Larsen Freeman’s IATEFL 2016 Plenary


In her plenary talk, Larsen Freeman argued that it’s time to replace “input-output metaphors” with “affordances”. The metaphors of input and output belong to a positivist, reductionist  approach to SLA which needs to be replaced by “a new way of understanding” language learning based on Complexity Theory.

Before we look at Larsen Freeman’s new way of understanding, let’s take a quick look at what she objects to by reviewing one current approach to understanding the process of SLA.

Interlanguage and related constructs 

There’s no single, complete and generally agreed-upon theory of SLA, but there’s a widespread view that second language learning is a process whereby learners gradually develop their own autonomous grammatical system with its own internal organising principles. This system is referred to as “interlanguage”.  Note that “interlanguage” is a theoretical construct (not a fact and not a metaphor) which has proved useful in developing a theory of some of the phenomena associated with SLA; the construct itself needs further study and the theory which it’s part of  is incomplete, and possibly false.

Support for the hypothesis of interlanguages comes from observations of U-shaped behaviour in SLA, which indicate that learners’ interlanguage development is not linear. An example of U-shaped behaviour is this:


The example here is from a study in the 70s. Another example comes from morphological development, specifically, the development of English irregular past forms, such as came, went, broke, which are supplanted by rule-governed, but deviant past forms: comed, goed, breaked. In time, these new forms are themselves replaced by the irregular forms that appeared in the initial stage.

This U-shaped learning curve is observed in learning the lexicon, too, as Long (2011) explains. Learners have to master the idiosyncratic nature of words, not just their canonical meaning. While learners encounter a word in a correct context, the word is not simply added to a static cognitive pile of vocabulary items. Instead, they experiment with the word, sometimes using it incorrectly, thus establishing where it works and where it doesn’t. The suggestion is that only by passing through a period of incorrectness, in which the lexicon is used in a variety of ways, can they climb back up the U-shaped curve. To add to the example of feet above, there’s the example of the noun shop. Learners may first encounter the word in a sentence such as “I bought a pastry at the coffee shop yesterday.” Then, they experiment with deviant utterances such as “I am going to the supermarket shop,” correctly associating the word ‘shop’ with a place they can purchase goods, but getting it wrong. By making these incorrect utterances, the learner distinguishes between what is appropriate, because “at each stage of the learning process, the learner outputs a corresponding hypothesis based on the evidence available so far” (Carlucci and Case, 2011).


The re-organisation of new information as learners move along the U-shaped curve is a characteristic of interlanguage development. Associated with this restructuring is the construct of automaticity. Language acquisition can be seen as a complex cognitive skill where, as your skill level in a domain increases, the amount of attention you need to perform generally decreases . The basis of processing approaches to SLA is that we have limited resources when it comes to processing information and so the more we can make the process automatic, the more processing capacity we free up for other work. Active attention requires more mental work, and thus, developing the skill of fluent language use involves making more and more of it automatic, so that no active attention is required. McLaughlin  (1987) compares learning a language to learning to drive a car. Through practice, language skills go  from a ‘controlled process’ in which great attention and conscious effort is needed to an ‘automatic process’.

Automaticity can be said to occur when associative connections between a certain kind of input and output pattern occurs. For instance, in this exchange:

  • Speaker 1: Morning.
  • Speaker 2: Morning. How are you?
  • Speaker 1: Fine, and you?
  • Speaker 2: Fine.

the speakers, in most situations, don’t actively think about what they’re saying. In the same way, second language learners’ learn new language through use of controlled processes, which become automatic, and in turn free up controlled processes which can then be directed to new forms.


There is a further hypothesis that is generally accepted among those working on processing models of SLA, namely that L2 learners pass through developmental sequences on their way to some degree of communicative competence, exhibiting common patterns and features across differences in learners’ age and L1, acquisition context, and instructional approach. Examples of such sequences are found in the well known series of morpheme studies; the four-stage sequence for ESL negation; the six-stage sequence for English relative clauses; and the sequence of question formation in German (see Long, 2015 for a full discussion).

Development of the L2 exhibits plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours. No matter what the learners’ L1 might be, no matter what the order or manner in which target-language structures are presented to them by teachers, learners analyze the input and come up with their own interim grammars, and they master the structures in roughly the same manner and order whether learning in classrooms, on the street, or both. This led Pienemann to formulate his learnability hypothesis and teachability hypothesis: what is processable by students at any time determines what is learnable, and, thereby, what is teachable (Pienemann, 1984, 1989).

All these bits and pieces of an incomplete theory of L2 learning suggest that learners themselves, not their teachers, have most control over their language development. As Long (2011) says:

Students do not – in fact, cannot – learn (as opposed to learn about) target forms and structures on demand, when and how a teacher or a coursebook decree that they should, but only when they are developmentally ready to do so. Instruction can facilitate development, but needs to be provided with respect for, and in harmony with, the learner’s powerful cognitive contribution to the acquisition process.

Let me emphasise that the aim of this psycholinguistic research is to understand how learners deal psychologically with linguistic data from the environment (input) in order to understand and transform the data into competence of the L2. Constructs such as input, intake, noticing, short and long term memory, implicit and explicit learning, interlanguage, output, and so on are used to facilitate the explanation, which takes the form of a number of hypotheses. No “black box” is used as an ad hoc device to rescue the hypotheses. Those who make use of Chomsky’s theoretical construct of an innate Language Acquisition Device in their theories of SLA do so in such a way that their hypotheses can be tested. In any case, it’s how learners interact psychologically with their linguistic environment that interests those involved in interlanguage studies. Other researchers look at how learners interact socially with their linguistic environment, and many theories contain both sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic components.

So there you are. There’s a quick summary of how some scholars try to explain the process of SLA from a psychological perspective. But before we go on, we have to look at the difference between metaphors and theoretical constructs.

Metaphors and Constructs

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them. She’s a tiger. He died in a sea of grief. To say that “input” is a metaphor is to say that it represents something else, and so it does. To say that we should be careful not to mistake “input” for the real thing is well advised. But to say that “input” as used in the way I used it above is a metaphor is quite simply wrong. No scientific theory of anything uses metaphors because, as Gregg (2010) points out

There is no point in conducting the discussion at the level of metaphor; metaphors simply are not the sort of thing one argues over. Indeed, as Fodor and Pylyshyn (1988: 62, footnote 35) say, ‘metaphors … tend to be a license to take one’s claims as something less than serious hypotheses.’ Larsen-Freeman (2006: 590) reflects the same confusion of metaphor and hypothesis: ‘[M]ost researchers in [SLA] have operated with a “developmental ladder” metaphor (Fischer et al., 2003) and under certain assumptions and postulates that follow from it …’ But of course assumptions and postulates do not follow from metaphors; nothing does.

In contrast, theoretical constructs such as input, intake, noticing, automaticity, and so on, define what they stand for, and each of them is used in the service of exploring a hypothesis or a more general theory. All of the theoretical constructs named above, including “input”, are theory-laden: they’re terms used in a special way in the service of the hypothesis or theory they are part of,  and their validity or truth value can be tested by appeals to logic and empirical evidence. Some constructs, for example those used in Krashen’s theory, are found wanting because they’re so poorly-defined as to be circular. Other constructs, for example noticing, are the subject of both logical and empirical scrutiny. None of these constructs is correctly described as a metaphor, and Larsen Freeman’s inability to distinguish between a theoretical construct and a metaphor plagues her incoherent argument.  In short: metaphors are no grounds on which to build any theory, and dealing in metaphors assures that no good theory will result.

Get it? If you do, you’re a step ahead of Larsen Freeman, who seems to have taken several steps backwards since, in 1991, she co-authored, with Mike Long, the splendid An introduction to second language acquisition research.

Let’s now look at what Larsen Freeman said in her plenary address.

The Plenary

Larsen Freeman read this out:


Then, with this slide showing:


she said this:

Do we want to see our students as black boxes, as passive recipients of customised input, where they just sit passively and receive? Is that what we want?

Or is it better to see our learners as actively engaged in their own process of learning and discovering the world finding excitement in learning and working in a collaborative fashion with their classmates and teachers?

It’s time to shift metaphors. Let’s sanitise the language. Join with me; make a pledge never to use “input” and “output”.

You’d be hard put to come up with a more absurd straw man argument; a more trivial treatment of a serious issue. Nevertheless, that’s all Larsen Freeman had to say about it.


With input and output safely consigned to the dustbin of history, Larsen Freeman moved on to her own new way of understanding. She has a “theoretical commitment” to complexity theory, but, she said:

If you don’t want to take my word for it that ecology is a metaphor for now, .. or complexity theory is a theory in keeping with ecology, I refer you to your own Stephen Hawkins, who calls this century “the century of complexity.”

Well, if the great Stephen Hawkins calls this century “the century of complexity”, then  complexity theory must be right, right?

With Hawkins’ impressive endorsement in the bag, and with a video clip of a flock of birds avoiding a predator displayed on her presentation slide, Larsen Freeman began her account of the theory that she’s now so committed to.


She said:

Instead of thinking about reifying and classifying and reducing, let’s turn to the concept of emergence – a central theme in complexity theory. Emergence is the idea that in a complex system different components interact and give rise to another pattern at another level of complexity.

A flock of birds part when approached by a predator and then they re-group. A new level of complexity arises, emerges, out of the interaction of the parts.

All birds take off and land together. They stay together as a kind of superorganism. They take off, they separate, they land, as if one.

You see how that pattern emerges from the interaction of the parts?

Notice there’s no central authority: no bird says “Follow me I’ll lead you to safety”; they self organise into a new level of complexity.

What are the levels of complexity here? What is the new level of complexity that emerges out of the interaction of the parts? Where does the parting and reformation of the flock fit in to these levels of complexity? How is “all birds take off and land together” evidence of a new level of complexity?

What on earth is she talking about? Larsen Freeman constantly gives the impression that she thinks what she’s saying is really, really important, but what is she saying? It’s not that it’s too complicated, or too complex; it’s that it just doesn’t make much sense. “Beyond our ken”, perhaps.


The next bit of Larsen Freeman’s talk that addresses complexity theory was introduced by reading aloud this text:


After which she said:

Natural themes help to ground these concepts. …………….

I invite you to think with me and make some connections. Think about the connection between an open system and language. Language is changing all the time, its flowing but it’s also changing. ………………

Notice in this eddy, in this stream, that pattern exists in the flux, but all the particles that are passing through it are constantly changing.  It’s not the same water, but it’s the same pattern. ………………………..

So this world (the stream in the picture) exists because last winter there was snow in the mountains. And the snow pattern accumulated such that now when the snow melts, the water feeds into many streams, this one being one of them. And unless the stream is dammed, or the water ceases, the source ceases, the snow melts, this world will continue. English goes on, even though it’s not…. the English of Shakespeare and yet it still has the identity we know and call English. So these systems are interconnected both spatially and temporally, in time. 

Again, what is she talking about? What systems is she talking about? What does it all mean? The key seems to be “patterns in the flux”, but then, what’s so new about that?

At some point Larsen Freeman returned to this “patterns in the flux” issue. She showed a graph of the average performance of a group of students which indicated that the group, when seen as a whole, had made progress. Then she showed the graphs of the individuals who made up the group and it became clear that one or two individuals hadn’t made any progress. What do we learn from this? I thought she was going to say something about a reverse level of complexity, or granularity, or patterns disappearing from the flux from a lack of  interaction of the parts, or something.  But no. The point was:

When you look  at group average and individual performance, they’re different.

Just in case that’s too much for you to take in, Larsen Freeman explained:

Variability is ignored by statistical averages. You can make generalisations about the group but don’t assume they apply to individuals. Individual variability is the essence of adaptive behaviour. We have to look at patterns in the flux. That’s what we know from a complexity theory ecological perspective.


Returning to the exposition of complexity theory, there’s one more bit to add: adaptiveness. Larsen Freeman read aloud the text from this slide


The example is the adaptive immune system, not the innate immune system, the adaptive one. Larsen Freeman invited the audience to watch the video and see how the good microbe got the bad one, but I don’t know why. Anyway, the adaptive immune system is an example of a system that is nimble, dynamic, and has no centralised control, which is a key part of complexity theory.

And that’s all folks! That ‘s all Larsen Freeman had to say about complexity theory: it’s complex, open and adaptive. I’ve rarely witnessed such a poor attempt to explain anything.


Then Larsen Freeman talked about affordances. This, just to remind you, is her alternative to input.

There are two types of affordances

  1. Property affordances. These are in the environment. You can design an affordance. New affordances for classroom learning include providing opportunities for engagement; instruction and materials that make sure everybody learns; using technology.
  2. Second Order Affordances. These refer to the learner’s perception of and relation with affordances. Students are not passive receivers of input. Second order affordances Include the agent, the perceiver, in the system. Second order affordances are dynamic and adaptive; they emerge when aspects of the environment are in interaction with the agent. The agent’s relational stance to the property affordances is key. A learner’s perception of and interaction with the environment is what creates a second order affordance.

To help clarify things, Larsen Freeman read this to the audience:


(Note here that their students “operate between languages”, unlike mine and yours (unless you’ve already taken the pledge and signed up) who learn a second or foreign language. Note also that Thoms calls “affordance” a construct.)

If I’ve got it right, “affordances” refer first to anything in the environment that might help learners learn, and second to the learner’s relational stance to them. The important bit of affordances is the relational stance  bit: the learner’s perception of, and interaction with, the environment. Crucially, the learner’s perception of the affordance opportunities, has to be taken into account. “Really?” you might say, “That’s what we do in the old world of input too – we try to take into account the learner’s perception of the input!”

Implications for teaching

Finally Larsen Freeman addresses the implications of her radical new way of understanding for teaching.

Here’s an example. In the old world which Larsen Freeman is so eager to leave behind, where people still understand SLA in terms of input and output, teachers use recasts. In the shiny new world of complexity theory and emergentism, recasts become access-creating affordances.


Larsen Freeman explains that rather than just recast, you can “build on the mistake” and thus “manage the affordance created by it.”

And then there’s adaption.


Larsen Freeman refers to the “Inert Knowledge Problem”: students can’t use knowledge learned in class when they try to operate in the real world. How, Larsen Freeman asks, can they adapt their language resources to this new environment?  Here’s what she says:

So there’s a sense in which a system like that is not externally controlled through inputs and outputs but creates itself. It holds together in a self-organising manner – like the bird flock –  that makes it have its individuality and directiveness in relation to the environment.  Learning is not the taking in of existing forms but a continuing dynamic adaptation to context which is always changing  In order to use language patterns , beyond a given occasion, students need experience in adapting to multiple and variable contexts.

“A system like that”??  What system is she talking about? Well it doesn’t really matter, does it, because the whole thing is, once again, beyond our ken, well beyond mine, anyway.

Larsen Freeman gives a few practical suggestions to enhance our students’ ability to adapt, “to take their present system and mold (sic) it to a new context for a present purpose.”

You can do the same task in less time.

Don’t just repeat it, change the task a little bit.

Or make it easier.

Or give them a text to read.

Or slow down the recording.

Or use a Think Aloud technique in order to freeze the action, “so that you explain the choices that exist”. For example:

If I say “Can I help you?”, the student says:

“I want a book.”

and that might be an opportunity to pause and say:

“You can say that. That’s OK; I understand your meaning.”

But another way to say it is to say

“I would like a book.”

Right? To give information. Importantly, adaptation does not mean sameness, but we are trying to give information so that students can make informed choices about how they wish to be, um,… seemed.

And that was about it. I don’t think I’ve left any major content out.


This is the brave new world that two of the other plenary speakers – Richardson and Thornbury – want to be part of. Both of them join in Larsen Freeman’s rejection of the explanation of the process of SLA that I sketched at the start of this post, and both of them are enthusiastic supporters of Larsen Freeman’s version of complexity theory and emergentism.

Judge for yourself.      



Carlucci, L. and Case, J. (2013) On the Necessity of U-Shaped Learning.  Topics in Cognitive Science, 5. 1,. pp 56-88.

Gregg, K. R. (2010) Shallow draughts: Larsen-Freeman and Cameron on complexity. Second Language Research, 26(4) 549–56.

McLaughlin, B. (1987) Theories of Second Language Learning.  London: Edward Arnold.

Pienemann, M. (1987) Determining the influence of instruction on L2 speech processing. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics 10, 83-113.

Pienemann, M. (1989) Is language teachable? Psycholinguistic experiments and hypotheses. Applied Linguistics 10, 52-79.

5 thoughts on “Larsen Freeman’s IATEFL 2016 Plenary

  1. You sat through this? The whole thing? Silently? Wow. I was struck by the use of the term ‘affordances’, which I don’t recall L-F using before. The term was invented by J. Gibson back in the 60s, I believe, as part of his theory of direct (non-inferential) perception. I’m not sure what L-F has in mind in using it, or what she thinks the connection is with, well, anything, probably, but certainly with language teaching.
    Fodor, J.A & Z.W. Pylyshyn. 1981. How direct is visual perception?: some reflections on Gibson’s “ecological approach”. Cognition 9:139-196.
    Gibson, J. 1966. The senses considered as perceptual systems.


  2. Hi Kevin,

    I sat through a live streaming of it here at home and I certainly didn’t do so in silence. I only had dogs for company, and they all left pretty quickly, unwilling to witness such obvious suffering.

    Thanks for the references.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Just a thought. I haven’t watched the plenary, nor have read much of DLF’s work so I wouldn’t know. Still, while plainly nothing follows logically from a metaphor, nonetheless, doesn’t a sympathetic reading suggest that when she says, ‘‘[M]ost researchers in [SLA] have operated with a “developmental ladder” metaphor (Fischer et al., 2003) and under certain assumptions and postulates that follow from it …’ Larsen Freeman doesn’t mean that the assumptions and postulates that she mentions follow logically from the metaphor, but rather that they follow psychologically from it (i.e. that the metaphor so primes the mind that is persuaded of its applicability as to make such a mind more inclined towards those assumptions and postulates)?


    1. I’m not sure that such slovenly writing merits a sympathetic reading, but, yes, I suppose one could read this as saying, ‘Most SLA researchers have worked with a ‘developmental ladder’ metaphor, which leads them to make certain assumptions…” etc. One would then have to ask 1) what is this putative metaphor? 2) is the claim true? So far as I can tell, the answer to (1) is that it isn’t a metaphor, it’s a belief that SLA is a process of cognitive development; a pretty sound belief, I’d have thought. The answer to (2), then, would be Yes, or perhaps, ‘Well duh!’

      Liked by 1 person

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