Autonomy, social interaction and community: a distant language learning perspective

Murphy, Linda (2014). Autonomy, social interaction and community: a distant language learning perspective. In: Murray, Garold ed. Social Dimensions of Autonomy in Language Learning. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 119–134.


Language learning is being transformed by the opportunities for social networking and construction of distributed communities ushered in by web 2.0 technologies. Together with the desire for flexible learning driven by social and economic change, these opportunities have fostered increasing use of distance, distributed or blended learning, supported by a shift in second language development theories from a person-centred, individualistic perspective on the process and nature of learning to a view of learning as a social process, situated in a particular context or situation (Thorne and Smith, 2011).
The shift in focus has led to reconsideration of what it means to be an autonomous language learner and the interplay between autonomy and motivation in a socially situated view of language learning. This is exemplified in the work of researchers such as Ding (2005), Little (2001) and White (2003), who have argued that social interaction and collaboration is an essential aspect of autonomous learning, requiring interdependence and collaborative control. The work of Lave and Wenger (1991) indicated the role that communities of practice play in a situated view of learning. Ushioda, (2009) has emphasised that language learners cannot simply be labelled as such, but identify themselves with many different communities. In distance learning, these communities take on particular significance as learners forge what White (2005) has termed a ‘learner-context’ interface.
After outlining the theoretical relationships between autonomy, social interaction, motivation and communities of practice, this chapter explores how the multiple community memberships of distance learners of French, German and Spanish may support autonomous language learning and motivation through the development of ideal L2 selves (Dörnyei, 2005), drawing on examples from a study of learners’ social strategies and learning activities carried out at The Open University (UK). It will conclude by considering implications for practice and further research.

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