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Shifting metaphors from computer input to ecological affordances
Fifty years ago, around the same time that IATEFL was founded, inquiries into the nature of additional language learning were begun. One of the earliest avenues of inquiry concerned the nature of the linguistic input that language learners were exposed to. Not only was the input thought to be the raw material that the learners had to work with, linguistic input was also thought to be a driving force in second language development. Researchers sought to demonstrate the effect of the input on what was called learners’ output.
While this line of research been fruitful in contributing to our understanding of language learning, it has been encumbered by the use of its computer-related metaphors of input and output. Clearly, our students are not computers. We know that the way we talk influences and reflects the way we think. One problem with “input” is that it ascribes passivity to learners, robbing them of their agency. Another problem is that it suggests that there is a conduit between input and output. It overlooks the meaning-making nature of language use. A third problem is that the use of “input” necessitates all sorts of terminological profusion, such as “intake” and “uptake.” At this point, there is a need to move beyond input-output metaphors to embrace a new way of understanding, one informed by Complexity Theory with its ecological orientation – one of affordances.
Affordances are two-way relationships between the learner and the environment. Affordances afford opportunities for action on the part of learners, provided that the affordances are perceived by learners. In this way, learners create their own affordances. Thus, affordances restore agency to learners. This also partially explains why learners’ developmental patterns are different. In this presentation, I will elaborate on affordances and discuss the implications of affordances for English language learning and teaching.
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