Complexity in Advising for Language Learning: From Theory to Practice

Maria Giovanna Tassinari, Language Centre, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.

Tassinari, M. G. (2022). Complexity in advising for language learning: From theory to practice. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 13(2), 182–198.


Research on advising for language learning has benefited from various theoretical frameworks, such as sociocultural theory, ecological theory and, in recent years, the theory of complex dynamic systems. With its holistic perspective on second language acquisition, the theory of complex dynamic systems helps integrate the manifold aspects involved in language development. It recognizes the interrelation of individual and social aspects, of internal and contextual factors, and places the focus on the various, interconnected/ inseparable dimensions of the language learning process.

In this paper I will first illustrate some principles of complex dynamic systems theory and their impact on research on second language acquisition and language learner autonomy. Then, I will focus on advising for language learning, as a means of supporting learners as they become more autonomous and they implement change in their unique learning trajectories. Drawing on research on advising from the perspective of complex dynamic systems, I will show how this metatheory helps expand our understanding of advising beyond its conceptualization as a one-to-one interaction between a learner (advisee) and an advisor, by integrating the reflective dialogue between advisor and advisee into additional processes in which both advisor and advisee are involved. Finally, I will reflect on some implications for my own advising practice.

Keywords: complexity theory, advising for language learning, language learner autonomy, advising models

The theory of complex dynamic systems (CDS) has been accepted as an appropriate metatheory in applied linguistics to illustrate and investigate second language development processes, learner autonomy, self-access language learning, and advising for language learning (see, among others, Kramsch, 2012; Larsen-Freeman, 1997, 2017; Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008; Magno e Silva & Borges, 2016; Oxford, 2017; Paiva, 2006). The main contribution of CDS theory is a new, holistic perspective on the various systems involved in the language learning and/or development process. This perspective allows us to recognize the manifold interrelations among the dimensions of this process, such as the cognitive and metacognitive, the affective, the psychological, the social and cultural dimensions. In addition, it allows us to overcome traditional dichotomies while looking at language learning, among others, the dichotomy between cognition and emotion and that between individual and social dimensions of the learning process.

Furthermore, CDS theory allows us to integrate the role of the interconnection between individual aspects of learning, such as the learner’s beliefs, attitudes, or motivation, the learner’s biography, their perceived and desired identities, and the learning and social environments in which learners act and learn.

When applied to advising for language learning, as a form of support for learner autonomy, the complexity perspective helps to underpin a new understanding of advising, going beyond the traditional definition of advising as a personal interaction between advisor and advisee, viewing advising as a complex process itself, in which advisor and advisee are themselves involved in manifold processes and environments.

As a theory of change (Larsen-Freeman, 2017), complexity theory is particularly appropriate for helping advisors expand their view of the learner and their unique learning trajectories, considering the interconnection of individual, social and contextual factors.

In the following sections, I will illustrate some principles of complexity theory and their contribution to our understanding of second language acquisition processes, autonomy, and advising for language learning. Then, I will draw some implications for the practice of advising.

Complex Dynamic Systems (CDS)

A seminal definition of CDS in second language acquisition was proposed by Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008a, 2008b). In a few words, CDS are:

systems that emerge (spontaneously occur) from the interaction of their multiple components (Larsen-Freeman, 2015; Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008). Components of the systems can be agents, e.g. individual birds coming together to form a flock, or elements, e.g. moisture, air currents, and temperature interacting to create a weather system, or both agents and elements. (Oxford, 2017, p. 114)

In second language learning, agents of the systems are learners, teachers, advisors, peers, friends, or other persons from the institutional and social contexts; components of the system are, amongst others, the linguistic input, the learning materials, the learning environment and the institutional, social, cultural and political contexts. These and other aspects contribute to the development of the learner’s language competence. Both agents and elements of the systems are themselves complex dynamic systems.

CDS are complex, dynamic, open, emergent, self-organizing, co-adaptative, non-linear, unpredictable, chaotic and sensitive to initial conditions and feedback. CDS are complex and dynamic. Their complexity is due to the fact that their components (agents and elements) “are both interconnected and spatially/temporally context dependent” (Juarrero 2000, p. 26, cited in Larsen-Freeman, 2017, p. 16). They are dynamic, since they have “the potential to undergo radical change at any time” (Larsen-Freeman, 2017, p. 16). They are open, since they “take in and expend energy, matter, or information, depending on the type of system” (Larsen-Freeman, 2017, p. 16).

They are emergent and self-organizing. Emergence, as “the spontaneous occurrence of something new” (van Geert, 2008, p. 182, cited in Larsen-Freeman, 2017, p. 15), is a crucial property of CDS and arises when elements and/or agents of the system interact as a whole and/or with the environment and create changes in the system. Self-organization, as a feature of the reciprocal interaction of the components of the system, arises as well from the emergence dynamic.

In the dynamics of CDS, attractors can be identified as the opposite poles to emergences: While emergences are occurrences of something new – often sudden changes arising within a CDS – attractors are stable states or set of states, islands of stability, towards which a system tends to develop.

CDS are co-adaptative. Their components are interconnected by relations of mutual causality, in which changes in one system or in one component of the system lead to changes in another system or in another component as reciprocal influences, which continues over time (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008b).

CDS are nonlinear. In nonlinear systems “the effect is disproportionate to the cause” (Larsen-Freeman, 1997, p. 143): a small change in one of the components or one of the parameters of the system can have a significant effect and inversely, a significant change can have a very little effect or no effect at all. A well-known case of this nonlinearity is the butterfly effect: “[A] variation in the specification of an initial parameter which is as tiny in magnitude as the force of a butterfly’s wing flap can across time […] produce very different outcome states” (Byrne & Callaghan, 2014, p. 19, cited in Larsen-Freeman, 2017, p. 17).

This brings us to the properties of chaos and unpredictability. Developments in the system follow unpredictable and unexpected patterns. In addition, the system can evolve in many different ways and the same cause can produce different effects under different circumstances (Larsen-Freeman, 2017).

CDS evolve in space and time, thus creating their own trajectories among the various existing possibilities. A CDS trajectory is the result of the subsequent changes taking place within the system. Along the trajectory, attractors can generate stability, or on the contrary, emergences can generate changes within the trajectory or even result in a new trajectory.

In a vivid spatial metaphor, a complex dynamic system is visualized as wandering across a landscape, up hills and down through valleys, occasionally coming to a halt when a valley is too deep to get out of easily but resuming its journey if it gathers enough energy to escape. The landscape includes areas where the system hovers on the edge of various, very different possibilities. (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008a, pp. 45–46, cited in Magno e Silva et al., 2015, p. 689)

Complexity Theory and Second Language Acquisition

Looking at language and at second language acquisition (SLA) from the complexity perspective means on the one hand looking at language itself as a dynamic, open system, influenced by its users and their interaction, and developing over time (Larsen-Freeman, 2017). On the other, it means considering language learners and users as individuals interacting in a given context, both adapting to the context and changing it, gradually, over time. In addition, it means considering language learners as individuals who change over time, both in their individual characteristics (for example motivation, beliefs, attitudes) and in their learning behavior and strategies (Larsen-Freeman, 2017). Thus, their language learning process is unique and non-predictable in its trajectory, as language learning in general is a non-unidirectional, non-linear sociocognitive process, in which

[a] person’s history of interactions with diverse interlocutors builds up collections of experiences that contribute to the language, cognitive, affective, and ideological resources that are available to be drawn on. (Larsen-Freeman, 2017, p. 27)

Moreover, each learner – as well as each person involved in the language learning and teaching process – can be considered a complex system, steadily interacting and co-adapting with manifold subsystems, such as their different identities (for example as a language learner, as a student, as a member of their family, as a friend), their commitments, their experiences, their wishes, their feelings, their imagined future selves (Matos & Morhy, pp. 185–190).

Language Learner Autonomy from a Complexity Perspective

As a system embedded within the CDS of SLA, language learner autonomy can be seen as a complex dynamic system itself. While defining autonomy as the learner’s metacapacity to take control of their learning process to different extents and in different situations, Tassinari (2010) pointed out that autonomy is a complex construct – a construct of constructs – entailing manifold dimensions constantly interacting with one another: a cognitive and metacognitive dimension, an action-oriented dimension, a motivational dimension, an affective dimension, and a social dimension. A more explicit definition of autonomy as a complex dynamic system comes from Paiva:

[Autonomy is] a complex socio-cognitive system, subject to internal and external constraints, which manifests itself in different degrees of independence and control of one’s own learning process. It involves capacities, abilities, attitudes, willingness, decision making, choices, planning, actions, and assessment either as a language learner or as a communicator inside or outside the classroom. As a complex system it is dynamic, chaotic, unpredictable, non-linear, adaptative, open, self-organizing, and sensitive to initial conditions and feedback. (Paiva, 2006, pp. 88–89, cited in Braga & Paiva, 2008, p. 447)

Among the manifold systems involved in an autonomous language learning process we can identify the learner, with their characteristics, their beliefs, motivations, attitudes, experiences, emotions and feelings; other actors in the language learning and teaching process, such as their teachers, advisors, facilitators, and peers and the mutual relationships among these actors; family, friends and the relationships learners entertain in their social context; the institutional context in which learners and teachers – or other actors – are active, the constraints and opportunities they offer; the linguistic input; the learning materials; the multiple learning environments in which learners act and interact, the affordances they may identify in these; the educational system and the socio-cultural and economical context in which the learning process takes place. All these systems are self-organizing, co-acting and co-adapting at various levels according to the properties mentioned in the previous section. For example, according to the properties of chaos and unpredictability, a teacher’s feedback over time might have little or no effect on a learner’s pathway, whereas a remark from a friend, a situation or a dialogue grasped while watching a movie, or an experience in another context (for example in a yoga class, or while training for a sports competition) might contribute to radical changes in the learner’s behaviour. The development of learner autonomy and changes that may occur along the learning trajectory, need time. Thus, time is a central element in the dynamics of the SLA and of learner autonomy.

An insightful overview of the internal and external agents, elements and processes which may occur in the autonomisation process, and of the tight network of interaction among them is presented in the model by Borges (2019) represented in Figure 1. In this model, the context is illustrated through a dotted line that encompasses and permeates all interactions which occur in the context itself. Thus, from a complexity perspective, the context is an integral part of the process and has an active role in it, both influencing changes and being influenced by the changes (Borges, 2019; cf. also Oxford, 2017).

As a metatheory, complexity theory refers to already existing research approaches to SLA. The focus on dynamic interconnections between agents and context(s) integrates the ecological perspective (van Lier, 2004) and the Person-in-Context Relational View (Ushioda, 2015) which considers relationships between learners and their sociocultural environments and within individual learners as essential to an understanding of the SLA process (cf. Oxford, 2017). In addition, the centrality of the space-time dimensions of the dynamics allows the bio- and ethnographical perspectives to be integrated in the language learning process.

All these aspects play a crucial role in the advising process, as I will illustrate in the following section.

Figure 1.

Autonomy Development as a Complex Phenomenon (Borges, 2019, p. 59)

The components of Borges’ model: autonomization (in the middle) planning, actions, emergence, transformation, evaluation (the green circles); affordances, attractors, agents (the orange circles); reflection, negotiation, collaboration (the red circles); identities, motivation, other subsystems, affect, beliefs (the blue circles) (translation MGT).

Advising for Language Learning from the Complexity Perspective

Advising for language learning (advising) is a one-to-one interaction between a learner (advisee) and an advisor aimed at supporting learners in becoming more autonomous as they become aware of their learning process, and transform it in order to learn effectively according to their needs, goals and the opportunities offered by their social and learning environments. (Mozzon-McPherson & Tassinari, 2020, p. 123)

At the core of the advisor-advisee interaction is the “intentional reflective dialogue”, in which the advisor “intentionally activate[s] learners’ reflective processes in language learning” (Kato & Mynard, 2016, p. 6) in order to engage learners in “transformation of learning” (Kato & Mynard, 2016, p. 6). This dialogue intentionally focuses on:

raising a learner’s awareness of and enhancing their reflection on their learning needs, motivation, habits, and beliefs, in order to support their capacity to make informed decisions about their learning and to promote transformation (Shelton-Strong & Tassinari, 2022, p. 187).

Advising: An Ecological Model

A comprehensive model of advising is represented by Mynard (2021) as shown in Figure 2. From an ecological perspective, this model identifies both agents and elements involved in the advising process: the learner, the advisor, the dialogic interaction between them, their internal (reflective) dialogue, as well as the dynamic tools used in the advising process, and the multiple learning environments in which learner and advisor act and learn.

Figure 2.

The Dialogue, Tools and Environments Model for Advising in Language Learning (Mynard, 2021, p. 49)

Besides intentional discursive strategies in the advising dialogue itself, advising makes uses of various “dynamic tools” that facilitate learning, reflection on and the transformation of the learning behaviour, and decision making: cognitive tools, such as questionnaires, self-assessment tests or worksheets to support cognitive and metacognitive development; theoretical tools, aimed at enhancing knowledge of the language learning process or of learning, social or affective strategies; and practical tools, such as logbooks, or learning plans, aimed at facilitating the learning process.

In an ecological perspective, essential components of the advising dialogue are the multiple environments in which learner and advisor act and learn: on the one hand, the advising setting itself, for example the self-access centre, the physical or virtual space in which advising takes place; on the other, the learning environments in which learners may engage.

Starting from this model, a possible approach towards a complexity perspective on advising would be to consider both advisee and advisor as agents – and complex dynamic systems themselves – within the advising process and to consider elements and subsystems of the advising process, such as advisee and advisor’s individual characteristics, their mutual relationship, their relationship to peers and others within and outside the institution and the learning environments, affordances and challenges perceived, to name just some aspects. In addition, as highlighted by Borges (2019), it would be useful to integrate the model within a context which both encompasses and permeates all interactions.

Advising from a Complexity Perspective

An exhaustive investigation of advising from a complexity perspective has been completed by Walkyria Magno e Silva and her research team at the Federal University of Pará, Belem (cf. Magno e Silva et al. 2015; Magno e Silva & Borges, 2016; Castro & Magno e Silva, 2016). These research projects provide insights into the advising process and the role advisors may have in sustaining learners’ motivation, supporting the development of their autonomy, and helping them to identify attractors and emergences in their learning trajectories. In addition, this research sheds light on advisors’ professional development as part of the complex system itself (cf. Castro, 2018; Borges & Rabelo, 2016; Magno e Silva, 2016; Matos & Morhy, 2016).

From this perspective, advisors are seen as “potential agents of change”, as perturbators in the learner’s trajectory, helping them to overcome ineffective learning and behaviour patterns and embrace new pathways in their learning process (Magno e Silva, 2016). Within the advising process, particular attention is paid to how the advisor-advisee relationship and their interactions contribute to influencing the learner’s development. A crucial aspect in building this relationship is to consider the advisee’s multiple identities, and how these may hinder change, creating basins of attractors, or, on the contrary, enhance change, producing emergences. Thus, a learner’s familiar identity, their caring role towards their parents, their social identity, their need to bond with and help friends, their identity as a learner, as a university student, their imagined future identities, all these elements potentially influence the learning process (Matos & Morhy, 2016).

When the advising process and advisor-advisee interactions are explored, elements can be identified that hinder transformation in the learning trajectory and in the advising process itself. Some of these elements include co-adaptation between the advisee and the advisor, the use of directive language, or inappropriate use of comforting words (Magno e Silva, 2016). Co-adaptation occurs when the advisor adapts to the advisee by, for example, not confronting them when they have failed to implement learning steps agreed upon in previous meetings. Co-adaptation can thus lead to inertia, which is prejudicial to the advising process – and possibly even to the learning process itself.

Another obstacle to the development of the advising process is the use of directive language: failure to offer alternatives or a tendency to express judgements can lead to advisee’s demotivation and/or dependency on the advisor; both are obstacles to the development of autonomy.

Even comforting the advisee can function as an attractor, for example if this minimizes the advisee’s perception of a given situation. This could happen if, when the advisee reports failure in an exam, the advisor answers: “It’s not the end of the world, many others fail the first time they take that exam, you’ll do better next time.” The dividing line between providing psychological support and adopting an oversimplified comforting strategy is very thin. Therefore, as advisors we need to be very careful with our words, our body language and even our thoughts.

In order to support the advisee in transforming their learning process, the advisor needs to identify possible attractors, raise the advisee’s awareness of these, and/or of the changes the advisees may have already been able to implement. Changes within the learning trajectory can be enhanced by asking open and powerful questions, acknowledging and accepting negative affect and resistance, broadening the advisee’s perspectives, confronting the advisee with a particular behaviour, or gently challenging them (Shelton-Strong & Tassinari, 2022).

Reflection, both as self-reflection and as reflection within a group, such as in peer-mentoring or a research group, is at the core of the advisor’s professional and personal development, which is itself a CDS, in which various elements and systems co-exist and interact (Bradley et al., 2016; Magno e Silva, 2016;; Tassinari, 2017).

Implications for Practice

Having summarised these insights into CDS as a metatheory for understanding advising, and as a result of reflecting on my own advising, I will briefly draw some implications for the advising practice.

The complexity perspective helps to sharpen our view of the dynamic interaction between advisors and advisees in advising sessions. This interaction is influenced by both individual, internal aspects – such as personal beliefs, wishes, attitudes, emotional states – and external factors – such as the advising setting itself, institutional constraints and social and cultural aspects. All these elements and systems may either hinder or enhance change in the advisor-advisee relationship, in the learning process, in the learner’s personal development and/or in the advisors’ professional development. In other words, the complexity perspective helps broaden our understanding of advising, by integrating the ecosystems in which advisees and advisor live and learn. A tentative illustration of this perspective is presented in Figure 3.

Figure 3

Advising from a complexity perspective.

Considering the Learner-in-Context

One major implication for conducting advising sessions consists in including in the advising discourse not only the advisee’s individual characteristics, such as their motivation, beliefs, attitudes, emotions and feelings, and how these influence the learning process, but also a focus on the bigger picture, considering the learner-in-context (the “Person-in-Context-Relational View”, Ushioda, 2015, cited in Oxford, 2017, p. 102). Advisors can achieve this by expanding the scope of the advising discourse to address the advisee’s personal life situation and the contexts in which they live, as well as by examining together with the advisee how these may interfere with their learning project. In other words, advisors should be encouraged to consider the ‘landscape of possibilities’ in which the advisee’s learning can unfold and thus raise the advisee’s awareness of agents and elements within and beyond the institutional context that may influence their behaviour.

A recent example from my advising practice of how a personal life situation influences the learning process, and in particular the advisee’s learning strategies, is that of Magdalena (name changed). Magdalena was an exchange student visiting Berlin as an Erasmus student during the pandemic. Due to the pandemic, Magdalena had barely any opportunities to get in touch with German students or German native speakers, and after some weeks, as her classes switched to online teaching, she was almost confined to her dormitory. For the advising process, it was essential to take this situation into account in an effort to find possible ways for her to practice and improve her German. In the first advising sessions, Magdalena mentioned a friend of hers, a student one year ahead of her who had been helping her learn German at their home university. I noticed the enthusiasm she showed while talking about her, reporting how her friend suggested she learn vocabulary by making lists of words while watching movies or listening to songs. While Magdalena spoke, her eyes shone, her smile was radiant and her voice became softer. This friend, she explained, was in Berlin too, enrolled in a parallel German course, only a couple of dormitories away from her own. Furthermore, she was still willing to help Magdalena. A wonderful resource. Although this meant for the time being sticking to an ‘old’ strategy, I could not but encourage Magdalena to keep working with her friend, so she could benefit from the motivation and enthusiasm this relationship instilled in her. Nonetheless, in the following sessions, I asked Magdalena to start thinking of other ways of expanding her strategies.

Considering Advisee’s Various Identities

         A second implication for the advising practice is the importance of considering the advisee’s various identities: knowing more about their identities as a learner, as a student, as a son or a daughter, as a friend, as a socially engaged person, as an athlete, as a musician, can help focus on their subsystems, elicit their wishes, goals, and resources as well as possible challenges. This can be achieved by asking questions that go beyond the language learning process itself, to raise awareness of attitudes and behavior patterns in the learner’s life that may be unconscious yet play a role in the learning process. Thus, learners can unveil successful strategies that helped them, for example, teach themselves how to play a musical instrument, and then transfer these to the field of language learning. The strategies might be affective, organizational strategies for managing a project, strategies for enhancing motivation or any other strategy.

Considering Trajectories

In the advising process, it is crucial to raise awareness of what can contribute to change and what can hinder it, and to support the advisee in overcoming possible difficulties and finding their own way in the learning process. Since every learner is unique, as are their trajectories, it may be difficult to identify a generalized list of factors susceptible of creating basins of attractors and/or producing emergences. Rather, both advisor and advisee need to remain open, observant and unbiased, to identify possible obstacles, bifurcations, resources, and opportunities for change. In addition, advisors need to be aware that the advising dynamic may be chaotic and unpredictable, and therefore be ready to anticipate possible relapses or backlashes in the learning process and to help the learner to deal with feelings of disappointment or frustration. In addition, they need to display patience and be ready to deal with their own emotions, such as disappointment or frustration, if necessary.

Involving other Actors

Since learners – and advisors – are part of various systems, it can be useful to involve, directly or indirectly, other actors in the reflection and/or in the advising process. For example, when student assistants attend my advising sessions as part of their training, they contribute their own perspectives to the discourse, either by sharing their own experiences as learners or simply by listening. Their contribution or their presence alone allows a third perspective to be integrated in the advising session. In other cases, the advisee’s teacher may talk to me and give me additional information about the advisee’s behaviour or performance in the classroom that helps me direct the advisee’s reflection on particular aspects of their learning. It is also possible to induce a change of perspective by asking the advisee to look at their situation from the point of view of another person (for example by asking systemic questions such as “What would your teacher / friend / grandmother say about…?”), or of their future selves.

Involving others in the reflection is also essential for advisors so that they can reflect on and question their own practice.

Reflecting on Advising

         Reflection on the advising practice is crucial for the advisor’s development. Personally, I seek opportunities to share experiences with colleagues, student assistants, and colleagues at other institutions. Writing about single advising sessions, doing research, reading and writing academic papers is an essential part of this reflection.

Considering Advising in Context

A further step in considering advising from the complexity perspective involves taking into account the immediate physical and institutional environment of advising, and how these reverberate in the advising process. For example, the room or the space in which advising takes place influences the communication, contributing a feeling of well-being or a lack of it; the institutional context, the way language advising is considered within the institution (by teachers, other learners and senior management) influence the overall and the learner’s appreciation of this service and the way the service itself evolves.


Reflecting on advising from the complexity perspective allows us both to broaden and deepen our view of the advising process. On the one hand, the context in which advising takes place, and the various contexts in which advisors and advisees live and learn should be considered as part of the advising process.

On the other hand, a deeper understanding of advising emerges by investigating the manifold factors contributing to how the advisor-advisee relationship evolves and of how the advising process may help enhance transformation in the learner’s personal and learning trajectory. A complexity perspective also allows us to focus on the advisor, on how their advising practice and reflection on their own practice contribute to transforming their personal and professional path.

Ultimately, as one participant in my research into advisor self-perception (Tassinari, 2017) expressed it, understanding language learning advising from the complexity perspective

involves a shift from practicing language learning advising in isolation to considering it an open system, connected to other processes, agents, phenomena and their influence as multiple causes for its success, resistance and/or failure. (Laura, advisor, in Tassinari, 2017)

Notes on the Contributor

Maria Giovanna Tassinari is Director of the Centre for Independent Language Learning at the Language Centre of the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. Her research interests are learner autonomy, language advising, and affect in language learning. She is co-editor of several books and author of articles and chapters in German, English and French.


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