Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman received her PhD in linguistics from the University of Michigan. Following appointments at UCLA and the Graduate SIT Institute (where she remains affiliated as distinguished senior faculty fellow), she returned to the University of Michigan in January 2002 to direct the English Language Institute for six years. She is currently a research scientist emerita at the English Language Institute, as well as a professor of education emerita and a professor of linguistics emerita. She is also a Visiting Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Larsen-Freeman has made presentations in seventy countries around the world and is the author of eight books. She was also the editor of the journal Language Learning for five years. | August Interviewer: Geeta Aneja (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Thank you very much for joining us on the NNEST Blog, Diane. To start, could you tell us a bit about your educational and professional background, and how you got interested in languages and language learning?
I was a psychology major as an undergraduate. My interest was (and is) in theories of learning. However, psychologists at the time were embroiled in a debate about the nature of the explanandum: Was it human behavior or was it cognition? The answer wasn’t at all clear to me either. Then, following my undergraduate studies, I joined the U.S. Peace Corps. My volunteer position was teaching English in Sabah, Malaysia. This assignment was a turning point for me in several ways. First, I found language, and I became fascinated with its learning—my own learning of Bahasa Melayu (Malay) and my students’ learning of English (although even in those days, when I was teaching “British English,” I questioned its value for my Malaysian students). However, for me personally, language provided a focus that was much more concrete than learning as human behavior or cognition “in general.” Second, I learned what a privilege it was to travel and to live in and learn about another culture. Then, in addition to these first two lessons, I became eager to learn how to be the best English teacher for my students—a quest that later led me to graduate school in search of answers.
- Much of your recent work has explored the relevance of complexity and dynamic systems theory to language development. This perspective is particularly unique since these theories have their roots in mathematics and theoretical physics, fields with which most language educators rarely come in contact. How did you encounter the notion of complexity theory and how did you come to realize its relevance to understanding language development?
Well, I encountered Complexity Theory quite serendipitously. But you might say I was ready for it. I had grown increasingly dissatisfied with reductionist tendencies in second language acquisition research. Similarly, I found myself railing against static views of language. One day I was visiting the Boston Museum of Science with my family, and our last stop was its bookstore. There, quite literally, a customer put James Gleick’s book on chaos theory into my hands, and told me that I would enjoy reading it.
You are right, Geeta. Chaos/Complexity Theory comes from the physical sciences, and I would not ordinarily have come into contact with it. But I bought and read the book. And, as I was reading it, I easily made connections between the sciences and language and its learning. For instance, in describing complex, dynamic systems, Gleick (1987) wrote: “The act of playing the game has a way of changing the rules” (p. 24). He was not writing of linguistic rules, but rather the way that systems in nature are continually being updated. Nevertheless, this statement gave me an important insight into the dynamic, emergent nature of language, its evolution, and its learning.
- Your book Techniques & Principles in Language Teaching, now in its third edition, provides a concise overview of the historical progression methods in language. How do you conceptualize this range of possible approaches with respect to the recent shift towards a post-methods perspective (Kumaravadivelu, 2003)?
Well, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I am disappointed by the post-methods perspective. No one wants to impose a particular practice on anyone else, of course, but an education in methods is eye-opening for most teachers. Learning about the diverse ways methodologists have conceived of language, its learning, and its teaching is stimulating. Indeed, methods can be a foil for clarifying our own thinking, helping us define our own approach to teaching, and for encouraging us to try out new techniques and activities. A method is a coherent set of thought-in-action links. Learning about how others have brought coherence to their teaching is both informative and inspiring, and especially helpful for inexperienced teachers. Of course learning about, experiencing, and trying out methods are not the only ways to learn to teach, but I believe that they are powerful ways.
- Your work complicates and pushes back against many “traditional” notions in language acquisition and TESOL, including fossilization, interlanguage, and even the concept of language as “acquired”. What compelled you to problematize these foundations so intensely? What challenges or resistance did you face along the way?
Truthfully, I did not always have such thoughts. In fact, I found Selinker’s “interlanguage” to be a breakthrough when he first proposed it in 1972. It was liberating at the time to conceive of language learners as creators of their own language, not merely makers of unsystematic “mistakes.” But, as I (Larsen-Freeman, 2014) have just written (for a forthcoming book commemorating the 40th anniversary of Selinker’s publication), the idea of progress along an interlanguage continuum being assessed by increasing conformity to native speaker norms no longer makes sense to me. I am certain that there is no inherent endpoint: language users continue to adapt language to their changing needs and environment, learning continues to occur, even if both processes can be characterized at times by periods of stability. And, using an idealized native speaker as the target endpoint is flawed for a number of reasons: there really is no static, invariable, target, and even if there were, a learner’s language resources would never become isomorphic with it, nor should they. A language is not a commodity to be acquired once and for all, but an endlessly emergent dynamic system, being shaped and reshaped by all who use it.
And yes. I have encountered resistance. However, my definition of scholarship is being open to thinking and rethinking one’s position as one’s awareness changes. I am not, therefore, bothered by the resistance. We all come to our own truths in our own time.
- In your chapter in the edited volume Studies of Fossilization in Second Language Acquisition you wrote:
“If language is a dynamic system, then variability of performance and indeterminacy of speakers’ intuitions would naturally follow. For instance, indeterminacy would be expected because this view holds that there is no static standard to which all speakers subscribe. In other words, not only is there no end, there is also no state” (p. 195).
Embracing variability and indeterminacy while abandoning a “static standard” seems in line with the recent complexification of a native speaker standard of language learning. As someone with a background in SLA and language pedagogy, what do you see as the future of the notion of a native speaker in these fields?
Yes. Well, I wrote “there is no end and there is no state” to contrast it with the claim that there is “an endstate grammar.” Instead, I believe that language continues to change, even more rapidly than one might think, and there obviously exist great definitional and critical problems around “native speaker” and any unqualified view of success.
But as you say, I also have an interest in pedagogy. The question then arises as to how to reconcile a dynamic system, having no inherent endpoint, with the normative practice that teaching usually is. I have written about this issue in the chapter I referred to earlier, but the long and short of it is that we have to learn to teach language more dynamically because it is an open dynamic system, one that is both complex and adaptive. And, we have to understand that variability is a natural consequence of a dynamic system. At the same time, we also need to be mindful of the “inert knowledge problem,” whereby students cannot activate what they have learned for their own purposes.
Having said this, I should add that these days I am immersed in writing a third edition of Marianne Celce-Murcia’s and my grammar book for teachers.
The challenge in writing this edition is how to capture both the systematicity and variability of English, and simultaneously reinforce our belief that grammar is about making meaning and that there are choices in how to do so. One point we make in this regard is the importance of giving language students an understanding that they have choices to make in how they wish to express meaning and position themselves, and that they understand the consequences of their choices.
It is also true that teachers and students will have different aspirations. Whether or not they choose to adopt native speaker norms, however mutable they are, is up to them. However, we fully appreciate the value of knowing another language, we see any attempt to learn another language as a laudable quest, and we reject comparisons with native speakers that suggest deficiency on the learners’ part.
- Are there any instances of ‘native speakerism’ that you have observed or experienced that you would like to share with our readers?
Well, I am not alone in observing that many language schools openly state that they prefer to hire native speakers, a preference which is unsubstantiated, based on what I know. What programs should be doing instead is hiring qualified teachers. A good teacher can make all the difference. One of the pleasures I have in teaching a course in English structures is that it is not usually the native speakers who have insight into the language. They have to rely on those who have learned English as an additional language.
There are a lot of other attitudinal factors that need to be addressed in teacher education as well. For instance, these days, I have been trying to sanitize my own language resources, so I do not use terms such as “rules,” and “errors,” and “input.” These are neither respectful nor accurate when it comes to language and learners.
- Your work has been published in numerous academic journals and received many distinctions around the world. In addition, you have demonstrated outstanding service to the profession by serving as a reviewer and editorial/advisory board member in renowned academic journals, leading publishing houses, and professional organizations. What advice would you give to graduate students or novice teachers who are interested in submitting a research paper for publication?
Be as familiar as you can be with what type of research a particular journal publishes. Immerse yourself in the journal for a while. If you can afford to do so, attend conferences, and present your research first at a conference as a paper or a poster where you can interact with others around your ideas. If you can’t attend a conference, organize an informal “brown bag” session at your own institution where you try out your ideas with colleagues.
Once you have submitted the paper, whether it is accepted for publication or not, treat the experience as a learning opportunity, be grateful for the time that an editor and reviewers have given to your work, and use their comments to strengthen your paper. And don’t forget to return the favor, Start, say, by volunteering to adjudicate abstracts submitted for a conference; not only is it an act of service, but it is also one from which you will learn a great deal.
- In addition to having published extensively, you have taught and given keynotes on a variety of topics in dozens of countries around the world. Would you share some of your most vivid experiences visiting and giving a presentation in a country for the first time? What is your perception of the variation of English teaching and learning from country to country?
As you say, I have had the privilege of traveling, speaking, and teaching extensively. I have so many stories to tell, but perhaps what they have in common is that they provide me with lessons in humility. This is because the most enduring impression I have is that the teachers I have met over the years are professionals, dedicated to helping their students succeed, despite often teaching under difficult circumstances: large classes, under-resourced schools, entrenched top-down policies, etc. For this reason, the challenges they wrestle with are not so dissimilar from place to place: how to motivate students who are not motivated, how to work with students who learn at different rates, how to engage students in large classes, how to prepare students for standardized examinations, at the same time working to change the conditions, recognizing and honoring language as a dynamic meaning-making system, and so forth.
- Do you think that educators are ready for approaches that acknowledge and encourage multilingualism? How could these approaches be integrated into schools and classrooms? What would take to prepare them for such approaches?
I think many educators believe in multilingual practices. They are not always easy to implement, however, within an educational system which enforces standard views of language normativity and conformity. What is required is systemic change. Teachers alone cannot accomplish this. What they can do, though, is to hold the vision, to adapt multilingual practices to local contexts within their sphere of influence, and to help other stakeholders, such as parents and school officials, see the wisdom of such practices. I am reluctant to ask teachers to do more than they already do, but in true complex systems fashion, I also know that innovation will emerge and more likely take root from such “bottom-up” attempts.
Celce-Murcia, M. & Larsen-Freeman, D. (Forthcoming). The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher’s Course, 3rd ed. Boston, MA: National Geographic Learning.
Gleick, J. (1987). Chaos: Making a new science. New York, NY: Penguin Books
Larsen-Feeman, D., Anderson, M. (2011). Techniques and principles in language teaching, 3rd ed. NY, NY: Oxford University Press.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (2005). Second language acquisition and the issue of fossilization: There is no end and there is no state. In Z.-H. Han & T. Odlin (Eds.), Studies of fossilization in second language acquisition (pp. 189-200). NY, NY: Multilingual Matters.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (2014). Another step to be taken: Rethinking the endpoint of the interlanguage continuum. In Z-H. Han & E. Tarone (Eds.), Interlanguage: Forty Years Later (pp. 203-220). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (2003). Beyond methods: Macrostrategies for language teaching. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Chapter 2.
Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 10, 209 231.
Additional Publications by Dr. Larsen-Freeman:
2014 Saying what we mean: Making the case for second language acquisition to become second language development. Language Teaching/ FirstView Article / April 2014, pp. 1-15. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0261444814000019
2013 Transfer of learning transformed. Language Learning, Volume 63, Special Issue, 107-129. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9922.2012.00740.x/abstract
2012 The emancipation of the language learner. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching 2(3), 297-309. http://ssllt.amu.edu.pl/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=22:vol-2-no-2-june-2012&catid=4:volumes&Itemid=3
2012 Complex, dynamic systems: A new transdisciplinary theme for applied linguistics? Language Teaching, 45(2), 202-214. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8498799&fulltextType=OR&fileId=S0261444811000061
2011 A complexity theory approach to second language development/acquisition. In D. Atkinson (Ed.), Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition. Routledge.
2008 Larsen-Freeman, D., & Cameron, L. Complex systems and applied linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.