Monday, April 16, 2012

Three MLJ articles by Firth and Wagner (1997, 1998, and 2007)


Firth and Wagner (1997) has developed into a seminal paper in applied linguistics to produce many repercussions. Firth and Wagner have also written their own responses in 1998 and 2007.

On Discourse, Communication, and (Some) Fundamental Concepts in SLA Research
The Modern Language Journal
Volume 81, Issue 3, pages 285-300, Autumn 1997
DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4781.1997.tb05480.x

SLA Property: No Trespassing!
The Modern Language Journal
Volume 82, Issue 1, pages 91-94, Spring 1998
DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4781.1998.tb02598.x

Second/Foreign Language Learning as a Social Accomplishment: Elaborations on a Reconceptualized SLA
The Modern Language Journal
Volume 91, Issue Supplement s1, pages 800-819, December 2007
DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4781.2007.00670.x

The 1997 paper by Firth and Wagner was written (at least partly) as one of the responses to claims by "mainstream" SLA researchers such as Long (1990), for example, who called for "theory culling" on the basis of "established" and "normal" scientific standards. (Firth and Wagner, 1997, pp. 285-286). Firth and Wagner argued that what is more necessary for SLA was a "more critical discussion of its own presuppositions, methods, and fundamental (and implicitly accepted) concepts (Firth and Wagner, 1997, p. 286). In this sense, the paper was a philosophical examination on the fundamental issues of SLA, which pointed out, among others, that "the centripetal forces of the individual-cognitive remain irresistible for SLA" and that SLA adopted "Chomsky's programmatic statements on the cognitive, autonomic nature of the mind as its research agenda." (Firth and Wagner, 1997, p. 288)

Their argument was rather modest because it did not call for demolition of what they criticized but only wanted to redress bias and imbalance in SLA studies.

We do not argue that such theoretical predilections or methodological practices are in and of themselves erroneous or flawed, and that, as such, they should be eschewed. Rather, we point out their striking predominance within the field, leading to a general methodological bias and theoretical imbalance in SLA studies that investigate acquisition through interactive discourse. (Firth and Wagner, 1997, p. 288)

Firth and Wagner wanted to question the binary assumption like "social or individual/cognitive," "use or learning" or "native or nonnative."

In essence, we call for work within SLA that endeavours to adopt what we have referred to as a holistic approach to and outlook on language and language acquisition, an approach that problematizes and explores the conventional binary distinction between "social" and "individual" (or cognitive) approaches to language use and language learning, that attends to the dynamics as well as the summation of language acquisition, that is more emically and interactionally attuned, and that is critically sensitive towards the theoretical status of fundamental concepts (particularly "learner," "native," "nonnative," and "interlanguage"). (Firth and Wagner, 1997, p. 296)

Their paper was, as I claimed, a philosophical analysis.

It is surely time to take seriously the possibility of deconstructing such dichotomies as use versus acquisition, sociolinguistics versus psycholinguistics, and language use versus communicative act. (Firth and Wagner, 1998, p. 93)

But nothing irritates people more than philosophy does (particularly, deconstruction!); The reaction of Firth and Wagner (1997) was like opening Pandora's Box. An the responses were more or less divided into supportive comments and flat dismissals. The latter claimed that Firth and Wagner (1997) was not even talking about SLA, from which mainstream critics excluded language use.

The consensus of our critics seems to be that our arguments have been staged from "outside" SLA proper; that is, that our position is related to research in second language use, but not to acquisition per se. (Firth and Wagner, 1998, p. 91)

Given the modesty of their claims, as far as I can see in hindsight, in Firth and Wagner (1997), it is rather surprising that the paper "touched a proverbial raw nerve within as well as around the periphery of the second language acquisition (SLA) community" (Firth and Wagner, 2007, p. 800).

As I said, philosophical analysis sometimes irritates people for it questions something they take just for granted. (A philosopher is always a gadfly). But considering the impact that the paper produced, I suspect that the mainstream researchers were not just annoyed by philosophical enqury but felt uneasy because they thought they might lose the vested interests they had earned. With the ontological and epistemological enrichment that Firth and Wagner wanted to bring into SLA studies, the mainstream researchers, I imagine, felt that they would lose their special legitimacy as an independent academic discipline, free from other learning sciences and practical concerns.

In fact, in the early 1970s, when the umbrella term language was replaced by the technical term acquisition, SLA accomplished three things rather elegantly: (a) it defined itself as a discipline that produces knowledge about this special phenomenon called acquisition; (b) it cemented its identity as a distinct discipline and secured a foothold in the world of scientific research; and (c) it all but cut off possible links to learning theories residing outside its own (self-constructed) disciplinary boundaries (Rampton, 1997a). (Firth and Wagner, 2007, p. 806)

But this is only a guess about academic politics, and we should focus more on theoretical issues. So below I pick up two aspects from the three MLJ papers written by Firth and Wagner: ontology and epistemology.


As Firth and Wagner themselves say, Firth and Wagner (1997) was an attempt to reconceptualize SLA studies "that would enlarge the ontological and empirical parameters of the field." (Firth and Wagner, 1997, p. 285).

Ontological reconceptualization includes the nature of communication. The cognitivism typically holds "individual psychology" and "code-model" and regards communication as a product of two internal cognitive mechanisms (i.e. speaker and listener).

The term "individual psychology" is used, for example, by Chomsky. On the page where he introduces the three basic questions of generative grammar ((i) What constitutes knowledge of language?; (ii) How is knowledge of language acquired?; (iii) How is knowledge of language put to use?), Chomsky states that the standpoint of generative grammar is that of individual psychology (Chomsky 1986, p. 3).

The notion of individual psychology is a modern conception, and certainly not the only one. We have to ask once again whether the conception is best for a study of communication, even if it is best for generative grammar. Code-model, also known as Shannon-Weaver model is another modern conception, but it was seriously challenged by Relevance Theory by Sperber and Willson (1986), and it is now generally agreed that the code-model is not a satisfactory explanatory framework for linguistic communication.

So we should rather see communication as conjoint interaction, something that happens between persons, not in persons.

Because interaction and communication are per definition conjointly and publicly produced, structured, and made meaningful, communicative "problems," we suggest, are likely to be recognized as problems in interaction. In this sense, it may be more useful to view problems in communication as contingent social phenomena, as intersubjective entities, and not invariably as "things" possessed by individuals. (Firth and Wagner, 1997, p. 291)

This reconceptualization involves an ontological reflection. People generally take a noun (or what a noun represents) as "substantive", ie., something substantial that must have its physical extensions in the physical world. So communication, we assume, also must have its physical basis. It must be either the airwaves (the sound) in the space between the speakers, or the brain activities in the speakers. As the airwaves can be regarded as a mere manifestation of cognition in the brain, people may believe that the brain activities must be the physical basis of communication.

If this sort of physical ontology is all we have, it must be not easy at all to accept intersubjective entities, as Firth and Wagner state above ("Subjectivity" must be another problem for physicalists, but this is another story. See my article:"Where is Self, and what is it?" No, it's rather "How is Self?": Luhmann's theory of autopoiesis, if you're interested.)

However, other ontological frameworks must be possible, and I'd like to present Niklas Luhmann's systems theory here briefly.

Communication, according to Systems theory, 'operates' not on the level of human beings, but on the level of communication itself.

It is, empirically speaking (from an observer’s perspective), communication that constitutes communication, and not human beings as individuals. Of course, human beings are necessary for communication to take place - but it is not they who are “operating” within communication. They are, rather, the external condition sine qua non of communication, but not an internal element of communication and society.

Moeller, Hans-Georg (2011, pp. 7-8).

Linguistic communication requires human beings with conscious minds (or consciousness). Consciousness in turn requires biological activities of the body (the brain, in particular). But Luhmann argues that neither consciousness nor the biological activities as such communicates. It is the operation of communication itself that constitutes communication. Communication, like other autopoietic systems, is self-referential and self-organizing.

Communication (a social or communication system), Luhmann says, is 'structurally coupled' with conscious mind (a psychic system); Communication and conscious mind are connected in a very unique way. It is through consciousness that communication (linguistic communication, in our case) starts. But as communication starts, it begins to have its own life, as it were, as is obvious in cases where development of communication betrays a speaker's intention.

Consciousness, in turn, is in structural coupling with the biological brain activities. It is through the brain activities that conscious mind starts. Yet, as conscious mind began to operate on its own, it gains a special ontological status; consciousness can only be experienced by the owner of the neurons; the observers of the neural activities, however objective they may be, cannot experience the consciousness produced by the neurons. In this sense, we are not to equate consciousness with physiology of neurons per se.

So, in a strict sense at least, communication cannot be sufficiently explained on the level of conscious mind or on that of brain activities. We need to examine communication by and of itself to explain communication. Cognitive science of the mind or neuroscience of the brain may be a great help to a study of communication, but neither of them constitutes a study of communication. A study of communication must examine communication as it appears in the public space. So, cognitivism, though it may have been the most powerful explanatory theory, should not be the only explanatory framework for communication; it can only be subsidiary.

The structural coupling between the brain as a living system, the mind as a psychic system, and society as a communication system seems to be of a specific structure with the mind somehow “in-between” the other two systems. Whatever “happens” within our brains seems to be first somehow “translated” into conscious information (feelings, thoughts) before it can, in turn, irritate communication and be processed by communication as social information. It seems that the mind is some kind of filter between the brain, on the one hand, and communication on the other.

Moeller, Hans-Georg (2011, p. 20).

Other ontological issues include the concept of the native speaker (NS) (and its counterpart: the nonnative speaker (NNS)). NS and NNS are certainly idealizations of identity, but not the only possible ones. Rather we should ask whether they are specific enough or too monolithic for our study, that is, learning and use of English as a lingua franca in these diverse and changing global settings.

NS and NNS are blanket terms, implying homogeneity throughout each group, and clear-cut distinctions between them. (Firth and Wagner, 1997, p. 291)

We may also have to examine the ontology of 'competence'. As we have questioned the concept of the native speaker, we should also examine the concept of the 'native-like competence' and that of 'interlanguage,' whose end-point is the language of the 'native speaker'.

Implicit here is the (at least disputable) assumption that target or NS competence is constant, fully developed and complete. (Firth and Wagner, 1997, p. 292)

There is more to say about 'competence.' Firth and Wagner argue that language competence is transitional, situational, and dynamic and are reluctant to give it a static, fixed ontological status.

If, as we argue, language competence is a fundamentally transitional, situational, and dynamic entity, then any language users will always be "learners" in some respects. New or partly known registers, styles, language-related tasks, lexical items, terminologies and structures, routinely confront language users, calling for the contingent adaptation and transformation of existing knowledge and competence, and the acquisition of new knowledge. (Firth and Wagner, 1998, p. 288)

Implications of this argument include, as stated above, diffusion (or deconstruction) of the distinction between language learning and language use.

After all, we may still be in the agenda set by Hymes in 1972.

Here the performance of a person is not identical with a behavioral record, or with the imperfect or partial realization of individual competence. It takes into account the interaction between competence (knowledge, ability for use), the competence of others, and the cybernetic and emergent properties of events themselves. A performance, as an event, may have properties (patterns and dynamics) not reducible to terms of individual or standardized competence. (Hymes, 1972, p.283)


The other aspect I'd like to pick out from Firth and Wagner's papers is epistemology: what counts as knowledge, scientific knowledge in particular, which is supposed to lead, ultimately, to truth.

Of the criticism given to Firth and Wagner (and which they cite in their 2007 paper), I found Poulisse's worthy of attention, for he raises the issue of the criterion of a research.

Poulisse (1997) also offered a defense of the psycholinguistic approach in response to our arguments, maintaining that "the task of all researchers [is] to not only describe, but also explain and predict phenomena" (p. 325) and "it would definitely not do to just look at particular and local phenomena and find specific explanations for each of them" (p. 325). (Firth and Wagner, 2007, p. 802)

I believe this notion is the modern view of science (including of course Chomskyan scheme). Researches require more than description of particulars; they need explanatory theories of the general (or universal) which enable prediction and falsification.

In many areas of enquiry, though, this modern view of science has been seriously challenged by Chaos theory (Complexity theory), and its impact is evident in applied linguistics, too (Larsen-Freeman, 1997, 2007).

Actually, Chomsky himself says that science only works for simple, non-complex problems.

Science is a very strange activity. It only works for simple problems. Even in the hard sciences, when you move beyond the simplest structures, it becomes very descriptive. By the time you get to big molecules, for example, you are mostly describing things. The idea that deep scientific analysis tells you something about problems of human beings and our lives and our inter-relations with one another and so on is mostly pretence in my opinion -- self-serving pretence which is itself a technique of domination and exploitation and should be avoided. (Chomsky, 2000, p. 2)

If this is the case, which I think it is, when the rigorous mainstream cognitivism (or whatever that claims to be exact science) attempts to instruct teachers and learners what to do, they may be using their authority as a 'technique of domination and exploitation.'

In addition, the nature of communication, as opposed to the linguistically idealized notion of language, may contradict the spirit of universal explanation and call for particular description.

in situated social practices, use and learning are inseparable parts of the interaction. They appear to be afforded by topics and tasks, and they seem to be related to specific people, with particularized identities, with whom new ways of behaving occur as the unfolding talk demands.

Studying learning as a social accomplishment shifts our understanding of learning from the construct of a linguistic system or a competence that serves all the speaker's purposes. Instead, the development of social relations, the mutual consistency of linguistic resources and tasks, and the specific biography of the language learners come to the foreground. This strand of research has gained momentum over the last 10 years, and quite clearly, much more research into the specifics of social interactions in L2 environments is clearly necessary in the years to come. (Firth and Wagner, 2007, p. 812)

All in all, papers by Firth and Wagner have certainly expanded the horizons of SLA and applied linguistics, despite persistent resistance or flat dismissal by some cognitivists. Many applied linguists now uses terms like "ecological approaches to SLA" (Kramsch, 2002)," "chaos and complexity" (Larsen-Freeman, 1997, 2007), "multimodality," "contingency," or "fluidity" . We're certainly richer in conceptions.

However, mere plurality of conceptions may just lead to confusion and the need for "theory culling" again. Different perspectives of SLA must compete and complement with each other.

We are, then, witness to a natural progression, an intellectual evolution, if one will, where successful paradigm evolve (and sometimes fracture) through both support and critique. (Firth and Wagner, 2007, p. 813)

If we leave our theories to the evolutional selection pressures, we must make it certain that the pressures are not biased and that the selections are open. If there's one thing we learn (or should learn) from debates initiated by Firth and Wagner (1997), it should be, I think, the virtue of open-mindedness.


Chomsky (1986). Knowledge of Language. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Chomsky, N. (2000). The architecture of language. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Hymes, D. (1972). On Communicative Competence. In J. Pride and J. Holmes (eds.), Sociolinguistics: Selected readings (pp. 269-93). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Kramsch, C. (Ed.). (2002). Language acquisition and language socialization: Ecological perspectives. London: Continuum.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997). Chaos/complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 18, 141-165.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2007). On the complementarity of chaos/complexity theory and dynamic systems theory in understanding the second language ac- quisition process. Bilingualism: Language and cognition, 10, 35-37

Long, M. H. (1990). The least a second language acqui- sition theory needs to explain. TESOL Quarterly, 24, 649-666.

Moeller, Hans-Georg (2011). Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems. Open Court. Kindle Edition.

Sperber, D and Willson, D. (1986) Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Wiley-Blackwell

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