Review ~ Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics

An engaging and readable guide to a fascinating branch of science which proponents claim will revolutionise Applied Linguistics.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Mark Bain
Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics

Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics

Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics by Diane Larsen-Freeman and Lynne Cameron forms part of the Oxford Applied Linguistics series. However, you don’t need a great deal of prior knowledge of Applied Linguistics to read this book, as the main focus is on the complex systems part of the title. For that reason, it may be that some background in science would be helpful. Alternatively, a scientific background may have you throwing this book against the wall, for reasons explained below.

Complexity theory tells us that the behaviour of certain systems, known as “complex systems”, cannot be predicted because unmeasurably tiny changes now lead to completely different results later. This concept is best grasped using an analogy with a pile of sand. If you keep adding grains of sand to the pile, an avalanche is sure to happen, but it’s impossible to predict when, and in which direction, and how much sand will fall. All we can do is look back, and offer a retrospective account of what happened: the pile collapsed after adding such-and-such a grain, and fell in such-and-such a way, something that doesn’t allow us to predict similar events in the future because that “…depends on the day of the week… the time of day…” and a thousand other interconnected and uncontrollable factors (p235). It doesn’t take much scientific knowledge to realise that this runs contrary to the conventional picture of science that most of us learnt at school, with its regularly moving pendulums and models of the solar system. Complexity theory has been heralded by some as a paradigm shift, one that could revolutionise areas outside the natural sciences like economics, education and business. However, others believe that when it is exported to those other areas it usually becomes pseudo-science at best (hence the potential for angry scientists).

Diane Larsen-Freeman and Lynne Cameron are well-aware of the risks when taking this fashionable theory and applying it to their own field of expertise, applied linguistics, but they argue that human behaviour, specifically language learning, exhibits characteristics of a complex system, similar to the pile of sand. This therefore means that complexity theory has the potential to provide new insights into language acquisition.

Chapter 1 introduces complexity theory and outlines the main arguments of the book, and Chapter 2, Complex Systems, provides a more detailed description of what a complex system is and how it differs from other systems. In this chapter, it emerges that a key characteristic of a complex system is that it exists in a perpetual state of flux, and it is this constant change that is the subject of chapter 3, Change in Complex Systems.

Chapter 4 is entitled Complex Systems in Language and its Evolution, and it’s here that the authors first set out their case that a complexity theory perspective is a real alternative to current theories of language. The gist of their argument is that currently-held theories see language as static, something which can be pinned down and dissected; here they argue that language is much closer in its characteristics to the complex systems discussed earlier, and so should be looked at in a similar way.

In the next chapter, Complex Systems and First and Second Language Development, the authors outline how such a perspective can be applied to the study of these fields, and the sixth chapter looks at discourse in a similar way.

As a language teacher rather than an academic, my attention was naturally drawn to Chapter 7, Complex Systems and the Language Classroom. In this chapter, the authors speculate about what a complexity approach might look like, asking the question: is there a complexity method? I was most looking forward to reading about some practical applications of the theory, but there aren’t many tips for the language teacher, although some themes do emerge which could form the basis for a more practical treatment of the subject. However, that might be to ignore a central tenant of complexity theory, which is that complex systems do not lend themselves to assessments of what works and what doesn’t. Instead, the authors look at a selection of classroom phenomena, and offer explanations from a complexity perspective. While providing a new perspective, I didn’t feel that the examples chosen were crying out for explanation, and no attempt is made to explain the advantages of such an explanation over more traditional alternatives. Moreover, what good is explanation if it doesn’t put one in a position to affect future outcomes? This book does not, in my opinion, answer this non-trivial question.

With Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Larsen-Freeman and Cameron do not seek to have the last word or make any firm declarations about this line of research and its application to applied linguistics. However, in opening the conversation they are at least trying to persuade readers that complexity theory is worth further investigation.

The authors do well to present a highly complex subject which originates in disciplines which are not their own, but therein lies one of the problems with the book, of which the authors are well aware. They concede that their reading of the literature has been “selective” (p ix), stating that they “have on the whole avoided the mathematical world in this book” (p31), despite many of the key concepts coming from mathematics. Without a deep understanding of the field, it is difficult to avoid making “superficial comparisons across disciplines” and one gets the sense that they have only chosen aspects of the theory which could be neatly applied to applied linguistics. It would be interesting to know which elements of the theory did not make it into this book.

When dealing with a new paradigm, it is maybe wise to hedge one’s bets, and so the authors suggest that, should complexity fail to convince as a theory, it may still serve as “an important new metaphor” (p11). This fall-back position muddies the waters considerably, made worse due to a failure to set out a clear line between the two positions. Under such circumstances, there is a risk of two terms being used imprecisely and interchangeably, and ultimately granting an undeserved level of respect to a metaphor without subjecting it to the scientific method.

Not that the theory position is subject to the scientific method. Instead, they rely upon presenting the similarities to other complex systems. However, resemblance, no matter how close, does not prove a relationship. The authors concede that they themselves are convinced because it “rings truer” (p251) and is more “resonant” than competing explanations (p252). I do not find it so, which leave me with the metaphor position.

Metaphors ought to express complexity in terms which are simple and accessible. By likening the brain to a computer, we are tapping into a common if simplified understanding of how computers work. However, if an entire book is required to present a metaphor, employing a supporting cast of additional metaphors in order to shed light on the meaning of the central metaphor, then I would say that the central metaphor in question lacks the simplicity and intuitive appeal required to make it generally useful. Indeed, such a metaphor may lead to misunderstanding, for reasons discussed in the book: highly specific words like “chaos” and “complexity” may be mistakenly understood to have their everyday meanings by those without a firm grounding in the field.

However, despite these reservations, this book succeeds in putting forward the complexity theory as a potentially interesting avenue of research in Applied Linguistics in an engaging and readable way which grants the lay-person an insight into this fascinating branch of science.

Reviewed by Mark Bain for November 2011
Mark Bain has been teaching English in Spain for over 10 years.

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