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Emotion and Cognition in Action: An Ethnographic Microanalysis of Elderly Language Learners and Their Teacher

  • Author(s): Amador, Laura L.
  • Advisor(s): Erickson, Frederick D.;
  • Schumann, John H.
  • et al.

This dissertation develops an empirical basis for the notion that entry points to cognition in adult second language (L2) learning are organized by emotional displays situated in real time learning. Specifically it examines the affective practices and forms of thinking that elderly participants use to manage and make sense of classroom events. As a case study of situated emotion and cognition among a group of elderly language learners and their teacher, this investigation provides a detailed ethnographic and talk-in-interaction analysis of classroom interaction and engagement with spoken and written foreign language Spanish. Several questions guide this qualitative investigation more generally. How is emotion situated in everyday classroom activities and when is it more prevalent? How do classmates and the teacher respond to affective displays? How do subjects manage communicative difficulty as opposed to triumphs, and what kind of meaning or understandings do they attribute to these events? What are possible neural substrates of the observed behavioral patterns and how might current brain research help us understand such interactive patterns? What implications do findings have for language practitioners and learners of different ages? In this study, ethnographic and conversation analytic methods are used to document classroom conduct as well as participant perspectives related to such conduct, with the goal of addressing the above questions. The project consists of seven months of fieldwork in an informal second language Spanish class at a community-based center for seniors in the greater Los Angeles area; the result of which is almost 30 hours of participant observation and video documenting everyday classroom interactions and 10 hours of audio recorded interviews.

This dissertation has at its core, the idea that an important dimension of emotion is its dialogic quality and dependence on the social environment for meaning. Such qualities are visible and audible for example in social emotions such as affective stance, empathy and in behaviors such as laughter (Linell, 2009). First, it sheds light on activities and participation structures that are commonly invoked in the setting and explores the subjects' motives for learning another language. Second, it illustrates how multi-modal affective displays acquire their significance and function from interactive exchanges between peers in the classroom and from broader contexts including past experience. For example, laughter acquires variable function and meaning, but may play a central role in inviting affective involvement and directing particular attention to language use. How attention is affectively organized in language learning has implications for the accomplishment of communicative goals, and for the shaping of activities to fit needs and desires (Kramsch, 2009a).

Next, this report reveals that affective displays play a central role in how activities are organized and in the learning environment that is established. This is important given that theoretically speaking, threats to self-image may generate perceptions that positively or negatively impact engagement or action tendencies in children and young adult learners of second languages (Schumann, 2001a, Schumann et al., 2004; Horwitz et al., 1986; Guiora, 1983). In this case, whether or not participants are vulnerable to image threat, and how they manage experiences is constrained by a complex intermix of variables. Finally, subjects are found to process experiences in ways that require the use of a broad knowledge base, invoking emotions that are relevant to their collective and individual purposes and needs. Selected research in neurobiology is used to develop one or two hypotheses about the neural substrates underlying the observed patterns of behavior. This report discusses how emotion is necessary for decision making in language learning and reveals how thinking may be dependent on one's stage of life and the learning situation one is more likely to encounter in such a stage. A range of social scientific, neurobiological and psychological literature is consulted throughout this dissertation with the goal of explaining findings and increasing our knowledge of a poorly studied age group. In all, this project sheds light on situated emotion in real time language learning (the good, the bad and the ugly), its variable role in smoothing interactions and its meaning potential across different contexts.

Such a study of social interaction in the classroom has implications for our understanding of how emotion is situated in culturally specific ways through and for language learning across the life span and how affective displays are used tactically to achieve local and broad goals. It also has implications for language practitioners and learners looking to emphasize and use facilitative emotion (Dewaele, 2011; Pavlenko, 2005) and for those looking to understand how emotion awareness can be exploited as part of teaching and learning praxis (Kinginger, 2004; MacIntyre, 2002).

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