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When we talk about learning in general, we must take into consideration that this is a process based on cognition and social interaction. As a teacher of English as a second language I work in a multicultural environment. I think that Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory is very relevant for second language learning. Vygotsky suggested that man needs symbolic objects, among which we find arithmetic systems, music, art and language, to establish a relationship of mediation or interaction with the world. For this reason, the individual must learn to use these symbolic objects and the only way to succeed is through the teaching received from members of his society who have already been taught by others. This is how man interacts with the world and learns, through symbolic objects in which language is found as the main mediation of mental activity. We must therefore acquire the language and appropriate it in order to be able to use it effectively.
Since Sociocultural Theory considers that language is not only a system of signs, separated from its use as established by Chomsky in his innate theory, but it is a sociocultural cognitive process of acquiring and developing a language system through social interaction; we can say then that language is a symbolic object essential for the life of every human being in society, for his interaction with the world and with himself; and also for his learning in general. In addition, language is the gateway to an individual’s identity, culture, religion, ideology and worldview. Thus, even if language and society are different concepts, they are interdependent because there is no society without a language used by its members to interact with each other and therefore there is no language without a society that can acquire it and use it. This social character of the language gives value to the Sociocultural Theory for the acquisition of foreign or second languages because every human needs interaction with others to communicate, learn, teach and create.
Learning arises from interaction with other individuals who have already acquired knowledge, appropriated it and used it independently. It is a process of knowledge building carried out by the individual until he or she reaches a more advanced level of knowledge, which is the Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding presented by Vygotsky (1978). In this sense, while it is true that in today’s world there are currently several ways for any individual to construct their own learning alone, by reading or searching for information on the Internet, we cannot say that it is a learning that is non-interactive because in one way or another it is using the help of others, knowledge that others have already expressed in books, magazines, web documents, videos, and any other informative material. The interaction of teachers, parents, friends, classmates or workmates who have more experience or knowledge, enables an individual to be motivated to reach a more advanced level of knowledge. This is the essence of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding.
Social interaction is therefore the basis of learning in general, because it allows us to build our knowledge. For this reason, as teachers in the field of foreign or second language learning, it is very important to take into account these somewhat dated yet still (in my opinion) relevant concepts and to recognize the need to encourage interactive learning and help. In my classroom I prioritize collaborative learning between students and I have found this to be a very effective tool in terms of second language acquisition. The energy created when people from different cultural backgrounds come together in a collaborative situation needs to be channeled in creative ways. It is a challenge for teachers to find creative solutions for teaching language concepts that can sometimes be complex. Gerunds and infinitives can be problematic for students who have a Latin-based first language and group work can be very effective in giving students the confidence to acquire this essential element of language. How we use infinitives is a vital component of the English language.
It is clear to me that the work of Vygotsky is still very relevant today for teachers of English as a second language. Collaborative learning helps to remove an unhealthy competition from the classroom and students learn to develop cooperation and solidarity. They also become aware that they are inter-dependent and that they learn a great deal from each other. This can apply to pronunciation as well as acquisition of language structures.
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