March 2020
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Diane Larsen-Freeman, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

I have been concerned for some time by the fact that second language acquisition (SLA) theorists and methodologists have ignored or at least downplayed learner agency. Therefore, at TESOL 2020, I intend to call attention to this concern and then make some suggestions for how learner agency might be accommodated in SLA theories and enhanced in the classroom.

As defined in Larsen-Freeman (2019, p. 62), “agency is the capacity to act in the world”—the feeling that one can make a difference. When applied specifically to the learning of language, it can be interpreted as the capacity to optimize “conditions for one’s own learning (or not!)” (Duff & Doherty, 2015, as cited in Larsen-Freeman, 2019, p. 62). Agency is not inherent in a learner. It is not a personal attribute, but rather a relationship between the learner and the context and what the context affords the learner.

Few educators would deny that language learners have at least latent agency in determining the way that they learn best and the extent to which they succeed. Yet, for much of the 50-year history of the modern-day study of SLA, the agency of language learners has not been appreciated. For instance, there is no respect for learners’ agency when learners are seen to be input processors, and, thus, where it is recommended that teachers supply students with comprehensible input so that their learning will take place implicitly. I do not deny that some learning will occur as a result; however, what I am saying is that learners’ agency is not valued when learners are viewed as passive recipients of teachers’ munificence rather than as drivers of their own learning

I once had a student who claimed that he had learned German from listening to the radio. Such a source obviously did not allow for any negotiation or accommodation, yet my student succeeded. You see, as a native speaker of Dutch, he had already mastered a language that was enormously helpful in facilitating his comprehension of German. He was able to listen selectively to the radio broadcast, and benefit from its certain predictability. He was a motivated agent of his own learning. One might say that my student was an exception, having a distinct advantage in knowing a related language. That may be so, but invoking exceptionalism fails to take into account learners’ plurilingualism and their ability to make use of their lingual assets.

A more recent example of a theory that by self-admission denies learner agency comes from statistical learning theory.

Finally, SL [statistical learning] research has almost exclusively focused on methods in which participants are passively exposed to an input stream, where the only learnable information is that which is contained in the stream. Such an approach implicitly adopts an apathetic perspective of the learner, taking organisms to be automatic absorbers of environmental regularities (Frost et al., 2019, p. 1139).

In order to offer a more balanced perspective, I should point to the social end of the sociocognitive SLA theoretical continuum, where learner agency has also been underplayed. For example, it has been acknowledged that in socialization theory, learners are often positioned as passively socialized into the communities in which they live (Duff & Doherty, 2015).

But it would be unfair to single out only these few theories. Even the foundation on which studies of SLA was built hypothesized that there were universal acquisition orders. The quest to identify this “built-in” syllabus overlooked learner agency. (It would be appropriate at this point to admit that I was a participant in the early research to discover universals.)

Another major initiative in SLA research has been to focus on individual differences with the goal of explaining differential success. Though studying individual differences has shaped research agendas for some time, notice the incongruity—studying individual differences has usually involved ignoring individuals. Typically, researchers study groups of learners with common traits and attempt to study the effect of the traits. For instance, questions are posed, such as “Do individuals with intrinsic motivation outperform those who have extrinsic motivation?” or “Are extroverted learners more successful than introverts?” Let me hasten to add that these are reasonable questions to ask, and they have led to productive research agendas, but such questions ignore intracategory differences among the individuals who compose the group. A related assumption is that group means reflect the performance of members who compose the group. This is certainly not the case, and this ergodic premise results in the spurious assumption that we can capture what is happening with individuals by simply aggregating data on these individuals (Lowie & Verspoor, 2019).

Ironically, it has been individual case studies that have acted as correctives to extant SLA theories that seek to generalize. For example, Ioup et al.’s (1994) participant Julie presented counterevidence to the critical period hypothesis because Julie, an adult speaker of British English living in Cairo, appeared to speak Egyptian Arabic virtually indistinguishably from a native Cairene despite her not moving to Egypt until she was a young woman. Also, there is Schmidt’s (1983) participant Wes, a native speaker of Japanese living in Hawai’i, who, despite having considerable comprehensible input and social proximity to English speakers, never appeared to make progress in speaking English grammatically. Thus, the contribution of individuals to our understanding of SLA has been essential, at least if you feel, as I do, obliged to understand the second language development process of all learners.

Of course, it isn’t the case that theorists have ignored learner involvement in their own learning. Indeed, task-based language teaching (TBLT), for instance, makes such engagement central to learning, and tasks may well be helpful in promoting learning. However, it is well-known that that planning a task and enacting one are different processes. Therefore, because much TBLT research has been focused on identifying factors in the design of a task, which will elicit performance of a certain type, there can be a failure to appreciate what learners contribute uniquely to their own learning. The same underestimation of learners could be said for other language teaching methodologies. Just think of the audiolingual method, where student participation consists of repeating, imitating a model, and so on. There appears to be little room for learner agency here.

But the fact is that we teach learners; we do not only teach language. As an example, Elsa was a keen language learner who told me that she loved the repetition that she received in the audiolingual method. She said that whenever she found the drills boring, she would pretend that the characters in the dialogues, on which the drills were based, were people she knew, and she would ascribe to them certain personal traits. I would say that Elsa exercised her agency to great effect.

It seems to me that any oversight of learner agency is particularly unfortunate these days when being agentive is needed more than ever. In today’s world, one can easily get the feeling of being acted upon. In addition, given the complexity and ever-changing conditions in the world, learners’ ability to create their future (i.e., to create and re-create themselves) will be essential for their maintaining a livelihood and for their wellbeing.

Yet, what is missing from certain theories and methods is an account of how learners can exercise their agency to optimize their own learning. One way is to encourage learners to develop a repertoire of learning strategies. However, in my presentation at TESOL, less prescriptive ways to allow for and to encourage learner agency will be illustrated, such as the adoption of learner-driven feedback, reciprocal teaching, learner-constructed corpora, and a porous classroom.

I will also recommend that SLA theorists incorporate learner agency into their theories. One way to do so is to hypothesize that second-order affordances, rather than input, be the driver of SLA (Larsen-Freeman, 2016). A first-order affordance exists in the environment, and surfaces in answer to the question: What are the properties of the environment, natural or introduced, that affect some outcome? For instance, does the classroom environment afford the possibility of conducting group work? However, it is not simply the properties of the environment, but the agent’s relational stance towards them that creates a second-order affordance. Even if the classroom environment permits group work, if an individual in the group feels that they cannot learn from their peers, I expect not much learning to take place.

Thus, when it comes to perceiving affordances, every individual is unique, something to which all teachers can attest. However, traditionally, researchers seek to generalize, and by so doing, to describe the “average” learner. Traditional models often assume that insights about the population automatically apply “to all individuals…This assumption is simple, it is understandable, and it is necessary to justify the use of averages to understand individuals. However, it is also wrong!” (Rose et al., 2013, p. 152)

Though these teaching and research practices apply to learners of all ages and dispositions, there are no doubt context-specific factors that will have to be managed if my recommendations are to be implemented. I will conclude my TESOL 2020 session with a discussion of these.


Duff, P., & Doherty, L. (2015). Examining agency in (second) language socialization research. In P. Deters, X. Gao, E. R. Miller, & G. Vitanova (Eds.), Theorizing and analyzing agency in second language learning (pp. 54–72). Multilingual Matters.

Frost, R., Armstrong, B. C., & Christiansen, M. H. (2019). Statistical learning research: A critical review and possible new directions. Psychological Bulletin, 145(12), 1128–1153.

Ioup, G., Boustagui, E., el Tigi, M., & Moselle, M. (1994). Reexamining the critical period hypothesis. A case study of successful SLA in a naturalistic environment. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 16, 73–98.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2016). Shifting metaphors: From computer input to ecological affordances to adaptation. In Proceedings from the IATEFL 50th Anniversary Conference, Birmingham (pp. 10–19). IATEFL.

Larsen–Freeman, D. (2019). On language learner agency: A complex dynamic systems theory perspective. The Modern Language Journal, 103(SI), 61–79.

Lowie, W. M., & Verspoor, M. H. (2019). Individual differences and the ergodicity problem. Language Learning, 69(S1), 184–206.

Rose, L., Rouhani, P., & Fischer, K. (2013) The science of the individual. Mind, Brain, and Education 71(3), 152–158.

Schmidt, R. (1983). Interaction, acculturation, and the acquisition of communicative competence: A case study of an adult. In N. Wolfson & E. Judd (Eds.), Sociolinguistics and language acquisition (pp. 137–174). Newbury House.

Diane Larsen-Freeman is professor emerita of education and linguistics, research scientist emerita, and former director of the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan. She is also professor emerita at the SIT Graduate Institute in Vermont.
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