Sociocultural Theory

Brief Overview

This is a brief overview of the sociocultural theory for the reader to understand the main points. Readers are encouraged to study more in-depth to gain a full appreciation of the history, development, and implementation. At the end are guiding questions for the educator to contemplate instruction and sociocultural theory.

The sociocultural theory has become a prominent theory in second language learning and teaching in the past couple of decades. This is interesting as the theory actually dates back to the 1930s. The pioneer of this theory was Lev Vygotsky, and because he was operating in Russia during the Stalinist regime, the sociocultural theory was repressed and not fully realized to the world until recent decades.

The theory is very simple, but very powerful in its application to the learning of languages. The focus is not on the linguistic features of the L2, nor is it largely focused on cognitive factors within the individual; instead, the act of learning a language revolved around interaction as the causative force behind acquisition.

There are several key points that sociocultural theory makes.

  • Symbolic Mediation: This element is the key to the theory. Symbol mediation is the linking of individual’s current mental state to higher order features usually via language. The individual becomes aware of their mental capabilities and increases more control over thought processes. An example of this would be a baby wanting milk. The baby wants the milk, but cannot reach it. The baby struggles to grab it as it is too far away, and in frustration, says the word “milk” to his parents. His parents understand he wants milk and gives it to him. Now the baby realizes if he wants milk, all he has to do is point and say the word “milk.”
  • Intrapersonal Interaction: This is any interaction that happens within the individual. According to Vygotsky, there are two types of intrapersonal interaction: private speech and inner speech.
    • Private Speech: Private speech is normally done by children. It is audible talking that can be heard by others.
    • Inner Speech: Inner speech is normally performed by adults and is talking within the mind that cannot be heard by others.

This type of interaction is the restructuring or working to understand information done with no assistance from another.

  • Interpersonal Interaction: Interpersonal interaction is what happens between two or more individuals. Usually, this type of interaction is between the learner and an “expert.” Interpersonal interaction also gives credence to the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as a construct of learning.
  • Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): ZPD involves learners and their potential areas of development with assistance. The best way to think of this is to image the individual as a one inch circle. Surrounding the individual is a three inch circle of potential knowledge. With help from an expert, the student can fill up the three inch circle, but without the expert, the student will stay within his one inch area. One aspect to note, once students fill one zone, another zone opens up. So if the individual in our example fills up the three inch circle, then a five inch circle would encircle the three inch circle and the process repeats again.
  • Scaffolding: Scaffolding is the verbal guidance experts use to assist the student with knowledge or understanding. This connects with ZPD to provide assistance to help students increase in knowledge. Just like a scaffold assists painters or construction workers in reaching new heights, scaffolding in the classroom is the same concept.

The main basis for this theory is interaction. Whether the interaction is with culture, themselves, or individuals of higher knowledge, students need this interaction to increase in ability.

Find out more information on how to not to use sociocultural theory in our online SLA course. Get information and discounts on our course HERE.

How to Use

  • Scaffolding for Success: Educators should make sure that the lesson is structured in a way that increases understanding and facilitates learning. Read this article on scaffolding for more information.

Find out more information on how to use sociocultural theory in our online SLA course. Get information and discounts on our course HERE.


Final Thoughts

The sociocultural theory is great for enabling students to interact and use the language being learned. Not only does this engage the students, but the educator has more opportunity to monitor students to receive a better assessment of student levels; which can then be used to fine tune lesson plans in the future. This theory does not place much emphasis on language structure or factors outside the learner, so using this theory in conjunction with other learning theories may be in the best interest of the educator. Interaction is a great causative force that should be used in every classroom to assist language learning.