Monday, September 27, 2010

Mind, Language, and Epistemology: Toward a language socialization paradigm for SLA

Recently I have been reading on ecological approaches to second language acquisition and the following article is one of them.

Watson-Gegeo, K. A. (2004). Mind, Language, and Epistemology: Toward a language socialization paradigm for SLA. Modern Language Journal, 88, 3, 331-350.

For some time now second language acquisition (SLA) research has been hampered by unhelpful debates between the “cognitivist” and “sociocultural” camps that have generated more acrimony than useful theory. Recent developments in second generation cognitive science, first language acquisition studies, cognitive anthropology, and human development research, however, have opened the way for a new synthesis. This synthesis involves a reconsideration of mind, language, and epistemology, and a recognition that cognition originates in social interaction and is shaped by cultural and sociopolitical processes: These processes are central rather than incidental to cognitive development. Here I lay out the issues and argue for a language socialization paradigm for SLA that is consistent with and embracive of the new research.

Some notes on the article
Watson-Gegeo’s article surveys an incredible amount of research in a variety of scientific fields—cognitive science, human and child development, first language acquisition and development, cognitive anthropology, cognitive linguistics, critical social sciences, feminist studies, etc. and then argues for a language socialization paradigm.
I'm impressed by the extensive research summarized in the first part of the article, though it gets a little difficult to follow at times.
On page 332, Watson-Gegeo claims that the criticisms against mainstream SLA studies have been around since the late 1970s. I have to disagree with her because I think 1990s would be a more accurate date for the rise of critics of mainstream SLA. I really spent a lot of time looking for those critics and they are hard to come by before the 1990s. Even the sources she cites were all published in the 1990s. I can think of only two exceptions to my claim, Ochsner (1976) and Breen (1985).
On page 332, Watson-Gegeo argues for the use of mind rather than cognition. I have to say I prefer cognition. Her rationale in suggesting the mind as a key term is that cognition has traditionally been used for conscious aspects of cognition only. She has a point however it is equally true that mind has been used almost synonymously with the brain. One implication of using mind is that the dualism between the organism and the environment, and especially the body and the brain are carried on. So, to me at least, it is difficult to think of an ecological mind. In my opinion, all words are loaded with assumptions, connotations, etc. and they all come with a baggage. I think the main difference between using the term ‘mind’ or ‘cognition’ is that mind is a thing and cognition is a process, which means that using ‘the mind’ has the potential to perpetuate the conduit metaphor while cognition has the potential to foreground action and change. Of course, it depends on how you interpret the terms the mind and cognition but I prefer cognition rather than the mind because I cannot conceptualize mind as something other than a container. Perhaps it is a matter of interpretation. Moreover, there is always the possibility of using a completely new term too. If such a term to be found I would like it to include thinking and feeling and emphasize appraisal. I believe we do not think in the traditional sense of the word, we evaluate. In the same paragraph, the author talks about the role of emotion in decision-making and cites Damasio, one of my favorite people. I enjoyed that part. 
The second part of the article is devoted to language socialization paradigm where Watson-Gegeo lists five premises of language socialization.
"The basic premise of LS is that "linguistic and cultural knowledge are contructed through each other," and that language-acquiring children and adults "are active and selective agents in both processes" (p, 339).
"A second premise of LS theory is that all activities in whihc learners regularly interact with others in the family, community, workplace, or classroom are not only by definition socially organized and embedded in cultural meaning systems, but are inherently political" (p. 340)
"A third promise of LS theory has to do with the complecities of context essential to analysis"
"A fourth premise of LS theory, also supported by research, is that children and adults learn culture largely through participating in linguistically marked events, the structure, integrity, and characteristics of which they come to understand through primarily verbal cues to such meanings" (p. 341).
"A fifth premise of LS theory...cognition is built from experience and is situated in sociohistorical, sociopolitical contexts" (p. 341)

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