Review ~ Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning

A collection of essays exploring the different sociocognitive approaches to language learning and use that provide valuable insights into the learning process, mainly for researchers.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Robert Lowe
Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning

Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning

Theories of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) have tended to converge on two main notions; that language learning is either primarily cognitive (informed by processes ongoing within the brain of the learner) or primarily social (emerging as a result of social interactions). Of course, researchers have long understood that these two domains must be to some extent interrelated, but the argument remains as to which is the driving influence behind SLA. This collection of edited papers seeks to integrate the two approaches, and provide a number of perspectives on the manner in which the social and the cognitive dimensions affect and interact with each other.

The book is divided into three sections. The first deals with the theoretical perspectives advanced by researchers into sociocognition, while the second takes a more empirical route, presenting studies into the interpersonal and intrapersonal functions of sociocognition among learners. Perhaps for most prospective readers the final section, concerned as it is with the practical classroom applications of sociocognitive perspectives, will be the most important and anticipated. Each of these three sections will be commented on in more detail below, but it should first be mentioned that this is primarily a book intended for consumption by other researchers. This is not a handbook providing useful teaching advice, nor is it written in a style accessible to the average layperson – academic linguists being known for their love of jargon, while simultaneously not being noted for the elegance of their prose. Appearing to recognize this, the volume is organized logically and carefully, first introducing concepts, then looking at case studies, and finally broadening into a discussion of classroom applications. This makes the collection rather more intelligible to a non-specialist than it could otherwise have been, but casual readers should approach the text with caution.

The first section of the book, as mentioned above, is concerned with exploring the interdependence of the social and cognitive realms in SLA. In this section we are first introduced to the field by the editor Rob Batstone, who provides an overview of the main theories of sociocognition, before being given, by Atkinson, a more in-depth discussion of how the mind extends, via the body, into the social world. Of particular interest in this section is the discussion of mirror neurons, which provides a solid physical and biological basis for some of the claims made as well as demonstrating the mechanism through with the social interacts with the cognitive. Once this groundwork has been laid, we are provided with two perspectives on sociocognition: one from complexity theory, and one from the variationist viewpoint. Complexity theory appears to propose that language learning is complicated and difficult to analyse in terms of simple cognitive or social models, and is better understood as a complex relationship between a number of competing sociocognitive factors. Variationism, on the other hand, is more concerned with the ways in which context affects learning, and how a change in social context can provoke changes in the cognitive approach students take to learning. This notion, similar to the “communities of practice” approach, is well explained and argued, and provides an effective transition into the second part of the collection, which is more concerned with case studies and observations of learners.

In part two, the book moves away from theory and into more empirical discussions and observations of sociocognition in practice. Each of the chapters presents a case study of a particular aspect of the effect that the interrelationship between the social and the cognitive can have on learning. Some of these are interpersonal (such as Duff & Kobayashi’s analysis of second language socialization among Japanese students in Canada), and some are more intrapersonally focused (including Swain’s informative and well-written discussion of “languaging” among learners). This is perhaps the most absorbing and successful part of the book, as it lays out the experiences of learners and demonstrates how different situations can affect their cognitive processing of language, while also showing conversely how the cognitive states of learners can make them either receptive or resistant to language learning. This is useful for readers in the same way that studying a language is useful for teachers; it allows them to gain a greater understanding of the processes that affect and inform language uptake, learner attitudes, and learner success. This section is also the most accessibly written, with Swain and Lantolf’s chapters being particularly comprehensible. The more empirical approach taken in part two of the collection establishes a useful foundation on which the contributors can build some classroom applications for sociocognition, which they endeavor to do in the final section of the book.

Part three of the book is focused more tightly on classroom experiences, as viewed through the lens of sociocognition. Two main areas are explored in the chapters contained in this section – corrective feedback and classroom dynamics, with feedback gaining slightly more attention from the researchers. The discussions around feedback are involving, with Ellis promoting a set of governing principles for providing corrective feedback, and Storch and Wigglesworth providing evidence of the kinds of feedback both desired by learners, and most conducive to linguistic uptake. The discussions of classroom dynamics are interesting but ultimately less edifying, as they reveal little that hasn’t been covered before (students who don’t like each other don’t listen as much to each other’s feedback, etc.) While the discussions in part three are interesting, the fact that they are limited to only these two areas may leave some readers feeling unsatisfied at the fruits yielded by the sociocognitive approach.

Overall, this book does a good job putting forward the different perspectives advanced by researchers into sociocognition in SLA. It is intelligently organized, building from theory, to case studies, and finally to applications, and provides a wealth of useful data and discussion concerning issues surrounding how the social and cognitive realms interact with each other during language learning. Unfortunately, the applications of the approach seem to be somewhat limited, appearing to apply mainly to correction and feedback with some minor discussion of classroom dynamics. As such, this is a book that is likely to appeal to researchers and those with an interest in SLA theory, but will be of only minor interest to others, particularly teachers. Despite this, the book will reach and inform its intended audience, and will most probably inspire other more research into the interactions between cognition and the social realm in SLA theory.

Reviewed by Robert Lowe for September 2012
Robert Lowe is an English language teacher, currently based in Japan. He has been teaching for four years, and has taught in both private schools and universities. He holds the Trinity College London DipTESOL and an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University Of Nottingham.

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