Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development

James P. Lantolf & Steven L. Thorne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. xi + 398.

Reviewed by Ozgur Yildirim
Anadolu University
Eskisehir, Turkey

Lantolf and Thorne s Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development describes the development and application of sociocultural theory, a theory of the development of higher mental functions, oriented research inspired by Lev Vygotsky. Focusing on theory, research, and applications, this book is a splendid source not only for researchers and graduate students, but also for language teachers who want to familiarize themselves with sociocultural theory and its potential contribution to the language classroom.
The authors organize the book in twelve chapters which are divided into three parts: introduction (chapter 1), theory (chapters 2-10), and practice (chapters 11-12). The aim of the initial chapter is to provide the reader with background information regarding sociocultural theory and its connection to language. Authors begin this chapter by giving a terminological clarification of the concept of sociocultural theory and devote the rest of the chapter to the discussion of developing a sociocultural orientation to language and communicative activity (p. 3).
In the next nine chapters, the authors discuss the primary concepts within sociocultural theory. Chapter 2 focuses on the concept of the genetic method, research methodology proposed by Vygotsky for investigating the higher forms of mental behavior. Chapters 3-5 focus on the central concept of sociocultural theory, mediation, which is based on Vygotsky s fundamental claim that higher forms of human mental activity are mediated by culturally constructed auxiliary means (p. 59). Chapter 3 then explores the theoretical issues of this concept whereas chapters 4 and 5 address how it operates in the case of L2 learners. Chapters 6 and 7 discuss internalization, another core concept of sociocultural theory, which refers to the process of development that is co-constructed via interpersonal and intrapersonal negotiations. Chapter 6 sets up the theoretical framework and chapter 7 discusses the relevance of the concept for L2 development. Chapters 8 and 9 address the issue of activity theory, a later development within sociocultural theory research. Chapter 8 provides the background and chapter 9 discusses L2 research that use activity theory as its base. Chapter 10 focuses on the concept of the zone of proximal development, an aspect of sociocultural theory which has received great attention both in the field of education in general, and in the field of second language learning in particular. It also provides a historical overview of the concept as well as discussion of the concept in contemporary L2 research and pedagogy.
The last two chapters of the book, chapters 11 and 12, describe two pedagogical applications of sociocultural theory to second language instruction. Chapter 11 focuses on systemic-theoretical instruction, a model of instruction based exclusively on sociocultural theory. In this chapter, the authors discuss in detail how this model relates to language leaning by providing specific examples from studies conducted on the application of the model on second language instruction. Addressing another pedagogical approach widely based on a core aspect of sociocultural theory, the zone of proximal development, chapter 12 discusses dynamic assessment. In this final chapter of the book, providing examples from different studies, the authors discuss the conceptual basis of dynamic assessment, its differences from non-dynamic assessment, and its application on the language classroom.
Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development is a seminal volume for several reasons. First of all, it is one of the first books that comprehensively integrate sociocultural theory, research, and practice from the standpoint of second language instruction. Second, it is an excellent source of sociocultural theory related literature as it reviews many texts that focus on Vygotsky-inspired research. Third, it helps the advancement of L2 research and practice bringing solid explanations to some potentially complicated concepts such as dynamic assessment. It is, however, worth mentioning that some language teachers who are not actively involved in research might find this book highly theoretical. Although there are two complete chapters focusing on application, they discuss relevant studies instead of providing ready to use classroom activities or lesson plans that a teacher might expect to find in the book. Regardless, the book is a highly significant contribution to the fields of second language instruction and applied linguistics as it bridges a wide gap in the current knowledge of language learning, teaching, and assessment.