September 2014
ALIS Forum

Leadership Updates


Jana Moore

Ben White

Greetings to you all from your ALIS Forum co-editors, Jana Moore and Ben White. We have a jam-packed issue for you.

As many of you know, in this first issue out since the convention, we like to bring you articles by speakers from the InterSections and Academic Sessions in which ALIS participated. Before introducing those, however, we'd like to remind everyone that this year was ALIS's 40th year in existence within TESOL International. To mark this special occasion, we were honored by the presence of its founding father, Dr. Robert Kaplan. We thank Marianne Celce-Murcia for her wonderful introduction and presentation commemorating this occasion (many of her notes have been reproduced below), and we thank Eli Hinkel for organizing the event.

Dr. Kaplan was not only the founding father of the Applied Linguistics Interest Section; he helped establish TESOL as well, being a member of the organizational meetings in 1964 and 1965 that led to its formation. He attended all but four annual TESOL conventions between 1966 and 2001, served as president in 1989–1990, was on the parliamentary board on numerous occasions, and was elected an Honorary Life Member of TESOL in 1994. Lest we think that Dr. Kaplan was involved only with TESOL International, we should also mention that he was instrumental in writing the constitution of California TESOL (CATESOL) and served as its first president in 1970–1971. And only recently he retired from 12 years as editor of Issues in Applied Linguistics.

Dr. Kaplan has presented at hundreds of conferences and published extensively in the areas of language policy and planning, contrastive rhetoric, teaching reading, writing, and culture, among other topics. Throughout his career, he has inspired countless individuals and helped to establish applied linguistics as its own discipline. It is with sadness that we note the recent passing of one of Dr. Kaplan’s dearest colleagues and friends, Dr. Richard Baldauf, with whom he worked often. Dr. Kaplan's speech to ALIS to mark our 40th year of existence, “I've Never Metaphor I Didn't Like,” has been reprinted in the newsletter.

The next three articles stem from “Building Intercultural Competence in the Classroom,” an InterSection from the Portland convention that brought together the Interest Sections of Applied Linguistics, Intercultural Communication, and Elementary Education. In this session our distinguished guest speakers addressed the importance of developing intercultural values in our students. Adrian Holliday, in “Intercultural Awareness for Young Learners,” argues that the best way to help young learners engage in their new culture is to embrace their own culture, drawing similarities and differences. Joe McVeigh's article, “Practical Ways to Build Intercultural Competence in Young Learners,” presents concrete tools that can be used by teachers to help students address the differences in culture that they encounter. Finally, Bonny Norton and Espen Stranger-Johannessen's article, “Digital Stories as Intercultural Texts: The African Storybook Project and Young Learners,” tells the story of the work that's being done in Africa to address literacy through developing books from the oral traditions in Africa.

The final two articles come from Social Interaction and ELT Across Settings, an InterSection that paired Applied Linguistics with the Speech, Pronunciation, and Listening Interest Section. In “Why Gesture!” Gale Stam challenges us to embrace attention to gesture in both second language acquisition research and language teaching. In “What Is Interactional Competence?” Richard Young defines interactional competence and suggests how it might be addressed in the language classroom.

We hope you enjoy the newsletter and are already gearing up for Toronto in 2015.


Greetings! As you all know, I officially became the chair during this year’s convention in Portland, Oregon. I am excited to begin this new term as the chair and would like to thank several people. First of all, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know Eli Hinkel, our past chair, whom I have enjoyed working with so much. Eli will be serving as the past chair until the 2015 convention. During the time we have worked together, Eli has helped me understand and learn how ISs work, how we, as leaders, can support our own interest section and serve the TESOL International Association in the best ways possible. Her strong sense of humor absolutely has made our work less overwhelming and more fun. Thank you, Eli, for your leadership, guidance, help, collaboration, and fabulous work! I also would like to thank Jana and Ben for their strong contributions to ALIS. They both put a lot of time and effort into ALIS Forum, and I hope you will continue to support and help them by sending articles and news so that they can publish them in our newsletter. Special thanks always go to you, of course, ALIS members! If ALIS is one of the most visible and active Interest Sections, it is thanks to you.

Our business meeting in Portland this year had a very special speaker and wonderful audience. Eli organized such a great meeting to celebrate ALIS’s 40th year and it was very generous of Dr. Robert Kaplan to come and talk to us. It was such a privilege to listen to him, and I hope we get many more opportunities in the future to interact with and learn from Robert. As you all know, in addition to the Academic Session we organized, ALIS was involved with two InterSections at the 2014 convention. The turnout was great for each session. In particular, over 250 participants attended our Academic Session in which Drs. Bonny Norton, Patricia (Patsy) Duff, and Kelleen Toohey discussed their most recent work on identity. Thank you very much if you were able to make it to one, some, or all of those sessions!

I am very excited to tell you that another amazing convention is just ahead of us and ALIS is so ready for it. Dr. Nihat Polat, our incoming chair, has been working diligently to organize InterSections and one Academic Session. A number of wonderful speakers have already confirmed participation in the Academic Session, and you will hear more from Nihat about the speakers and the session soon. I am also very happy to report that the number of proposals submitted to ALIS for the 2015 convention has increased by 15.9% this year. Yay! We also have a good number of reviewers assisting us this year in the proposal review process. Thank you, thank you, and thank you!

Finally, if you have any thoughts, feedback, ideas, concerns, please feel free to email me or Nihat Polat. Your input is always appreciated.


Hayriye Kayi-Aydar


Dear ALIS Members,

Greetings! It is my pleasure to welcome you all to ALIS and thank you for your continuous support. I am sure you are all as excited as I am about our upcoming convention in Toronto. I have no doubt that we will have a lot of fun just like we did in Portland last year. Please join me in acknowledging with great appreciation all the wonderful things our current chair, Dr. Hayriye Kayi-Aydar, and past chair, Dr. Eli Hinkel, have done and continue to do for ALIS.

Per my charge as the incoming chair, I am very happy to report that ALIS has one Academic Session and one InterSection ready for the 2015 convention. As you might know, the Academic Sessions organized by the Interest Sections are one of the highlights of the conference. These panel presentations address topics of current relevance to TESOL communities and enable respected experts to contribute to the program. The Academic Session, which will address a very hot topic in applied linguistics, L2 motivational self-concept in language learning, will feature leading scholars in the field (e.g., Zoltan Dornyei). This session is scheduled for Thursday, March 26, 9:30–11:15 a.m. The InterSection is going to be a collaborative session with the Teacher Education Interest Section and will embark on another very vital and interesting topic: the teaching and learning of foreign languages and ESL in K–12 schools in the United States. Featuring world-renowned scholars in the field (e.g., Elaine Horwitz), this session will also address issues of great importance related to L2 teacher education in the United States (Where are we? Where are we heading?). I truly hope that you can all join us at these wonderful sessions!

As for my goals for ALIS as the incoming chair, building on what our current chair, Dr. Kayi-Aydar, has been doing, I plan to work on further strengthening communication and networking opportunities amongst the ALIS members while also reaching out to more TESOL members to consider ALIS as their primary membership group. In addition, I will try to promote ALIS at other academic venues (e.g., AERA) to recruit more members and reviewers. While I will seek support and guidance from our current and past chairs in this process, I welcome suggestions from any ALIS member as well.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or suggestions. I look forward to seeing you all at the ALIS Academic Session and the InterSection in Toronto.

Nihat Polat



Teachers need to know about metaphors. The way metaphors color perceptions across different perspectives constitutes a subject about which language teachers need to know a great deal more than they do. Let's start with metaphors; what are they? A metaphor is a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between two unlike things that actually have something in common. For example: Her teeth are like stars; they come out at night. Metaphors are not merely shorthand for facts; rather, they simplify complex reality by situating facts within cultural meaning, thereby giving them significance. A metaphor is not merely a rhetorical embellishment; rather, a metaphor drives a particular vision of the world as well as the way that vision should be. A metaphor is not merely a trick of language; rather it is an incentive for people to act on the world in a particular way and to develop certain capacities rather than others. By fixing certain concepts within a technology, a given metaphor locks an interpretation into a particular set of views. Each metaphoric representation accepts some point of view and dismisses another. As Richard Young (1993) argues, "Paradigms . . . are only a scientized form of metaphor and are consequently more acceptable to the academic community" (p. 158). Metaphors are culturally constrained.

ESL writing specialists have had a great deal to say about technical writing and the development of language-for-special-purposes writing (Swales, 2000). Technical groups are formed by adherence to a particular, distinctive lexicon. To the extent that these groups are committed to their special codes, they may not realize how much the metaphors informing their agenda reproduce a particular social context. Traditionally, scholars have understood that the purpose of their communication is intended to remedy deficits in the public's knowledge. They do so through the use of a number of different kinds of metaphors:

  • Conduit metaphors assume that communication is a matter of transmission. Communication involves inserting ideas and emotions as objects into words and expressions (conceiving words and expressions as containers) and then transmitting them along a conduit to someone, who understands by removing the objects and emotions from their containers.
  • Feedback metaphors codify predominately cultural value assumptions, consequently, as a result, affecting the core values of technical inquiry and therefore determining how research proceeds within a given technical field.

Now let me take the metaphor progress as an example. It is necessary to distinguish Progress fromprogress, the latter of which brings diverse forms together to constitute a metaphoric cluster founded on polysemy—that is, on the association of one word with two or more distinct meanings. Such forms of progress highlight the metaphorical functions of progress, and they define the individual's ability to reach various sectors of human experience, illustrating the way metaphors are adopted and used in social contexts.

  • Progressive metaphors demonstrate not only how metaphors refer to one thing in terms of another, but also show how they may transfer meanings across discourses.
  • Scientific metaphors travel among and between scholarly disciplines. Progress—initially derived from Latin progressus—defining the domain of forward movement, leading to use of the term in the sense of a journey or a march, without necessarily implying a goal. Eventually, the word came to be applied to a series of events leading to a better outcome. Progress has become linked with teleology—with the idea that there are natural tendencies toward certain end conditions—together with the idea of improvement. Most recently, it has been expanded further to describe political views in which progressive may be opposed to conservative.

Thus, metaphors do much more than just extend old lexical meanings to new objects; rather, metaphors constitute ways in which societies construct webs of collective meaning, that, once built, become the centers from which reason and action emerge. Progress exemplifies the metaphoric web, constrained by a permeable boundary between cultural and technological domains; for examples, technological progress may be subsumed by scholarly progress, economic progress by cultural progress, and religious progress by spiritual progress. In the Anglo-European culture, individuals want to see that

their incomes will grow,
their knowledge and skills will improve,
their lives will get better,
their papers will be published,
their careers will unfold,
their experiments will work,
their research will contribute to something.

However, there are cultures in which this metaphor simply does not exist. To illustrate,

Humpty Dumpty, in Through the Looking-Glass, enlightens us: "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

Specialist communities—teachers, lawyers, chemists, plumbers, and so on—are formed by adherence to a particular, distinctive lexicon. To the extent that these groups are committed to their special codes, they may not realize how much the metaphors informing the core of their agenda reproduce a particular social context. To a large extent, the inevitable fossilization of metaphors can be attributed to the widespread distribution of printed language.

The global distribution of English is the reason ESL/EFL teachers have employment. The spread of English has also meant the spread of English metaphors. As Robertson (1998) suggests, civilization is information, and civilizations are limited more by lack of information than by lack of physical resources. Limitations on information restrict the number of things a society knows how to do.

The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London constituted the first "public institution for the pursuit of scientific research" (Atkinson, 1999, p.16; italics in the original). As much as facilitating the spread of English, those publications (produced continuously over more than 300 years) facilitated the diffusion of empirical research as well as the rhetoric in which such research could be reported, including the metaphors that enhance the understanding of science. The language one uses is shaped by the society in which one lives; that society is shaped by the language used by the speakers who inhabit the society—ergo, those who control the language exercise social control by focusing on particular ideas. Metaphors play an incredibly important role in shaping the worldview.

Consider the ways that English structures the world:

  1. English individualizes and permits individualization of mass nouns (e.g., a glass of water, a cup of coffee); in English mass nouns constitute measurable categories (e.g., a liter of water, a gallon of coffee). Such a system fragments the idea that all water (or any other substance) constitutes a unity. People think of water in the kitchen sink as separate from water in the ocean; consequently, it becomes difficult to understand water pollution.
  2. English allows two types of countable nouns—real and imaginary—even though some occupy space (e.g., rock, car, gun) while others are metaphorical (e.g., beauty, evil, delight). This phenomenon makes experience measurable, even though in reality not everything can (or needs to) be countable.
  3. English relies on a three-tense conception of time, objectifying time and making it linear; each unit is equal to all other comparable units (e.g., seconds, hours). This system extends infinitely into the past and into the future. Such noun units can be counted and pluralized, permitting them to become aggregates. Such a structure permits speakers to see things rather than processes.

The English-language worldview reinforces scientific realism. As the boundary between the literal and the metaphorical is language-specific, and as access to reality in technologies is achieved mainly by means of metaphor, the result makes it possible to ignore non-Western metaphor systems (Műhlhȁusler, 2003).

Some folks say that teaching is essentially about questioning the status quo; however, questioning the status quo inevitably means questioning cultural orthodoxy. Academics have identified a number of continually expanding problems for which technological solutions are sought because technologists believe that they can manage solution—provide answers—implying that managerial framing is reliant on technology and that such managerial framing remains unquestioned. As a result, three limiting constraints appear to be in operation:

  • First, this process trivializes or simply omits the public's participation (even though the public may be the first sector to recognize the existence of a problem).
  • Second, it inflates the role of technology, assuming that, if all the pieces of a problem can be described, solutions to the problem will emerge.
  • Third, managerialism leads to a conflict between competing interests; i.e., management constitutes a metaphor defining a culture controlled by experts.

In problem solving, the preferred managerial control consists of mechanistic and reductionist approaches. A dichotomy between technology and society emerges—technology deals with solid facts; society deals with fuzzy individual and cultural preference. The English language magnifies and reifies this distinction, resulting in the operation of a subject-object framework, while prohibiting the occurrence of a subject-object framework. Given the metaphors in use, an ethics based on egocentrism and anthropomorphism becomes likely. Metaphors require particular practices and behaviors; the way such practices and behaviors influence human relationship should not be ignored. Rationality consists in the continuous adaptation of our language to our continually expanding world, and metaphor is one of the chief means by which this is accomplished.

Now, it is impossible for a language to be dominant; rather, speakers of so-called dominant languages are responsible for the perception of dominance. The ascendancy of English in science and technology is, then, the result of a series of accidents occurring over the past half century (Kaplan, 2001), though the roots of those accidents reach back historically over more than three hundred years. As Gal and Irvine (1995, p. 968) noted, "our conceptual tools for understanding linguistic differences still derive from [the] massive scholarly attempt to create the political differentiation of Europe," because the fledgling academic fields of anthropology and linguistics emerged during that epoch developing at the end of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century, when the legitimating of discrete national states was an intellectual project of vast perceived importance and equally great practical consequences—in short, at the moment when the one-nation/one-language myth was born. The metaphor progress briefly discussed here has had a role in language planning (especially in its relation to language teaching) as it has had a role in the widening understanding of the biological environment.

I have long felt that schools of education spend far too much time on abstract notions of what it takes to be a teacher and inadequate time on the subject matter that the prospective teacher will teach. In other words, schools and bodies of students are replete with generalists and seriously lacking in subject experts. You are gathered here in the belief that teaching English as a second/foreign language is a specialism.

If I have bored you, it is merely because I wanted to put appropriate emphasis on such things as metaphors which are inevitably culturally bound, and also to show how the metaphors that some of us learned with our mothers' milk are fashioned by the English language and the English language is constrained and shaped by its speakers as those speakers are defined by the language. In trying to teach a language to students from another culture, it is essential for insipient teachers to be aware of the ways in which the target language has been shaped by its speakers and that speakers of some other language, equally, have been shaped by their first languages; the learners are unfamiliar with the shape of metaphors in the target language. If the teachers are unaware of the gap thus created, teaching becomes an unnecessarily difficult undertaking. No one can teach the total contents of the metaphoric system, but the well qualified must make the learners aware of the problem they face and the ways in which they can begin to bridge the gap. The defining features of a good metaphor become acutely important for discussions of the metaphorical effects on reasoning and understanding of social policy issues. Your brain's activity in one part of the day shapes your understanding in another, especially when it comes to creating text. This is a real phenomenon, described by psycholinguists, who call it structural priming or syntactic persistence. Basically, earlier patterns of what you say or read or write prime you to repeat those patterns when you are acting automatically. Our words and sentence patterns are primed so that the words we chose now are the words we will choose later. If you write now Kevin gave Sally a pen, you are more likely later to write John sent Tim the files than you are to write John sent the files to Tim. Reflective practice is, as Donald Schȍn (1983) puts it, "the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning." Reflective practice in education refers to the ability of an educator to study his or her own teaching methods (including consideration of the ethical consequences of those methods) andto determine what works best for the students. The content of reflective practice must be rooted in a deep understanding of the language to be taught—far more than word order and basic grammar, and far more than vocabulary and parts of speech. As Nils Eric Enkvist (1997, p. 199) noted:

Giving a sentence its textual fit, its conformity with the text strategy, is not a cosmetic surface operation polishing the sentence after it is already there. Textual fit is a far more basic requirement, determining the choice of words as well as the syntactic structure of a sentence. To modern text and discourse linguists this is so obvious that it seems curious that grammarians and teachers of composition have, through the centuries, spent so much time and effort on syntactic phenomena within individual sentences, while overlooking the fundamental questions of text strategy and information flow. It is the text strategy and the information flow that actually determine which of the available syntactic and lexical structures a . . . writer will choose in each particular instance.

In other words, a metaphor cannot be translated word by word; consider these examples:

  • He's a couch potato.
  • John's suggestion was only a Band-Aid.
  • Love is the wild card of existence.
  • America is like Lunchables.
  • Cervical lymph node is a garbage dump.

I would argue that simply translating the words in these metaphors into languages other than English would not make them comprehensible. The key words require special knowledge—they can be explained, but they cannot simply be translated. Some years ago (Kaplan, Touchstone, & Hagstrom, 1995), a group of my students and I looked at the use of translation of banking procedures from English into Mexican Spanish by Los Angeles banks; it was a disaster, in part because banking terminology in the two languages is not identical, but more importantly because the clientele the banks were attempting to reach had little or no familiarity with banking in general.

In sum, as Enkvist puts it, textual fit is critical, and textual fit depends at least in part on metaphors and other linguistic devices rarely addressed in ESL classes. That being so, courses intended to train insipient teacher should, perhaps, be revised so that these matters could in fact be addressed, thereby increasing the probability of success.


Atkinson, D. (1999). Scientific discourse in sociohistorical context: The philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1675–1975. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Enkvist, N. E. (1997). Why we need contrastive rhetoric. Alternation, 4(1), 188–206.

Gal, S., & Irvine, J. T. (1995). The boundaries of languages and disciplines: How ideologies construct difference. Social Research, 62, 967–1001.

Kaplan, R. B. (2001). English—The accidental language of science? In U. Ammon (Ed.), The dominance of English as a language of science: Effects on other language communities (pp. 3–28). Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter.

Kaplan, R. B., Touchstone, E. E., & Hagstrom, C. L. (1995). Image and reality: Banking in Los Angeles. Text, 15, 427–457.

Műhlhȁusler, P. (2003). Language of environment, environment of language: A course in ecolinguistics. London, England: Battlebridge.

Robertson, D. S. (1998). The new renaissance: Computers and the next level of civilization. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Schȍn, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. London, England: Temple Smith.

Swales, J. M. (2000). Languages for specific purposes. In W. Grabe et al. (Eds.), Annual review of applied linguistics: Vol. 20. Applied linguistics as an emerging discipline (pp. 59–76). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Young, R. M. (1993). Darwin's metaphor and the philosophy of science. Science as Culture, 3, 375–403.

These remarks are largely based on Michael Erard, "Escaping One's Own Shadow"; Brendon Larson, Metaphors for Environmental Sustainability: Redefining our Relationship With Nature; and an unpublished review of a book proposal from a major publisher.

Robert Kaplan is Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Southern California. He has authored over 100 articles in the field of language learning, was the founding editor of the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, and served as the President of TESOL (1989-1990) and AAAL (1993-1994). He can be reached at:


Alternative Learning Strategies

A social action model of culture, which I derive from the sociology of Max Weber (e.g., 1922/1964), says that we all have significant experience engaging with and constructing culture every day. We can carry this with us to make sense of, engage with, and find ourselves when we travel from one culture to another. This presents a number of possibilities for the learning and teaching of English in its relationship with cultural content. Sometimes language learners get anxious because they think there is a conflict between their own culture and an expression in English. This idea of incompatible cultures in fact restricts creativity and should not be encouraged. Teachers can turn this into a learning opportunity. They can encourage language learners to explore their existing cultural experience and to find potentials for creative negotiation with the new cultural content.

As learning aims, when encountering cultural content in English, language learners should be able to

  • see relationships between their own life and what they find in the textbook,
  • appreciate the complexity and fluidity of their own society and language in order to understand better the nature of English,
  • use their existing experience to take ownership and stamp their identities on English,
  • understand that they can be creative with cultural difference and strangeness without losing identity.

Through this process of connecting the cultural content of English with their own lives, language learners should be able to

  • gain an understanding of the negotiable and creative nature of culture,
  • realise that English also has the capacity to express different cultural realities,
  • realise that they can use English without the specific forms that they find in the textbook.

There are also broader educational aims that might be achieved through this approach. These concern the combating of prejudice in multicultural societies and in a globalised world; understanding the complex and political relationship between English, culture, and the world; being an intercultural global citizen; being able to position oneself in relation to ideologies and discourses; and generally, acquiring a sociological imagination in claiming ownership of English.

When carrying out workshops with teachers on the topic of this article, there have been several useful points of discussion which have served to carry forward the discussion and further develop ideas.

Discussion 1: Does English really belong to one or two national cultures? Is this really how it is?

One way of addressing this question is to look at English used in literature far away from Britain and the United States. One excellent example is the novels of the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her novel Americanah (2013) talks all about English and culture, and also all about blogging. In Half a Yellow Sun (2007, p. 423), we hear the greeting “How did you come out this morning?” This is beautiful, perfectly grammatically correct English. It might never have been heard in the classroom before, but its meaning is clear and indeed poetic. With a group of Egyptian teachers we explored other possible greetings that language learners might bring from their own languages and communities, and to what extent they might be carried successfully into English. The measure of success had something to do with intelligibility and elegance. This led to an interrogation of the place of so-called native speaker models of English and a re-evaluation of authenticity, following Widdowson’s (1979:, p. 165) early definition as meaningful to the language learner rather than the expected “unsimplified” native speaker of English. When considering why so many people take the default position that learning English means learning British or American English, several of the teachers said that this came from the national and international media.

Discussion 2: Exploring our own cultural backgrounds

With a group of Mexican teachers we considered this classroom activity:

Recall an example in your own society when you faced a cultural conflict to do with family, friends, the workplace, neighbours—perhaps also small languages or discourses.

  • How did you, deal with this—constructing Self and Other, constructing discourses?
  • Was there any loss or expansion, or stamping of cultural identity?
  • Was there any cultural innovation?
  • In what sense was there small culture formation on the go?

The teachers had no difficulty with recalling examples from their lives to fit these points. The example of visiting the family next door as children seemed very familiar. The point here is that teachers need to imagine their own experiences which will then enable them to ask similar questions of language learners.

An example of this (Holliday, 2013, p. 19) is when someone, whom we can call Sarah, finds it strange that the children in the family next door call their parents by their given names. Sarah’s first response is that “they are less polite than we are” and that because “the children don’t use a respectful form of address; they don’t value politeness like we do.” However, these are the sorts of easy answers that are produced by and give rise to prejudice, especially where polarised values are referred to. This type of response also mirrors language learners thinking that English represents a culture which is incompatible to theirs. The preferred response, which teachers should encourage, is to look more deeply and see that there are a large variety of ways of showing respect, and that in this particular family the parents may approve of being called by their given names and do see it as respectful. This way of looking more deeply at the behaviour of the family enables Sarah to learn how the small culture of the family operates. At the same time, she is able to appreciate this unfamiliar cultural practice of using given names without having to adopt the practice herself. This also helps Sarah interact with the family positively but on her own terms. This is a positive negotiation of Self and Other which we all carry out on a daily basis. Sarah’s response also involves her forming her own small culture with the family—small culture formation “on the go.” It also places everyday cultural travel into new and unfamiliar settings. All of this can be applied to engaging with new cultural domains in language learning without losing one’s own cultural identity.

Discussion 3: Why some people exaggerate their culture

It is easy for language learners, and also teachers, to say, “In my culture we don’t do this.” So here is another activity to look critically at this:

Recall a time when you exaggerated your own culture to make a point.

  • In what ways did your construction distort the true reality of things?
  • Why did you do it?
  • Do you believe other people (language learners, teachers, textbook authors) when they do it?

The answer to the final question has often been a definite no, which indicates to me that once the question is posed this answer is an almost definite. If the question is never posed, then the dominant essentialist discourse of culture and language will undoubtedly prevail. This raises an important point regarding carrying out research about culture and English (Holliday, 2014a). People need to be asked questions in a certain way to take their attention away from ready-made scripts and easy answers and to consider deeper alternatives.

Discussion 4: Making connections with home life

Something else for teachers to think about, to help students think more creatively about culture, is the following:

Devise an activity which involves language learners collecting data about their home life that helps with the learning of English.

  • How would you help them make the connection?
  • What exactly would you ask them to do?
  • How would they be asked to report?

This activity type is at the core of the nonessentialist social action approach to teaching English related to cultural context. It is important to note that while language learners have rich experience which they can make use of, they might not realise this. This is especially the case because of all the forces from society and the educational establishment which act against this awareness. This task and its related questions emphasise the criticality of how the issue of cultural experience should be approached. If teachers simply ask language learners about how their culture relates to English, they may invite responses similar to those of Beata—that their culture is simply different to that of English. Such responses would be polarised, essentialist, and counterproductive. This is because the essentialist discourse of English and culture is so powerful. Teachers therefore need to think very carefully about how to ask questions about culture which invite language learners to avoid easy answers and enter into a more creative and exhilarating exploration.


Adichie, C. N. (2007). Half of a yellow sun. London, England: HarperCollins.

Adichie, C. N. (2013). Americanah. London, England: HarperCollins.

Holliday, A. R. (2013). Understanding intercultural communication: Negotiating a grammar of culture. London, England: Routledge.

Holliday, A. R. (2014a). Researching English and culture and similar topics in ELT. EFL Journal, 5(1), 1–15.

Holliday, A. R. (2014b). Using existing cultural experience to stamp identity on English. Retrieved from

Weber, M. (1964). The theory of social and economic organisation. New York, NY: Free Press. (Original work published 1922)

Widdowson, H. G. (1979). Explorations in applied linguistics. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Dr. Adrian Holliday is professor of applied linguistics at Canterbury Christ Church University, in England. He specialises in intercultural communication, qualitative research methods, and the sociology of TESOL.



If we hope to help students gain awareness of cultural differences, we need to be sure that, as teachers, we are aware of how our own culture influences us. Cultural attitudes, belief systems, and values color the way that we look at the world and interact with it. For example, many TESOL members live and work in the United States or were raised in that culture. A few of the values identified as commonly exhibited by those living in the United States include the following:

  • directness and assertiveness
  • cooperation and fair play
  • informality
  • an orientation to action
  • a strong sense of individualism as opposed to group orientation
  • the importance of individual freedom and self-reliance
  • the importance of privacy (Althen & Bennett, 2011; Datesman, Crandall, & Kearney, 2014)

If, as teachers, we are aware of the values that we carry as members of a particular culture, this will be helpful as we try to help others understand cultural differences.

In addition, it can be valuable to express directly to students what types of expectations we have for them in the classroom. What do we mean when we talk about a “good” student? Depending on the context, this might mean making explicit our ideas of what constitutes appropriate classroom behavior. What expectations do we have of silence and interaction? Should a good student volunteer her or his knowledge or wait to be called on? Should a student make eye contact with an authority figure, or is this considered disrespectful? And what is our concept of academic integrity? When is it acceptable to work collaboratively with others, and when must a student's work be done only by that individual? What are the expectations about making clear when ideas have been taken from other sources? As teachers, when we find ourselves in the role of guiding students into a new culture, we need to make the expectations very clear.


Since many younger learners may not have the vocabulary to express sophisticated concepts of culture and identity, visual aids and media can be effective tools. You can surround students with stimuli from the culture you are studying using posters, drawings, photographs, bulletin boards, or realia. If possible, decorate your classroom with items that relate to the culture you are studying. Consider bringing in newspapers, magazines, food, songs, or appropriate clips from TV shows or films.

One key aspect of culture is an awareness of personal identity. You can create an assignment in which you ask young learners to create a collage to represent their personal identities (Wintergerst & McVeigh, 2011). Begin by creating a model of the type of collage that you would like to see students produce. Well in advance of the activity, ask the class to bring in a variety of magazines and newspapers with photographs. Tell students the project is to make a collage that represents their personal identity. They should use information they feel represents who they are, their interests, and their hopes. Point out that they can use photos, bits of text, their own drawing or writing—anything that helps portray how they see themselves. Completed collages can be displayed in the classroom for discussion. With middle school and high school students with relevant skills, consider making digital versions of collages.


One of the most valuable ways to gain intercultural insight is to communicate directly with people of other cultures. Earlier generations of teachers helped students engage directly with those in other cultures through pen pal programs. A teacher would find a collaborator at another school, perhaps in another country, and then the two teachers would connect students with others and have them write back and forth about a variety of topics. We used to do this through the mail with letters and stamps and a 2-week turnaround time. Then e-mail came along, and suddenly communication could take place much faster.

Today’s technologies make the possibilities of interacting directly with those of other cultures much easier. A wonderful example of how this can work is the Global Classroom Project. This group of teachers have classes and interests that span many age groups and disciplines. In the most recent year, more than 400 teachers from 42 countries engaged in more than 17 different projects. The programs use a variety of technology tools, including well-known social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter along with recording programs such as VoiceThread, classroom management systems such as Edmodo, and real-time audio-video communication through Skype or Google Hangouts.

The overall goals of the project include a desire to facilitate global conversations between teachers and students and to build community between diverse groups. The projects span the K–12 age groups. The organizers aim for students to

  • have regular, authentic opportunities to talk, share, learn, and collaborate with their classmates and other students around the world;
  • share a little about their lives, interests, culture, school, and learning with children around the world, exploring what we have in common and what makes us different;
  • develop a stronger sense of identity as individuals and as global citizens;
  • be inspired and motivated to practice their English language skills in authentic, natural, and spontaneous ways;
  • learn and practice new communication, literacy, collaborative, and information and communication technology skills through their direct involvement in global projects as participants and experts.

For these projects to work, participating teachers need to take some time to familiarize themselves with the technology and to be sure that the project is aligned with the goals of their teaching.

One popular project is Mystery Location. In it students communicate with another class in another part of the world; however, the location of the other classroom is concealed. Students need to ask questions and use logical skills to discover the location of the other class. The final piece of the activity involves a Skype session in which the two classes query each other in an attempt to establish their identities and to learn more about their locations and cultures.

Other projects are more traditional in nature, though they make use of electronic resources. These include an Edmodo Pen Pal Project and a Global Digital Scrapbook Project, in which participants work with those in other parts of the world to construct collaborative texts, post original writing, and receive feedback. Other examples of projects include a global filmmaking challenge and, on a less technological note, an exchange of origami cranes with messages of peace.

Of course, individual teachers could set up intercultural communication projects like this on their own, but collaboration provides a number of advantages. First, there is a community of like-minded teachers with whom to share ideas. Second, there is a built-in pool of potential collaborators with whom to team up. Finally, the project ideas are headed up by experienced teachers who have been through the process before and learned from their mistakes. They can point out potential pitfalls and help you avoid them if it is the first time you have engaged in this type of collaboration.


Ultimately, while the immediate goal of our teaching may be to improve students’ language skills and abilities, we hope to do more.

Somewhere in those deep recesses of your mind and emotion you are guided by a sense of mission, of purpose, and of dedication to a profession in which you believe you can make a difference. Your sense of social responsibility directs you to be an agent for change. You’re driven by convictions about what this world should look like, how its people should behave, how its governments should control that behavior, and how its inhabitants should be partners in the stewardship of the planet. (Brown, 2007, p. 512)

By helping young learners engage in intercultural communication with those who are different from them, we can take some solid initial steps toward transforming the world into a more peaceful place for all.


Althen, G., & Bennett, J. (2011). American ways: A cultural guide to the United States (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Intercultural Press.

Brown, H. D. (2007). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy (3rd ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Datesman, M. K., Crandall, J., & Kearny, E. N. (2014). American ways: An introduction to American culture (4th ed.). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Wintergerst, A. C., & McVeigh, J. (2011). Tips for teaching culture: Practical approaches to intercultural communication. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Joe McVeigh is co-author of two books in the Q: Skills for Success series from Oxford University Press and of Tips for Teaching Culture: Practical Approaches to Intercultural Communication from Pearson. He works as an author and independent consultant, speaking at conferences and providing advice to intensive English programs. He is based in Middlebury, Vermont, U.S.A. You can follow him on Twitter @JoeMcVeigh, visit his website:; or email him at:


Bonnie Norton

Espen Stranger-Johannessen

While African children’s stories have been collected and printed for many years, the African Storybook Project (ASP) contains a number of new features that places this project in a unique position to boost education in Africa through a strong foundation of mother tongue literacy as well as support for transition to English as the medium of instruction in later years. At the same time, the project raises interesting questions for research and theory, particularly with regard to intercultural identity. While Norton (2013) argues that every time learners speak, read, or write, they are engaged in identity construction and negotiation, de Fina (2013) focuses on storytelling as cultural practice: “The analysis of storytelling as a practice embedded within other practices provides important insights on processes of identity construction and more generally on the life of communities” (p. 154). This brief article provides an introduction to an innovative project and discusses some of the challenges and opportunities associated with using digital stories to promote multilingual literacy in culturally diverse African communities. A 10-minute YouTube video gives a flavor of the diverse stakeholders in the project.

The African Storybook Project

The ASP was initiated by the South African Institute for Distance Education and consists of an online repository for traditional and contemporary multilingual African stories that allows users to download, translate, adapt, and upload stories, not just download static files. The scarcity of appropriate reading materials in African schools is the major driving force behind the ASP, which is made possible by advances in digital technology, especially the Internet and Web 2.0 technology that allows user interaction. The stories are available in both African languages and English, and can be displayed on electronic devices such as cell phones or projected on a white wall or board. Desktop publishing and low-cost photocopying and printing also facilitate the making of inexpensive booklets. The ASP thus addresses one of the top priorities of the Millennium Development Goals and Education for All: universal primary education for young learners. In doing so, the project seeks to address the multiple educational challenges facing young learners in sub-Saharan Africa. As noted in the 2013/2014 Education for All Global Monitoring Report (UNESCO, 2014):

  • Nearly 30 million children are out of school.
  • Over a third of children did not reach Grade 4.
  • Over half of children who reached Grade 4 are not learning the basics in reading.
  • 40% of children under the age of 15 cannot read a sentence.
  • In some of the poorest countries, almost no young women completed lower secondary school.

The ASP and Language

At the core of education in Africa lies the question of language, particularly the relationship between the mother tongue and English (in anglophone Africa), especially when and how to transition to English (Norton, in press; Trudell, 2013). In the words of Romaine (2013, p. 6), language “is the pivot on which education and therefore on which all development depends.” Most African countries are multilingual, and there are inadequate educational materials and teacher training to meet curricular demands. The shortage of textbooks and reading materials in schools is a major challenge, since reading practice is paramount to developing literacy. Particularly detrimental is the dire lack of materials in local languages for lower primary schools that are required to provide students with foundational reading skills and make possible the transition to English/French usually halfway through, or at the end of, primary school.

ASP in Practice

Schools, libraries, and other learning institutions in 12 urban and rural sites across South Africa, Lesotho, Kenya, and Uganda are serving as ASP pilot sites to gain knowledge about how teachers, young learners, and others respond to and use the ASP stories. The pilot sites have been equipped with battery-driven, handheld projectors, and some with printed booklets, and teachers and other users are being trained to navigate the website and use the stories. These 12 sites are providing invaluable feedback on the merits and challenges of using the website and the stories. Teachers’ lack of familiarity with digital devices and the Internet, and limited experience with stories using written local language in lower primary school, represent both challenges and possibilities for the ASP. More research is needed to better understand how teachers navigate these new resources and how they can support the curriculum and build literacy in students’ local language as well as transition to English as a medium of instruction.

ASP and Research

ASP has attracted great interest from practitioners and scholars, and a presentation by Norton, the project’s research advisor, “Questions for Research,” is now available on YouTube. A key question is how the possibility of participation, such as through creation, translation, and adaptation, can contribute to teachers’ and students’ use and appreciation of digital stories. To what extent does a website like the ASP’s create a meaningful space for teachers and students to engage with stories? What shifts of identity take place as teachers and students negotiate new educational practices? The role of technology, including technical skills, is related to this question, but as research has shown, successful technology implementation cannot be reduced to mastery of the technical skills alone (Warschauer, 2004).

Another challenging issue is that of content. In a multi-community, multi-country project, what constitutes appropriate content for children’s reading? This question addresses issues of identity, culture, and ownership. Many of the ASP stories come from rural communities, and the contexts for these stories are specific to the communities from which they arise. They are also designed for oral storytelling. If the project intends to use them as illustrated read-alone books for early reading, not only in the original context, but also for children in widely diverse contexts, how should they be translated into other languages, for other communities? Of central interest is how stories “travel” across both time and space. The intercultural identity issues that arise are profound.

ASP Research, Practice, and Policy for the Future

The novelty of the ASP invites diverse questions for research, practice, and policy. The opportunity to choose stories, and the encouragement to create, adapt, write, and translate stories, might engender a sense of ownership that will promote sustainability of the project. Previous research has provided examples of teachers creating meaningful and personally relevant texts with students in well-resourced countries (e.g., Cummins & Early, 2011), but in Africa such opportunities are few. Both learners and teachers may benefit from having greater ownership of meaning-making practices, with concomitant impact on teacher identities and investments. As Abiria, Early, and Kendrick (2013) have noted, if teachers are active participants in educational change, there is greater impact on classroom practices.

Nevertheless, for many communities across Africa, there is sometimes ambivalence toward the teaching of the mother tongue, given concerns that it will compromise efforts to promote literacy in the official language (Tembe & Norton, 2008). This position is prevalent, despite the large and persuasive body of research that suggests that literacy is best achieved in the mother tongue and that the learning of a second language is in fact enhanced if there is prior literacy development in the mother tongue (Cummins, 2001). The role of mother tongue literacy as a scaffold for additional language learning should be better communicated to parents, and the multilingual resources that many children bring to school should be more effectively harnessed. The validation of intercultural identity is the potential and promise of the African Storybook Project.


Abiria, D. M., Early, M., & Kendrick, M. (2013). Plurilingual pedagogical practice in a policy-constrained context: A northern Ugandan case study. TESOL Quarterly, 47, 567–590. doi:10.1002/tesq.119

Cummins, J. (2001). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: California Association for Bilingual Education.

Cummins, J., & Early, M. (2011). Identity texts: The collaborative creation of power in multilingual schools. Stoke-on-Trent, England: Trentham Books.

de Fina, A. (2013). Narrative as practices. Negotiating identities through storytelling. In G. Barkhuizen (Ed.), Narrative research in applied linguistics (pp. 154–175). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Norton, B. (2013). Identity and language learning: Extending the conversation (2nd ed.). Bristol, England: Multilingual Matters.

Norton, B. (in press). The Millennium Development Goals and multilingual literacy in African communities. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development.

Romaine, S. (2013). Keeping the promise of the Millennium Development Goals: Why language matters. Applied Linguistics Review, 4(1), 1–21. doi:10.1515/applirev-2013-0001

Tembe, J., & Norton, B. (2008). Promoting local languages in Ugandan primary schools: The community as stakeholder. Canadian Modern Language Review/La Revue Canadienne Des Langues Vivantes, 65(1), 33–60.

Trudell, B. (2013). Early grade literacy in African schools: Lessons learned. In H. McIlwraith (Ed.), Multilingual education in Africa: Lessons from the Juba language-in-education conference (pp. 155–161). London, England: British Council. Retrieved from

UNESCO. (2014). Education for All global monitoring report: Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all. Retrieved from

Warschauer, M. (2004). Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Espen Stranger-Johannessen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Language and Literacy Education, University of British Columbia. He is currently doing field work on digital storytelling and the African Storybook Project in Uganda.

Bonny Norton is a professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education, University of British Columbia, and research advisor of the African Storybook Project. Her website can be found at


Co-speech Gestures

Let me begin by explaining what I mean by co-speech or spontaneous gestures because many times when people think of gestures, they think of culturally specific gestures, emblems, whose form and meaning differ from culture to culture, such as the thumbs up gesture. These are one type of gesture, and as we will see they are important for English language teaching, or for that matter any language teaching, but they are not the type of gesture that I mean when I refer to co-speech gestures. Co-speech gestures are also not speech-linked gestures, that is, gestures that occur with speech but are not synchronous with it and that fill a speech gap, a grammatical slot in the sentence (Stam, 2013).

Co-speech gestures occur only during speech, particularly with elements of high communicative dynamism (i.e., new, focused, or contrastive information) and are phonologically, pragmatically, and semantically synchronous with speech. Together, co-speech gestures and speech express two aspects of thought, the verbal (speech) and the imagistic (gesture), and complement each other. They arise from the same underlying mental process and form a single, integrated dynamic system in which thought, language, and gesture develop over time and influence each other (McNeill, 2005).

Co-speech gestures provide information about second language learners’ thinking and actual proficiency in the second language (L2) that speech alone does not. For example, one area that has been investigated is thinking for speaking, the thinking that occurs online at the moment of speaking. Slobin (1991) has proposed that in first language (L1) acquisition, children learn a particular pattern of thinking, and Stam (1998) has argued that in L2 acquisition learners often need to learn a different pattern of thinking for speaking. This is particularly true for Spanish learners of English because cross-linguistic research on motion events has demonstrated that Spanish speakers and English speakers have different patterns of thinking for speaking about motion linguistically and gesturally. Looking at Spanish-speaking English language learners’ speech and gesture in the expression of motion events, Stam (2008) found that learners could produce grammatically correct utterances in their L2 English, but their gestures indicated that they were not thinking for speaking in English. Rather, the gestures indicated that the learners' thinking for speaking was somewhere between their L1 Spanish and their L2 English. This would not have been discernible on the basis of speech alone.

Importance of Gesture in Understanding Second Language Acquisition and in Teaching Language

When we interact in a language, we not only speak but we gesture. This applies to interacting in our first language as well as our second language. To not take gesture into account in looking at second language acquisition and language teaching is to ignore an integral part of language and interaction. Over the past 30 to 40 years as this has become apparent, a growing number of scholars and language teachers have stressed the importance of both gesture and nonverbal communication in second language and foreign language teaching and research. These researchers and teachers have examined both learners’ gestures and teachers’ gestures in relation to a number of topics (e.g., communicative competence and use of emblems, assessment, thinking for speaking, type and function of gesture, classroom management, the facilitative function of gesture for comprehension and learning; see Stam, 2013, for a more detailed discussion). And the message is clear. Gestures are important in understanding second language acquisition, learners’ proficiency, and teaching a language.

Let’s look at communicative competence and emblems, the culturally specific gestures that differ from culture to culture. To function well in another language-culture, one needs to know what the emblems are and when it is appropriate to use them. Emblems can and should be taught in the English language classroom. In addition, as members of a language-culture, we often use emblems ourselves without thinking about them. Therefore, English language teachers also need to be aware of their own use of emblems so that they do not confuse students who may not yet understand them.

Research on gesture and assessment has shown that learners who gesture more like native speakers of the target language-culture are rated higher on oral proficiency than those who do not, regardless of the learners’ grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.

Several studies have investigated whether second language learners’ thinking for speaking patterns about motion change with increased L2 proficiency by using gesture to ascertain if the learners have acquired the L2 conceptualization. These studies provide an in-depth view of how the learners are thinking by demonstrating that the timing of the L2 learners’ gestures indicates whether they are thinking in their L1, L2, or a combination of the two systems. In addition, some of these studies have demonstrated that the L1 speech and gesture of L2 learners is affected by the L2, indicating that cross-linguistic transfer is bidirectional.

The type and function of gestures used by second language learners have been examined in terms of lexical retrieval, reference, communication strategy, self-regulation, and naturalistic acquisition of L2 gestures. All of these studies shed light on the L2 acquisition process and how learners use gesture in their L2 interactions. This is information that would be missed by looking at only speech.

Gestures are important in terms of not just learners, but also teachers. Teachers’ gestures have been explored in terms of their role in classroom management, learners’ perceptions of them, how they can facilitate comprehension, and how they change when addressing learners with different levels of proficiency. In addition, studies investigating the teaching of vocabulary with gestures have shown that having learners repeat the teachers’ gestures improves students’ learning and retention of vocabulary more than just watching the teacher gesture (see Stam, 2013).


As the growing body of research on gesture in second language acquisition indicates, gesture is an important part of interaction and language teaching. It should not be ignored. It can provide us with information about learners’ proficiency and their thinking. Its use by English language teachers can facilitate learning.

When we think of language as only speech and do not take gesture into account, we view only one aspect of language, the verbal aspect. We ignore the imagistic aspect. As David McNeill (2012) pointed out in How Language Began: Gesture and Speech in Human Evolution,

language is more than . . . lexicosyntactic forms. . . . . It is also imagery. This imagery is in gesture, and is inseparable from language. . . . Taking seriously that language includes gesture as an integral component changes the look of everything. We see language in a new way, as a dynamic “language-as-action-and-being” phenomenon, not replacing but joining the traditional static (synchronic) “language-as-object” conception that has guided linguistics for more than a century. (p. xi)

Aren’t interaction and teaching based on action, using language? Isn’t it time to change our view about language and embrace both its dynamic nature as well as its synchronic one?

Chomsky revolutionized linguistics and challenged the then prevailing view of behaviorism by suggesting that humans had an innate ability to acquire language. Today, we take this perspective for granted. McNeill is challenging our beliefs about the nature of language: that it is more than just a synchronic object, that it also encompasses imagery and action, that it consists of both speech and gesture. An increasing number of second language researchers have adopted McNeill’s perspective and have advocated that gesture be included in second language acquisition research and language teaching. What about you—are you ready for a new paradigm in linguistics?


McNeill, D. (2005). Gesture and thought. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

McNeill, D. (2012). How language began: Gesture and speech in human evolution. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Slobin, D. I. (1991). Learning to think for speaking: Native language, cognition, and rhetorical style. Pragmatics, 1, 7–26.

Stam, G. (1998). Changes in patterns of thinking about motion with L2 acquisition. In S. Santi, I. Guaïtella, C. Cavé, & G. Konopczynski (Eds.), Oralité et gestualité: Communication multimodale, interaction (pp. 615–619). Paris, France: L'Harmattan.

Stam, G. (2008). What gestures reveal about second language acquisition. In S. McCafferty & G. Stam (Eds.), Gesture: Second language acquisition and classroom research (pp. 231–255). New York, NY: Routledge.

Stam, G. (2013). Second language acquisition and gesture. In C. A. Chapelle (Ed.), The encyclopedia of applied linguistics. Oxford, England: Blackwell. doi:10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal1049

Gale Stam, PhD, is professor of psychology at National Louis University, in Chicago, Illinois. Her research interests include language and culture, language and cognition, gesture, and first language and second language acquisition. She has published articles on changes in thinking for speaking, the importance of looking at gesture in second language (L2) acquisition, gesture and lexical retrieval in an L2, and language teachers’ gestures. She is a member of editorial boards of the journals Gesture and Language and Sociocultural Theory and co-editor of two volumes on speech and gesture—Gesture: Second Language Acquisition and Classroom Research (Routledge, 2008) and Integrating Gestures: The Interdisciplinary Nature of Gesture (John Benjamins, 2011).


The Story of Competence

The word competence was first used in linguistics by Chomsky (1965) to distinguish between knowledge of language in the abstract (competence) and the way in which knowledge is realized in the production and interpretation of actual utterances (performance). Chomsky’s idea of competence as knowledge of language apart from its use was criticized by Hymes (1972), who countered that not only does competence refer to the individual’s knowledge of the forms and structures of language, but it also extends to how the individual uses language in actual social situations. Hymes described four kinds of knowledge that speakers use in social situations: what is possible to do with language, what is feasible, what is appropriate, and what is actually done. This combination of knowledge and use Hymes called communicative competence, which many people contrasted with Chomsky’s theory, and the latter came to be known as linguistic competence.

Hymes’s ideas were the basis for an applied linguistic theory of communicative competence put forward by Canale and Swain (1980), who related linguistic acts in social situations to underlying knowledge. In applied linguistics, language testing, and language teaching, communicative competence was thought of as a characteristic of a single individual, a complex construct composed of several component parts that differentiated one individual from others.

Interactional competence (IC) builds on the theories of competence that preceded it, but it is a very different notion from communicative competence. Kramsch (1986) wrote that IC presupposes “a shared internal context or ‘sphere of inter-subjectivity” (pg. 367) and this is what clearly distinguishes IC from previous theories of competence.

Young (2011) listed the following component parts of IC:

  • Identity resources
    • Participation framework: the identities of all participants in an interaction, present or not, official or unofficial, ratified or unratified, and their footing or identities in the interaction
  • Linguistic resources
    • Register: the features of pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar that typify a practice
    • Modes of meaning: the ways in which participants construct interpersonal, experiential, and textual meanings in a practice
  • Interactional resources
    • Speech acts: the selection of acts in a practice and their sequential organization:
    • Turn-taking: how participants select the next speaker and how participants know when to end one turn and when to begin the next
    • Repair: the ways in which participants respond to interactional trouble in a practice
    • Boundaries: the opening and closing acts of a practice that serve to distinguish a given practice from adjacent talk

IC involves knowledge and employment of these resources in social contexts. However, the fundamental difference between IC and communicative competence is that an individual’s knowledge and employment of these resources is contingent on what other participants do; that is, IC is distributed across participants and varies across different interactional practices. And the most fundamental difference between interactional and communicative competence is that IC is not what a person knows, it is what a person does together with others in specific contexts.

Teaching Interactional Competence

Teaching IC might involve two moments. In the first, learners are guided through conscious, systematic study of the practice, in which they mindfully abstract, reflect on, and speculate about the sociocultural context of the practice and the identity, linguistic, and interactional resources that participants employ in the practice. In the second moment, learners are guided through participation in the practice by more experienced participants. There is considerable support for a pedagogy of conscious and systematic study of interaction in the work of the Soviet psychologist Gal’perin and his theory of concept-based instruction. The new practice to be learned is first brought to the learner’s attention, not in small stages but as a meaningful whole from the very beginning of instruction.

Concept-Based Instruction

One example of concept-based instruction is the curriculum designed by Thorne, Reinhardt, and Golombek (2008) to help international teaching assistants (ITAs) at a U.S. university develop interactional skills in office hours. The practice they taught was office-hour interaction between an ITA and an undergraduate student, and they focused on how ITAs give directions to students. For the first part of their program, ITAs in training engaged in discussion and activities that centered on the relation between context and the resources participants employ in order to construct, reproduce, or resist a particular practice. They were then exposed to transcriptions of (a) expert office-hour interactions and (b) office-hour interactions led by ITAs. They were asked to reflect on the configuration of identity, verbal, nonverbal, and interactional resources that are employed by TAs in giving directions to students by discussing four questions about the transcriptions.

  1. Who are the participants? What do you think their relationship is?
  2. Where do you think the session could be taking place?
  3. What is the teacher trying to get the student to do?
  4. What language does the teacher use to accomplish this?

In the next step, Thorne et al. (2008) followed Gal’perin’s suggestion to provide a materialization that represents connections between the contextual features of the practice and the verbal resources that participants employ to construct it. The schema for complete orienting basis of action (SCOBA) that Thorne et al. developed is represented in Figure 1 to show visually the relationship between context in office hours and an ITA’s choice of pronoun to direct a student’s action.

Figure 1. SCOBA of Pronoun Choice in ITA Office-Hour Directives (click to enlarge)

Source: Thorne et al. (2008).

The ITAs used this materialization individually to mediate cognitive connections between context and language form, which they then discussed verbally among themselves. The final phase of the concept-based curriculum was an explicit comparison, which the trainers provide, of pronoun use in directives in the expert corpus and the ITA learner corpus (see Table 1). ITA trainees were then asked to discuss the differences between directives in the expert corpus and directives in the ITA corpus and offer their explanations for the differences.

Table 1. Comparison of Pronoun Use in Directives in the Expert Corpus and the ITA Learner Corpus

Directive construction word/phrase

ITA learner corpus

Rate per 10k

Expert corpus

Rate per 10k

Ratio of over/underuse

I suggest OR my suggestion






You should


















I would





Total words



Source: Thorne et al. (2008).

The advantage that I see of a concept-based approach to instruction is that a conceptual analysis of a specific practice encourages portability of the same concepts to other practices in the domain of academic discourse, whereas in bottom-up or inductive learning, learners are required to infer general principles from multiple examples and they must identify a new exemplar as similar to ones that they have already met. In contrast, a top-down concept-based approach encourages learners to develop a concept, or theory, of the domain of instruction. This concept can then mediate their understanding of other practices in the same domain. In other words, the ITAs experiencing Thorne et al.’s (2008) concept-based curriculum not only learn directives in university office hours but can also apply their theoretical knowledge to other practices in other interactional practices at U.S. universities.


Interactional competence can be seen as a set of identity, linguistic, and interactional resources that are distributed among participants in a specific situation or discursive practice. The resources include knowledge of the relationships between the forms of talk chosen by participants and the social contexts in which they are used. But more than individual knowledge, IC is the construction of a shared mental context through the collaboration of all interactional partners. And through concept-based instruction, learners come to understand that the context of an interaction includes the social, institutional, political, and historical circumstances that extend beyond the horizon of a single interaction.

Learners’ development in IC has been reported in longitudinal studies in which learners’ contributions to discursive practices have been compared over time. Systematic study by learners of the details of interaction in specific discursive practices may benefit development of interactional competence, but we await empirical studies to test that claim.

In the assessment of interactional competence, several authors have claimed that a close analysis needs to be made of the identity, linguistic, and interactional resources employed by participants in an assessment practice. This interactional architecture of the test may then be compared with discursive practices outside the testing room in which the learner wishes to participate. If the configuration of resources in the two practices is similar, then an argument can be made to support the generalization of an individual’s test result because the testee can redeploy resources from one practice to another. Assessing interactional competence is challenging, however, because IC is locally contingent and situationally specific, while assessment often requires comparing language practices across contexts. Future work in the learning, teaching, and assessment of interactional competence may resolve this tension.


Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics, 1(1), 1–47.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hymes, D. (1972). On communicative competence. In J. B. Pride & J. Holmes (Eds.), Sociolinguistics: Selected readings (pp. 269–293). Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.

Kramsch, C. (1986). From language proficiency to interactional competence. Modern Language Journal, 70, 366–372.

Thorne, S. L., Reinhardt, J., & Golombek, P. (2008). Mediation as objectification in the development of professional academic discourse: A corpus-informed curricular innovation. In J. P. Lantolf & M. E. Poehner (Eds.), Sociocultural theory and the teaching of second languages (pp. 256–284). London, England: Equinox.

Young, R. F. (2011). Interactional competence in language learning, teaching, and testing. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (Vol. 2, pp. 426–443). New York, NY: Routledge.

Richard F. Young is professor of English linguistics and second language acquisition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His recent books include Language and Interaction andDiscursive Practice in Language Learning and Teaching.



Dear ALISers,

Wondering who is in which leadership position for this year? The following are the current leadership roles and the persons in those positions. If you'd like to get involved, elections for the next round of leaders will be coming soon, so consider this opportunity.

Past Chair: Eli Hinkel
Current Chair: Hayriye Kayi-Aydar
Chair-Elect: Nihat Polat
Newsletter Editors: Jana Moore and Ben White
ALIS Community Manager: Eli Hinkel