Ecological systems theory and second language research

Sin Wang Chong , Talia Isaacs & Jim McKinley
Language Teaching, 2022-08-05


“Context” has been increasingly featured and acknowledged in second language (L2) research because L2 teaching is recognised to be shaped by the environments in which it is situated. Numerous theoretical perspectives were introduced to L2 research that aim to capture the contextual forces at work in teaching and learning, including but not limited to Activity Theory, Complexity Theory, and Sociocultural Theory. Activity Theory holds that a learner's motives (human needs directed towards an object) are highly malleable, subject to the influence of such contextual variables as institutional rules, community, tools and artefacts available (see Leont'ev, 1978, 1981 who popularised Activity Theory from Sergei Rubenstein's founding and also Engeström's more current work in 1999). Complexity Theory, which has been widely adopted in both physical and social sciences, originates from physics (Martin et al., 2019). Complexity Theory was later introduced into L2 research by Diane Larsen-Freeman who posits that language learning is not only a process but a volatile and emerging system that is shaped by components of the system (e.g., learners, teachers, schools) engaging in constant and vibrant interactions (Larsen-Freeman, 2014). Sociocultural Theory highlights the sociocultural contexts where learning takes place (Lantolf, 2000; Vygotsky, 1978). Informed by a social constructivist view of learning, key concepts such as scaffolding (e.g., teachers’ support for learners) are put forward. In particular, Vygotsky argues that communication plays an indispensable role in language learning. Extrapolating Vygotsky's work to L2 research, Swain (2006) claims that languaging, dialogues among learners to discuss issues in L2 learning, is an important process of learning a L2.
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