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Essay: Exploring the Role of Linguistic Mediation for Advanced L2 Learners in a Post-Graduate Group Study Session

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I. Introduction

It was not until the 1980s that Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory (SCT) became widely known to the Western world. Among the crucial concepts of SCT, Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) attracts the most attention from general educators. As an approach to SLA, however, SCT’s concept of mediation is of greater significance. In fact, Lantolf (2011) stated that the focus on mediation distinguishes SCT-L2 research from other SLA approaches. This paper is an analysis of a post-graduate group study session in the lens of SCT. It focuses on mediation in its contributions to the participants’ language development in particular as well as implications for language learning in general.

II. Theoretical background

SCT is a theory proposed and developed by L.S. Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist. In its own right, this is a theory of learning and not developed specifically to explain SLA. Nevertheless, it has a lot to contribute to the understanding of how humans acquire languages other than their first (Lantoff, 2011). This case study is positioned within this theoretical framework.

In this view, learning first takes place on the social plane (intermental) and then the psychological plane (intramental) (Vygotsky, 1978). This means that knowledge and cognition, which Vygotsky (1978) called “higher cognitive functions” (p.57), do not appear out of nothing into one’s mind, neither do they happen by transmission, but rather, they are co-constructed through social interaction – among people. These functions subsequently become internalized in the intramental plane, that is within the learner themselves via mediational tools, one of which being language (Watanabe, 2008).

Despite being the central theme of Vygotsky’s thinking, mediation was never given a single and unified definition (Wertsch, 2007). However, in the lens of SLA, mediation is conceptualized by Lantoff (2011) as follows:

“Mediation is the creation and use of artificial auxiliary means of acting—physically, socially, and mentally.” (p. 25)

From this viewpoint, all humans’ interactions with the outside world are mediated, either physically or psychologically (Wertsch, 2007). While this concept can be traced back to Marxism which says that humans transform nature by physical tools, Vygotsky’s originality is reflected in the notion of psychological tools transforming the mind (Del Río, & Álvarez, A., 2007). Among the psychological/semiotic tools such as numbers, graphs, signs, etc., language is one of the most significant. Karpov and Hayward (1998) categorize mediation into two major types: metacognitive and cognitive. In this paper, the attention is drawn to the former which refers to the internalization of the “semiotic tools of self-regulation” (p.27) which includes self-planning, self-monitoring, self-checking, and self-evaluating ability. This line of theoretical framework carries an essential implication for the discussion of this paper: language as a symbolic tool is acquired implicitly, i.e. beyond awareness (Lantoff, 2011). This is a logical view considering the fact that in most human activities, language is used as a means of facilitation rather than the goal of learning itself. And among these activities, language is acquired implicitly (Wertsch, 2007). In shorter words, in this view, learning language means using language.

Río & Álvarez (2007) states that the mediation mechanism constitutes the ZPD (p. 289) which Vygotsky (1978) defines as followed:

“It is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” (p. 86)

In this view, learning “creates the zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1978a, p. 90, Wertsch, 2007, p. 279). In other words, learning triggers one’s internal developmental processes which only operate when in interaction with other people. Once internalized, these processes become one’s own developmental achievement, i.e. psychological tools for self-regulation. The ZPD then shifts to another developmental stage. This has a strong implication that even though one can accelerate through a developmental stage depending on their own biological endowment, he or she cannot skip it. Another implication is that learning in the ZPD should bring about a qualitative change in the learner’s understanding which enables them to solve future problems independently and which can be detected by the “quality and quantity of external mediation required” (Lantoff, 2011, p. 24).

This paper also touches on an aspect of language being a mediational tool as reflected in private speech. Unlike inner speech, language manifested in private speech is somewhat easier to observe. Vygotsky considered private speech to “play a critical role in promoting intellectual growth and eventual psychological independence or self-regulation” (Lantolf & Appel, 1994, p. 117-118).

Utilizing these core tenets of SCT approach, this paper aims to identify and analyze instances of mediation both externally and internally in a post-graduate group-study context.

III. Research Design

Research Question

In what way does linguistic mediation contribute to advanced L2 speaker’s language development in a post-graduate collaborative learning context?

Data Collection

Based on one of the core tenets of SCT that learning first takes place on the social plane and then the psychological plane (Vygotsky, 1978), the data was collected in the context of a group study session of four post-graduate linguistics students at Lancaster University. While a lecture in a traditional classroom context is also considered a social plane, the nature of social interaction among peers seems to be more conspicuous in a group study session. This environment also facilitates more frequent turn-taking and reciprocity among participants compared to that of a large class, which gives better insights into how language is utilized as a mediational tool by advanced L2 learners. Another point worth noticing is that this is not an L2 group study session, i.e. the main subject of study is not L2, but rather a specific subject matter – Cognitive Linguistics. However, assuming that in SCT approach, learning language means using language, this choice of context is altogether valid since everybody was using their L2 – English, to communicate in that session. This means that English as L2 was the sole language of mediation, both external and as private speech.

The data was recorded during a two-hour group study session. For the sake of space, therefore, only the relevant parts are transcribed and included in this case study. It is important that we collect naturally occurring data so that instances of mediation during the session are authentic and valid for analysis. The participants include three male students, two of which are from China and the other from Vietnam, and one female student from Indonesia whose pseudonyms are as followed respectively: Zhang (Z), Shin (S), Tam (S), and Nat (N).

IV. Data Analysis

The students were discussing their previous week’s lesson which was week 3. In turn 1, N is trying to initiate the discussion with the “force system”, which was week 4’s topic. S and T immediately intervene by acknowledging N that they did not want to go too far. N then agrees with that suggestion by replying “that’s true” in turn 5. It seems that the students are well aware of their ZPD within which knowledge of the current subject can be co-constructed and without which development is almost unlikely and mediation is useless (Lantoff, 2011). In other words, there is no use discussing the content of week 4 without first understanding the content of week 3, i.e. they cannot skip a developmental stage. For language learning, this suggests that mediation is most effective only when tightly geared to the learner’s ZPD.

Another point worth noticing is that even though N seems to have an inadequate understanding of the concept of “kinesthetic”, she has no trouble using the term. In fact, throughout the discussion, none of the students have trouble using this term or any other complicated term of which they have an inadequate understanding (see Appendix) at least in the sense of mentioning it in the discussion. We also need to consider the fact that prior to this group study session, these concepts had already been mentioned in class by the lecturer. The lecturer, who is the expert, presented to his students, the novices, the technical terms which they appear to understand only partially. This seems almost paradoxical in that the expert says less than what he understands, and the novices say more than what they understand, both about the same thing. SCT explains that the symbolic mediational tools, which in this case is language, allow us to “function at a level that is ‘out ahead’ of our current mastery” (Wertsch, 2007, p.188). In fact, this happens not only to novice learners but also to almost all of us. We use language as a sign system all the time without understanding its full power, i.e. we always say more (or less) of what we intend or understand (Wertsch, 2007). Following this explanation is the strong implication that language is appropriated when used. For language learning, this means that it is not always necessary for language learners to fully understand everything before they start to use the language. Rather, it is by using the language that their expertise is gradually con-constructed through processes of internalization. The evidence for this claim is seen toward the end of the session when the participants’ mastery of these technical terms manifests in private speech as well as the quality and quantity of external mediation required.

In this excerpt, we see that the students were having trouble understanding the word, or the concept behind the word “entailment.” An instance of external linguistic mediation is seen in T’s immediate answer to S’s question accompanied by that of Z’s (turn 53-55). What is more interesting is S’s reply in turn 56: “okay” with a rising intonation. This reply does not seem to be directed at anybody. Rather, it seems to be an instance of private speech directed at the speaker himself indicating self-monitoring and regaining self-control. A similar instance is seen in turn 65: “Ah! Yes! Okay!” Other examples of the same nature but of a different category are seen in turns 68, “Always has”, and 71, “four lines” where the speakers repeat what others have just said. This kind of private speech is similar to that of children in their early developmental stages when they repeat what has just been said by their parents (Karpov and Hayward, 1998, p. 27). What is even more interesting is that while adult learners tend not to resort to private speech as much as do children, in “times of cognitive stress” (McCafferty, 1994, p.118), their inner speech does get vocalized. Such utterances do not actually serve any communicative purposes; rather, they are instances of self-regulatory mediation. Besides functioning as a self-regulatory mediational tool, private speech also provides mediators valuable cues to adjust, to modify their external linguistic mediation accordingly as seen in the following excerpt.  

T appears to be a more experienced member in the group because he has a background in linguistics while the others come from other relevant backgrounds. In turn 81, T was prompting his friends to finish his sentence. N’s verbal response to the mediation in turn 82 is a reflection of her current understanding of the concept, which was fairly close. After a flow of meaning negotiation from turn 82 to turn 87,  Z’s response in turn 88 indicates a much better understanding of the concept. At this juncture, one of the best features of collaborative learning is seen at its finest: reciprocal discourse. Reciprocal discourse basically means that the receiver of the discourse can influence what is being said (Cook, 1989, p.60). In collaborative learning contexts such as this, external mediation can be constantly adjusted to the learners’ ZPD which is made intelligible by their constant verbal feedback. By contrast, in a traditional classroom context where the discourse is mostly non-reciprocal, i.e. the teacher does most of the speaking, such verbal feedback is minimal which might cause the mediator to become less aware of learners’ capacities in their ZPD (Lantoff, 2011, p. 29). This might result in mediation being randomly provided, rendering it less effective (Nassaji & Swain, 2000). Because of its reciprocal and frequent turn-taking nature (we can see a lot of overlapped speech in the transcription), collaborative learning better facilitates the co-construction of knowledge by means of more customizable mediation. This point is more evident in the following excerpt where both the quality and quantity of external mediation becomes significantly less explicit.

N in turn 96 still shows signs of confusion about T’s question in turn 93, as shown through her private speech – “How many schemas?”, “Wait…,” whereas Z in turn 97 answers the question correctly. Here we see two important things. First, the quality and quantity of external mediation (provided by T) have significantly reduced. In the previous excerpt, T prompted his friends to finish his sentence whereas, in this instance, he simply asked a question with no further hints, to which (one of) his friends answer correctly. Moreover, compared to the previous one, Z’s response time is also much shorter; the concept is also more difficult. Based on Aljaafreh & Lantoff (1994)’s claim that the shift of external mediation from explicit to implicit can also indicate learner’s development, we can interpret this instance as evidence of leaners’ development. Secondly, notice that toward the end of the session, Z seemed to have grasped the concept while N seemed to still be in struggle despite the fact that both have received the same kind and amount of external mediation. This indicates that learners’ understanding is not equally shared, and their developmental rate is not the same. One of the reasons SCT give is that in spite of having the same developmental level at the beginning, learners do not necessarily “project identical future development” (Lantoff, 2011, p. 31) due to the differences in biological endowments. This carries two important implications: mediation should be better geared to learners’ ZPD and alternative assessments are necessary to account for both past and potential future development.

V. Conclusion

Students of English as a foreign language in developing countries such as China and Vietnam often find themselves being taught about the language rather than using the language itself. One of the highlights of this case study advocates the contrary: learning language means using language, even if it seems to be beyond one’s level of understanding at the beginning. In so doing, not only do learners internalize the language as a result of intermental communication, but their capabilities in the ZPD also manifest via verbal feedback such as private speech which might be valuable for their more capable peers to modify their mediation accordingly. While the case study is not all-inclusive by definition, it gives important empirical insights into how SCT captures language learning and what implications it has for language teaching/learning and assessment.

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