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Re: [xmca] Dynamic Assessment in L2

I am as usual WAY behind with xmca, but did appreciate Jim and Matt's extensive and thoughtful responses to the earlier discussion of their MCA paper. Complete with references to a lot of interesting literature and not just within L2 scholarship.

Mike has highlighted his interests. Let me say on my side that what fascinates me particularly is the question of what kind of "concepts" we gain in an L2 that are both similar to and different from those in our L1. This in relation to the question of learning the semantics/pragmatics of language use in context in the L2, including innovative use, and also to the vexed issue of what mix of explicit and implicit learning works when, why, and for whom.

xmca has seen a LOT of discussion of scientific vs everyday concepts over MANY years ... maybe there has been progress in our understanding, maybe not. :-) LSV's developmental account shows many intermediate stages (if that's what they are, say at least development pathways passing through a variety of features of concepts) and I think it's reasonable to assume that there are far more than just two varieties of concept-like tools for making meaning. So I think we want to try to pin down as best we can, for each different tool and mode of use, just what features it has that make us feel it is concept-like. As many of you know, I am anti-mentalist in general, so my notion of a "concept" is that it has to be understood as an aspect of or element in a material process of body-entraining sociocultural semiosis that is a recognizable practice or kind of practice in a community. Usually, I think, it's a focal node in some cluster of semantically connected signs (often but not always or exclusively, verbal) that tend to get mobilized in relation to one another ("collocates" for linguists, but semantic rather than narrowly lexical).

At the "scientific" end of the spectrum, the semantic clusters are relatively explicit for the user/speaker, capable of being explicitly defined, arrayed in many-to-many form/meaning combinations (many ways of saying a meaning, many meanings for any expression), and explicitly connected to one another by the user at least in binary pairs. But scientific concepts also have the property that it's possible to "apply" them flexibly, and often precisely (by convention), to a wide variety of concrete situations. The fact that we really don't understand how we do this is both a critique of our notions about concepts, I think, and the heart of traditional problems like "transfer", abstract vs. concrete, etc. At the "everyday" end of the spectrum, we again have semantic clusters, and we certainly have flexible application, but the nodes in the clusters are fuzzier, defined only by instances of use, and relations to other nodes tend to be implicit and relatively more routinized. We make meanings with them, but we can't really say very much about the meanings we make.

I strongly agree with Jim and Matt that L2 studies need to move beyond the acquisition of forms and conventionalized use of forms, and in effect beyond simple transformations of L1 utterances-for-meanings into L2 utterances-for-L1-meanings (i.e. what we call thinking in the first language, but translating its meanings to L2 forms), to the development of new meaning systems in the L2, in which one can and needs to make meanings that are not normally made, and maybe cannot be made, in the L1. This is first of all a radically anti-universalist position. Contrary to the moral programme of much 20th century anthropology and linguistics, it seems pretty clear that all humans do not think alike or make the same meanings. We're not going to achieve world peace on the basis of an ethnocentric universalism. We need to accept differences, even unbridgeable differences, and find cultural ways to not regard them as always implying that the other guys are worse than us. The core of this is to accept that many "concepts" are language-specific (or maybe more precisely they are culture-partially-constituted-thru-language-use -specific). As applied to "scientific concepts", the features of this variety of concept make it more nearly possible to articulate homologous meanings across languages, provided some culture-features and practices are shared (e.g. subcultures of specialized disciplines, with their corresponding language registers).

But, as Jim and Matt wrote, when it comes to more "everyday" concepts (and being a Whorfian at heart, for me this means not just word-named concepts, but deeply implicit meanings arising from the semantic features of the language, like aspect/tense, mood/modality, implicit categories of actions, things, etc.), it's in the nature of such concepts that we can't make one-to-one correspondences. The "scientific" concept of MOTHER can be "translated" across languages (up to a point), but the everyday concepts of "mother" vs. "madre" can't. As Jim and Matt point out, partly because they are used differently in context, culturally, resonate differently in relation to key well-known texts, and have different (my addition here) affective colorings and connotations. "Mother" may be a poor example; think of "little sister", "big brother", "morfar" (Swedish, nearest scientific concept being "maternal grandfather"), and all those kin terms  in Asian languages and indigenous Australian languages that, short of "scientification," really don't translate for native English speakers.

Having made this argument, I want to say that I don't believe it's adequate. It's too simple to say that for scientific concepts we just learn a new expression but keep the same concept, while for everyday concepts we also have to learn a new concept. But I think it's clear that learning an L2 is a process of conceptual development beyond what has been achieved in the L1. That development undoubtedly includes some "higher mental functions", and some more-scientific style conceptual development (at least say in opening up new possibilities to create new scientific concepts, or to re-organize their semantic relations and clusters), and something intermediate in character (whatever that means) between scientific and everyday in the kind of "applied-in-context" concepts developed in new cultural contexts. And on the other side, cultural similarities may be great enough that some differences in everyday concepts across language/cultures may not matter for many purposes, making them "translatable", though not quite in the same way that more scientific concepts are translated.

Finally, people don't talk or write in concepts, or for that matter in words. We produce extended TEXTS. The meanings you can make with a text, dialogical or monological, increase as the text gets longer. The relation between scientific concepts and the texts that explicate them vs. everyday concepts and the texts through which their implicit meanings are learned are clearly very different. And this too has something to tell us about the kinds of "concepts" we need to develop in learning to use another system of linguistic resources for making meanings in situational and cultural contexts. I just don't know what. :-)


Jay Lemke
Research Scientist
Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition
University of California - San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, California 92093-0506

Adjunct Professor
School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Professor Emeritus
City University of New York

On Dec 1, 2010, at 8:00 PM, mike cole wrote:

> Many thanks for responding to so many points, Jim and Matt. I hope others
> will join in, but let me make one general point and then ask a specific
> answer to one question (seems long enough!).
> General point: I have no interest at all in messing with people's self
> identifications around different configurations of ideas and practices.
> But I am really interested in what makes the configurations different and
> what difference that difference makes  (or does not). To give an example: I
> commented on a set of papers flying under the SCT banner edited by Jim
> Wertsch. What i noted as common to all of the papers was that they were all
> synchronically oriented, even though in each case knowledge of the history
> of the practices under examination was quite relevant to understanding them.
> Its as if the cultural in sociocultutral did not take seriously culture as
> an historical process.
> In other contexts all of the authors had displayed interest in history, but
> not when they came together under this banner. Come to think of it, I
> believe Giyoo Hatano wrote a commentary about this very topic in the Forman
> et al Contexts of Learning Book. Gotta go dig that out and send around.
> Let me clarify why my attention was caught by the definition of education
> as artificial. You summarize matters thus:
> 5. Our reference to Vygotsky's characterization of education as "the
> artificial development of the child" is not intended as a negative stance on
> education. We interpret V's use of "artificial" (assuming the translation
> from the Russian is accurate) here as a way of distinguishing development
> through participation in cultural activities and through the appropriation
> of (cultural) concepts from natural processes of growth. Indeed, we believe
> that it might be possible to construe V's use of Education in the passage we
> cite as referring not only to formal education but to all forms of education
> provided by a society whether in or out of places recognized as school.
> -----------------------------------------
> I have no problem at all of thinking about education as an artificial system
> of human activity of enormous historical importance. Amen.
> But unless Vygotsky used the term for upbringing in the original, I
> seriously doubt that he was putting formal education in schools and
> education in the very broad sense that applies to the deliberate
> organization of children's learning in small, face to face, pre/non-literate
> communities.
> I am really uncertain of what you mean by "through the appropriation of
> (cultural) concepts from natural processes of growth."  In particular, what
> does natural mean?  My first impulse is to interpret this as saying that
> cultural concepts ("nauty child") could be acquired/appropriated
> biologically. If so, lets discuss how that is possible. My second impulse is
> to interpret you as meaning "acquired with no explicit instruction" (e.g. we
> do not need to teach L1 -- its "only" triggered).
> If any of this is worth thinking about, its because the learning/teaching
> implications of the "formal/informal" distinctiton is believed by many to
> make a real difference in subsequent intellectual development.
> mike
> On Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 8:46 PM, Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net> wrote:
>> Thanks for that Jim.
>> Rather than divert the list from discussion of the important issues of L2
>> and SCT/CHAT, can I just refer to
>> http://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/t/r.htm#truth
>> which reflects where I'm coming from. A Google search revealed "practice is
>> the criterion of truth" even in my own writing, but in fact it is not at all
>> that simple. The entry refers to Engels, Lenin, Ilyenkov and Spirkin. Marx
>> never actually talks about a criterion of truth.
>> Andy
>> James P. Lantolf wrote:
>>> 2. With regard to the 11th Thesis and the centrality of praxis in Vygotsky
>>> theory, we are not suggesting that theory/philosophy is unimportant or
>>> should be abandoned. Indeed, many of us in applied linguistics are rooted in
>>> the humanities as much (or perhaps more) than in the social sciences. We
>>> continue to read and rely on modern philosophers, especially philosophers of
>>> language to inform our work. Lantolf and Thorne (2006) integrate
>>> Wittgenstein's notion of "language game" as well as Voloshinov's notion of
>>> utterance and sign in theorizing language. Most recently, the new monograph
>>> by Searle "Making the Social World" has some very important things to say
>>> about the role of language in social formation that we think resonates well
>>> with Vygotsky's views on thinking and speaking. Having said this, we don't
>>> agree with Andy's comment to the effect that practice is the truth criterion
>>> of theory is not Marxism. Rather than launch into a lengthy explanation, we
>>> will mention some interesting works written in the 1970s that address the
>>> topic far better than we could here: Adolfo Sanchez Vazquez (1977). "The
>>> Philosophy of Praxis." Richard Bernstein (1971). "Praxis and Action." Alan
>>> Buss (1979). "Dialectic Psychology." We also find support for our position
>>> in the more recent writing of Anna Stetsenko.
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