Open Journal of Applied Sciences, 2013, 3, 404-412
Published Online November 2013 (
Open Access OJAppS
Second Language Acquisition: Reconciling Theories
Vera Menezes
Graduate Program in Linguistic Studies, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Received August 29, 2013; revised September 27, 2013; accepted October 11, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Vera Menezes. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which
permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
This article argues that previous attempts to explain SLA should not be disregarded. Instead, when they are put together,
they provide a broader and deeper view of the acquisition process. There is evidence to support the claim that second
language acquisition (SLA) is a co mplex adaptive system due to its in herent ability to adap t to different conditio ns pre-
sent in both internal and external environments. Based on this understanding, widely discussed second language theo-
ries, including behaviorism, will be treated as explanations of parts of a whole, since each captures a different aspect of
SLA. In order to justify this assumption, excerpts from some English language learning histories are provided to exem-
plify how learners describe their learning processes. The final claim is that SLA should be seen as a chaotic/complex
Keywords: Second Language Acquisition; Complex Systems; Chaos; Language Learning Histories
1. Introduction
Larsen-Freeman and Long [1] state that “at least forty
‘theories’ of SLA have been proposed” (p. 227) and it is
my contention that none of these attempts to explain SLA
present a thorough explanation for the phenomenon. Like
any other type of learning, language learning is not a
linear process, and therefore cannot be deemed as pre-
dictable as many models of SLA have hypothesized it to
be. Countless theories have been developed to explain
SLA, but most such theories focus merely on the acquisi-
tion of syntactic structures and ignore other important as-
In the next section, I present a brief review of the main
SLA theories and then move to the current tendency to
see SLA as an emergent phenomenon.
2. Second Language Acquisition Theories
Although there is a huge number of SLA theories and
hypotheses, I will briefly summarize only eight of them:
behaviorism, acculturation, universal grammar hypothe-
sis, comprehension hypothesis, interaction hypothesis,
output hypothesis, sociocultural theory and connectioni-
sm. I consider that those are the ones which have caused
more impact in the field.
2.1. Behaviorism
Behaviorism gave birth to a stimulus-response (S-R) the-
ory which understand s language as a set of structures and
acquisition as a matter of habit formation. Ignoring any
internal mechanisms, it takes into account the linguistic
environment and the stimuli it produces. Learning is an
observable behavior which is automatically acquired by
means of stimulus and response in the form of mechanic-
cal repetition. Thus to acquire a language is to acquire
automatic linguistic habits. According to Johnson [2],
“Behaviorism undermined the role of mental processes
and viewed learning as the ability to inductively discover
patterns of rule-governed behavior from the examples
provided to the learner by his or her environment (p. 18)”.
Larsen-Freeman and Long [1] consider that S-R models
offer “little promises as explanations of SLA, except for
perhaps pronunciation and the rote-memorization of for-
mulae (p. 266)”.
This view of language learning gave birth to research
on contrastive analysis, especially error analysis having
as the main focus the interference of first language on the
target language. It also gave birth to interlanguage stud-
ies, as the simple comparison between first and second
language did not explain neither describe the language
produced by SL learners. Interlanguage studies are pre-
sent in other SLA perspectives as the concern of the area
has been mainly on the acquisition of grammatical mor-
phemes or specific language structures.
2.2. Acculturation
Another environmental-oriented theory is proposed by
Schumann [3]. In his famous longitudinal investigation
of some syntactic aspects with six learners (2 children, 2
adolescent s, 2 adu l ts), Schumann [3] used q uestionnaire s ,
observed spontaneous conversation during ten months,
and applied a quantitative treatment to th e data. He found
out that “the subject who acquired the least amount of
English was the one who was the most socially and psy-
chologically distant from the TL group” (p. 34).
In his view, SLA is the result of acculturation which
he defines as “the social and psychological integration of
the learner with the target language (TL) group” (p. 29).
The acculturation model argues th at learners will be suc-
cessful in SLA if there are fewer social and psychology-
cal distances between them and the speakers of the sec-
ond language.
2.3. Universal Grammar Hypothesis
As a counterpoint to the environmental perspective, Ch om -
sky’s followers try to understand SLA in the light of his
universal grammar (UG) theory, a human innate endow-
ment. Chomsky [4] is interested in the nature of lan guage
and sees language as a mirror of the mind. Although he is
not concerned with SLA, his work has been influencing
studies in our area. According to his theory, every human
being is biologically endowed with a language faculty,
the language acquisition device, which is responsible for
the initial state of lang uage development. The UG theory
considers that the input from the environment is insuffi-
cient to account for language acquisition. In the same
perspective, White [5] says that “if it turns out that the
L2 learner acquires abstract properties that could not
have been induced from the input, this is strongly ind ica-
tive that principles of UG constrain interlanguage gram-
mars, parallel to the situation of L1 acquisition” (p. 22).
As Mitchel and Myles [6] re mind us, “The universal Gram-
mar approach is only interested in the learner as a proc-
essor of a mind that contains language” (p. 94) and not as
a social being.
The research supported by UG theory works mainly
with experiments in the form of grammaticality and ac-
ceptability judgments.
2.4. Comprehension Hypothesis
Influenced by Chomsky’s assumptions on language as an
innate faculty, Krashen [7], developed an influential pro-
posal with emphasis on the contrast between learning and
acquisition to ex plain SLA. First, he named it as monitor
model, then he called it input hypothesis [8], focusing on
the data which feed acquisition, and more recently, com-
prehension hypothesis emphasizing the mental process as
responsible for acquisition. According to Krashen [9],
The Comprehension Hypothesis is closely related to
other hypotheses. The Comprehension Hypothesis
refers to subconscious acquisition, not conscious
learning. The result of providing acquirers with com-
prehensible input is the emergence of grammatical
structure in a predictable order. A strong affective
filter (e.g. high anxiety) will prevent input from
reaching those parts of the brain that do language
acquisition. (p. 1)
Krashen’s model views acquisition in a linear perspec-
tive which not only establish es a cause and effect relation
between input and acquisition but also states that the
grammatical structure is acquired in a predictable order.
In addition to that, as in the other theories discussed so
far, his theory does not go beyond the acquisition of gram-
matical structures.
Krashen’s model lacks research evidence. As Cook
[10] points out “it makes sense in its own terms but is
note veri fi ab l e” (pp. 65-6 6 ) .
The next three theories can be named Interactionist
SLA theories as all of them conceive language and lan-
guage learning as social practices.
2.5. Interaction Hypothesis
Other attempts to explain SLA are the different versions
of the interaction hypoth esis defended by Hatch [11] and
by Long [12,13], to name but two who did not accept
Krashen’s Input Hypothesis. Both Hatch [11] and Long
[12,13] consider that input alone is not sufficient to ex-
plain SLA. Hatch [11] disagrees that learners first learn
structures and then use them in discourse. She considers
the reverse possibility. “One learns how to do conversa-
tion, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this
interaction syntactic structures are developed” (p. 404).
Based on an empirical study, Long [12] observed that
in conversations between nativ e and non-native speakers,
there are more modifications in interaction than in the
input provided by the native speakers. He does not reject
the positive role of modified input, but claims th at modi-
fications in interactions are consistently found in suc-
cessful SLA. Long [13] suggests that
negotiation for meaning, especially negotiation work
that triggers interactional adjustments by the NS or
more competent interlocutor, facilitates acquisition
because it connects input, internal learner capacities,
particularly selective attention, and output in pro-
ductive w a ys. (pp. 451-452)
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Larsen-Freeman and Long [1] argue that the interac-
tionist views are more powerful than other theories “be-
cause they invoke both innate and environmental factors
to explain language learning” (p. 266). I would add that
they are the first to view language not only as a matter of
syntactic structures but also as a matter of discourse.
The interactionist research uses data recorded from
free conversation or controlled conversation tasks .
2.6. Output Hypothesis or Lingualization
Swain [14,15] also goes against Krashen’s radical posi-
tion towards the role of input and argues in favor of the
output hypothesis, later named as lingualization [16]. She
claims that practicing the language helps learners observe
their own production, which is essential to SLA. It is her
contention that “output may stimulate learners to move
from the semantic, open-ended non-deterministic, strate-
gic processing prevalent in comprehension to the com-
plete grammatical processing needed for accurate pro-
duction (p. 128)” [15]. She explains that “learners may
notice a gap between what they want to say and what
they can say, leading them to recognize what they do not
know, or know only partially” (p. 126) [15]. She high-
lights that “noticing” is essential to SLA and also hy-
pothesizes that output has other two functions: to test
hypothesis and to trigger reflection, a metalinguistic fu nc-
tion. She explains that learners “may output just to see
what works and what does not” (p. 132) [15] and that
they reflect upon the language they produce when nego-
tiating meaning because the content of negotiation is the
relation between the meaning they are trying to express
and the language form.
As far as research is concerned, the investigations in
this perspective have been using experiments with con-
trol groups, pre-tests and post-tests. Think-aloud was also
used in Swain and Lapkin [17] to see the impact of out-
put upon the learners’ thought processes.
2.7. Sociocultural Theory
The sociocultural theory (SCT), based on Vygotskian
thoughts, claims that language learning is a socially me-
diated process. Mediation is a fundamental principle and
language is a cultural artifact that mediates social and
psychological activities. As highlighted by Mitchell and
Myles [6], “from a social-cultural perspective, children’s
early language learning arises from processes of mean-
ing-making in collaborative activity with other members
of a given culture” (p. 200). Lantolf and Thorne [18]
defend that the principles of the SCT can also apply to
SLA. They explain that “SCT is grounded in a perspec-
tive that does not separate the individual from the social
and in fact argues that the individual emerges from social
interaction and as such is always fundamentally a social
being” (p. 217-218). It is in the social world that the lan-
guage learners observe others using language and imitate
them. It is also with the collaboration of other social ac-
tors that learners move from one stage to another.
One of the main concepts borrowed from Vygotsky is
“scaffolding”, understood as the assistance one learner
gets from another person (e.g. teachers, relatives, class-
mates) and which enables him or her to perform a learn-
ing task. This phenomenon has been in the agenda of
collaborative learning research and the data has been
mainly collected by means of audio and video recordings
of classes and peer interaction. Recall protocols and in-
terviews are also used.
2.8. Connectionism
Connectionism seeks to explain SLA in terms of mental
representations and information processing while reject-
ing the innate endowment hypothesis. Elman et al. [19]
agree that there are universal behaviors, but that does not
mean that they are directly contained in our genes. Any
learning is understood as a matter of neural networks.
The networks learn in a Parallel Distributed Processing
[20] where connections are strengthened or weakened.
Language learning is understood as the processing of
experience and the repetition of experiences causing the
strengthening of the connections. Ellis [21] explains that
“our neural apparatus is highly plastic in its initial state”
(p. 82), but “the initial state of SLA is n o longer a plastic
system; it is one that is already tuned and committed to
the L1” (p. 83). He adds that “in the L2 situation, forms
of low salience may be blocked by prior L1 experience,
and all the extra input in the world may not result in ad-
vancement” (p. 84).
In contrast with the linearity of behaviorism, connec-
tionism presupposes that some mental processes can oc-
cur in a parallel or simultaneous way and that knowledge
is distributed among the various interconnections. Thus,
learning does not occur in sequenced stages, but rather in
parallel, i.e., in different parts of the brain simultane-
Connectionism, along with other attempts to explain
SLA, can be situated in the philosophical and scientific
tradition known as emergentism, whose studies are in-
spired in the studies of the complex systems. Ellis [22]
explains emergentism as language representations which
emerge “from interactions at all levels from brain to so-
ciety” (p. 631). He adds that “simple learning mechanis ms,
operating in and across the human systems for perception,
motor-action and cognition as they are exposed to lan-
guage data as part of a social environment, suffice to
drive the emergence of complex language representa-
Connectionism studies have been employing computer
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technology either by simulating neural networks in com-
puters or by resorting to computerized corpora. In the
first case, researchers create ar tificial networks, feed them
with linguistic input and then compare their output to
human output. Corpora, such as CHILDES, an electronic
corpus of child language that is freely available on the
internet (, have also been
used in the study of the acquisition of lexical items.
In the next section, I present my own interpretation of
SLA acquisition as an emergent phenomenon, namely as
a chaotic/complex system.
3. Second Language Acquisition as a
Chaotic/Complex System
Despite all the research, we still do not know how lan-
guages are learned. It is difficult to reject any of the
aforementioned theories as all of them seem reasonable,
but they also seem incomplete, as they do not describe
the whole SLA phenom enon , but j ust part s o f it.
Language learning, like any other type of learning, is
not a linear process and therefore cannot be deemed as
predictable as some of these models of acquisition have
hypothesized it to be. Minimal differences in initial con-
ditions can cause very different results. Nevertheless, I
consider that th e previous attempts to explain SLA s hou ld
not be disregarded because when they are put together
they provide a broader view of the phenomenon. In this
new perspective, a SLA model should be considered as a
set of connections within a dynamic syste m that moves in
the direction of the “edge of chaos” considered as a zone
of creativity with the maximum potential for learning.
Chaos theory and th e studies on complexity have been
influencing many different research fields, including Ap-
plied Linguistics. Larsen-Freeman [23], in her inaugural
work in this new perspective, sees “many striking simi-
larities between the science of chaos/complexity and lan-
guage and SLA” (p. 141). She presents several argu-
ments for the understanding of language and SLA as co m-
plex, non-linear dynamic phenomenon, dynamic meaning
growth and change. Larsen-Freeman [24] sees complex-
ity as “a metaphorical lens through which diverse per-
spectives can be accommodated, indeed integrated” (p.
Thornbury [25] also argues that language and language
learning share some features with other complex systems.
It is dynamic and non-linear; adaptive and feedback sen-
sitive; self-organizing ; and emergent. He observes that
(…) the learner’s grammar restructures itself as it
responds to incoming data. There seems to be peri-
ods of little change alternating with periods of a
great deal of flux and variability, and even some
backsliding. In this way, process grammars are not
unlike other complex systems which fluctuate be-
tween chaotic states and states of relative stability.
(p. 48)
There is evidence to support the claim that SLA is a
complex adaptive system due to its inherent ability to
adapt to different conditions present in both internal and
external environments. As pointed out by van Lier [26],
we can neither claim that learning is caused by en-
vironmental stimuli (the behaviourist position) nor
that it is genetically determined (the innatist posi-
tion). Rather, learning is the result of complex (and
contingent) interactions between individual and en-
vironment (p. 170).
A complex model can accommodate apparently op-
posed elements in an effort to explain SLA. Figure 1
partially describes the way I see SLA. I say partially be-
cause it does not show the dynamic interaction among
the elements and neither shows the changes. Besides that,
many other factors (e.g. motivation, learning strategies,
political constraints, etc.) are in interaction in a SLA
system and they are not represented in Figure 1.
At the same time a complex model can admit the exis-
tence of innate mental structures and sustain that part of
the language is acquired by means of repetition and the
creation of automatic linguistic habits. It can acknowl-
edge the importance of language affiliation1 understood
Figure 1. Second Language acquisition as a complex system.
affiliationduetothederogatory meaning of acculturation.
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as the level of relationship between the learner and the
second language. Cultural or personal affiliations with
the second language work as a potent fuel to move the
SLA system. In addition, in such a model, input, inter-
action and output are also considered of paramount im-
portance for language acquisition as they trigger both
neural and sociocultural connections. Each component
works as a subsystem embedded in the SLA system.
In this perspective, language must be understood as a
non-linear dynamic system, made up of interrelated bio-
cognitive, sociocultural, historical and political elements,
which enable us to think and act in society. Language is
not a static object, but a system in constant movement.
Its interacting elements influence and are influenced by
each other. As language is in evolution, so too is SLA
and any change in a subsystem can affect other elements
in the network. It develop s through dyna mic and constan t
interaction among the subsystems, alternating moments
of stability with moments of turbulence. As complex
systems are in constant movement, after chaos, under-
stood here as the optimal moment for learning, a new
order arises, not as a final static product, but as a process,
i.e., something in constant evolution.
Human beings are different, their contexts are different
and so are SLA processes which are mediated by differ-
ent human agents and cultural artifacts. As a consequ en c e,
unequal learning experiences may occur in very similar
situations. When we turn our observation to language
teaching practices, we see that no matter how much teach-
ers plan and develop their classes, students will react in
different ways and unforeseen events will inevitably be
part of their learning experiences. The seemingly orderly
world of acquisition is in fact chaotic and chaos seems to
be fundamental in such a process.
Out of chaos emerges a new language which is a
product of all the elements involved in the process and
which can be placed in a cline which has first and second
language as two opposing poles (energies or forces), the
first language being the initial condition for SLA. First
and second languages are both live complex systems
which change over time. As Larsen-Freeman and Cam-
eron [27] explain, “We change a language by using it” (p.
The first and second languages work as attractors. An
attractor is “a region of a system into which the system
tends to move” (p. 50) [27] and language development
swings between these two poles. The language learner is
attracted or repelled by one of these poles and out of this
cycle of attraction and repelling emerges a third, namely,
interlanguage. Interlanguage works as a strange attractor,
highly sensitive to initial conditions. Small changes in
the initial conditions result in unpredictable shifts in lan-
guage development. Each interlanguage phase yields simi-
lar but never identical patterns or strange attractors.
SLA consists of a dynamic interaction among different
individual and social factors put into movement by inner
and social processes. The random interaction among all
the elements of the acquisition system yields the changes
responsible for acquisition. The rate of change is not pre-
dictable and varies according to the nature of the interac-
tions among all the elements of the system. A live acqui-
sition system is always in movement and never reaches
equilibrium, although it undergoes periods of more or
less stability.
In the next section, I will provide some empirical evi-
dence for acquisition as a chaotic/complex system. In
order to do that, I will resort to a corpus of English lan-
guage learning histories (LLHs)
(see collected
by researchers in Brazil, Japan and Finland.
4. Language Learning Histories and SLA
As pointed out by Larsen-Freeman [24] language learn-
ers have been seen from an etic perspective. By choos ing
to work with language learning histories (LLHs) and
listening to language learners, we aim at changing the
etic perspective into an emic approach. In doing that, we
try to make a shift from objectivism/subjectivism to ex-
perientialism as we can count on learners’ experiences to
understand how languages are learned.
I will present some LLHs to show some evidence for
different SLA theories. Different reports highlight dif-
ferent aspects of SLA, reinforcing my hypothesis that the
theories explain only a certain aspect of a much more
complex process.
Behaviorism is present in the LLHs of Japanese (1),
Finnish (2) and Brazilian (3) students:
(1) I memorized even complex sentences. Though it
was very hard, it was worth doing it. I could im-
prove my English.
(2) The grammar and the most basic and important
words I’ve learned repeating them again and again.
It was a good way to learn new language when I
was a bit younger and scho olbooks were easier.
(3) (…) my father was always bringing me back
tapes from the American MTV, which I watched
one right after the other every day. I ended up memo-
rizing most of them and I repeated the lines along
with the hosts. My mother thought I was going crazy,
but that trained my ears and improved my fluency.
These three students seem aware that repetition and
memorization were important for their SLA. A different
perspective can be inferred from narrative (4).
(4) I am still learning English, from the books I read,
from the music I listen to, from the movies and TV
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series I watch (and I try to watch them without sub-
titles), and from all the unconscious (more than con-
scious) input I receive. (Brazilian student)
Example (4) leads us to Input Hypothesis and to UG as
well. This Brazilian student is aware of the impor tance of
input and of the mental processes which transform input
into intake. The importan ce of input is also reported in (5)
by a Finnish student who has the chance to listen to dif-
ferent accents, but what is more salient in the narrative is
her awareness of the importance of speaking in SLA. In
(6) we can find a similar report by a Brazilian student
and both (5) and (6) seem to confirm the interactionist
(5) I am very eager to speak English every time I
have an opportunity to do so. In my job in the Old
Market Hall I meet a lot of tourists from all over the
world. Naturally, most of them speak English. That
is why I also hear lots of different accents when
having conversations with people for instance from
Ireland, Canada and Au stralia. (…)The other goal is
to have courage to speak and do it properly. That I
can gain only by using the language as much as
possible in different situations. (Finnish student)
(6)The first place I remember fully using my little
knowledge of English language was in Ouro Preto,
this gorgeous historical city close to Belo, famous
for its history and lots of foreign tourists, so when-
ever I went there I tried to dig a chance to speak. I
wanted real life experiences, real usage of the lan-
guage I loved to speak… (Brazilian student)
Connectionism can be exemplified by Brazilian stu-
dents in (7) and (8).
(7) I developed a system to learn vocabulary. I
looked for all the words with the same routs and
learned them together, like this: employ, employ-
ment, unemployment, employer, employee, etc. I
compared the words in both Po rtuguese and English
dictionaries to understand their meanings.
(8) I started learning from my direct contact with the
United States culture, mainly comics and movies.
By making free association with cognates and by
looking up words in the dictionary, I learned words
and expressions. Later, the frequent use of video-
games forced me to learn more in order to play them
The narrators in (7) and (8) refer to mental connections,
but they also acknowledge the importance of the media-
tion of cultural artifacts (comic, cinema, and videogames)
that leads us not only to the input hypothesis, but also to
the sociocultural th eory.
Affiliations to the langu age and to the United States or
England are found in different narratives. Example (9)
presents an excerpt from the LLH of a very successful
English teacher who identifies himself with the United
States and rejects his Brazilian identity.
(9) My objective, however, was very clear as a child:
I wanted to be American. I used to think to myself
since I couldn’t actually be American, cause I was
born in the “wrong” place, I wanted to be as close to
that as I could be.
The LLHs reveal that neither the theories nor the
LLHs can explain the whole SLA process, but they make
us aware that SLA is not a homogeneous process and that
unpredictability is an importan t factor underlyin g it as we
will see in the next section.
5. The Edge of Chaos
Order and chao s coexist in a dynamic tension . According
to Ockerman [28], the system is capable of remarkable
things when operating in the narrow zone between order
and chaos which is called “edge of chaos”. Ockerman
[28] explains that
The edge of chaos is a paradoxical state, a spiral
chance between order and chaos, a humming oscil-
lation between the two extremes, characterized by
risk, exploration, experimentation. Here is where the
system operates at its highest level of functioning,
where the information processing takes place, where
risks are taken and new behavior is tried out. And
when new behavior emerges that is somehow bene-
ficial to the system, where the system’s primary task
and operating rules are modified in such a way that
the system’s overall levels of “fitness” is improved
relative to other systems, we say that the change is
innovative; the system has learned or evolved. (p.
Ockerman [28] adds that
There are five factors, or control parameters, that
determine whether a system can move into the edge
of chaos (or beyond into disintegration): the rate of
information flow, the degree of diversity, the rich-
ness of connectivity, the level of contained anxiety,
and the degree of power differentials. In human
systems, these factors combine into a kind of crea-
tive tension where people are linked to others in
paradoxical relationships of cooperation/competi-
tion, inspiration/anxiety, and compliance/individu-
ality (group of initiative to illustrate the process) (p.
In an attempt to apply those five factors to SLA, we
might regard them as the rate of exposure to the target
language, the diversity of authentic input, the richness of
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interactions, the low level of anxiety, and the rate of
autonomy or control of one’s own learning.
In our corpus of LLHS, there is enough evidence to
say that learners are led to the edge of chaos by factors
which are not usually described as part of the educational
context. One of our Brazilian narrators, for instance, re-
ports how skateboard competitions offered him relevant
experiences with the English language. I understand it
was the passport for the edge of chaos. He says:
(10) My first contact with English happened in 1987,
when I was eleven years old. It was an English
course in my neighborhood. Actually it was just an
introductory co urse, really f ocused on basic English.
The classroom activities followed a traditional method,
by using non authentic materials, and teacher cen-
tered all the time. Then I went to high school, where
English classes are simply awful. Every year the
same subjects were taught to us, such as verb to be,
negative forms, interrogative forms etc. However,
the sport I have been practicing from that period so
far is full of English words and expressions, what
made me more interested in English. In fact skate-
board has been a “catapult” to my English learning
process. It is common to meet native English speak-
ers in skateboard contests, so I had to communicate
with them in order comment the contest, or even
about my turn in it, for instance. This first steps
where then, related to communicative learning proc-
ess, since real use of language was required in order
to communicate. Slangs and jargons were used all
the time, and I did not know what exactly they
meant, but I could get their meaning through the
context we were in. After that, my interest have in-
creased in many aspects of English, such as music,
art and sports, what is just the continuity of the
process that I began with wh en I was a child.
Narrative (10) exemplifies a recurrent pattern in EFL
learning in Brazil. Narrators usually portray language
learning in high school as a dull experience which offers
impoverished input and focuses mainly on grammar. T hen
they talk about other experiences beyond the classroom.
Those experiences show the SLA system in its highest
level of functioning as in the example reported in (10).
In spite of a recurrent claim that language learning in
schools is a poor experience, our corpus also offers some
positive examples. Some narrators describe rich experi-
ences in school, as a Brazilian learner reports in (11).
(11) There were classes with 8 students, and 5 days
a week, 3 hours a day. We used to talk in En glish all
the time, even outside the class. On this course,
writing skill was not very well explored. The pro-
fessor was a kind of mediator, correcting mistakes
and making conversation go on. We used to watch
videos with native speakers to learn accent and cul-
tural environment, and every Friday we used to lis-
ten to music, fulfilling gaps, trying to understand the
meanings by the context.
Different experiences can move the system towards
SLA. In (10), the rate of exposure to the target language
and the diversity of authentic input were augmented in
skateboard competitions. The learner is in control of his
own learning and rich interactions are provided by this
new context. We can infer that anxiety is low as he
seems to enjoy this kind of experience. This example
proves that his acquisition system is open, i.e., it is not
predictable and new elements may enter the system and
transform it. In (11), the school also offers a good amount
of authentic and diverse input and it seems to be enough
for that narrator. Kirshbaum [29] explains that
The unpredictability that is thus inherent in the natu-
ral evolution of complex systems then can yield re-
sults that are totally unpredictable based on knowl-
edge of the original conditions. Such unpredictable
results are called emergent properties. Emergent
properties thus show how complex systems are in-
herently creative ones.
Unpredictability is found in many LLHs. One student
registers that her SLA was all of a sudden augmented
because she had to move to the USA to help a cousin
take care of her baby. Another narrator considers that his
SLA was triggered by a Brazilian TV program teaching
English through so ngs, etc.
Self-organization is another characteristic of complex
systems. Larsen-Freeman and Cameron [27] explain that
Sometimes self-organization leads to new phenom-
ena on a different scale or level, a process called
“emergence”. What emerges as a result of phase
shift is something different from before: a whole
that is more than the sum of its parts and that cannot
be explained reductively through the activity of the
component parts. (p. 59)
The LLHs indicate that a phase shift is achieved when
students look for experiences outside their schools in
order to overcome the lack of the necessary conditions
for SLA in school and a new order, or new interlanguage
phase emerges. This new phase is more than the sum of
school activities and experiences outside school. When
reading those LLHs, one realizes that the rate of expo-
sure to the language can be increased by means of the
mediation of cultural artifacts—television, radio, com-
puters, movies, magazines, newspapers, music, and onli ne
interaction—in addition to face-to-face interaction, ma in ly
with proficient speakers. Some of these experiences are
reported by Brazilians in (12) and (13) and we can con-
clude that the narrators are aware that a new level of in-
Open Access OJAppS
terlanguage organization, higher than the previous one,
emerged from those linguistic so cial practices.
(12) The one thing that helped me through my learn-
ing experience and later on to improve my English
were the books. The time I was learning there was
no cable TV and no SAP on TV. So reading books
and magazine in English were what kept me con-
nected to the language outside the classroom.
(13) I just could improve my English, mainly my
oral skills, by studying on my own, through songs,
movies and cartoons.
The LLHs show that the edge o f chaos will be reached
if students can get rich input, interact with proficient
speakers, and if they can use the second language for
social purposes, dealing with different oral, written or
digital genres in formal and informal contexts. There is
enough evidence to say that learners are led to the edge
of chaos by factors which are not usually described as
part of the sch o ol context.
Some formal educational contexts try to keep equilib-
rium and limit perturbations in order to keep the estab-
lished order, teaching not the language itself, but about
the language. By doing that, they deny the students the
path to the edge of chaos. As Gilstrap [30] points out,
“control mechanisms are firmly in place to preserve or-
der, oftentimes leading to strict policies, rigid hierarchies,
resistance to change, and maintenance of the status quo”
(p. 58). This lack of optimal conditions for language
learning is overcome by the auto-organization of the SLA
system. Teachers are not in control of their students’ ac-
quisition processes and there will always be some space
for autonomy which empowers students to overcome the
boundaries po sed by the context.
Autonomy or control of one’s own learning is mani-
fested in decision making by the language learners and
by their ability to overcome social, economic and politi-
cal constraints which limit their learning experiences.
The dynamicity responsible for interlanguage develop-
ment is achieved by the mediation of the SL cultural
production and by learners’ experiences abroad or inter-
actions with proficient speakers. These experiences dis-
turb the order and cause the necessary turbulences to put
SLA into movement.
6. Conclusions
As already stated in Paiva [31], understanding SLA as a
complex system theory can explain why a learner re-
mains in equilibrium, for a certain amount of time and
suddenly a fast change occurs, showing an advance in
acquisition. That is, in learning we have periods of sta-
bility followed by “explosions” and change. It can also
explain why the same teaching and learning strategies do
not have the same effects for all learners and that small
stimuli can have unpredictable consequences, dramati-
cally negative or positive. Thus, in formal contexts, the
teacher can not only activate learning mechanisms, but
also construct insurmountable barriers.
It is the role of the teacher to encourage constant con-
tact of the student with as many forms of input as possi-
ble and to promote interactions among various speakers
(learners, competent speakers and native speakers). Lan-
guage learning is also a social process and depends on
interactions among speakers. In this way, our role is to
“disturb” a zone of stability and provoke the chaos that
results in a zone of creativity (edge of chaos) where
small changes can occur, creating significant effects on
learning processes [31] .
7. Acknowledgements
This work was supported by The National Council for
Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and
the Minas Gerais State Research Foundation (FAPEMIG).
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