Many foreign language educators encourage their students to find opportunities to use the target language outside of the classroom, in particular, because of the belief that foreign language skills will improve through social interaction. However, very little is known about the opportunities and affordances that second-language (L2) social network contacts provide for learners, especially in foreign language (FL) settings. Naomi Kurata’s book, “Foreign Language Learning and Use: Interaction in informal social networks,” addresses this gap and aims to examine what opportunities and challenges arise for learners to use their L2 with their social network contacts. Centered on a longitudinal case study of six intermediate learners of Japanese at an Australian university, this book highlights that establishing and maintaining these contacts is not always easy for learners and that they do not always provide the assumed opportunities to use the L2.
Researchers and educators alike will find this book to be useful. The book is originally intended for researchers who are interested in second language learning, particularly in contexts outside of a traditional classroom. Yet, in addition, its detailed account of the learning experiences of university language learners and the proposed pedagogical implications will be useful for language educators and course developers alike. Following a brief introduction, the book comprises six chapters, samples of the data collection instruments (i.e. the initial questionnaire and interview protocol) in the appendices, a list of references, and a subject index.
Chapter 1, “Social Contexts of Language Use and Learning,” sets the stage for the forthcoming study. This chapter has three main goals. First, it introduces the unique setting of learners of Japanese in Australia, as well as informal social networks as a setting for L2 use and learning in general. The author adopts Milroy’s (1987) definition of informal social networks, which is, namely “the informal social relationships contracted by an individual” (7). Second, she frames the study by laying out the theoretical framework and a review of relevant literature regarding the social factors that affect L2 learning and L1/L2 use, both within and outside of the classroom. Regarding the theoretical framework, this study adopts an innovative blend of sociocultural approaches to language learning and Auer’s (1984, 1988) approach to language selection among bilingual speakers. Finally, the second half of the chapter discusses the methodological details of this longitudinal multiple case study. The data include periodic interviews with the researcher, a variety of interactional discourse data (including emails, online chat transcripts, SMS messages, and recorded conversations between the learners and their social network contacts), and diary entries with stimulated recall interviews.
The second chapter, “Learners’ Bilingual Social Networks,” introduces each of the six focal participants (Cindy, Grace, Patty, Jim, Simon, and Max). It opens with a discussion of the group’s general background, including the intermediate Japanese course for first-year students that they were enrolled in together, and their relationship with the researcher. The remainder of the chapter describes each participant’s individual linguistic background and the social networks of Japanese speakers, both in Japan and in Australia. For each case, Kurata provides a useful diagram of the learner’s Japanese-speaking contacts that highlights contacts in both Japan and Australia, those who are Japanese and those who are not, and those whom the participant met after entering the university. In addition, the author discusses the patterns of language use that were reported for interactions with each member of the learner’s social network. Throughout the year, all participants were able to expand their social networks of bilingual Japanese-English speakers. Many of the new contacts were Japanese students or other students of Japanese studying at the same university. Each of the female students (Cindy, Grace and Patty) also had regular contact with current residents in Japan. Throughout the analysis, two salient features were found concerning the overall language use patterns with the social network contacts, each of which is addressed in the next two chapters.
Chapter 3, “Changes in L1/L2 Use,” addresses the first of the trends highlighted in the previous chapter, namely, that selection of language variety changed over time and according to the situational context. In order to make this argument the author draws on the experiences of three participants: Grace, Jim, and Simon. The author argues that, in each case, the dynamic patterns of language use were influenced by the learners’ histories and goal-driven actions. One aspect that was particularly salient was the co-construction of the participants’ self-images or identities as L2 users or learners.
The other trend that was highlighted in the second chapter was that, despite the participants’ eagerness to establish native speaker contacts and to use the L2, opportunities for them to use the L2 were actually quite rare. The fourth chapter, “Language Selection and Its Negotiation,” digs deeper into this finding in order to explore how language selection is negotiated within five recorded conversations between some of the participants and their Japanese contacts. By incorporating Activity Theory and Auer’s approach to bilingual interaction, the author argues that the rarity of opportunities to use the L2 arises from norms and social roles within the community. In addition, this analysis showed that the participants often used English as a resource to elicit assistance from native speakers.
Chapter 5, “Opportunities for L2 Learning,” goes beyond the language of use in various situations to examine the opportunities for L2 learning that arise in different settings. The author compares and contrasts four different settings that occur in the participants’ social networks: learner-native speaker (NS) interactions in informal, semi-instructional and written discourse contexts, as well as learner-learner informal written discourse. The author highlights global differences between the four settings, such as the amount of each learner’s assisted performance, but also concludes that within a particular setting, differences arise based on the interlocutors’ histories, identities, and community norms or social roles.
Finally, Chapter 6, “Access to L2 Social Interaction: Implications for Language Teaching and Learning,” presents a summary of the study’s major findings and implications as well as directions for future research. In particular, the author concludes that the theoretical framework of the current study reveals the dynamic and complex nature of language selection in learners’ interactions with L2 speakers and that it accounts for many of the difficulties that learners encounter in using the L2 in these interactions. In addition, this study highlights the significant influence of social relationships, which can be continually (re)negotiated, on L2 use and learning. Regarding language teaching, the author argues that it is not enough to encourage students to establish a social network of L2 speakers; additionally, learners need to be given guidelines for how to overcome the obstacles that they are sure to encounter. One such suggestion would be for learners and educators alike to realize that a mixture of L1 and L2 in these interactions is quite common and, in fact, useful for the learner.
This innovative study leads researchers in L2 acquisition to a more complete picture of the learning experiences of traditional FL classroom students. It expounds on learners’ out-of-class experiences, which is an aspect of the language-learning journey that is often neglected or taken for granted in the literature. In this study, Kurata expertly combines a model of bilingual interaction with sociocultural and poststructural perspectives on L2 learning to reveal the complex and dynamic nature of learners’ informal interactions.
This book will certainly benefit the intended audience of researchers and language educators. It will be particularly useful for those interested in how language learning occurs outside of the classroom and how to encourage and support language learners to expand their L2 learning and use beyond the classroom. Though it has implications for everyday language learners, the theoretical and scholarly discussion is probably best suited for scholars and language professionals.
In general, the writing and editing are quite clear and easy to read. In particular, the author skillfully uses metalanguage to guide the reader through her observations and arguments. However, at times, the meaning of the author’s terminology is not immediately apparent or concrete. For example, it would have been helpful if the author had foregrounded what she meant by “learning” or “learning opportunities” in the introduction to Chapter 5, though this issue is essentially resolved later in the body of the chapter.
Similarly, the description of the data analysis is quite short (44-45). It would have been helpful to have more clear and concrete examples of how the data were coded. For example, the author explains that the interview data were coded for theoretical categories and constructs such as “discourse-related language selection and social roles that interactants seemed to play in their interactions” (44), but no concrete examples were given from the data itself, nor was a comprehensive list provided for the reader. Finally, the author stresses a few times that she used micro-discourse analysis instead of Conversation Analysis for this study, but her plans or procedures for this type of analysis are never explicitly described.
Overall, the strength of this study is its application of a model of bilingual interaction to traditional university language learners, which expands our understanding of the challenges and affordances that informal social interactions present to learners. This study reveals that even for motivated learners, opportunities to use the L2 in informal interactions are limited; however, it usefully expands the discussion by proposing solutions by which students may overcome these challenges.
Auer, J. C. P. (1984). Bilingual Conversation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Auer, J. C. P. (1988). A conversation analytic approach to code-switching and transfer. In M. Heller (Ed.), Codeswitching: Anthropological and sociolinguistic perspective (pp. 115-135). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Milroy, L. (1987). Language and social networks. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.