Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Second Language Acquisition: An Edusemiotic Approach

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_23



This entry introduces the methods of second language acquisition (SLA) from the perspective of edusemiotics (Semetsky and Stables 2014; Stables and Semetsky 2015). This approach moves away from educational psychology that traditionally informed research in SLA to a new direction in, specifically, philosophy of education informed by such important precursors to edusemiotics as Charles S. Peirce, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari, as well as Gregory Bateson. Edusemiotics of SLA conceptualizes the process of teaching a second language not merely as a method of transferring words, grammatical structures, and phonology of a target language to a new learner as assumed in many language classrooms but as a way of conveying new kinds of experiences embedded in meaning-making systems of signs.

Mainstream SLA Theory and Philosophy

Since its inception, SLA theory and research have been strongly influenced by psychological theories of learning, such as behavioral, cognitive, and sociocultural theories. The grammar translation and audio-lingual methods of language acquisition followed the principles of behaviorism that addressed learning mainly as a habit formation realized through instrumental conditioning by implementing constant repetition of language forms. The cognitivist theory of learning coincided with Chomskyan revolution in linguistics and the birth of computers that compared learning to simple information processing and stressed the ways language learners internalized language forms, initially through conscious reflection and then through pattern-building practices. Since the 1980s, SLA has adopted the Vygotskian sociocultural theory (SCT) by focusing on learners’ subjective experiences (e.g., accommodation to individual differences and learning strategies), by viewing learning as a social act (e.g., incorporating group activities in the classroom), and by utilizing language contents that are real, engaging, and socially relevant (e.g., introducing authentic materials). As it is shown further in this entry, these pedagogical advances were handicapped by top-down philosophical pressures of modern theoretical linguistics that kept derailing the SLA toward mostly cognitive models of education.

The Chomskyan Linguistics and SLA

Noam Chomsky found an elegant way of explaining common structures among many languages termed universal grammar. Yet Chomsky crunched language to its core and dismissed an everyday use of language. Additionally he proposed that since all languages share similar principles, we could not have acquired these common features throughout our lives but were born with a language acquisition device or LAD. Such device is an assumed module in the brain equipped with principles of language structures that allow children to acquire language without much effort. Chomskyan linguistics considered language in the abstract rather than in concrete usage and practice, ignoring the most fundamental aspect of any communication, inclusive of pedagogy, that edusemiotics posits as the construction of shared meanings. The human language became devoid of its pragmatic force; instead the emphasis was placed on the surface level and mechanical structure of language. Following Chomsky who saw the I-language (internal language) different from the E-language (external language), the SLA classroom sought to teach a standard form of a target language that was not influenced by the presumed irregularities of language frequently found in everyday form of talk. Hence, mainstream SLA followed a pedagogical approach in which words had exact definitions, grammatical structures conveyed particular functions, and pronunciations were modeled after ideal native-like fluencies. At the conceptual level, any deviation from the alleged standard form of language was either ignored or reduced to “interferences.”

The social turn (Block 2003), as it is called, challenged Chomskyan legacy, but mainly at the pedagogical, rather than theoretical, level. It was claimed that language learning cannot be separated from its social and physical contexts. The social turn includes socio-cognitive, sociocultural, language socialization, complex adaptive system theory, as well as ecological and semiotic approaches. Building on Lev Vygotsky’s vision of language as a social sign and a tool, the social turn affirmed that learners do not merely learn a new method of communication but are acculturated into a new meaning-making system allowing them to perform meaningful social acts. The most important aspect of the social turn was to establish that language learners are not incompetent communicators; rather, they attempt to construct an intersubjective space between their first and the target language. Complemented by complex adaptive system theory of SLA (Larsen-Freeman 2011), the social turn claimed that through local interactions between agents, including language learners and native speakers of the target language, a relatively stable pattern of language use emerges. Congruent with the naturalistic approach of fractal growths in the physical world, language learners expand on and access resources in the second language analogous to the growth of a branching tree. In general terms, the social turn emphasized the communicative aspect of language learning. However, it fell short of an understanding that the communication itself emerges from the interaction and interpretation; hence, it followed the same methodology of teaching a standard and ideal form of a target language.

SLA in the Context of Edusemiotics

Edusemiotics (Stables and Semetsky 2015) posits learning as not only a matter of cognitive understanding but of exploration and growth analogous to, and embedded into, the living process of semiosis as the evolution and transformation of signs. From the perspective of a language learner, acquisition is not simply reduced to the memorization of words and grammatical structures with fixed properties and functions. For instance, while mainstream SLA education evaluates the progress of a language learner with the finite acquisition of new vocabularies, grammatical structures, and other forms of a new language, edusemiotics considers all aspects of language as signs subject to interpretation and meaning-making entangled in the ever-growing symbolic network. Importantly, a sign is not just a tool reduced to a conventional relation to its referent but is intermingled in a web of concepts and ideas that relates to and brings out multiple references and signs. When a language learner is offered the opportunity to know that a word or grammatical structure signifies something, she does not reduce it to a simple one-to-one correspondence as a new word pointing to a single referent. A native Spanish speaker, for example, does not merely learn that the word “mesa” in her native language corresponds to the English word “table” as a certain object in the manner of direct representation. She is always already participating in a broader semiotic system where other words and concepts, not as objects but as signs, are related to the word “table.” In the experience of the learner, a newly acquired sign has already expanded, leaked, and interfaced with other related signs, such as other words (chair, furniture, tablecloth), contexts (dining room, office room, living room), shapes (things with horizontal surface, usually hold above the ground with some legs), and functions (things usually used for working, eating, or holding decorative articles). In contrast, a child learning English as a native language must still work out such a web of symbolic interrelationship.

From the perspective of Peirce, a sign does not have a direct representation but is always involved in a triadic relationship. That is, contrary to the semiotic model of Ferdinand de Saussure, who perceived of signification in a dyadic relationship, only between a sign and an object (or a concept), Peirce was convinced that it is an interpretant (and accordingly, interpretive, semiotic process) that is a necessary part of any signification. In this triadic model, signification results when an agent (any living thing) interprets that a sign means something beyond itself. As such, in Peircean semiotics, signs are not static; they constantly grow and change. From an edusemiotics perspective, signs expand in a mode analogous to the growth of a rhizome (Deleuze 1994; Deleuze and Guattari 1988). A rhizome is a metaphoric model of growth when contents of natural world and its cultural products expand in multidirectional routes and planes, irreducible to a single point of reference or root but analogous to the spreads of grass. A rhizomatic growth is in contrast to linear and additive – what Deleuze called arborescent – progression. In most language classrooms, it is usually assumed that learners advance in a linear way, by knowing more words, grammatical structures, or other features of the new language.

When language particles are assumed to have fixed definitions and functions, the learner appears to have to simply reproduce the knowledge of the teacher: “do as I do.” In this model it is the teacher who takes one thing (passive student) to another (language as a fixed object). But language seen as a web of interwoven signs and concepts growing in a rhizomatic network of relations forces both the teacher and her student to enter the symbolic field. In this model the teacher asks the learner: “do with me.” The learner then would not be connecting signs in a unidirectional way: a sign user herself functions as a sign in a triadic, recursive, and ever-growing semiotic system of interpretants. Indeed Peirce reminds us that symbols are similar to living things, in a very strict sense. He emphasizes that we can learn as much from the words as the words from us. Peirce provides a poignant example: “how much more the word electricity means now than it did in the days of Franklin; how much more the term planet means now than it did in the time [of] Hipparchus. These words have acquired information; just as a man’s thought does by further perception” (Burks 1958, p. 353). Such recursivity between a sign and its users is intensified in the classrooms permeated with meaningful interpretations rather than forceful corrections of the perceived “deficiencies” from the ideal form of language.

Incidentally, knowing more and more variables (age, motivation, language identity, aptitude, acculturation, anxiety, self-esteem, etc.) involved in SLA has not helped advance the field (cf. Larsen-Freeman 2011; van Lier 2004). Variable-based theories of SLA follow a positivistic philosophy of direct causality assuming that the world is basically a mechanism whose behavior, although at times appearing to be complex, follows a linear path and can be explained away by the reduction to its variables. Gregory Bateson, however, offered a systems approach to the complexity of nature. He emphasized that any delineation made in studying parts of a living system, whether physical or cultural, is an arbitrary choice and convention, and rather than components, parts, or variables, it is mutual interfaces that produce change, development, and the evolution of the system as a whole. This perspective forces us to pay attention to the relations within a system rather than its isolated members. It also opens our eyes to see that the very variable we analyze is always dynamically becoming rather than just being a variable. Describing how a blind man perceives of the world by tapping his cane on the surface of a sidewalk, Bateson asked: “consider a blind man with a stick. Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick?” (1972, p. 318). The blind man’s “self,” in interactions with the world, is a complex system including the man, the cane, and the sidewalk which is not an arbitrary pathway but has a specific pattern that follows a still-larger system of a particular city codes and rules. The world for the blind man presents itself as a system, a complete unit that included the man sign in itself and, as Peirce would say, is perfused with signs.

Similarly, from an edusemiotic perspective, language acquisition is not reduced to a learner influenced by additive or subtractive variables. The learner is not a sole recipient of changes being acted upon by the phenomenon branded “language acquisition.” The learner, the target language, the content of the subject matter used in teaching, the physical aspect of the classroom, the teacher, other learners, the native language of the learner, and so forth are all semiotic systems with their own particular histories, affordances, and degrees of freedom that are brought in together, each one of these systems signifying a different thing to different participating entities. A language-learning event occurs at the borders of these systems, in the membranes of these constantly changing signs. When these systems meet, they collide and assemble something (language acquisition) experienced by someone (language learner) to stand for something other than itself (the target language).

None of the systems involved in language acquisition are reduced to static objects, pre-existing concepts, or entities as typically assumed in many SLA theories. A semiotic system is composed of assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari 1988) that are not reduced to contradictory or competing opposites as per Cartesian philosophy. The term assemblage, in this case, is used to denote that a social or ontological event, such as acquisition of a new language, is not an aggregation of smaller events or objects with fix functions or properties. An assemblage is constituted in the interaction between multiple systems, each with varying functions and properties. When these systems communicate and interact, they create a unique organization. From such perspective, systems are engaged in constant becomings through their borders and along the lines of flight that run away as much as they leak and flow in-between. Such collisions and interfaces do not create a simple cohesion but transformations and mutations. Larsen-Freeman (2011) noted that language learners frequently “coadapt” their communicative resources to match with those of their interlocutors. Thus, language learners are viewed as systems and not individuals, and the act of communication is a dynamic organization. In acquiring a new language, a learner is never the same, nor is her experience of the language she is learning. When they meet, they mutually leak along and through their surfaces. They change and become transformed into other signs thereby contributing to mutual coevolution within and beyond a given semiotic system. Language acquisition is always a creative process. The language teacher cannot bring the new language to the language learner. It is ultimately the language learner who must make sense of the words: to figure out what they point to and what actions can be performed by/with them.


Knowing another language plays an important role in the way we experience and increase the overlap of the phenomenal world we share with others. As Stables (2012, p. 50) notes with regard to people with whom we seem to share a similar phenomenal world, it is epistemologically impossible to know everything about them or nothing at all. The acquisition of a second language increases the range of semiotic interpretants and expands the boundaries of the world in question. Learning a new language cannot be limited to classroom practice filled with grammar drill, out-of-context sentences, and filling in the blanks. The role of language “is not limited to first‚ second or foreign language classes‚ it pervades all of education‚ in all subjects… All education is language education‚ since language is a defining quality of what it means to be human” (van Lier 2004, p. 2). Edusemiotics sees language not as an abstraction of mind dominated by static words and grammatical structures but as a participatory experience and activity. The learner is not a dot moving across a stationary space toward a finite goal while loaded with separate parts of language. She is a dynamic field or, according to Bateson and Deleuze, a plateau – attracted to another one, coping, fusing, and collapsing thereby changing and expanding this very field. The language learners are not arriving at the gate of the language of other speakers from the starting point as in the bottom-up approach, from letters to words and to sentences, or as they are divided up in courses from basic, then intermediate, and finally advanced level, each time linearly increasing vocabulary, grammar, and discourse. From an edusemiotic perspective, learners are not raw materials that enter a factory and are put on an assembly line where a teacher adds something and passes them on further.

Far from being on an assembly line, a language learner is experiencing a new field of becoming, and language is a dynamic system of signs the leaner is engaged with and is using in practical experience. All language is a form of action. A language learner is experiencing what new words and grammatical structures “do” and how she can creatively use them to perform actions and make her experience meaningful. Deleuze compares the experiences of a new learner to a novice athlete or a surfer entering a wave for the first time. As the new surfer has to learn what to do with the surfboard in the context of waves, so the language learner needs to know what to do with the new language in the ever-evolving contexts and amidst new experiences. And the very nature of the various experiences permeating these two semiotic fields, whether of a surfer with a board entering a wave or a new language learner entering the field of another language, of getting wet, and of joining and mutating between these phenomenological realities, explains the initial attraction, the desire to learn a new language, and the process of signs becoming other signs.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of LinguisticsUniversity of ChileSantiagoChile