A Sociocultural Approach to Learner Autonomy in the Language Classroom

Tetsushi Ohara, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University

Ohara, T. (2019). A sociocultural approach to learner autonomy in the language classroom. Relay Journal, 2(1), 17-26. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/020103

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Approaches to understanding learner autonomy in language learning often contain dichotomous views: those that emphasize individual attributes and those that emphasize social influence. In order to articulate our understanding of learner autonomy, it is necessary to find approaches, which view a dialectic unity between the individualistic views and the social views. Sociocultural theory based on the concept of mediation is an approach, which has potential to offer a unique way to analyze learner autonomy. While using sociocultural theory as the main theoretical framework, this article attempts to understand how students take charge of their learning in the language classroom. Qualitative data indicate that interpersonal relationships between students work as mediational means for students to engage in their learning in the classroom. From this finding, it is argued that by understanding mediational means that students employ and are appropriate in the classroom, we are better able to track the students’ ability to take charge of their own learning.

Keywords: learner autonomy, classroom, sociocultural theory, mediation


Approaches to language learning often fall into two categories: those that emphasize individual attributes and those that emphasize social influence. As Rogoff (1995) argues:

Development research has commonly limited attention to either the individual or the environment … with an emphasis on either separate individuals or independent environmental elements as the basic unit of analysis. (pp. 139)

Recent books on learner autonomy also describe the existence of a dichotomy between the individualistic and the social approaches. For example, Benson and Cooker (2013) allude to this dichotomy in explaining the genesis of their book about identity, motivation, and autonomy in language learning:

Our starting point was the observation that social approaches have tended to define themselves in opposition to the individualistic ‘Other’ of the mainstream SLA [Second Language Acquisition] research. (pp. 11)

As one of the approaches to overcome the dichotomy, Benson and Cooker (2013) suggest sociocultural theory. The emphasis of sociocultural theory is on the mutuality of the individual and the sociocultural environment. This drives the theory’s concern to find a unit of analysis that contains the essence of the events of interest, rather than separating an event into elements which no longer function as a whole (Rogoff, 1995, p. 140). Through the dialectic unity between individuality and social dimensions, sociocultural theory provides a new perspective on learner autonomy by presenting a way that captures the fact that learners live in the middle of both individualistic and social perspectives. This paper attempts to identify how students engage in their classroom learning and articulate the concept of learner autonomy, which is often defined as the individual learner’s ability to take charge of his or her own learning (Holec, 1981, p. 3), in a university language classroom context using sociocultural theory.

The Unit of Analysis

Critical to the methods of analysis in studies of the psychological structure of thought and language, Vygotsky proposes a unique approach to understanding thought and language. According to Vygotsky (1962), most psychologists adopt a method that analyses complex psychological wholes by breaking them down into elements. For example, this results in “the chemical analysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen, neither of which possesses the properties of the whole and each of which possesses properties not present in the whole” (Vygotsky, 1962, p. 3). Vygotsky (1962) criticizes this method of analysis:

Psychology winds up in the same kind of dead end when it analyses verbal thought into its components, thought and word, and studies them in isolation from each other. In the course of analysis, the original properties of verbal thought have disappeared. Nothing is left to the investigator but to search out the mechanical interaction of the two elements in the hope of reconstructing, in a purely speculative way, the vanished properties of the whole. (pp. 3)

Thus, Vygotsky (1962) proposes what he calls “analysis into units” (p. 4). A unit is a product of analysis which possesses all the basic properties of the whole and which cannot be further divided without losing the basic properties (Vygotsky, 1962, p. 4). Vygotsky (1962) considers that the unit of verbal thought is word meaning because a word without meaning is but an empty sound and each word is a generalisation of thought.

Despite Vygotsky’s concern that a unit maintaining the properties of the whole must be analysed rather than each element being analysed separately, it is difficult to agree that word meaning is such a unit. Wertsch (1985, p. 197) indicates the difficulty of perceiving mediated processes such as memory or attention in the microcosm of word sense. Word meaning alone is not adequate to understand the complex contexts of human life. Leont’ev (1978) also argues the inadequacy of word meaning as a unit to be analysed because word meaning is too far removed from the concrete activity of people in their world. Thus, the appropriate unit of analysis is “tool-mediated goal-directed action” (Lantolf, 2000, p. 7). In classroom settings, we would need to analyse how students engage in a class activity using mediational means in order to understand how students take charge of their learning.

Interaction in the Japanese language classroom

The data shown in this section come from the second semester of an introductory Japanese language course at an Australian university. The data were collected in a tutorial class of the Japanese language course, which consisted of lectures, tutorials and seminars, during the 13-week semester. Tutorials helped the students to engage in the basic practice and use of the linguistic structures and vocabulary introduced in the lectures. Students also worked on the written Japanese scripts of hiragana, katakana, and kanji in writing-related exercises such as dictation (hereafter all Japanese terms are written in italics). However, the students were encouraged to interact with one another even during the writing exercises so that they were able to help each other to improve their writing. Thus, interactive activities in pairs or small groups occupied most of the tutorial time. In order to collect the data, I conducted observations of the Japanese language classroom with video and audio recordings and interviews with students and teachers (week 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13). The following analysis will focus on a relationship between a student named Jane, who is originally from Hong Kong, and another student named Ben, who is an international student from Korea, in the tutorial consisting of 21 students (all students’ names are pseudonyms in this article). Jane and Ben were good friends because they had taken the first-semester of the introductory Japanese language course and played badminton together outside the classroom.

Dialogue 1 below is an extract from interactions between Jane and Ben in the week 11 tutorial. They were engaged in a dictation activity and the teacher asked Ben to write the answer to the second question on the white board. The answer was kinou wa kaze ga tsuyokute, samukatta node, jaketto o kimashita [Because it was windy and cold yesterday, I wore a jacket]. Jane and Ben were trying to figure out how to write ‘jacket’ in Japanese katakana after they had worked out how to write some kanji characters in the dictation answer.

Dialogue 1

  1. Jane: Kaze. Tsuyoi. [Kanji for “wind”. Kanji for “strong”]
  2. Ben: Have we learnt?
  3. Jane: Yeah I think we learnt tsumetai [kanji for “cold”] but not tsuyoi [kanji for “strong”]…
  4. Teacher: Dewa, ni-ban kakimasu ka. Ni-ban. [Yes. Then, do you (Ben) write the second question. The second.]
  5. Jane: Ben-san. Hahaha [laugh] …
  6. Jane: I hope I was right. Is it ‘jaketto’ [emphasizing katakana spelling for “Jacket”], alright? Is it?
  7. Ben: ‘Jaketto
  8. Both Jane and Ben were checking the textbook.
  9. Jane: Ah.
  10. Jane and Ben: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
  11. Ben walked up to the front of the classroom to write the answer.
  12. Jane: Ganbatte! [Work hard or good luck!]
  13. Ben: A, hai. [Oh, yeah.]


As this example shows, Jane and Ben not only did exercises together but also had a rapport with each other.  In the week 11 interview, Jane and I listened to the audio recording of this interaction and I asked her about this part of interaction between Jane and Ben:

Interview 1

  1. Interviewer: And basically, you guys are speaking in English in this part … But in the last part, it becomes like “Ganbatte”. This part is in Japanese again, right? How do you decide when you speak Japanese and English?
  2. Jane: I think if I said “Ganbatte”, then Ben-san would be like hmm, “Ganbaru, ganbaru [he will work hard, work hard]”. Hmm, “Ganbatte” then. Hmm, maybe a little bit closer.
  3. Interviewer: I see.
  4. Jane: Because if I said it in English, maybe not this close.
  5. Interviewer:
  6. Jane: When I push him … Do the right thing!

Jane and Ben often used short Japanese expressions such as ganbatte and damare [shut up] (when they were making fun of each other) which they had learnt from outside the Japanese classroom. Jane’s usage of “Ganbatte!” showed their close relationship as they shared Japanese expressions that expressed a degree of emotional attachment.

Ben explained in the week 11 interview that interaction is an important tool for him to learn Japanese in the classroom:

Interview 2

  1. Ben: … when I want to study alone, I can study even outside of the class. In the class, I have friends… who study the same thing. So. It’s like, it’s a kind of opportunity to interact.
  2. Interviewer: Ok.
  3. Ben: And I can ask… because Jane is from Hong Kong, so she knows more about kanji than me.
  4. Interviewer: Ok.
  5. Ben: So, it’s more like easy… yeah.

Ben’s comments imply that each student has his/her own strengths, expertise or repertoire in terms of learning Japanese, and that students maximize their ability to learn Japanese by sharing their resources in the classroom.

Jane and Ben also indicated that their interactions with classmates became limited when they were not able to create a rapport with them. Jane and Ben usually sat together in the classroom as they had been good friends since the previous semester. In the tutorial that Jane and Ben attended, the teacher re-arranged the students’ seats in week 10. Jane indicated in the week 11 interview that she not only felt uncomfortable with talking to classmates with whom she was not familiar in class but that she also felt unwilling to talk to the classmate she had been asked to sit next to.

Interview 3

  1. Interviewer: Actually, sensei [teacher] decided where you sat and what do you think about it? More comfortable or uncomfortable, or you don’t like it or you like it?
  2. Jane: Uncomfortable.
  3. Interviewer: Uncomfortable, yeah.
  4. Jane: Yeah, if the person I sit next to was the one that I speak a lot, maybe, ah very interested in interacting with him, classmates and maybe better. But the girl I sat next to was kind of rude. I asked a question to her and she didn’t answer me.

It is assumed that Jane and her partner’s interpersonal relationship collapsed in their pair work. Thus, Jane could not utilize the interaction with the classmate to enhance learning. Ben also mentioned in the week 11 interview that sitting with unfamiliar classmates could minimize the interaction between students.

Interview 4

  1. Interviewer: Which do you prefer [between the class you can choose your own seat and the class the teacher decides your seat]?
  2. Ben: Hmm, probably this week [the class he can choose his own seat]…
  3. Interviewer: Ok. Why?
  4. Ben: Because like with my friend yeah, I would like to speak more. But if I sit with other people that I really don’t know, even though they, we have a conversation, like we just ask a question and finish. And we don’t say anymore.

Because the recording of classroom interactions was not scheduled for week 10, it is difficult to know exactly what interactions Jane, Ben and their classmates had in the week 10 tutorial. However, from Jane and Ben’s comments in the week 11 interviews, it seems likely that they had awkward moments and were not able to have constructive interactions during the class activities with the classmates they did not know.

Research indicates that interaction is an important factor for classroom language learning. Lotman (1988) indicates the importance of dialogic function of text, which tends to emphasize “dynamism, heterogeneity, and conflict among voices” (Wertsch 1998, p. 115) and generates new meanings through interaction among voices. Due to the differences in experiences, knowledge and skills, each student has his/her own perspectives and approaches in language learning. The differences among students create a multivocal environment (the dialogic function in Lotman’s terms) when they interact with each other in the classroom. The multivocal environment in the classroom encourages students to reflect on what and how they are learning as they can listen to a variety of opinions and perspectives from other students and teachers. Students can use the reflection as a “thinking device” (Lotman, 1988, p. 36) to critically examine their understanding and develop new perspectives on language learning, which is related to taking charge of their learning.

Ushioda (2011, p. 21) also argues for these more interactive classrooms:

When students are enabled to voice opinions, preferences, and values, align themselves with those of others, engage in discussion, struggle, resist, negotiate, compromise or adapt, their motivational dispositions and identities evolve and are given expression.

It is important for students to have opportunities to share their opinions and thoughts in terms of motivation and identities related to language learning. Northwood and Thomson (2012) find that university students attend classes because they want not only to study the academic subjects but also to socialize with friends. Socialization is an important motivation for participating in classroom activities. Mideros and Carter’s (2014) study shows that positive interdependence and active collaboration play an important role in students’ development of listening skills through active negotiations which make students aware of the role their peers can play in the development of their skills. Thus, it is important to organize classroom activities in which students have opportunities to interact with other students and teachers in dialogic ways to develop learner autonomy.

In terms of taking charge of their Japanese language learning in the classroom, it could be argued that Jane and Ben were able to expand their ability to take charge of their learning in week 11 compared to week 10 because they had begun to draw on each other as learning resources and motivational sources through the collaborative interaction with each other in week 11. As Jane and Ben’s example suggests, students’ interaction becomes limited when they sit with unfamiliar classmates as this unfamiliarity may inhibit them from initiating and/or expanding interactions. Jane and Ben’s experiences show that the learning system created through their interpersonal relationship is an important mediational means in their process of taking charge of their learning in the classroom.

Mediational Means as Keys to Understand Learner Autonomy

The above data shows that Jane and Ben are not executing their abilities to take charge of their learning in the classroom as an individual agent but they are expressing their abilities though their interpersonal relationships as mediational means. In his study focusing on the ways in which the navigation team on a U.S. Navy ship constitutes a cognitive and computational system, Hutchins (1995) argues that human cognition is socioculturally distributed among its members. Participants (students and teachers) in the classroom have different abilities and experiences in terms of language learning. Thus, it is argued that knowledge and skills are distributed among the classroom participants. Murray (2014, p. 244) indicates that the outcome of these multiple components interacting is a complex system:

Emergence … occurs when elements of an environment self-organize—interact and combine—to form a complex system which is greater than the sum of its parts.’

The ability to take charge of one’s own learning emerges, then, from the student’s engagement and interaction with linguistic and social resources including other students and teachers in the classroom. Classroom learning is always socioculturally created by dynamic systems that include students and teachers interacting with each other and with a variety of teaching/learning materials such as textbooks, notebooks and computers. Classroom learning is also affected by classroom structures and rules as well as by teaching/learning styles. Therefore, if we take an individual student as the unit of analysis, our understanding of the student’s ability will be greatly limited. Instead, by understanding mediational means that the student employs and appropriates in the classroom, we are better able to track the student’s ability to take charge of one’s own learning.


This paper has argued that the formation of interpersonal relationships among the students is an important factor in students’ ability to take charge of their own learning in the language classroom. The ability to take charge of one’s learning is almost always socioculturally mediated. The students’ ability to take charge of their Japanese language learning in the classroom becomes more clearly visible when we analyze and understand interpersonal relationships and collaborative interaction among the participants in the classroom. The ability to take charge of one’s own learning in the classroom is based on “an attribute of system created by the irreducible tension” (Wertsch, 1998, p. 35) among students and teachers in the classroom. The interpersonal relationships are not external factors influencing how the students engage in their own learning but are integral components of students’ ability to take charge of their own learning in the classroom.

Notes on the contributor

Tetsushi Ohara is a senior lecturer in Japanese at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU). His research interests include articulating the concept of learner autonomy, applying sociocultural theory to language learning/teaching, and designing class activities to promote active learning. He is also a coordinator of the Self-Access Learning Center at APU.


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2 thoughts on “A Sociocultural Approach to Learner Autonomy in the Language Classroom”

  1. (* this format may be a little different than that of other respondents. If you have any questions please let me know.)

    Dear Tetsushi,

    It was interesting to read your observations of classroom interaction and student comments responding to stimulated recall interviews. Focusing on a Sociocultural Theory (SCT) based approach to language learning, certainly gives this study strong theoretical support. The abstract suggests good direction in identifying and documenting self-mediation and peer mediation. Furthermore, examining the classroom for self-mediation and peer mediation follows Vygotsky’s assertion that concepts must first exist in the social realm, then be taken into the personal realm (internalized) by the individual. Thus, this is a natural extension of extant research on SCT in language classrooms (Neguerruela, 2011; van Compernolle, 2012; Lantolf & Poehner, 2014).
    Also noteworthy, was your deft hand at handling the tricky issue ‘word meaning’ as the unit of analysis. Vygotsky’s original intention of ‘word meaning’ has become a point of contention among SCT researchers. The issue of ‘unit of analysis’ was even part of several AAAL presentations this year in Atlanta. The disagreement stems from differing definitions of what exactly Vygotsky meant. If you are interested, Lantolf & Thorne (2006, Chp. 8) offers a look at the evolution of the Activity Theory from Leont’ev to Engestrom. For a broader look at meaning through communication as a unit of analysis (including non-verbals) see Johnson and Golombek (2016).
    I will share one question that arose as I read your study along with a few comments:
    1) Exactly what is the working definition of “taking charge of their learning”?
    2) I would love to see more classroom data.
    3) I think readers would benefit from an explicit discussion of how mediation is identified in the data.
    To begin with my question: The phrase “take charge of” is used several times throughout the paper. However, it is not totally clear if “take charge of” refers to students becoming better at planning and organizing or if it refers to more theoretically driven ideas like self-mediation. Does it mean becoming a better learner? If so, why? Clarification of this phrase, and its use in other literature, will strengthen its application to the analysis.
    As for data, your reader is presented with significantly more interview data than classroom data. Considering the size of your data set (6 weeks of video and audio recordings of classrooms over 13 weeks) what is presented feels limited. It would be compelling to see additional interactions to support the analysis – either from Jane and Ben or from other pairs/groups – accompanied by some description of why the reader received these particular examples. Why are these data the best to highlight something that you observed?
    The interview data, in contrast, was much more extensive in the article. Although this interview data contains powerful elements in and of themselves, this type of data has less impact to prove mediation in the classroom. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that student observations and epiphanies (resulting from interviews) are useless data. They can be excellent for understanding students’ perceptions of their own motivations. However, without clear grounding in the classroom data (either by description or dialogue) the interview data inundates the reader with participant opinion. As a result, if space is an issue, I would suggest condensing or minimizing space allocated to interview data in favor of poignant and clearly organized classroom data.
    Finally, I would love to see more about mediation in the paper. You stated that mediation offers a tool for better understanding learner autonomy. This idea is appealing and is supported by the work of researchers in autonomy (Murphey, 2003; Mynard, 2012). However, it is never directly addressed in the analysis or discussion of data within this paper. In fact, the term ‘mediation’ is not mentioned at all in connection to the data. As this term is central to the argument, it should be kept front and center. The books suggested above by Johnson and Lantolf offer great information about mediation in the L2 classroom and their writing should provide strong examples of how to wield the term mediation as part of your discussion. Personally, I find Johnson and Golombek’s writing succinct and informative for discussing mediation and interaction in classroom studies.
    To conclude, this article’s core argument – that studying mediation can offer additional insight into students’ progress towards autonomy – is compelling. I want to know more. The data presented suggests potential not only for the present study but also for future adaptations. Having collected video data for half of a semester, there is no doubt that the author could illustrate further connections. This article appears to focus on broad connections between “mediational means that students employ and are appropriate in the classroom” and developmental progress. Building on that in the future, a more focused study of how peer-mediation in the classroom is later expressed as self-mediation (perhaps something like the verbalization of katakana-ization of English words as whispered self-speech) would also be interesting and might be found within the same data.
    I look forward to hearing back from you on this research and am more than happy to discuss sections of your paper or address anything that I have not made clear.
    Suggested Additional References:
    Johnson, K. E., & Golombek, P. R. (2016). Mindful L2 teacher education: A sociocultural perspective on cultivating teacher’ professional development. New York: Routledge.
    Lantolf, J. P. & Thorne, S. L. (2006). Sociocultural theory and the genesis of second language development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Lantolf, J. P. & Poehner, M. E. (2014). Sociocultural theory and the pedagogical imperative in L2 education: Vygotskian praxis and the research / practice divide. New York: Routledge.
    Mozzon-McPherson, M. (2007). Supporting independent learning environments: An analysis of structures and roles of language learning advisors. In J. Rubin (ed.), Counselling in language learning settings. Special issue of System, 35(1), 66-92.
    Murphey, T. (2003). Learning to surf: Structuring, negotiating, and owning autonomy. In Barfield, A. & Nix, M (Eds.), Learner and teacher autonomy in Japan 1: Autonomy you ask! (1-10). Iizuka, Japan: JALT Learner Development Special Interest Group.
    Mynard, J. (2012). A suggested model for advising in language learning. In Carson, L. & Mynard, J. (Eds.). Advising in language learning: Dialogue, tools and context (26-40). New York: Routledge.
    Negueruela, E. (2011). Beliefs as conceptualizing activity: A dialectical approach for the second language classroom. System, 39, 359-369.
    Van Compernolle, R. A. (2012). Sociocultural theory and L2 instructional pragmatics. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

  2. Dear Bryan,

    Thank you for your comments on my article. I am glad to receive comments from someone who specializes in sociocultural theory (SCT) as I am still in the process of figuring out what learner autonomy means in language classroom contexts.

    Currently, I am thinking that mediation can be seen through different ways (this idea may be related to the issue of “unit of analysis”). As a language teacher, I have been thinking about how students engage with their learning in the classrooms. I started to think that the interpersonal relationships among students may be important factors for language learning if we consider language learning as not only acquiring grammar and vocabulary but also obtaining different perspectives on learning and using the language. On the one hand, we can analyze how peer-mediation leads to self-mediation as you indicate. On the other hand, learning based on the concept of mediation can be analyzed through the lens of activity systems and communities including expanding (Engeström, 2018), distribution of cognition (Hutchins, 1991), situated learning (Lave and Wenger, 1993), etc. My idea and approach are getting closer to the latter as I view a classroom as a community. In any case, as you indicate, I will need to articulate my argument more effectively using additional data.

    For “taking charge of”, in general, I consider that how students set their own goals, choose the process of learning and execute, and evaluate their learning process is the main meaning of “taking charge of”. These processes contain a variety of “control” as Benson (2001) indicates. I am also thinking that it connects with “agency”. Wertsch et al (1993) and Wertsch (1998) describe an appropriate designation of agent as “an-individual-operating-with-mediational-means”. In addition, agency includes “an awareness of the responsibility for one’s own actions” (van Lier 2008) as well as “the ability to assign relevance and significance to things and events” (Lantolf and Thorne 2006). From this perspective, I might be able to say taking charge of one’s own learning in this study is related to how and why students act (to learn Japanese) with what mediational means while being aware of the relevance and consequence of their action in order to achieve their goal of language learning.

    Thank you very much for your comments and suggestion.


    Benson, P. (2001). Teaching and Researching Autonomy in Language Learning. Harlow: Pearson Education.
    Engeström, Y. (2016). Studies in Expansive Learning: Learning What Is Not Yet There. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.
    Lantolf, J. P. and Thorne, S. L. (2006). Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    van Lier, L. (2008). Agency in the classroom. In J. P. Lantolf and M. E. Poehner (eds), Sociocultural Theory and the Teaching of Second Languages, 163–188. London: Equinox.
    Wertsch, J. V. (1998). Mind as Action. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
    Wertsch, J. V., Tulviste, P. and Hagstrom, F. (1993). A sociocultural approach to agency. In E. A. Forman, N. Minick and C. A. Stone (eds), Contexts for Learning. Sociocultural Dynamics in Children’s Development, 336–356. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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