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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.
Research Article
Phil Hiver* and Ali H. Al-Hoorie
Transdisciplinary research methods and
complexity theory in applied linguistics:
introduction to the special issue
Received February 3, 2021; accepted February 3, 2021;
published online February 16, 2021
Abstract: 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
inuence on applied linguiststhinking (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,1150. Amsterdam: John Benjamins). The fact that CDST has continued to
permeate questions throughout the eld is to be expected and welcomed.
Keywords: applied linguistics; complexity theory; transdisciplinary
1 Introduction
Complexity theory/dynamic systems theory (CDST) has captured the imagination
of many in the field of applied linguistics (Larsen-Freeman and Cameron 2008;
Ortega and Han 2017). As recent syntheses of the growing number of
CDST-informed strands of applied linguistics research illustrates, it has emerged as
an important inuence on applied linguiststhinking (see Larsen-Freeman 2017).
*Corresponding author: Phil Hiver, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA,
Ali H. Al-Hoorie, Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu, Jubail Industrial City, Saudi Arabia,
IRAL 2022; 60(1): 16
The fact that CDST has continued to permeate questions throughout the eld is to
be expected and welcomed.
Parallel to this are the growing calls for a broader, transdisciplinary orienta-
tion to applied linguistics research that is more problem-focused and less para-
digmatic in nature (Douglas Fir Group 2016). Multilingualism and second language
development are prime examples of targets that lie outside the bounds, or
ownership, of any one discipline or methodological paradigm. Issues such as these
present highly complex phenomena spanning multiple levels (e.g., individuals,
institutions, societies) and create a synergy that transcends any particular disci-
plinary perspective. Transcending boundaries is precisely what CDST encourages,
and addressing issues this way allows researchers to achieve unied scientic
goals, capitalize on shared opportunities, and broaden the scope of applied
linguistics research (Larsen-Freeman 2018). Looking at the future of research in our
eld this way promotes a departure from a paradigm of narrow disciplinary-driven
work toward transdisciplinarity.
However, the pre-eminent challenge of doing any applied linguistics research
from a systems perspectiveone that functions as an antidote to growing
compartmentalization of specialized knowledge and technical expertise, and the
questionable division of labor among theorists, researchers, practitioners, and
other stakeholdersis that very little methodological guidance exists for those
intending to design and conduct this type of research (Hiver and Al-Hoorie 2016).
With a handful of exceptions (e.g., Hiver and Al-Hoorie 2020; Verspoor et al. 2011),
scholarly work often stops short of the level of practical application necessary to
ensure compatibility between the theoretical tenets of CDST and the actual
empirical research designs found in the literature. Consequently, for those
attracted to CDST and to a transdisciplinary approach, many questions remain
about the applicability of existing research templates to this new way of thinking.
As we have written elsewhere, existing methods of analysis and research
templates already well-established in other human and social domains hold
considerable promise in the study of complex dynamic phenomena for applied
linguistics (Hiver and Al-Hoorie 2020). The contributions to this special issue show
that both quantitative and qualitative methodologies play a vital role in CDST
research, and the CDST philosophy of science does not suggest a mutually
exclusive approach. The value of qualitative methods is that they allow nely
grained observations of situated developmental processes; advanced quantitative
techniques that account for variation, interconnectedness, and change are equally
well-suited to applied linguistics research. Clearly, an expansion of available
methods is needed, and there is much to be learned from other social and human
disciplines that also seek to understand complexity and dynamic change by
2Hiver and Al-Hoorie
innovating with existing methods and borrowing compatible methods from
neighboring elds.
What we hope to accomplish through this special issue is to provide examples
for our field that will inspire new, transdisciplinary approaches to doing applied
linguistics research. By organizing a special issue featuring these methodological
experts, we hope to encourage greater engagement with these methods and to
signal to newcomers and established CDST scholars alike that by adopting these
methods they are joining a vibrant community of applied linguistics researchers.
1.1 Contributions to the special issue
The first paper, by Hiver et al. (2022), takes up the call initiated by the Douglas Fir
Group (2016) to adopt a transdisciplinary approach to research that is less para-
digmatic and more pragmatic in nature. The authors propose that doing so goes
hand in hand with tackling wicked problems”—issues that defy easy solutions
because they are highly complex and are intricately interconnected with multiple
levels of the social world (Crowley and Head 2017). They explore how CDST is
uniquely positioned to support a transdisciplinary approach to applied linguistics
research, and introduce an integrative transdisciplinary framework that unites
different perspectives (i.e., exploratoryfalsicatory aims, individualgroup
based units of analysis, quantitativequalitative methods).
Turning to specific applications, Smit et al. (2022) introduce State Space Grids
(SSG) as a method for visualizing classroom dynamics and quantifying intra-
individual variability (Hollenstein 2013). They demonstrate the use of SSG to
observe and describe the moment-to-moment variability of question and answer
interaction patterns in the language classroom. Through a detailed analysis of
the co-adaptation between teacher questions and student responses in the class-
roomspecically, how interlocutors respond to each other and the way this
varies or stabilizes during the process, they showcase the usefulness of SSG. Their
results suggest that dynamic observations and analyses of micro-interactions can
help to identify patterns of rigidity in practice, as well as space for growth, chal-
lenge, and development.
MacIntyre and Gregersen (2022) follow this up with an insightful overview of
various applications of the Idiodynamic Method (MacIntyre 2012, 2020). As they
show, the idiodynamic method generates dense (high-T) data, captured as once-
per-second ratings of variables of interest. Data sampling that spans the entire
course of an event (e.g., a conversation) measured in real time allows for
documenting rapid changes and sustained reactions. Data is then assessed at the
individual level, which enables specic instances of processes under investigation
Transdisciplinary research methods and complexity theory 3
to be examined in detail. The authors exemplify the idiodynamic method by
applying it to the study of communication processes within individuals and dyads
in order to more fully understand the dynamics of the interacting processes
Pfenningers (2022) contribution to the special issue turns to the advantages of
generalized additive mixed modeling (GAMM) for describing the iterative nature of
developmental processes and for modeling complex nonlinear trajectories. This
paper demonstrates how GAMM can account for autocorrelated data (i.e., data
with temporal dependencies) and the interdependency of learners internal or
external subsystems in the developmental process being studied. Pfenninger
combines the longitudinal strengths of GAMM with the cross-sectional focus of
mixed effects modeling as a template for analyzing patterns of relationships found
between learner individual differences, here the age of onset, and extracurricular
L2 English use in CLIL programs. While slightly more technical for newcomers to
advanced statistical analyses, this paper demonstrates the power of such tools for
widening the scope of research in the eld.
Verspoor and de Bots (2022) point of departure is the role of variability in
transitional phases of language development. Their paper proposes that, because
variability is an object of study in its own right, measures that capture learners
degree of variability such as the Standard Deviation of differences (SDd) can help
explore transitions between states of development. They outline a growing body of
evidence that these novel measures of change reveal key details about a language
learners developmental process. In a review of several independent studies
among different groups of learners, many emerging from their research lab in
Groningen, they demonstrate how such measures of variability have been
employed in studying the developmental mechanisms at play for advancing
different features of L2 learning.
This special issue is rounded off by Fogals paper (2022), which represents an
explicit treatment of the L2 classroom as a complex and dynamic space. He em-
ploys system mapping and cluster analysis as a means to re-envision the study of
teaching and learning in ways that account for system-wide educational compo-
nents. System mapping, for Fogal, frames a simplexsystem (van Geert and
Steenbeek 2014) that functions as a manageable analytic space allowing
researchers to examine phenomena without overtly breaking the object of study
away from the larger system or context within which it is embedded. He applies
this method to examine inuential variables for L2 writing development from
multiple stakeholdersperspectives. The ultimate aim, within the rubric of
studying educational spaces systemically and addressing wicked problems,is to
seek solutions to these context-specic issuespoints that we feel are congruent
across all contributions to this special issue.
4Hiver and Al-Hoorie
Crowley, Kate & Brian Head. 2017. The enduring challenge of wicked problems: Revisiting Rittel
and Webber. Policy Sciences 50(4). 539547.
Douglas Fir Group. 2016. A transdisciplinary framework for SLA in a multilingual world. The
Modern Language Journal 100(s1). 1947.
Fogal, Gary. 2022. System mapping simplex spaces: Facilitating change in L2 educational contexts
from a complexity theory perspective. International Review of Applied Linguistics in
Language Teaching 60(1). 103121.
Hiver, Phil & Ali H. Al-Hoorie. 2016. A dynamic ensemble for second language research: Putting
complexity theory into practice. The Modern Language Journal 100. 741756.
Hiver, Phil & Ali H. Al-Hoorie. 2020. Research methods for complexity theory in applied linguistics.
Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Hiver, Phil, Ali H. Al-Hoorie & Diane Larsen-Freeman. 2022. Toward a transdisciplinary integration
of research purposes and methods for complex dynamic systems theory: Beyond the
quantitativequalitative divide. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language
Teaching 60(1). 722.
Hollenstein, Tom. 2013. State space grids: Depicting dynamics across development. New York:
Larsen-Freeman, Diane. 2017. Complexity theory: The lessons continue. In Lourdes Ortega &
ZhaoHong Han (eds.), Complexity theory and language development: In celebration of Diane
Larsen-Freeman,1150. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Larsen-Freeman, Diane. 2018. Looking ahead: Future directions in, and future research into,
second language acquisition. Foreign Language Annals 51. 5572.
Larsen-Freeman, Diane & Lynne Cameron. 2008. Complex systems and applied linguistics. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
MacIntyre, Peter D. 2012. The idiodynamic method: A closer look at the dynamics of
communication traits. Communication Research Reports 29(4). 361367.
MacIntyre, Peter D. 2020. Expanding the theoretical base for the dynamics of willingness to
communicate. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching 10(1). 111131.
MacIntyre, Peter D. & Tammy Gregersen. 2022. The idiodynamic method: Willingness to
communicate and anxiety processes interacting in real time. International Review of Applied
Linguistics in Language Teaching 60(1). 6784.
Ortega, Lourdes & ZhaoHong Han (eds.). 2017. Complexity theory and language development: In
celebration of Diane Larsen-Freeman. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Pfenninger, S. 2022. Emergent bilinguals in a digital world: A dynamic analysis of long-term L2
development in (pre)primary school children. International Review of Applied Linguistics in
Language Teaching 60(1). 4166.
Smit, Nienke, Marijn van Dijk, Keesde Bot & Wander Lowie. 2022. The complex dynamics of
adaptive teaching: Observing teacher-student interaction in the language classroom.
International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching 60(1). 2340.
van Geert, Paul & Henderien Steenbeek. 2014. The good, the bad and the ugly? The dynamic
interplay between educational practice, policy and research. Complicity: An International
Journal of Complexity and Education 11(2). 2239.
Transdisciplinary research methods and complexity theory 5
Verspoor, Marjolijn & Keesde Bot. 2022. Measures of variability in transitional phases in second
language development. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching
60(1). 85101.
Verspoor, Marjolijn, Kees de Bot & Wander Lowie (eds.). 2011. A dynamic approach to second
language development: Methods and techniques. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
6Hiver and Al-Hoorie
Returnee scholars are regarded as key agents to advance internationalisation in many non-Anglophone countries where internationalisation through the medium of English has raised concerns about the preservation of national language, culture, and identity. This study investigated how eight Chinese returnee scholars used their linguistic repertoires in their professional practice and daily lives and how their language practices interacted with multiple identities. Gathering data from a questionnaire, semi-structured interview, and regular class observations, this study reveals that in research, all participants predominantly used English and many expressed concerns about their Chinese academic writing skills. In teaching and daily lives, most participants embraced bilingualism and were open to translingual practices. The participants’ language practices appeared to be linked to their self-conception as competent English users and English-mediated ideal professional identities. However, their bilingual practices did not correspond to a bicultural identity, indicating a disconnect between language use and cultural belonging. Drawing on the findings, suggestions are offered for institution- and state-level authorities to better facilitate the integration of returnee scholars into their home academic communities and to promote academic multilingualism.
Full-text available
In this study, I present dense, longitudinal data exploring the insights that a Complex Dynamic Systems Theory (CDST) perspective can bring to bear on patterns of relationships found between learner individual differences – notably age of onset (AO) and extracurricular L2 English use – in children in (pre)primary programs in Switzerland. We studied 71 children who had received 50/50 bilingual instruction in German and English (so-called “partial CLIL” programs) as well as 105 children in “minimal CLIL” programs with almost uniquely monolingual German instruction (90% German, 10% English). In the data analysis, (1) generalized additive mixed modeling (GAMM) was combined with (2) mixed-effects regression modeling. The findings show that AO may exert an effect on L2 performance in bilingual but not traditional instructional settings. Furthermore, contact with English outside school is a strong predictor for learner outcome, regardless of the intensity of instruction and an early or late start respectively. We conclude that the traditional view of the age factor in instructional settings needs to give way to a new understanding of L2 development in intensive exposure conditions, in which age of acquisition is seen as a major determinant.
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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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The claim that educational contexts are dynamic, complex spaces is hardly a novel one. Yet, to date limited explicit treatment in the literature engages L2 classrooms as such. This paucity is partially explained by methodological concerns with investigating diverse and contextually dense places in ways that capture the richness of these environments. While no single method can mitigate this concern, system mapping can help researchers explore system dynamics through a mapping technique that diagrams system variables through the interpretive lens of relevant stakeholders. Stakeholders engage with variables relative to a guiding statement, question, or objective meaningful to the system’s development or maintenance, thus providing insights into interactions across and beyond the conventional teacher–student interface. System mapping is particularly useful for problem solving and developing in-depth understandings of relations across system components. After describing and expanding on system mapping and its uses in education research, this work moves through a sample study in the L2 writing context to demonstrate its utility.
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Complexity theory/dynamic systems theory has challenged conventional approaches to applied linguistics research by encouraging researchers to adopt a pragmatic transdisciplinary approach that is less paradigmatic and more problem-oriented in nature. Its proponents have argued that the starting point in research design should not be the quantitative–qualitative distinction, or even mixed methods, but the distinction between individual- versus group-based designs (i.e., idiographic versus nomothetic). Taking insights from transdisciplinary complexity research in other human and social sciences, we propose an integrative transdisciplinary framework that unites these different perspectives (quantitative–qualitative, individual–group based) from the starting point of exploratory–falsificatory aims. We discuss the implications of this transdisciplinary approach to applied linguistics research and illustrate how such an integrated approach might be implemented in the field.
Full-text available
The dynamics underlying willingness to communicate in a second or third language (L2 for short), operating in real time, are affected by a number of intra- and inter-personal processes. L2 communication is a remarkably fluid process, especially considering the wide range of skill levels observed among L2 learners and speakers. Learners often find themselves in a position that requires the use of uncertain L2 skills, be it inside or outside the classroom context. Beyond issues of competencies, which are themselves complex, using an L2 also evokes cultural, political, social, identity, motivational, emotional, pedagogical, and other issues that learners must navigate on-the-fly. The focus of this article will be on the remarkably rapid integration of factors, such as the ones just named whenever a language learner chooses to be a language speaker, that is, when the moment for authentic communication arrives. Communicative events are especially important in understanding the psychology of the L2 learner. Our research group has developed the idiodynamic method to allow examination of an individual’s experience of events on a timescale of a few minutes. Results are describing complex interactions and rapid changes in the psychological conditions that accompany both approaching and avoiding L2 communication. The research takes a new approach to familiar concepts such as motivation, language competence, learning strategies, and so on. By examining willingness to communicate as a dynamic process, new types of research questions and answers are emerging, generating new theory, research methods, and pedagogical approaches applicable both within language classrooms and beyond.
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There is, in the twenty-first century, an intense interest in the nature of wicked problems and the complex tasks of identifying their scope, viable responses, and appropriate mechanisms and pathways towards achieving improvement. This preoccupation is timeless, but the discussion over several decades has benefited from Rittel and Webber’s (Policy Sci 4(2):155–169, 1973) path breaking conceptualisation of wicked problems and the political argumentation needed to resolve them. This review revisits Rittel and Webber’s work and its enduring significance, reflecting upon its broad uptake and impact in the policy sciences, an impact that continues to grow over time. We revisit how the classic 1973 paper came to be published in Policy Sciences, its innovative depiction of social problems, its rejection of rationalistic design, its acknowledgement of the subjectivities involved in problem identification and resolutions, and the consequent need for argumentative-based solution processes. We find great resonance in the paper with contemporary problem solving preoccupations, not least that the political context is crucial, that argumentation must be transparent and robust, and that policy interventions may have consequences that cannot be easily controlled in open and highly pluralised social systems.
The idiodynamic method is a relatively new mixed-method approach to studying in real time the complex dynamics of integrated affective and cognitive states that interact continuously with human communication. The method requires video recording a sample of communication from a research participant and then using specialized software to play the video back while collecting contemporaneous self-reported ratings (approximately one per second) on one or more focal variables of interest to the researcher, such as willingness to communicate (WTC) or communication anxiety (CA). After the participant rates the communication sample, a continuous graph of changes in the focal variable is printed. The final step is to interview the speaker to gather an explanation for changes in the ratings, for example at peaks or valleys in the graph. The method can also collect observer ratings that can then be compared with the speaker’s self-ratings. To date, studies have been conducted examining WTC, CA, motivation, perceived competence, teacher self-efficacy, teacher empathy, and strategy use, among other topics. The strengths and limitations of the method will be discussed and a specific example of its use in measuring WTC and CA will be provided.
This paper investigates measures of change to help demonstrate the necessity of variability as a developmental mechanism for advancing different features of L2 learning (related here primarily to writing, but also to reading) with a particular focus on learners at different stages of development. To do so, the work draws on three studies to build a case for using variability as a meaningful marker of change. Lowie, Wander M. & Marjolijn Verspoor. 2019. Individual differences and the ergodicity problem. Language Learning 69. 184–206 found in a group of 22 Dutch learners of English that the Coefficient of Variation (CoV), rather than individual factors such as motivation and aptitude, showed a significant correlation with writing proficiency gains. A replication study by Huang, Ting, Rasmus Steinkrauss & Marjolijn Verspoor. 2020b. Variability as predictors for L2 writing proficiency. Journal of Second Language Writing , with 22 Chinese learners of English revealed that the CoV rather than motivation, aptitude or working memory was a significant predictor in writing proficiency gains. A study by Gui, Min, Xiaokan Chen & Marjolijn Verspoor. Submitted. The dynamics of reading development in English for Academic Purposes, on reading for academic purposes with 27 Chinese Chemistry majors showed that the Standard Deviation of differences (SDd) rather than proficiency in English or knowledge of Chemistry correlated with reading gains. Two further studies present tentative evidence that these changes take place especially at transitional phases while learning a new skill.
The notion of complexity — as in “education is a complex system” — has two different meanings. On the one hand, there is the epistemic connotation, with “Complex” meaning “difficult to understand, hard to control”. On the other hand, complex has a technical meaning, referring to systems composed of many interacting components, the interactions of which lead to self organization and emergence. For agents, participating in a complex system such as education, it is important that they can reduce the epistemic complexity of the system, in order to allow them to understand the system, to accomplish their goals and to evaluate the results of their activities. We argue that understanding, accomplishing and evaluation requires the creation of simplex systems, which are praxis-based forms of representing complexity. Agents participating in the complex system may have different kinds of simplex systems governing their understanding and praxis. In this article, we focus on three communities of agents in education — educators, researchers and policymakers — and discuss characteristic features of their simplex systems. In particular, we focus on the simplex system of educational researchers, and we discuss interactions — including conflicts or incompatibilities — between their simplex systems and those of educators and policymakers. By making some of the underlying features of the educational researchers’ simplex systems more explicit – including the underlying notion of causality and the use of variability as a source of knowledge — we hope to contribute to clarifying some of the hidden conflicts between simplex systems of the communities participating in the complex system of education.
This article begins by situating modern-day second language acquisition (SLA) research in a historical context, tracing its evolution from cognitive to social to sociocognitive accounts. Next, the influence of the zeitgeist is considered. In this era of rapid change and turmoil, there are both perils and opportunities afforded by globalization. In addition, what globalization is bringing to the forefront is a need to grapple with the complexity of the world. It follows then that we need to think differently about SLA. I suggest that this thinking take two directions. The first is that the researchers in the field adopt an ecological perspective, whereby the relations among factors are what is key to elucidating the complexity. I offer as an example overcoming the bifurcation between research on individual differences and research on the SLA process. Doing so ushers in a person-centered, humanistic dimension of SLA. A second, related change is the renewed awareness of the importance of context and of the nature of constraints that shape any particular context. Language learning does not occur in an ideological vacuum but rather is affected in a serious way by prevailing beliefs in the society at large. I therefore make the case for language researchers to be more mindful of the social injustices that exist in the world concerning language learning and use, and I indicate several of the ideologies and myths that deserve to be challenged accordingly. Before concluding, I discuss the implications of these two changes for issues of language assessment, research, and teaching.