Reflections on complexity: TESOL researchers reflect on their experiences


Complex Dynamic Systems Theory (CDST), or complexity, is increasingly being used as a theoretical framework in Applied Linguistics. In this article, we present the reflections of researchers in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) about how they have made use of complexity in their work. The aim of this article is to take stock of how it is being used in the field, the challenges and benefits it provides, as well as inspiration for future work from this theoretical perspective. In the first part of the article, we present a concise overview of CDST, focusing specifically on three salient features: its holistic lens, its non-linear perspective on causality, and its focus on emergence and self-organisation. We also take stock of how complexity perspectives have been used to inform research in a variety of applied linguistics topics. We then move on to present narratives provided by nine academics who have employed CDST in their work, which we synthesise with a view to showing how the theory has gradually developed in TESOL. Early encounters of the field with CDST were usually serendipitous, but the theory has so far proved to be useful, both on account of its descriptive power and because of its phenomenological validity. A common theme in the narratives of these experiences of complexity researchers is that complexity is associated with a steep learning curve, compounded by terminological opacity, and conceptual challenges. However, their responses also indicate optimism regarding the potential of the theory to inform research in TESOL and applied linguistics more generally.


SLA; language learning; complex dynamics systems theory

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Published : 2018-12-14

KostoulasA., & MercerS. (2018). Reflections on complexity: TESOL researchers reflect on their experiences. Theory and Practice of Second Language Acquisition, 4(2). Retrieved from

Achilleas I. Kostoulas
University of Graz  Austria
Sarah Mercer 
University of Graz  Austria

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