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What Is Meant by Appropriation in Second or Foreign Language Learner Acquisition?

I've been an educational professional for many years, holding certified qualifications in that field.

Explaining What Appropriation Means

Firstly, the verb appropriate means to take something and use it for your own purposes. Have you ever taken scrap paper, screwed it up into a ball and then taken aim at the bin? Perhaps your work colleague came along and joined in the fun, only their throwing technique or accuracy was better than yours, so you copied their style until you were able to control or regulate their technique and success too. Appropriation is taking control of a skill by first mimicking someone who is more skilled at it than you are until you yourself have some semblance of control or improvement.

A simpler way to explain it is when you start to get the hang of doing something, usually as a consequence of being around people who are better at something than you are. Coaching in sports or sitting next to the brightest kids in class are obvious examples.


Appropriation in Regards to Second or Foreign Language Acquisition

It could be argued that when learning a second or foreign language we first interact and mimic the native (or proficient) speaker of the language (could be a teacher, could be real life encounters) trying to take and use the language for our own use within the situation at hand. Therefore, learning is not just a cognitive development conditioned through memory and repetition, but it is also transferred and constructed through social collaborative interaction. We might summize that learners are not actually isolated individuals but rather they are social beings. Hutchins (1995) described this as the contents of our consciousness having been socially produced.

Indeed, appropriation is an important notion in the theories of sociocultural psychologists, such as Lev Vygotsky, who believed that it is our interaction from the people who surround us every day that drives and generates our learning and development.


Ultimately, language connects people and the words used must therefore have meaning attached. Where has the meaning of words derived from? The meanings have originated from societal development, from the interaction of people and from personal individual reflection. This is the point of view according to dialogism (Voloshinov, 1973).

How Does Appropriation Impact in the ELT Classroom Environment

In a classroom environment, learning activities that are focused on appropriation include teamwork and role play, whereby students can showcase and use their strengths within the group whilst others can learn from the interaction and the strengths and knowledge of others. Teachers also have a role in that their demonstrations and presentations represent the chance for students to mimic and analyze them. When teachers correct the errors of learners, this too affords the learners the chance to refine their skills.

Put simply, students need a chance to analyze and mirror the learning then transform it, expand it and put it into practice for themselves for their own motives and in relation to their societal norms. This is how change and development will take place. This aligns to what is known as activity theory, the foundations of which can be traced to A. N. Leont'ev (a colleague of Vygotsky). The theory postulates that our knowledge originates first from a social dimension and then becomes adopted on a psychological level.


It should also be remembered that we don’t necessarily hear or indeed say words in isolation, rather the words are part of a wider meaning we are trying to get across or to comprehend, for example right versus wrong or good versus bad, and therefore teaching a language to learners should involve activities that give the students chances not just to participate and answer word by word, but with more meaningful participation where they may join or express meaning through cooperation. Cowley (2012) called this skillful linguistic action whereby the knowledge gained is dynamic and usable.

Appropriation is not a one way street. Whilst students will appropriate from a learning perspective, the same should be true of a teacher. They too must develop their skills as educators and learning from those more experienced and skilled than themselves, by for example trying to mirror and refine their mentor's techniques in their own classrooms.

Levels of appropriation on the part of students can also vary depending upon receptiveness to the techniques being employed by the teacher, and indeed by the perceived personality of the teacher. Students are impacted by the institutions within which they study - the social norms and the rules for example. Getting students to even stand up or form a group can be problematic and not generally accepted as a day to day norm in some parts of the world.

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