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Putting complexity theory into practice: A “dynamic ensemble” for second language research

Putting Complexity Theory into Practice: A “Dynamic Ensemble” for Second
Language Research
Phil Hiver
Ali H. Al-Hoorie
Paper presented at the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL)
(April 9–12, 2016, Orlando, Florida)
Nearly two decades have passed since Larsen-Freeman (1997) first proposed that
applied linguistics issues could profit by being viewed explicitly in complexity terms. Since
then complexity theory has exploded into domains as diverse as English as a lingua franca
(Baird, Baker, Kitazawa, 2014) sociolinguistics (Blommaert, 2014), multilingualism (de Bot,
2012; Jessner, 2008), educational linguistics (Hult, 2010), L2 pedagogy (Mercer, 2013), and
conversation analysis (Seedhouse, 2010). Complexity theory principles have yielded
significant insight into second language development, and become central to the concerns of
applied linguists in many domains. The issue we address in this paper is the need for a
practical blueprint to ensure compatibility between the theoretical tenets of complexity and
empirical second language research designs.
In this paper we formulate a practical catalog of methodological considerations,
termed “the dynamic ensemble,” for scholars doing or considering doing empirical second
language development research within the complexity theory framework. We first clarify
some common misconceptions associated with complexity theory in applied linguistics
research. Then, building on “complexity thought modeling” (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron,
2008) we propose a template of nine considerations which are intended to inform the choice
of research problems, development of hypotheses, sampling of participants, data collection,
and analysis of datasets. This dynamic ensemble is designed to function as an explicit
operational user guide to the complexity theory considerations we believe are indispensable
both for researchers designing a study and consumers of research evaluating these studies.
To illustrate how the conceptual tools of complexity theory have been used, we highlight
examples from existing studies, and outline specific areas of inquiry and questions which
lend themselves to exploration using our proposed template. It is hoped that this user guide
will be a starting point to help orientate researchers interested in working within a complexity
This paper outlines a practical blueprint of nine methodological considerations, termed “the
dynamic ensemble,” for scholars doing empirical second language research within the
complexity theory framework. This dynamic ensemble is intended to inform the choice of
research problems, development of hypotheses, sampling of participants, data collection,
and analysis of datasets.
... Thus, as individuals' patterns of variability should be explored in the learning process (Rose, Rouhani, & Fischer, 2013), the ecological exploration of speaking anxiety in EFL learners provides better understanding of how patterns of speaking anxiety might occur differently for different learners. In line with the principles of an ecological perspective and the postulated dynamic nature of anxiety (MacIntyre & Gregerson, 2012), the rationale for the application of nested ecosystems model and complex dynamic system theory (CDST) in this study were their emphasis on the mentioned ecological features (Van Lier, 2004 ) and operational considerations , contextual considerations as well as macro and micro system considerations (Hiver & Al-Hoorie, 2016). Both of these models regard classroom ecology (Larsen-Freeman, 2016) from a non-reductionist, non-linear, emergent, and emic perspective (Van Lier, 2004). ...
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Anxiety in speaking English is a critical affective reaction to second language acquisition. Moreover, language learning is an emotionally dynamic process which produces fluctuations in learners’ speaking anxiety. Therefore, this case study was designed to investigate English as a foreign language (EFL) learners’ speaking anxiety from an ecological perspective based on nested ecosystems model and complex dynamic system theory. Four intermediate level female students with an average age of 15 were selected and participated in this study. Data were collected via semi-structured interviews recorded by the researchers over five classroom sessions, non-participant classroom observation and Motometers to provide information regarding the dynamics of students’ anxiety during these 5 sessions. The data were qualitatively content analyzed. Based on (Bronfenbrenner, The ecology of human development, 1979; Bronfenbrenner, The ecology of cognitive development: Research models and fugitivefindings, 1993) nested ecosystems model, the emergence of learners’ speaking anxiety were categorized and analyzed first at the level of microsystem in terms of learners’ beliefs, motivation, cognitive factors, linguistic factors, affective factors, and classroom environment. Afterwards, the participants’ anxiety within three ecosystems including meso-, exo-, and macrosystems were also discussed as they were offered by the collected data. Learners’ anxiety was also analyzed based on the dynamic patterns of stability and variation in the participants’ micro development. The findings contributed evidence to the ecological understanding of the patterns and variables involved in learners’ speaking anxiety variation in light of the interaction of the individual and environmental factors.
Complexity Theory, now referred to in second language development as Complex Dynamic Systems Theory (CDST), introduces a holistic, ecological, and relational systems account into research on language classrooms. It is a post-structuralist, non-reductionist approach that accords agency to language learners and considers learning to be a dynamic nonlinear process holistic, ecological, and relational systems account.
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Real-time verbal interactions between foreign language teachers and their students are of vital importance for language development, but classroom interactions are also multi-faceted and complex. The way a teacher understands and responds to learner utterances can be a powerful pedagogical strategy to scaffold learner language development. In this paper we present the Questions and Answers in English Language Teaching coding scheme which can be used to observe and describe the dynamics of teacher questions and student responses in language classrooms. We piloted the instrument in English as a foreign language lessons of four experienced teachers teaching 16 lessons in total. State Space Grids were used to visualize classroom dynamics and quantify intra-individual variability of each lesson. The results show that interactions between teachers and students have the tendency to self-organize and stabilize in one specific area of the grid. Lessons taught by three of the teachers revealed a dominant pattern formed by closed questions and short student responses. One teacher taught lessons in which more complex question and answer sequences were prevalent. These patterns of variability and stability show that teacher-student interactions have the properties of a shallow attractor state. The analysis of moment-to-moment turns in classroom interaction indicate that students in this study generally adapt their response to the level of teacher questions, but that teachers do not seem to adapt their questions to the level of the previous student answer. This suggests that, even for experienced teachers, scaffolding and adaptive teaching might be easier said than done.
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Complexity theory/dynamic systems theory (CDST) has captured the imagination of many in the field of applied linguistics (Larsen-Freeman, Diane & Lynne Cameron. 2008. Complex systems and applied linguistics . Oxford: Oxford University Press; Ortega, Lourdes & Zhao Hong Han (eds.). 2017. Complexity theory and language development: In celebration of Diane Larsen-Freeman . Amsterdam: John Benjamins). As recent syntheses of the growing number of CDST-informed strands of applied linguistics research illustrates, it has emerged as an important influence on applied linguists’ thinking (see Larsen-Freeman, Diane. 2017. Complexity theory: The lessons continue. In Lourdes Ortega & Zhao Hong Han (eds.), Complexity theory and language development: In celebration of Diane Larsen-Freeman , 11–50. Amsterdam: John Benjamins). The fact that CDST has continued to permeate questions throughout the field is to be expected and welcomed.
Chaos/complexity theory (C/CT) is a transdisciplinary systems theory that deals fundamentally with change. Although it originated in the physical sciences and mathematics, it has been widely used in the social sciences and humanities. In essence, it is a poststructural metatheory with its own ontology and epistemology. Complex systems are dynamic, nonlinear, open, interconnected with the environment, and comprised of many components. As the components interact, new unanticipated patterns emerge. As applied to second language acquisition, the metaphor of a developmental ladder becomes inadequate to explain the progress, regress, and the multidimensionality of SLA from a target language perspective. A better metaphor is that of a web of language resources, continually being constructed by language learners. As learners interact, they soft‐assemble their language resources, dynamically adapting them to a specific context. Thus, it follows that each learner's developmental trajectory is unique, sculpted by the learner's prior experience, including other languages that they know, the (social) ambient language to which they are exposed, and the application of particular domain general mechanisms, such as inferencing, pattern perception, categorization, and memory. Performance variability makes it clear that second language acquisition is not a process of conformity to uniformity. A usage‐based or emergentist view of language acquisition aligns well with C/CT, where frequency, contingency, and salience of constructions in the ambient language focus learners' intention and attention on particular patterns and facilitate their acquisition. New research methods are being developed, and findings from them attest to the value of examining SLA from a C/CT perspective.
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