C’est compliqué: TESOL France 2016, Fractals and things

TESOL France Colloquium 2016 starts this Friday 19 November and no doubt the star attraction is linguist Diane Larsen-Freeman who will be doing a plenary and a Q&A session on the Saturday.

Her talk is titled “Patterns in Language: Why are they the way that they are?”

From her abstract:

Drawing on my contention that language is a complex, dynamic system, I will demonstrate that the shape of patterns in language are fractal.

Larsen-Freeman, 2016:15

The claim that language is a “complex, dynamic system” has been critiqued by Kevin Gregg (2010) and supported, albeit with important caveats, by William A Kretschmar (2011) when both reviewed the book Complex systems and applied linguistics by Diane Larsen-Freeman and Lynne Cameron.

Gregg thinks it is false that language, when seen from a narrow viewpoint, as linguistic competence, is dynamical. Everyone learning their first language reaches a steady state and for second language learners there is also the state of fossilisation. He also argues that seeing language in more general terms as an entity in a complex dynamic system is incoherent as language is not a thing but rather an abstraction.

Possible question to Larsen-Freeman 1 – How are you demarcating language when applying dynamic systems theory (DST)?

Kretzschmar who has his own, more plausible, account of DST for speech or language in use, takes issue with Larson-Freeman-Cameron (LFC) for conflating complex systems  and chaotic systems. Chaotic systems cycle through a very large number of states whereas complex systems are on the edge between fixed states and chaos. This can be seen in the difference between Mandelbrot Koch Island fractals and Mandelbrot San Marco Dragon fractals. The former are well-ordered and are a simple collection of basic patterns which form self-similarly at different scales, whereas the latter goes through a series of many states, tracing a “long orbit of successive positions” (Kretzschmar, 2010).

Possible question to Larsen-Freeman 2 – What kind of fractals are you talking about?

Kretzschmar points out that Larson-Freeman’s study of individuals using DST breaks an assumption that complex systems needs numerous interacting elements. Apart from one example given by LFC which does seem to use a DST term appropriately Kretzschmar is highly critical of the general uses of terms from the DST field made by LFC.

I said earlier that in my (very) shallow reading of Kretzschmar I found his account of applying DST to speech much more plausible. One of the reasons is that he keeps with the linguistic tradition of Saussure’s notion of langue and parole, or Chomsky’s concept of competence and performance. He comments on the Five Graces Group which promotes DST in second language acquisition, of which prominent members include Larson-Freeman and Nick Ellis:

…the Five Graces Group is right to insist on usage as what builds a speaker’s cognitive sense of a language, but are not credible in their assertion of a direct connection between speech and grammar as a network of categories…Grammar…when it is defined as a network or hierarchy of categories or rules is something essentially different from the output of the complex system of speech, something only indirectly related to language in use.

Kretzschmar, 2015:91

Possible question to Larsen-Freeman 3 – How does your application of DST to language compare to Kretzschmar?

I hope attendees to the colloquium will find these three suggested questions of use. All errors and omissions mine. Do pop further questions in the comments.

For more info on the critical side have a read of https://criticalelt.wordpress.com/2016/03/20/larsen-freeman-lost-in-complexity-bullshit-baffles-brains/.

Edit: Thanks to Geoff Jordan for reminding me of another one of his essential posts a review of Larsen-Freeman’s talk at IATEFL 2016 https://criticalelt.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/larsen-freemans-iatefl-2016-plenary-shifting-metaphors-from-computer-input-to-ecological-affordances/

Enjoy the conference and thanks for reading.


Gregg, K. R. (2010). Review article: Shallow draughts: Larsen-Freeman and Cameron on complexity. Second Language Research, 26(4), 549-560. DOI: 10.1177/0267658310366582

Kretzschmar, W. A. (2010). Language variation and complex systems. American speech, 85(3), 263-286. DOI: 10.1215/00031283-2010-016

Kretzschmar, W. A. (2011). Book Review: Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics. By Diane Larsen-Freeman & Lynne Cameron. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008. xi+ 287. ISBN 978-0-19-442244-4. Journal of English Linguistics, 39(1), 89-95. DOI: 10.1177/0075424210366194

Kretzschmar Jr, W. A. (2015). Language and complex systems. Cambridge University Press. https://books.google.fr/books?id=r5fwCAAAQBAJ&lpg=PR9&ots=jtFmWnsRQB&dq=Language%20and%20Complex%20Systems%20By%20William%20A.%20Kretzschmar%2C%20Jr&lr&pg=PA91#v=snippet&q=graces%20group%20is%20right&f=false

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2016). Patterns in Language: Why are they the way that they are? Paper presented at TESOL France Colloquium, Paris, France. Retrieved from http://www.tesol-france.org/uploaded_files/files/Full%20TF%20Colloquium%20Programme.pdf