The Social Context For Language Learning English Language Essay

Modified: 1st Jan 2015
Wordcount: 1802 words

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In this paper, I will discuss Micahel P. Breens article The Social Context for Language Learning: A Neglected Situation. Breens article highlights the study of classroom language learning from two different perspectives namely research and teaching. In particular, the writer’s paper centralizes around two arising questions from the researcher and the teacher’s perspectives: (1) what are the specific contributions of the classroom to the process of language development? And (2) in what ways might the teacher exploit the social reality of the classroom as a resource for the teaching of language? The article reveals that the writer exploring the language learning research in the form of metaphor namely ‘the classroom as experimental laboratory’ and ‘the classroom as discourse’ while proposing a new metaphor, ‘the classroom as coral gardens’. These three metaphors seem to have a significant impact on language learning research influencing the researcher, the teacher as well as the learners. But, the essential question that lies with us here is that the three metaphors are partially true and there is still a need for further development on the methods of investigating the culture of the classroom and re-exploring its potential more precisely.

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According to Breen (2001), assumptions of the second language development were made on the basis of the relationship that exists between the social process of classroom group and the individual psychological process. In the effort to relate such relationship in a social event, the teacher was identified as a direct participant influencing the psychological development by continually integrating the learning experiences of each individual with the group activities as a whole. Understanding the social anthropology of language learning by taking into account the expectations, values and beliefs will influence how we perceive the classroom group and how we shape the learning environment of the language classroom.

In particular, the writer defines and describes the classroom situation in the form of metaphor vis-à-vis classroom as experimental laboratory and classroom as discourse. He also proposes the third metaphor which is classroom as coral gardens to better facilitate our understanding of classroom language learning.

The first metaphor ‘the classroom as experimental laboratory’ is based on Krashen’s Second Language Acquisition Theory. In the attempt to explain the classroom as experimental laboratory, the writer highlights the primary function of the language classroom as can be seen by the correlation between both exposure towards a linguistic input and learning outcome. The value and purpose of the classroom can produce an optimum input to the learner by providing a good form of linguistic data. The role of a teacher is portrayed as a surrogate experimental psychologist, who holds a responsibility of facilitating comprehension to individual learners and reinforce good learning behaviours accordingly.

In explaining the second metaphor, ‘the classroom as discourse’, Breen highlights the primary focus of the classroom-oriented research which intends to understand the discourse of classroom communication. It sets the teacher and learners as active participants whereby classroom can be explored as a text. This metaphor reveals much of the specific interaction patterns going in the particular language learning situation such as teacher-learner negotiation, various error treatments by teachers and variables participation by learners.

As I have already summarized both of the existing metaphors, the third metaphor which portrays ‘the classroom as coral gardens’ derives from Malinowski’s classical studies of Trobriand island cultures describing it in Coral Gardens and Their Magic (Malinowski, 1935). This metaphor is proposed to make sense that in order to understand a language classroom, observation alone on the surface level of the classroom discourse is inadequate. Simply put, one cannot understand the culture just by learning the language. The gist of classroom as coral gardens is trying to emphasize on the importance of understanding the classroom situation which can result in increasing learners’ engagement, motivation and participation for the betterment of language learning. Again, in justifying his own belief on this metaphor as genuine culture, Breen highlights on the significance of perceiving the classroom as a real place with its own culture to help us exploit its complexity as a resource for language learning. He briefly describes eight essential features of the culture of language classroom as being; 1) interactive, 2) differentiated, 3) collective, 4) highly normative, 5) asymmetrical, 6) inherently conservative, 7) jointly constructed and 8) immediately significant.

Exploring his purpose in writing this paper, Breen invokes the reader with the arising questions from both researcher and teacher mentioned earlier. He illustrates the definition of the classroom situation in the form of metaphors that can aid researchers within the current language learning research. Thus, suggesting a possible future investigation for the culture of the language classroom will be more of a revelation rather than just identifying it as a metaphor.


Breen’s explanation whether the social context for language learning is in a neglected situation can be summarized by its strengths in relating the classroom situation in a metaphorical form:

“Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities. A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense metaphors can be self fulfilling prophecies.”

(Lakoff and Johnson, 1980)

Yet, the flipside of having a metaphor may also influence the way people understand it and lead to different interpretations. The question of how those metaphors will be received (bought) by other people for instance describing a classroom as a beehive would be perceived as negative- uncontrolled and chaotic, but to the optimistic mind might perceive the same behaviour as productive in the sense of learners are ‘busy as bees’ possessing positive traits of bees: active, hardworking and working as a team to achieve the same goal.

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The second point of my evaluation on this article would be on the Second Language Acquisition theory (SLA). The distinct process in which an acquisition of a language is through a conscious process of absorbing new facts and retaining the information or skills via formal instructions holds true in the as proposed by Stephen Krashen (1982) . Although the writer mentioned experimental laboratory as a metaphor in relating it to SLA, here I have to agree with what Breen argued it to be asocial and psychologically disadvantage. Although Breen viewed the classroom as providing an optimal input to the learner, it reduces the language learning to linguistic or behavioural conditioning independent of learners’ social reality (Cameron, 2001).

Similarly, another questionable aspect of the second metaphor ‘the classroom as discourse’ is that it limits the classroom solely on the teacher-student talk and fails to reveal a multitude of internal factors ranging from views and opinions, feelings and intentions of each individual learners (Allwright, 1999a).

Perhaps the most outstanding part that can be said in this article is that Breen’s boldness in conceptualizing metaphors to explain the classroom situations providing an in depth view of an anthropological aspect thus discovering exactly what is going on between people underlying meanings of the classroom much more fully.

Despite his extensive explanation on the metaphor, I could only agree with the coral gardens metaphor to a certain extent. If a language classroom is seen as ecology in which beliefs, values and relational ethics have their effects in the development of a culture that helps effective and meaningful language learning to take place as stated by Eccles & Wigfield (2002) and Richard (1995); then issues are raised to allow us to see beyond the limits of Breen’s coral gardens. Breen’s description is rather unsupported and untested, but more likely to inherit the anthropologist’s unwillingness to make normative conclusions. It is nonetheless a qualitative observation made and almost impossible to comprehend the classroom in all its complexity (Hutchingson, 1996). But if our teaching mainly to interact with students’ conscience, then normative questions cannot be far away: what approaches and methods are the best ways in this language acquisition? Changing our images of classrooms might help us to see such questions, and the realities to which they point us, more clearly.

While Breen adequately argued his motives in conceptualizing classroom as coral gardens, an ecosystem if you like that have depths and dimensions in terms of all the eight features highlighted by him. The absence of any of the feature will render the ecosystem to be unbalanced. In the attempt to relate Breen’s metaphor to my understanding of classroom situation, is it safe to say that my adapted version of Breen’s metaphor could be ‘the classroom as terrarium’ perhaps? Here, a terrarium is a miniature version of an actual ecosystem similar to Breen’s metaphor depicting the coral gardens with a collection of small plants growing in a transparent container. Taking into account the type of the plants we put into it, how we decide what kind of terrarium we will build: A tiny forest? A mini desert? A little rock garden or maybe a great beach scene! These endless possibilities in creating enjoyments and excitements on wonders of nature are limitless. Thus, terrarium is a suitable metaphor complementary to coral gardens.

4.0 Conclusion

If Breen’s conceptualization of a classroom can be seen as metaphors to justify his beliefs, I do believe that no observation model is ever final and social context for language learning is not neglected but rather it is an ongoing and perpetual process in need of a polishing and refining. Comparing the classroom to one of Mother Nature wonders such as coral garden is a good example to be used as a metaphor. Then it is only right in my mind that it is a delicate balance of an ecosystem in need of a careful and detailed attention to fully capitalize on its enormous potential.


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