Friday, April 13, 2012

May (2011) The disciplinary constraints of SLA and TESOL: Additive bilingualism and second language acquisition, teaching and learning

Multilingual Turn in AAAL 2012

"Addressing the Multilingual Turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual Education", coordinated by Stephen May (The University of Auckland), was the most interesting session in AAAL 2012 (Boston) for me. It featured Lourdes Ortega, Alan Firth, Suresh Canagarajah, Constant Leung as well as Stephen May himself as speakers, and David Block as a discussant. Below is one of May's papers.

The disciplinary constraints of SLA and TESOL:
Additive bilingualism and second language acquisition, teaching and learning

Stephen May

Linguistics and Education
Volume 22, Issue 3, September 2011, Pages 233-247

As this is a very interesting paper, I strongly recommend that you read the original. Below is my personal note which may contain my biases and errors.


'Mainstream' and 'alternatives'

One of the questions which applied linguists of 'alternative approaches' ask, and which those of the 'mainstream' want to dissociate themselves from, is why the 'mainstream' SLA "appear largely impervious to and/or uninterested in seriously addressing these critiques" (p. 235) [of the 'mainstream' SLA of the cognitive and psycholinguistic orientation] when the criticism below, for example, is obviously valid for many.

A sociolinguistic perspective of what competent bi/multilinguals do with different codes in their repertoire is thus quite different from the narrow psycholinguistic perspective that focuses on the acquisitional stages of learners, as reflected in notions such as fossilization and interlanguage. (p. 234)

Why do the 'mainstream' researchers, except Ortega (2009) perhaps, are so reluctant to engage in the debate? Why is the cognitive and psycholinguistic SLA still called 'mainstream'? Why not call it 'traditional' or 'first-generation', if not 'archaic' or 'obsolete'? When do SLA studies legitimize the diversity of SLA? Or has the revolution already been achieved, only waiting for the official declaration?

The same is true with TESOL, a more practice-oriented genre than applied linguistics. When do Communicative Language Teaching (CL) and Task Based Teaching and Learning (TBLT), the two dominant doctrines in TESOL, begin to question their 'monolingual bias' and to take the 'multilingual turn' seriously?

May states at the end of the first section:

Why has so little apparent progress been made then in developing an additive bilingual approach to SLA and TESOL? In what follows, I argue that this is because disciplines, and their sub-disciplines, such as SLA and TESOL, themselves construct, validate, contain, and exclude particular forms of knowledge. This process is, in turn, the result of their disciplinary histories and the academic hierarchies established within them, as well as in relation to other disciplines. I examine these issues via Bourdieu's notions of ‘habitus’ and ‘field’ -- and more importantly, their inextricable interconnection and interaction -- as well as Bernstein's closely related notions of classification and framing. (p. 236)

As stated, the four theoretical keywords are ‘habitus’ and ‘field’by Bourdieu, and 'classification' and 'framing' by Bernstein. May gives lucid explanations of these concepts, but in the spirit of copyright, let's keep quotations to the minimum and use the public domain information.

Bourdieu's 'habitus' and 'field'

Bourdieu's 'habitus' is the subjective, embodied dispositions in response to the objective conditions. We absorb objective social structure in our mind and body.

For Bourdieu, habitus was essential in resolving a prominent antinomy of the human sciences: objectivism and subjectivism. Habitus can be defined as a system of dispositions (lasting, acquired schemes of perception, thought and action).

The individual agent develops these dispositions in response to the objective conditions it encounters. In this way Bourdieu theorizes the inculcation of objective social structures into the subjective, mental experience of agents. For the objective social field places requirements on its participants for membership, so to speak, within the field. Having thereby absorbed objective social structure into a personal set of cognitive and somatic dispositions, and the subjective structures of action of the agent then being commensurate with the objective structures and extant exigencies of the social field, a doxic relationship emerges.

Habitus is somewhat reminiscent of preexisting sociological concepts such as socialization, but habitus also differs from the more classic concepts in several important ways. Firstly, a central aspect of the habitus is its embodiment: Habitus does not only, or even primarily, function at the level of explicit, discursive consciousness. The internal structures become embodied and work in a deeper, practical and often pre-reflexive way.

Less discussed than, but equally important as 'habitus' is the notion of 'field', as May states (p. 236).

Bourdieu shared Weber's view that society cannot be analyzed simply in terms of economic classes and ideologies. Much of his work concerns the role of educational and cultural factors. Instead of analyzing societies solely in terms of classes, Bourdieu uses the concept of field: a structured social space with its own rules, schemes of domination, legitimate opinions and so on. Fields are relatively autonomous from the wider social structure (or space, in his terminology), in which people relate and struggle through a complex of connected social relations (both direct and indirect). Among the main fields in modern societies, Bourdieu cited the arts, education, politics, law and economy.

Fields, such as arts, education, politics and economy, smaller social spaces than classes, influence people to induce habitus. However, as May reminds us, we should not assume one directionality from field to habitus.

Fields clearly do form individual habitus in influential ways, and also clearly influence and even shape what are deemed to be acceptable/unacceptable practices within each field. However, the complex, recursive, articulation of field, habitus and practice means that the reproductive processes within a given field, while powerfully reinforced, are never wholly determinative, nor are related norms and boundaries, respectively, sacrosanct or hermetic. As such, they may change over time, both internally as a result of ongoing struggle or contestation, and externally, in relation to their relationship to/articulation with other (related) fields of practice. (p. 237)

Bernstein's 'classification' and 'framing'

One of the focuses of Bernstein (Yes, the Bernstein of the 'elaborated code and restricted code') is 'pedagogic communication', which is as May quotes "sustained process whereby somebody acquires new forms or develops existing forms of conduct, knowledge, practice and criteria from somebody or something deemed to be an appropriate provider and evaluator' (Bernstein, 2000, p. 78) .

In pedagogic discourse and practice, boundary in knowledge is maintained by classification.

The concept of classification is at the heart of Bernstein’s theory of pedagogic discourse and practice. Classification refers to ‘the degree of boundary maintenance between contents’ (Bernstein 1973a, p. 205; 1973b, p. 88) and is concerned with the insulation or boundaries between curricular categories (areas of knowledge and subjects). Strong classification refers to a curriculum that is highly differentiated and separated into traditional subjects; weak classification refers to a curriculum that is integrated and in which the boundaries between subjects are fragile. (Sadovnik, p. 3)

As knowledge is organized in the curriculum by classification, it is further transmitted through pedagogic practices which are regulated by framing.

Whereas classification is concerned with the organization of knowledge into curriculum, framing is related to the transmission of knowledge through pedagogic practices. Framing refers to the location of control over the rules of communication and, according to Bernstein (1990), ‘if classification regulates the voice of a category then framing regulates the form of its legitimate message’ (p. 100). Furthermore, ‘frame refers to the degree of control teacher and pupil possess over the selection, organization, pacing and timing of the knowledge transmitted and received in the pedagogical relationship’ (1973b, p. 88). Therefore, strong framing refers to a limited degree of options between teacher and students; weak framing implies more freedom. (Sadovnik, p. 3)

So, curriculum made by classification defines valid knowledge, and pedagogy regulated by framing defines proper pedagogical communication.

The concept of code was central to Bernstein’s sociology. From the outset of its use in his work on language (restricted and elaborated codes), code refers to a ‘regulative principle which underlies various message systems, especially curriculum and pedagogy’ (Atkinson, 1985, p. 136). Curriculum and pedagogy are considered message systems, and with a third system, evaluation, they constitute the structure and processes of school knowledge, transmission and practice. As Bernstein (1973b) noted: ‘Curriculum defines what counts as valid knowledge, pedagogy defines what counts as valid transmission of knowledge, and evaluation defines what counts as a valid realization of the knowledge on the part of the taught’ (p. 85). Thus, his theory of education must be understood in terms of the concepts of classification, framing and evaluation, and their relationship to the structural aspects of his sociological project. (Sadovnik, p. 4)

Disciplinary constraints of SLA and TESOL

It must be relatively clear by now why May introduces 'habitus', 'field', 'classification' and 'framing' to explain the disciplinary constraints of SLA and TESOL. Discourse and practice, or communication in general, of applied linguistics is is no exception when it is influenced by what these four terms denote.

Applied linguists obtain their positions as such assigned by classification, and they study and teach applied linguistics in a way that is regulated by framing. Applied linguistics constitutes a particular field and applied linguists learn to behave according to the habitus of the field. Once established, classification, framing, filed, and habitus constrain the communication of applied linguists.

Bernstein's analysis, in combination with Bourdieu's, helps to explain why academic disciplines, and particular sub-disciplines such as SLA and TESOL, are so often defined (and confined) by a narrowly derived set of research assumptions, approaches and related models of teaching and learning.12 Such analyses also explain why such disciplines are equally resistant to change. After all, fundamental changes in the classification and framing of knowledge also necessarily involve significant shifts in the structure and distribution of power, and in principles of control -- that is, in who controls, and what counts as, disciplinary knowledge. (p. 238)

In the section of "Re-examining disciplinary debates in SLA" where May explores the controversy surrounding Firth and Wagner's (1997) critique of SLA, he points out 'scientism' and 'nationalist ideology' in applied linguistics (p. 240). In an attempt to raise its 'scientific status', linguistics idealized and reified language in the form of structural linguistics to make language decontextualized and decoupled from its various social relations including, perhaps most importantly, power relations (scientism). But the autonomy and homogeneity of language is also related to the sociohistorical conditions of the nation-states. Building a nation-state required one legitimate, unified language of the nation-state (nationalist ideology). Therefore, when the 'maistream' SLA reserchers are so reluctant to be engaged with the debate offered by the researchers of the 'alternative approaches', they may have to be aware of their potential biases of scientism and nationalist ideology. (But most likely, they will say they are not biased at all. Yet, one has to suspect the existence of an ideology (or ideologies) when one refuses arguments immediately and flatly, for that uncritical attitude is what ideologies bring to us.)

In the last section of the paper, May introduces LEAP (Language Enhancing the Achievement of Pasifikia).

(Language Enhancing the Achievement of Pasifikia)

As you read the section, you'll probably realize that this is not just a local issue.

The experiences of Pasifika peoples in New Zealand are thus not dissimilar to those of many migrant groups elsewhere, particularly with respect to delimited employment and educational opportunities and, with respect to the latter, very little, if any, accommodation of their home languages in the teaching and learning context. What is also similar is the longstanding construction of their relative lack of educational achievement in specifically deficit terms. (p. 242)

As I said at the beginning, this is quite an interesting paper and if you're interested, you should read the original.


Atkinson, P. (1985). Language, structure and reproduction: an introduction to the sociology of Basil Bernstein. London, Methuen.

Bernstein, B. (1973a). Class, codes and control, vol. 1. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bernstein, B. (1973b). Class, codes and control, vol. 2. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: Theory, research, critique. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield.

Firth, A., & Wagner, J. (1997). On discourse, communication and (some) fundamental concepts in SLA research. Modern Language Journal, 81, 285-300.

Ortega, L. (2009). Understanding second language acquisition. London: Hodder Arnold.

Sadovnik,A. (2001) Basil Bernstein (1924-2000) Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education. (obtained from

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