Space and Place in Second Language Acquisition

This month we published Language Learning Environments by Phil Benson. In this post the author introduces the book and its relevance in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We are in the habit of thinking of space as empty space: as a container for objects of many kinds, including people, things, information and language. We tend to think of these objects as existing in space and moving across space. This I call the objects-in-space view, which is pervasive both in everyday thinking and in the theory and practice of linguistics and SLA.

But what if space is not an empty container? What if it is more like the image on the cover of Language Learning Environmentsa complex, entangled, writhing web of objects? What if objects are space, and what if their movement is the movement of space itself? How will we conceive of the spatiality of language and second language learning from this objects-as-space perspective?

In brief, I argue that we need to view language, not as an object-in-space, as a self-contained system, network or structural entity, but as an object that is integrated with the physical world in many different ways. Language only exists in the world in the forms of physical ‘language-bearing assemblages’. This is a significant point for SLA, because it calls for attention to the ways in which language learning is tied up with the mobility of people, things and information in an increasingly globalized world.

The approach to SLA that I propose connects with ecological, complex and dynamic systems, distributed learning and posthuman perspectives. The key idea is that of learning through interaction with language resources in the environment. But I also argue that it is important to evaluate language learning environments in spatial terms. This leads to three differences with these perspectives.

  • Many researchers now believe that there is no distinction to be made between second and first language learning because both involve interaction with the environment. However, the spatial circumstances of access to the language learned are typically very different. For second language learners, an important question is whether the target language is a scarce or abundant resource in the local environment.
  • We now think of multilingualism, rather than monolingualism, as the global norm for language competence. But it is also true that people become multilingual for specific reasons and have specific language repertoires. The specific character of multilingualism depends partly on individual agency, but more importantly on access to language resources in the local environment. This in turn has much to do with the spatial distribution of language resources globally.
  • Lastly, there is a tendency to foreground the local over the global. Globalization may be an overused term, but a spatial perspective suggests that the global mobility of language-bearing assemblages (people, goods and information) determines the abundance or scarcity of second language resources in local environments and, ultimately, the question of who gets to learn which languages where.
A ‘language-bearing assemblage’ on the streets of Hong Kong

Language Learning Environments has been many years in the making, but it was mostly written during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020. We are now living in a world in which a spatial perspective on second language learning seems all the more relevant.

Global mobility drives second language learning. By smoothing the way for mobilities of people, goods and information, second language learning also drives global mobility. In the book, I point to a number of statistics that show how indicators of both global mobility and second language learning have mostly more than doubled over the last twenty years. In addition to the terrifying human costs of the pandemic, there has also been a drastic realignment of global mobilities as borders have closed. The mobility of people, and to some extent goods, has been dramatically slowed down. The mobility of digital information, on the other hand, is accelerating at a remarkable rate.

The future for the global mobilities of languages and language learners is uncertain. Will there be a return to the rapid acceleration on all fronts of recent years, or will there be some kind of longer-term adjustment in which we are less mobile physically, but more mobile digitally? We are already beginning to see important changes in the ways in which second language learners access language resources in their local environments. I believe that a spatial perspective can do much to help language researchers keep abreast of these changes.

For more information about this post please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Language Learner Autonomy by David Little, Leni Dam and Lienhard Legenhausen.

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