Sociocultural theory and classroom second language learning in the East Asian context: Introduction to the special issue

James Lantolf, Matthew E. Poehner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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In this introduction to the special issue, we first present a brief historical overview of sociocultural theory (SCT) as it has been extended to the process of second language (L2) development and instruction, beginning with two significant publications that appeared in 1994. In the early years, the theory was used as a lens to understand various aspects of learning and instruction. Eventually, it came to be used as a means of promoting the processes that it investigates. As we explain in this article, the shift in research orientation reflects Vygotsky's commitment to the unity of theory and research with practice. We then address a problem associated with the term “sociocultural,” which has been used since the inception of L2 research informed by the theory. This is followed by a presentation of the four central principles of the theory, which is contextualized within a discussion of dialectics, the foundational methodological approach adopted by Vygotsky in formulating the theory of higher psychological functioning. The principles each relate to the process through which naturally endowed instincts that govern mental and emotional behavior from birth are restructured as they interact with culturally developed forms of mediation, including—most importantly—language. Next, we present an overview of the special issue that includes a discussion of the important concepts that are brought to bear in instructed L2 development. These include the important distinction between everyday and scientific concepts and concept-based instruction; the zone of proximal development and dynamic assessment; languaging, or the psychological use of speaking and writing in the developmental process; perezhivanie, the dialectical unity of emotion and cognition as related to development; and obuchenie, the instruction–development dialectic. These concepts, along with the theoretical principles, are employed in various ways in the seven articles included in the special issue. The articles are representative of the innovative SCT-L2 research that is currently under way in East Asia, a region of the world that only recently has been attracted to the theory. While the research reported on in the special issue emerges from this particular area, the implications for other instructional contexts and for the theory itself are significant.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-23
Number of pages21
JournalModern Language Journal
StatePublished - Jan 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language

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