The Cognitive-Social Debate in International SLA Research

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

As an accumulating body of scholarship shows, traditional input-interaction-output theories of foreign language instruction and learning have come under critique for being too narrow over the past ten years, in particular for portraying the foreign language learner primarily as a mental being and a largely independent self, thus failing to adequately account for the social and cultural nature of language acquisition and/or learning and, ultimately, for the learner as a social being and a fundamentally interdependent self.

As Markee & Seo (2009: 40) point out in this context, “cognitive metaphors of SLA have obviously been productive during the last 30 years. However, […], their intellectual scope is unnecessarily narrow. […] Cognition and learning are constructs that go beyond the individual. […] Individuals are members of larger ecosystems of contributing agents and technologies. This position contrasts sharply with the individualistic version of cognitive science that is still the norm in cognitive SLA. […] This individualistic perspective is excessively restrictive or, worse still, simply out of date.”

A similar argument can be found in Young (2007: 263):

“The view of learning as changing participation is radically different from theories of second language acquisition that frame language learning as a cognitive process residing in the mind-brain of an individual learner […]. The view […] I wish to argue here for is, instead, of second language acquisition as a situated, co-constructed process, distributed among participants. This is a learning theory that takes social and ecological interaction as its starting point and develops detailed analyses of patterns of interaction in context. In this perspective, language learning is manifested as participants’ progress along trajectories of changing engagement in discursive practices, changes which lead from peripheral to fuller participation and growth of self-identity.”

I couldn’t agree more, but in my view, all this is neither new nor controversial. Theoretically, it reminds me of what John Dewey wrote in My Pedagogic Creed (published in 1897):

“I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself […]. I believe that this educational process has two sides – one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following […]. I believe that the psychological and social sides are organically related and that education cannot be regarded as a compromise between the two, or a superimposition of one upon the other […]. In sum, I believe that the individual who is to be educated is a social individual and that society is an organic union of individuals. If we eliminate the social from the child we are left only with an abstraction; if we eliminate the individual factor from society, we are left only with an inert and lifeless mass.”

In terms of classroom practice, the current cognitive-social debate is very difficult to relate to some of the fundamental questions my students (future EFL teachers in Germany) are particularly interested in, for instance:

Is PPP (presentation, practice, production) less effective or efficient than, for instance, TBI (task-based instruction)? What role do teacher-led imitation and reproduction play, especially in primary EFL classrooms? Since learning and teaching a foreign language at school is a highly complex endeavor which is influenced by a large spectrum of factors, should I, perhaps, try to find a mix that works best under the given circumstances?

Any comments / suggestions?


Dewey, John (1897). “My pedagogic creed.” School Journal, 54 (3), 77-80.

Markee, Numa & Seo, Mi-Suk (2009). Learning Talk Analysis. IRAL 47 (1), 37-63.

Young, Richard F. (2007). Language learning and teaching as discursive practice. In: Hua, Zhu; Seedhouse, Paul; Wei, Li & Cook, Vivian (eds.) (2007). Language Learning and Teaching as Social Inter-Action. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 251-271.


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