Second Language Use as a Threshold Concept: Reconceptualising Language Learning Journeys

Luke Carson


While the word ‘threshold’ is used in language learning frameworks, a threshold concept from a learning theory perspective refers to a “transformed way of understanding” (Meyer & Land, 2006), that brings with it an ontological shift in the minds of learners. This paper discusses the possibility that the jump from learning a language to learning and using a language in certain contexts may be such a threshold concept in certain EFL contexts. This discussion follows a mapping of the characteristics of threshold concepts onto the act of learning a language for the purpose of communicative competence. This understanding posits that active communication in a foreign language can be both simultaneously more difficult and more meaningful than educators may always recognise. Drawing on what learning theory has discovered about ‘troublesome’ learning, the discussion provides a reframing of some learner journeys to becoming communicators. This paper discusses this issue from three perspectives. Firstly, it outlines what learning theory and theorists have discovered about threshold concepts. Secondly, it puts forward the notion that in some university contexts (with specific reference to Japanese university EFL contexts), active communication in a second language may be a threshold concept for students who are still second language ‘communication novices’. Finally, it discusses some of the curricular, instructional and assessment design implications of this position.

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