The Dynamic Interplay Between Context and the Language Learner

Writer(s): 
Paul Leeming, Kindai University
Publisher: 
Palgrave Macmillan

[Jim King (Ed.). Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. pp. xix + 251. ISBN: 978-1-137-45712-7.]

The Dynamic Interplay Between Context and the Language Learner is an edited collection of papers written by numerous authors from contexts all over the world, and adopts a dynamic systems framework to consider the impact of context on individual language learners. Dynamic Systems Theory (DST) is an increasingly popular approach to research within second language acquisition (SLA) (Dörnyei, MacIntyre & Henry, 2014; Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008) and this volume could be considered an addition to that body of literature. DST posits that language learning involves multiple interacting variables that are constantly changing, and places particular emphasis on the context of the learner. 

The content of the book is divided into three sections. The first four chapters relate to self-identity and are generally based around Dörnyei’s ideal-selves model of motivation (Dörnyei, 2014). The next four chapters consider oral interaction, particularly in relation to willingness to communicate (WTC). The last three chapters of the book deal with teachers, research methodology that is appropriate to DST, assessment, and context. 

The section dealing with self-identity generally considers the self within contexts, and adopts a number of different approaches to studying context. The first chapter considers social network analysis, a technique used in sociology and group dynamics, but not yet common within SLA. Other chapters use a case-study approach to study a successful language learner, or more traditional quantitative approaches to investigate identity and language learning. A particularly interesting addition to the literature is the chapter introducing past-selves as an influence on current behavior, somewhat mirroring the theory of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997). The final chapter in this section focuses on quantitative approaches, and shows that students display identities they consider expected of them in any given social context, highlighting the dangers of making assumptions about students’ behavior being a representative of deep underlying beliefs. 

The next section considers WTC, and again a number of research approaches to DST are evident. The first chapter opts for a case-study approach in considering a single language learner, while the following study uses a longitudinal, mixed-methods approach to study the issue of Japanese student talk time in class. The authors find that, contrary to the findings of King (2013), when given suitable opportunities, students can talk for large parts of the class, and silence may not always be an attractor state. King revisits the data from his study in 2013 for the next chapter, and examines interviews with several students relating to reasons for silence in the language classroom, supported by observation data used for prompted recall. The final chapter in this section relates to the teaching of turn-taking in the Japanese language classroom.

The final section has three quite different papers. It begins by considering teachers, and their views on learning grammar in a teacher education course, and again a case study approach is adopted. The next chapter is a more theoretical discussion of research methodology, and in particular the appropriateness of mixed-method, longitudinal studies in a DST framework. The final chapter introduces a balanced approach to assessment, stating that the purpose of testing is ultimately to remove the context, in order to achieve pure measurement, and arguing that we should consider aspects of context that may be considered to have an impact on performance. 

Generally the chapters are well written, and provide highly accessible examples of research that considers context to be central to the findings. Also of benefit for readers in Japan, many of the studies are either based in Japan, or conducted by researchers who have spent a considerable amount of time in Japan, making them relevant and interesting. 

Although a valuable collection of papers, there were a few small points to note that should be addressed. The book professed to adopt a DST framework, and yet many of the studies were rather simplistic in terms of the methodology, with case studies of small numbers of participants. Although these studies offered valuable insights and DST offers a framework for interpretation, it is not clear how they show a new direction in terms of methodological approaches to research. Also, although acknowledged by King in the introduction, some of the chapters have limited reference to DST, which is the framework for the book, and reasons for their inclusion are not clear. 

In conclusion, this collection of articles is a welcome addition to the literature focusing on the importance of context within SLA, and the increased interest in adopting a DST approach to research. I would recommend this book particularly to researchers who are interested in understanding the potential impact of context on learning. 

References

  • Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman. 
  • Dörnyei, Z. (2014). Future self-guides and vision. In K. Csizér & M. Magid (Eds.), The impact of self-concept on language learning (pp. 7-18). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters. 
  • Dörnyei, Z., MacIntyre, P. D., & Henry, A. (2014). Motivational dynamics in language learning. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters. 
  • King, J. (2013). Silence in the second language classrooms of Japanese universities. Applied Linguistics, 34(3), 325-343.
  • Larsen-Freeman, D., & Cameron, L. (2008). Complex systems and applied linguistics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
 
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