James B. Lantolf

JAMES B. LANTOLF

James B. Lantolf: James B. Lantolf. Director of the Center for Language Acquisition at Pennsylvania State University.

Well, um I believe that socioculture perspective on education um would argue that learning and development most importantly uh, first of all, never stops. Uh, it’s very much different from a Peirshian view of development which—in which an individual is seen to unfold and mature and reach some sort of end or steady state. From a socioculture perspective, development potentially never ceases if you engage the person in an appropriate set of activities or an appropriate set of circumstances which, I think, is a very positive kind of approach to education because it—it—it means that um our pedagogies can be designed to help maximally uh, uh in any individual in essence uh so that uh—and the other issue is that development that is education itself, is seen as a form of development where as in a Peirshian world, education kind of follows development. In a sociocultural view of things education leads development and as Vagodski argued, um schooled learning is a very powerful kind of uh conscious or cognitive, I guess we would say in modern terms, uh development. So uh it’s very much I think a positive, hopeful kind of view of education.

Well, the way I—I think about it is that the focus in a sociocultural kind of classroom is not either on the learner or on the teacher or in a sense on the two together. But it’s on the activity of learning and the activity of education. So a sociocultural classroom then is concerned with the kinds of—of—and I don’t mean this in a—in a classic behavior sense, but the kind of behaviors that the—that the individuals are engaged in. So it’s a—it’s a focus on, again, the activity which is designed to bring teachers, learners, artifacts, the curriculum, um the syllabus, the languages, all of that focusing on the accomplishment of some—of something. And out of that learning emerges. So it’s—it’s a very much holistic kind of approach rather than reducing it to learners or teachers or learners plus teachers. Um, but it’s very much about people doing things together.

Well, the Zonar Proximal Development is probably, I would say, the best known or most—the most widely known uh concept. Although I’m not sure people really interpret it the way Vagodski intended it to be interpreted. Um, but of all the terminology, that’s probably the one that most people uh are familiar with. And the Zonar Proximal Development essentially uh emerged from Vagodski’s work with uh schools and I.Q., intelligence—measures of intelligence. And he noticed that schools were actually able to improve children’s I.Q.—some children’s I.Q. Not all children. That was a very interesting—interesting phenomenon that—that he looked at. How come it’s possible that for some children schools make a difference in their development and for other children uh they do not. Interestingly, it wasn’t the children so-called with the high I.Q.’s that benefited, it was the children with, sort of, lower uh—however I.Q. was measured uh I.Q.’s. And he realized that there must be something very interesting going on in the schools. Uh, that the schools seem to be able to pull certain children forward in their—in their intellectual and their mental growth and for other children they already in essence had reached that level that the schools, as they were configures at the time, uh were not able to move the children forward. And it’s out of this that this notion of sort of interactive and collaborative activity that is now known by the metaphorical name, the Zonar Proximal Development uh, uh emerged. Uh, inner speech is—and private speech is a very interesting uh—others have for a long time known about inner speck and private speech. Peirshay wrote about it. Other—other psychologist wrote about it. Meade—George Meade wrote about it. But I think Vagodski was one of the few—maybe the only one to theorize it in the way that he did. It was inner speech and private speech that really overcomes the separation between the outside world or the concrete world, the social world in which we live and the mental world that we construct on that basis. And—and it was through movement from social speech to private speech to inner speech that these two worlds, if you will, were brought together. Um, and he argued that our consciousness or our higher forms of thinking um emerged as a consequence of moving from social, to private, to inner speech. Hopefully within the Zonar Proximal Development that’s where that uh sort of activity made the most sense for Vagodski.

Yeah, I think one of the issues is that there seems to be a belief that to have a Zonar Proximal Development you need to have an expert and a novice, uh expert teachers and novice learners or parents and child and so on. Um, if you actually carried that through to its logical conclusion, at some point there would be, you know, where—where did the first expert come from? At some point there had to be no expert. So I think the way um I would interpret what—what I think Vagodski meant by it is that the Zonar Proximal Development is a place where expertise is constructed and it may be that one person has more expertise at some point for certain activities and the other person may not, or it may very well be that no one in the activity has all of the expertise needed. Jointly they can construct the expertise. So the expertise in a sense belongs to the functional system or the interactional system that emerges between and among the people uh engaged in a given activity. Uh, it’s very much sort of a marxus notion of uh—of the collective. You know? So—so expertise then becomes a property, not of individuals, but a property of systems and people engaged in various activities, including educational activity, play activity, leisure time activity, work, and so on.

Well, it—it’s hear that I think you begin to see the notion of development and the notion of internalization that is taking in from the social and making it as Vagodski would say, your own. Uh, uh and so what Vagodski was interested in looking at is what people are capable of doing collaboratively or with help of someone else and what they’re capable of doing um on their own as a consequence of that help. It is—and through that internalization process, um we’re able to develop and move forward. Now interestingly um, I think we can argue that not all collaborative processes can be internalized. There are certain collaborative processes that have to remain collab—uh, collaborative. They’re—they’re so complex that no one individual can actually internalize all of the expertise. It’s not arguing that you can’t internalize parts of it, but um we—we—you don’t get sort of one-to-one relationship to this every time you engage in collaborative activities of any sort you then later can engage in those activities alone. That’s probably not the case. There are certain activities in which we need—uh, always need to interact with other people or other artifacts to be able to—to be able to—to—to do. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t benefit and develop as a consequence uh of engaging in those activities, but it just means that we—it’s not just doing things together and then doing them by yourself. It’s not that simple. It’s much more complex than that.

That’s a very—that’s a very interesting question and I think off all the people doing work within socioculture or Vagodskian theory um those of us who are working in second language acquisition, um and I’m not sure I’m bragging here, but I—I think we have the most complex problem to deal with because we’re—we’re in essence, you know, using language to learn about language. So what we’re looking—what we’re looking at uh individuals who are gauged through language in the process of learning language whereas people who are working let’s say in learning of mathematics or learning of—of other disciplines, you know, are losing language to learn something else. So our—our task is a bit more complicated. I think it’s more complex and perhaps more interesting. Um, I think one of the things that it’s compelled us uh to rethink, at least those of us who are working within the theory is to rethink the whole notion of language um and it—I for one and I think many of my colleagues would agree that second language acquisition is no longer about language, it’s about people. And it’s really shifted the focus and that, I think, is a really important thing to emerge from our work, that it shifted the focus away from language which I think you see in the field of second language acquisition to people as linguistic beings engaged in the business of living and learning and—and certain kinds of, you know, every day activities uh including educational activities uh through the mediational means that we call language. So I think it brings people back into the picture and I think that’s a really positive and good step that has happened where’s I think we’ve sort of lost sight of that and our focus has always been um on language and not on—on people. So I think that’s a really important um contribution that I think the—the—the work has had.

Yeah, that’s a good question where I wish we were um—but I think in terms of that more or less six year—six year period um, I think when we—when we produce that book—that book actually began in the late 80’s and we start to put that together. So it’s been more than a decade actually since the work for that book um was carried out. And uh I think at that point we were still um thinking about—our focus was still very much more in language than it was on people. And I think that’s been a very important development over the past, let’s say six years, that we’ve moved away from uh, you know, issues of—of linguistic form and—and—and so on. And—and we’re more interested now in the interrelationship between people and language, not only social but of course um psychological. And I think the other uh factor that has begun to emerge um is that people are beginning to understand sociocultural theory is not a social theory, it’s a cognitive theory. It’s a theory of mind. It’s a—it’s a psychological theory. Um, I think there’s been quite a bit of misunderstanding in the field in general, particularly within the field applied linguistics and the field of second language work that uh sociocultural theory is just another theory of language use. And they still—they still insist on separating, you know, minds from uh social activity and—and that’s not what the theory’s about. Theory is very much a cognitive theory, a psychological theory, as Vagodski argued, that brings together the social and let’s say the—the neurological um into a unified and seamless relationship. So it’s not at all social theory. Um, although it argued that—that thinking and cognition has its roots in the social. Um, (interruption) Yeah, that’s very important. I—I wish people would um I think some of—many of the people who read our—our stuff, our research, um unfortunately are misinterpreting it. Um, and they—they tend to equate what we do with other social theories or sociolinguistic theories and it’s not a sociolinguistic theory.

That’s a very good question. Um, the research that I’m particularly interested in um has to do with this issue of private speech um and the issue of internalization. So I think that’s the critical uh process. That’s where the social and the (clears throat) and the psychological, the mental, or the external and the internal come together. It’s that inner—it’s that internalization is the bridge um process. And I think um we need to spend more of our research effort—efforts on that uh aspect uh of the theory. And so my—my own work is very much uh, uh in that direction over the past maybe two or three years. Um, first sort of from the theoretical perspective uh trying to work out a really good theoretical argument and now doing some empirical work. So what we’ve been doing, for example, uh we just began a project where we’re—we are um audio taping learners in language classrooms, adult learners in this case, in language classrooms um, as they’re sitting there participating in lessons on a daily basis and listening and trying to tape the kinds of things they’re saying to themselves. And it’s very interesting. It’s quite interesting to—to—to discover that the learners actually do, in a sense, talk to themselves uh not in the language but about the language as a way of learning the language. In fact, my argument is that this private talk that they are doing is in fact language learning as it’s happening. OK? It’s not all of language learning, but it’s sort of uh a glimpse at the process. And one of the things that’s emerged from this work, uh people like myself and Amy Oda, for example, at the University of Washington, uh working with Japanese learners has found that during these lessons when teachers are focusing on a certain aspect of the language, learners may not at all be focusing on that, but some other aspect of what the teacher is uh presenting. So the teacher may be having—may have a lesson on say pronouns and providing examples of pronouns to learners. What the learners are actually doing and you can see this in the private speech, is maybe focusing on verb endings. That’s where we take that as evidence of that’s where their Zonar Proximal Development is. OK? Because they’re sensitive to those kinds of things and the—in the fordances that are made available to them. And so I think that to me is, in terms of the language acquisition research, really a very important uh, uh strand to—to pursue.

Inner speech is um—if you think of it in terms of a dialog with the self, uh in which the two conversational partners are comprised of an ‘I’ and a ‘me’ instead of an ‘I’ and ‘you,’ which would be social speech. OK? Um, that’s one way of sort of thinking about it. It’s—it’s—it’s—it’s that kind of interaction with the self. Um, if you pursue it to its conclusion that Vagodski pushed it to, then inner speech in its purer form is basically meaning. OK? It’s pure meaning.

Yeah, language play is I think—play in general is a very important part of development for Vagodski. Vagodski argued that play is the leading activity in childhood. It’s in play that children construct zones of proximal development. Um, and it’s in play that you can see kind of the future direction of—of development in children. The living activity of adults, Vagodski argues, would be something like work. OK, but for children it’s play. Now, uh there’s been a lot of work in first language learning um, uh that—that’s focused on language play. People like Ruth Weir, her—her sort of classic book on language in the crib; Stan Cusha did a lot of work on language play. Um, and it’s basically um the children talking to themselves, that is, conversation between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ about the language that they’re in the process of learning. Um, we know that children at night, for example, before they fall asleep, lying in their cribs, hence the idea of crib speech uh play with language. Play with structures that are available to them uh during the day in—in their social interactions. So they—they do things like what—what would look like—very much like a pattern drill, um substitution drills, they do all kinds of sound plays or—or rhythmic kinds of things, rhyming, and so on. Um, we notice that there’s some evidence that children learning second languages do something similar because they’re in the process of—of learning the language. And there’s some evidence that adults actually do this as well and this is what we’re trying to get at with our—our project now that I mentioned on—on private speech, that we know that children and even adults to some extent will play socially with language, second as well as first languages. But we also have some evidence that they—they will play with it privately, talk to themselves about, ‘I wonder how you say this in German’ while they’re walking around, you know, the campus or something like or taking a shower, jogging, and so on. Um, so—but we—we need to be able to find out what actually that play—that talk to the self looks like and that’s what our—our project is about. My—my belief is that that’s, in fact, a necessary condition for language learning to happen.

OK. Um, if that is correct, that—that development needs to happen within the zone of proximal development, um and that play is in this—as Vagodski said, preparation for the future, then to me it uh—it is a reasonable argument that sort of experimenting with the language, if you will, off-line, that is outside of the social domain which you deploy it as a kind of preparation for when you are in the social domain makes a lot of sense to me. Um, but—but I don’t think, and this is a controversial issue—I don’t think we can um course people into playing with language. I mean I think there’s a whole issue of the reasons why people are engage in language learning has—has a lot to do with whether or not they play around with the language internally so that you can—you can have two students, for example, engaged in the very same kind of external activity. That is, whether it be task based activity or uh form focused, you know, pattern drills and so on. But, it may not be the same activity psychologically and uh the way I think—one of the ways of getting at that is to look at what these two learners are doing when they’re not engaged in this social activity. Does one learner just walk away from that social activity and forget about it or—or does another learner take something with him or her from that activity and continue to focus on it? And that, I think is the importance of—of—of—of private speech or self talk or—or playing (cough) playing with the language. (cough) Well, then language play—uh, the issue is—OK, I don’t think that you can um course people into self-dialog or into playing with the language or into private speech. It’s very much linked to their motives and goals for engaging in certain kinds of activities. So if students are in a classroom, foreign language classroom, because they have to be there, this is a requirement to graduate from a university let’s say, um it doesn’t follow that they’re, in fact, language learners. They—they may students, but they’re not necessarily language learners. And so they don’t really know what’s going on internally and that’s critical. In one of the ways of at least getting a glimpse at this potential internal activity is to look at um the kind of private speech and the language play that they engage in. And we also have some evidence that people actually engage in this in writing that you can actually see in their notebooks. It’s very interesting that they do it um in the margins of their notebook, which is—which is where play happens. You know, it happens off-line if you will outside of the social. So we’ve—we’ve looked at this. We’ve seen French students, Spanish students who actually write in the margins of their exams, of their notebooks um playing with the language. It’s very interesting.

The activity theory is a very complex and uh I think it’s now a very controversial extension of Vagodski’s original ideas on—on the link between the internal and external, the social and psychological um and there are different versions of activity theory. There’s sort of the—the sort of classic Russian version that comes out of the writings of uh Alexia Ardiunta. There’s a more, sort of, current version that comes out of the writings of Engstrom who works in Finland, um but its basic ideas has its origins in Vagodski’s um argument that if you want to understand how the human mind functions, you don’t study the structure of the mind, you study the mind doing something. Right? So it’s very much based on the idea that to understand what it means to be human, you have to watch or observe humans in the action and the activity of being human. Um, and if all you do is study the structure, you can’t understand what it means to be human. His—his analogy often was um, I think borrowing from Spinosa, um if you want to understand walking, you can’t study the structure of the leg because that won’t help you. Or if you want to understand hammering, you don’t study the structure of a hammer; you study the activity of hammering. So if you want to understand um, human consciousness, you have to understand it in—as its engaged in its normal activity. Um, and the—Vagodski had um—the argument was that you—you would want to look at the history of that activity as the processes being formed because quite often when the activity is um running smoothly, right, uh you can’t see—in a sense, you can’t see um the processes. Um, so what you want to do is you want to look at the activity as it’s being formed, hence the interest of children as they were forming their mind, um or—or you want to look at it as it’s being—uh falling apart as he—he was interested in people who had uh, uh brain damage or certain trauma, or looking at people when their mater—material circumstances change. So moving people from uh non-literate society, non-literate cultures into literate societies and literate cultures, what happened to their thinking processes as they engaged in these—in these different kinds of activities. Um, so I mean that’s sort of the fundamental basis of what activity theory is about. It also argues that people just don’t engage in the business of living or engage in normal human activities uh randomly. They have reasons. All right? And these reasons can stem from biological needs like the needs to meet when you’re hunger—when you’re hungry or they can stem from social needs like the need to be educated, the need uh to recue well, for example, in certain kinds of societies. Um, so people act for reasons. Um, and you need to worry very much about the goal. That’s why I said when you have two students engaged and it looks like the same activity in a classroom, they may be very different activities because the two students may have dif—very different reasons or goals for engaging in those activities. Or you could have two people that are doing very different things on the surface, but if they have the same goal, they very may—they very well may be engaged in the same activity and that the outcome might very well be the same. OK? So—so the idea then—the lesson from this is that we can’t assume that there’s one well road to successful learning of any kind, whether it be language or anything. There’s no sort of panascia. And the other—the other message is that, I think, for teachers that you can’t assume that if people are in fact doing what you asked them to do, that they are in fact doing the same thing because they very well may not be. OK?

Well, I think we’re just beginning to sort of explore um the kind of current thinking on activity theory. Uh, in looking at classrooms as um activity spaces uh both from sort of a research perspective, in terms of observing classrooms from the lens of activity theory, but also um, uh a practice perspective and that is trying to help uh foment learning, to help make learning happen in the classrooms. Um, and if you focus it in the classroom as an activity rather than as teachers and learners, uh you begin to see things that you might not otherwise see. Um, you need to worry about, for example, things like um how teachers play out their power. How they—how they course or nudge or uh allow students to have some power, to have some voice in the classroom um or how they do not. Um, we need to worry about things like um what kind of classroom community is constructed? What kinds of divisions of labor are set up in the classroom? Is it always the teacher in front of the class asking the questions and the students answering and the teacher evaluating or are there other kinds of uh activities that emerge from—from—from the learners? OK? Um, so I think there’s a really um untapped area that I think activity theory can bring to the—to the—to the particularly the language classroom, you know.

That was a principal that Bill Froley and I actually proposed uh quite a while ago, again based on Vagodski’s notion of development. Um, Vagodski argued that uh, again the development is something that—it’s—it’s basically a dialectic process. Uh, it’s a dynamic process that can move forward, it can move backward, it can move forward in unexpected way. In fact, in some of his writings he even referred to it as revolution rather than development, which—which implied—development I think implies a very smooth, progressive, you know, from a, to b, to c and, you know, once you reach c you sort of become this perfect all-knowing being. Um, and Vagodski doesn’t conceptualize development in that way. He—he—he conceptualizes it as a very dynamic uh process that can move often to all kinds of unexpected direction in that of—a lot of creativity can emerge from activity. So our idea was that if this—if this—if this the case, then what actually happens is you don’t move from being a child to being an adult never again to be a child, but you can re-access these earlier forms of development that you went through or experienced in—in childhood um as an adult. OK? So if you—if you think about it in terms of regulation, children usually move from being object to are they being controlled by the world of objects, to the point at which they’re controlled by others in their environment to which—to the final point at which they can control themselves. Right? There’s the dialog with themselves, the inner dialog. Um, but, you know adults often need help from other people. They often need help from artifacts, like computers, like even a paper and pencil to do a math problem um which is kind of accessing an earlier—re-accessing an earlier form of development. So our idea was that, that, you know, it’s not smooth, it’s quite messy and it’s quite dynamic. Um, and that’s what makes it interesting rather than in a sort of a Perishian world or maybe a Chompskian world where you move from, you know, uh, uh, uh, one steady state to another steady state. Everything, you know, works out very nicely. That’s not the way Vagodski thought about development.
(interruption) Sure, absolutely. Absolutely. And um what happens during—what happens during those breakdowns, where do you look for help to try to sustain yourself or regain, you know, your self-regulation? Um, and sometimes we can’t. And sometimes we just can’t. (interruption) Right. We had a very interesting—in the book that I just edited from Oxford University Press, there’s a very interesting article in there by um Darin Variety was her name who pre—precisely went through this experience of having been an expert teacher of English as a second language and then going to Japan and trying to use that same kind of expertise in Japanese educational culture and discovering that it didn’t work and encountering or re-encountering herself as a novice teacher in a different cultural setting where she had to re-access and reconstruct her expertise um in—but in a very different way. And it was—it’s a very interesting kind of uh diary of this reconstructive process of regaining her regulation as—as an expert—as yeah, absolutely.

Well, I think the way we think about uh so-called error correction is that it’s really not to be seen as a deficit. It’s really to be seen as a stage of development, number one. Uh, certainly you can’t—you can’t move—move from no ability in a language or anything to perfect ability, assuming you can even ever achieve perfect ability, whatever that may be. Um, uh so we—we don’t see it as error correction, we see it as um perhaps scaffold assistance, right, of trying to help the learner move forward continually, always moving forward. Um, so I think that’s the lesson that—that—that I for one think that um the eminence of the native speaker of whatever language is far to powerful in the language classrooms. Um, I believe that we need to look at uh learners as linguistic beings in themselves and that what learning a second language, or a third language, or a fourth language, or whatever it may be is sort of adding to your linguistic repatra. It’s not developing these separate capacities of these separate grammars, but it’s adding to your linguistic repatra. Some of which may play out like so-called name speakers and some of which may not play out like native speakers of the language. Uh, but that may not be that important. If, what I said at the beginning of our discussion, um the focus shifts from language to people as linguistic beings and how they are able to marshal the forces of their repatra to be able to do—that is, to maintain their regulation in the world, then I think um (telephone rings) they get a very different take on uh this whole motion of error (telephone rings), this whole notion of deficit, the whole notion of target language as if they were aiming for some, you know their arrows aiming for some target. I think that’s um—uh, I think sociocultural theory compels us to reconceptualize that whole process so that we don’t talk about error. Um, but you have to look at what it is the learner was trying to do and how they were—what resources were they trying to bring to bear um on what it is they’re trying to do. What help they ask for or what help they receive or how they take up the help, how they reject the help. Those—those are very important.

Um, I think your list was quite thorough, actually. I—I was impressed with your list. I think you asked all of the really good question um, maybe something about testing. I think this is an area that—that um; sociocultural theory can make an important contribution—bution to. Um, and there are some people um in different parts of the world who’ve been trying to rethink the whole issue of language testing in particular from the perspective of sociocultural theory because if—if what I said about, you know, people as linguistic beings and a collaborative activity and—and all of that, then it might just be the case that things like proficiency are not properties of people, but are in fact, properties of activities and that proficiency is something that you don’t carry around inside of your head, but it’s something you actually construct with somebody else and that your proficiency can be very different under different situation in different activities. And there’s been some work that—where people have tried to look at um the assessment of activity rather than the assessment of learners uh in terms of, sort of, looking at how much knowledge you has inside your head. Um, so I think there might be some really interesting—interesting ways to rethink issues of proficiency, competence, uh the whole issue of what counts as—as valid assessment uh that might very well emerge from uh socioculture research.

Well, I think, again, going back to the original idea of people as linguistic beings. I think the important thing is that we begin to rethink ourselves as teachers um and understand that teaching itself is an activity and that what we don’t do is teach language, we teach people. I think that’s a really important lesson that comes out of—out of the—out of our sociocultural theory and the way it thinks about uh—about language and about people and about thinking and so on. Um, it’s—it’s first and foremost the—the flesh and blood beings that you’re working with in the classroom and not the language, not the—the curriculum. Unfortunately curriculum sometimes, you know, actually gets in the way of good teaching. Um, uh and I think if we understand that what we’re talking about here is human relationships, uh and people engage in these human relationships trying to achieve something. OK? Um, perhaps through the medium or the mediational uh means of another language. But in a sense it’s not the language itself that matters, it’s the people uh that—that really matter and we need to put those individuals into the picture uh including the teacher and sort of background the language. We’ve paid—we’ve worried too much about the language and not enough about the people.