on page 77]

It is important to notice that Diane Larsen-Freeman uses the term “apparently rule-governed” to make it clear how CT brings a different way of understanding what is happening when participants speak together in an L1 or L2 language or, as our English learners do, in an interlanguage between L1 and L2. There is NOT a “mental grammar” with rules to govern what speakers say in a communicative interaction. Instead, Larsen-Freeman proposes that stable patterns of “fluent, systematic, apparently rule-governed use of language” develop through the interaction itself, as the participants go through “co-adaptations” to each others’ needs and in reference to the task and the contexts. So the knowledge ELs need is not a formal grammar or set of rules—rather each of them has to access an “entire collection of memories of previously experienced utterances,…[informed by] active noticing and exploration…”

[Commentary on page 78]

Larsen-Freeman agrees to a certain extent with Noam Chomsky about there being “linguistic creativity” in some of the patterns that develop when speakers interact – we don’t just copy and imitate what is said to us. But Diane Larsen-Freeman and other CT researchers believe they have disproven “the Chomskyan claim that a rule-governed process is required for novel forms to arise.” Her theory is that as a language learner goes through repeated experiences of adapting and interacting purposefully using his or her accumulated knowledge (based on all the utterances ever spoken and/or heard—and noticed—by him or her), in the process develops “generalizations” (about new ways of using familiar elements) and our ELs can even innovate “new forms, which are not present in the input data, [and which] arise through overgeneralization.” Sealey says, “the systems in play are open and dynamic, with human meanings and human agency [free will] not only reproducing familiar patterns, but also generating novelty and surprise.”

[Commentary on page 78]

When Larsen-Freeman talks about “affordances in the language they are exposed to,” she means opportunities provided in our lessons where students can keep “designing” their own interlanguage systems while accessing all their relevant experiences of hearing, reading, and using utterances in an active process of adapting to the needs of co-participants and to the influences of task-related contexts. English learners start to incorporate into their use of English some of forms and patterns they have experienced most frequently and/or “perceptually salient forms” (i.e., forms that have stood out and caught their attention), and these are more readily incorporated into their interlanguage if a form is “prototypical,” by which Larsen-Freeman means it is useful again and again because it is so commonly recognized. These favorite “go-to” forms persist for a time, bringing stability to the EL’s language use, but if you see things starting to change and jump around a bit, don’t worry! A sudden “non-linear jump” is starting and “the phase shift signals a restructuring of [their] interlanguage.”

[Commentary on page 78]

Now Diane Larsen-Freeman wants to say something about the implications of a Complexity Theory (CT) approach to understanding second language acquisition (SLA) and key distinctions between L1 acquisition and “subsequent language development.” She draws a sharp line between her own views and those of Steve Krashen and VanPatten who believe most important language acquisition happens as a result of an implicit or unconscious process in the mind of a language learner, both L1 and L2. Larsen-Freeman suggests “that SLA will need to be accomplished not only through implicit, but also through explicit, learning, at least for most older learners.” Also, because language and interlanguage development happens, according to CT, as an effect of meaningful interaction between participants who are responding and adapting to each other as well as to their own contexts, there are going to be significant individual differences and “it is difficult to separate the acquisition process from the [human] doing the acquiring.”

[Commentary on pages 82-83]

This is such a clear statement of Larsen-Freeman’s conclusions about how we as teachers ought to respond to our new awareness of the dynamics of English language learning and, really, all learning. “Teachers do not control their students’ learning. Teaching does not cause learning; learners make their own paths.” Yet we do play an important role. “[T]eaching and teacher-learner interaction construct and constrain the learning affordances [opportunities] of the classroom” The concluding statement in this key paragraph is worth remembering. “Thus, any approach consonant with CT would not be curriculum-centered nor learner-centered, but it would be learning-centered—where the learning guides the teaching and not vice-versa.”

[Commentary on page 83]

Diane Larsen-Freeman’s concept of “grammaring” was an important development in the field of ESL/EFL/TESOL. But I want to look especially closely here at the next paragraph and her discussion of “a more organic syllabus, which would evolve with a learner’s readiness to learn the particular form.” Much of what we have studied this summer has prepared us to appreciate the importance of students interacting in English (or their interlanguages) around tasks or projects which give purpose and meaning to their interactions as they go through the co-adapting back and forth with their partners making utterances that are relevant to all the most compelling contexts, whether personality-related or task-related or both. It is interesting to me to see Larsen-Freeman reminding teachers to offer feedback (while keeping teacher-talk to a minimum and student talk to a maximum) when we notice a learner appears ready to acquire a certain useful form that might not arise naturally. I think you all will agree this would be done as discreetly as possible.

By Robb Scott

2020 The Multilingual Adaptive Systems Newsletter