1.8 A sociocultural perspective on talk in the teaching of second or other languages

In the introduction to this section, language was described as both the ‘medium’ and the ‘message’ of education. Nowhere is this more apparent than when students are learning a second, foreign or other language. It is only relatively recently that the sociocultural perspective has been applied to research on language teaching, but it has now begun to be a significant influence. One of the contributors to this development is James Lantolf (e.g., Lantolf, 2000). He has suggested that one reason that the sociocultural paradigm has only made a late impact on this field is because hitherto it had been dominated by research in ‘the natural science tradition, a tradition that values predictive explanation and controlled, heavily quantitative research’ (Lantolf and Appel, 1994, p. 27). In contrast to this tradition, which relied heavily on the methods and concepts of laboratory-based experimental psychology, Lantolf, Appel and others such as Donato (2000) have used a sociocultural approach to pioneer research which is more qualitative and which examines the processes of language teaching and learning in its social context. They have also suggested that this approach is more amenable to the participation of language teachers in researching their own practice.

Some researchers use the term ‘scaffolding’ to describe the ways that learners help each other to accomplish difficult parts of the task. One interpretation of the concept, as applied to interaction amongst peers, is to refer to the way that an expert enables a learner or novice to accomplish a task by reducing its complexity. However, the notion of learners scaffolding each other’s learning at points where one has more knowledge or expertise than the other could be seen as a legitimate extension of this idea.

These studies are very useful for illustrating how a sociocultural approach can be used for analysing talk and social interaction in language learning situations. In particular, they are able to show how joint activity can lead to useful learning (even if some misunderstandings are also shared!), and how the ways learners carry out tasks are bound to be dependent on their interpretations of what is expected of them (rather than simply on the task demands as formally or objectively described, or as implicitly understood by a teacher). That conclusion echoes the findings of research in ‘mother tongue’ educational settings, as described in the rest of this section.

1.7 Evaluating classroom discussion