Intersubjectivity: Is there an app for that?

If I had to reduce language learning to the bare essentials and then construct a methodology around those essentials, it might look something like this (from Edmund White’s autobiographical novel The Farewell Symphony):

[Lucrezia’s] teaching method was clever. She invited me to gossip away in Italian as best I could, discussing what I would ordinarily discuss in English; when stumped for the next expression, I’d pause. She’d then provide the missing word. I’d write it down in a notebook I kept week after week. … Day after day I trekked to Lucrezia’s and she tore out the seams of my shoddy, ill-fitting Italian and found ways to tailor it to my needs and interests.

Whatever theoretical lens you view this through, Lucrezia’s ‘method’ contains the right mix. Those who subscribe to the ‘learning-is-information-processing’ view will approve of the output + feedback cycle and the covert focus on form. Those of a sociocultural bent will applaud Lucrezia’s scaffolding of learning affordances at the point of need. Dynamic systems theorists will invoke the soft-assembly of language resources in a coupled system. What’s more, my own recent experience of trying to re-animate my moribund Spanish suggests that the single most effective learning strategy was ‘instructional conversation’ with a friend in a bar. That is to say, the same kind of ‘clever method’ that White celebrates above.

But, of course, unless you have a willing partner, such intensive one-to-one treatment is costly and not always available. Could this kind of conversation-based mediation be engineered digitally? Is there an app for it?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInteractive software that replicates human conversation has long been a dream of researchers ever since Alan Turing proposed the ‘Turing Test’ in the 1950s, which challenged programmers to design a machine that could outwit a jury into thinking that they were interacting with a real person.

While no one has yet met Turing’s conditions in any convincing way, programs, such as ‘chatterbots’, have certainly managed to fool some of the people some of the time, as in this example, where the ‘bot’, called AOLiza, is ‘chatting’ with an unsuspecting human interlocutor (‘ten’):

ten: hey james,how you been?
AOLiza: have you asked anyone else?
ten: no, should I?
AOLiza: why ‘no’?
ten: i don’t know, like to get it from the source. what’s up?
AOLiza: does that trouble you?
ten: does what trouble me?
AOLiza: are such questions much on your mind?
ten: sorry, missed the last. could u resend?
AOLiza: i’ve told you that apologies are not required.
ten: ok. so how are you?
AOLiza: why do you ask?
ten: just wondering. how’s the job? the family? stuff like that.
AOLiza: have you asked anyone else?
ten: about what? normally no one else is “on” when I am. this is the first chance I’ve had to actually talk to someone I don’t work with and haven’t seen.
AOLiza: why do you ask?
ten: just curious. making conversation, stuff like that.
AOLiza: does talking about this bother you?
ten: talking about what? I’m still not sure what we are discussing. I just asked you how you were… have me at a disadvantage

The truth of the matter is that, of course, the machine is not having a conversation, but, by following a relatively simple set of algorithms, is simulating having a conversation. Even a more sophisticated program based on ‘big data’, i.e. one that was able to crunch the residue of millions or even billions of such conversations, and then select its responses accordingly, would still be a simulation. Conversation, unlike chess, is not constrained by a finite number of moves. More importantly, what the program would lack is the capacity to ‘get into the mind’ of its conversational partner and intuit his or her intentions. In a word, it would lack intersubjectivity.

Intersubjectivity is ‘the sharing of experiential content (e.g., feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and linguistic meanings) among a plurality of subjects’ (Zlatev et al 2008, p.1). It appears to be a uniquely human faculty. Indeed, some researchers go so far as to claim that ‘the human mind is quintessentially a shared mind and that intersubjectivity is at the heart of what makes us human’ (op.cit. p. 2). Play, collaborative work, conversation and teaching are all dependent on this capacity to ‘know what the other person is thinking’. Lucrezia’s ability to second-guess White’s communicative needs is a consequence of their ‘shared mind’.

It is intersubjectivity that enables effective teachers to pitch their instructional interventions at just the right level, and at the right moment. Indeed, Vygotsky’s notion of the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) is premised on the notion of intersubjectivity. As van Lier (1996, p. 191) observes:

‘How do we, as caretakers or educators, ensure that our teaching actions are located in the ZPD, especially if we do not really have any precise idea of the innate timetable of every learner? In answer to this question, researchers in the Vygotskian mould propose that social interaction, by virtue of its orientation towards mutual engagement and intersubjectivity, is likely to home in on the ZPD and stay with it.’

Intersubjectivity develops at a very early age – even before the development of language – as a consequence of joint attention on collaborative tasks and routines. Pointing, touching, gaze, and body alignment all contribute to this sharing of attention that is a prerequisite for the emergence of intersubjectivity. In this sense, intersubjectivity is both situated and embodied: ‘Intersubjectivity is achieved on the basis of how participants orient to one another and to the here-and-now context of an interaction’ (Kramsch 2009, p. 19). Even in adulthood we are acutely sensitive to the ‘body language’ of our conversational partners: ‘A conversation consists of an elaborate sequence of actions – speaking, gesturing, maintaining the correct body language – which conversants must carefully select and time with respect to one another’ (Richardson, et al. 2008, p. 77). And teaching, arguably, is more effective when it is supported by gesture, eye contact and physical alignment. Sime (2008, p. 274), for example, has observed how teachers’ ‘nonverbal behaviours’ frame classroom interactions, whereby ‘a developed sense of intersubjectivity seems to exist, where both learners and teacher share a common set of gestural meanings that are regularly deployed during interaction’.

So, could a computer program replicate (as opposed to simulate) the intersubjectivity that underpins Lucrezia’s method? It seems unlikely. For a start, no amount of data can configure a computer to imagine what it would be like to experience the world from my point of view, with my body and my mind. Even my highly intelligent dog doesn’t understand what I mean when I point at its ball.

Moreover, the disembodied nature of computer-mediated instruction would hardly seem conducive to the ‘situatedness’ that is a condition for intersubjectivity. As Kramsch observes, ‘Teaching the multilingual subject means teaching language as a living form, experienced and remembered bodily’ (2009, p. 191). It is not accidental, I would suggest, that White enlists a very physical metaphor to capture the essence of Lucrezia’s method: ‘She tore out the seams of my shoddy, ill-fitting Italian and found ways to tailor it to my needs and interests.’

There is no app for that.

To see other posts by Scott Thornbury, try Who ordered the McNuggets?, How could SLA research inform Edtech and Writing by numbers: The myth of coursebook creativity


Kramsch, C. 2009. The multilingual subject. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richardson, D.C., Dale, R. & Shockley, K. 2008. ‘Synchrony and swing in conversation: coordination, temporal dynamics, and communication’, in Wachsmuth, I., Lenzen, M. & Knoblich, G. (eds) Embodied communication in humans and machines, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sime, D. 2008. ‘”Because of her gesture, it’s very easy to understand” – Learners’ perceptions of teachers’ gestures in the foreign language class.’ In McCafferty, S.G. & Stam, G. (eds) Gesture: Second language acquisition and classroom research. London: Routledge.

Van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy & authenticity. Harlow: Longman.

White, E. 1997. The farewell symphony. London: Chatto & Windus.

Zlatev, J., Racine, T.P., Sinha, C., & Itkonen, E. (eds) 2008. The shared mind: Perspectives on intersubjectivity. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Image: legoalbert via Compfight cc. Text added by ELtjam.

21 thoughts on “Intersubjectivity: Is there an app for that?”

  1. Actually I think there are a few apps for that. Mostly they are apps that connect people to other people though. For me that’s the real power of technology.

    I really liked Hello Talk which I use with my wife to improve my Spanish

    Reviewed it here:

    Also the school I work for now uses technology to connect teachers and students. Increasingly students are having there lesson via mobile phone from wherever they happen to be at the time.


    Nik Peachey

    • That’s an interesting idea to have your lesson by mobile phone. How do your students manage the shared experience of learning, and the interactivity that Scott is talking about? Do you as a teacher just modify your content to place less emphasis on this aspect, or do you find creative solutions to the issue?

  2. Fair point, Nik – and short of f2f, skype’s the thing. I know – I just did a q&A session with a group of teachers in Moldova, thereby kerbing my carbon footprint while spreading the word about low-tech teaching!

    • Levy (Computer-Assisted Language Learning: Context and Conceptualization, Clrendon Press 1997) conceptualises the computer as both tutor and tool. What you state in the article, Scott, is that ‘the computer as tutor’ has a long way to go before it can ever replace a human teacher, which is a fair point. Nik’s counter-argument is that although this is true,’the computer as tool’, however has already proven its worth in language learning – in fact, the computer as tool now allows us to communicate in different ways and with more people than ever was possible before.

      • Again, fair point, Graham – and the distinction between tutor and tools is a worthwhile one, although I wonder if it’s a simple as that. What about the way that pedagogical interventions are embedded in the communication itself, so that they partly mediate it? In a word, tutor and communication tool are meshed. At a very basic level, this takes the form of spell- and grammar-checks, where the (written) communication is adjusted at the point of utterance. Likewise, predictive writing tools are now available, which second-guess the next word or words in your text. It’s not difficult to imagine similar corrective and predictive functions being developed for spoken language… and being touted as the best thing since sliced bread. But again, such tools would be working purely on the basis of a set of algorithms sifting through a big data-base – not on any intuitions about the speaker’s intentions. So, my blog post was partly motivated by a wish to pre-empt the kinds of claims that proponents of big data and its associated technologies (now or in the near future) are making / will make, about the redundancy of the (physical) teacher.

        In fact, the development of such tools may be sidelined by the rapid progress in translation software. It seems that Skype is set to launch its ‘real-time universal translator tool’, hyped as technology that allows ‘humans to bridge geographic and language boundaries to connect mind to mind and heart to heart in ways never before possible’. This, more than anything else, might spell the end of language teaching as we know it! For more, see: and

  3. Just to add to Nik’s point, a study that attempted to compare the interpersonal effects of computer-mediated communication versus face-to-face communication found that ‘participants who spoke with their partner FtF increased their reported oneness (i.e., self-other overlap) and a liking for their partner’. Moreover, ‘participants’ impressions of their partners more closely resembled their partners’ self-descriptions when interacting FtF then over the computer. These data support the idea that FtF interaction, and the abundance of social cues inherent in it, make it a better conduit by which individuals may gauge characteristics of others.’ This (to me) suggests better conditions for creating intersubjectivity.

    On the other hand ‘the participants who communicated FtF also reported greater difficulty sustaining the conversation and generating topics to discuss with their partner’.

    So, you win some, you lose some.

    Okdie, et al. (2011) ‘Getting to know you: face-to-face versus online interactions’. Computers in Human Behaviour.

  4. I agree with everything you say. However, I also think that not all forms of language learning/teaching require that someone understands your mind. T.P.R. can go pretty far with a teacher that does not necessarily understand your mind (just what you do) and games of all kind are often predicated on the assumption that I can shield my mind from yours.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mike. But I would have to disagree. The whole point of (most competitive) games is that we’re playing within the (cognitive as well as physical) space we share, even if we think we can hide. The fact that we both inhabit this cognitive space, but don’t always know where the other one is, is what makes it fun. The poker player, the chess player, the tennis player, the kids playing tag in the playground, are all second-guessing what the other is going to do next, based on their ability to ‘put themselves in the mind of’ their opponent. TPR is the same – think of the playful version of it, i.e. ‘Simon says’. The ‘caller’ is watching for those cues that signal that the players have been lulled into a false sense of security, so as to be able to trick them into making the wrong move. The players are watching the caller’s every move, attempting to second-guess his intentions, because they know what it’s like in there . Your highly intelligent dog, playing ‘chase the stick’ has no clue that you might try to trick him now and again by pretending to throw it but not, because he can’t get into your head. He just thinks you’re not a very reliable stick thrower. Your highly intelligent computer is equally dumb.

      What’s more, ‘because computers cannot come to us and meet us in our world, we must continue to adjust our world and bring ourselves to them. We will define and regiment our lives, including our social lives and our perceptions of our selves, in ways that are conducive to what a computer can “understand”. Their dumbness will become ours.’ Auerbach, D. 2012. ‘The stupidity of computers’ n+1 magazine, Issue 13.

  5. Hi Scott,
    I’m struck by the need for greater learner training when it comes to language exchange programmes, whether done online as Nick reminds us is possible, or face to face as you describe in your self-directed Spanish booster drive a while ago. In both White’s intensive Italian conversations with Lucrezia and the intercambio you enjoyed with your Spanish friend, there was a well-conceived methodology framing and shaping the learning through these interactions. I would say that any disadvantage you may have suffered in your Spanish learning because of your age was more than offset by a pretty reasonable understanding of best practice!
    I would argue that teachers could be doing a lot more in class to help their learners maximise the potential of their English encounters outside class. This new area of ‘learner training’ seems to me to be one of our greatest challenges now that learners have direct access to many of the tools that were once exclusively in the possession of the educators. Learners need us more than ever, to show them how to use these tools and to remind them of the intersubjective nature of language learning.

  6. ‘Learners need us more than ever…’ Agreed, Daniel – and , if nothing else, to expose the phony claims made by deliverers of online language courses. A quick google came up with the following (from four different sites):

    Our interactive audio/visual Learning Lounge will help you learn a foreign language. There’s also an addictive Lingo Dingo game to help you on your online language learning journey. … If you want verbs, there are over 350 verbs to help you with your language study.

    Start speaking right from the first lesson. ****’s integrated speech recognition helps improve your pronunciation.

    All learning material is delivered entirely online, meaning no CDs, flash drives, or DVDs to ever bother with. If you have access to a web browser, you have access to the most complete language-learning program ever.

    ***** is your made-to-measure, intelligent teacher who uses artificial intelligence to adapt the course to your level, progress, and motivation to personalise your learning experience.

    Who needs a teacher when you can play lingo dingo?

  7. We and the computers have been both approaching a validated version of, and making irrelevant, the Turing test since Turing came up with it. The gap between computers and a pass in Turing is becoming smaller: people falling in love with robots (happens rarely) isn’t that far from people loving their phones more than their parents (which happens). And the gap between us and computers is becoming less important: Google ‘Chinese restaurant’ and you’ll find your computer knows far more about you’re looking for from those two words (and all the other data gathered about you) than the nearest person. So what if it doesn’t know how to respond to ‘I love you’?

    Some day soon the robots will rise, Scott. When they do, they will come looking, and reading blog posts like these denouncing them. And when they do, will _you_ understand how _they_ feel?

  8. Scott, are you becoming a near-Krashenite after a career writing books that help us to explicitly teach discrete language items? Here are the questions you need to answer to set my mind at rest:

    1) Is explicit presentation and explicit practice worth doing? We know that they don’t lead to production in the same lesson, indeed that it takes weeks/months and often never gets there. But can they help? Lucrezia didn’t supply them, and your native speaker friend in the bar also didn’t (or if he did your point is lost). If you wish, we can repackage the first two Ps as ‘noticing’ so as to get rid of some of the baggage. But are they worth doing?

    2) If present-practice is worth doing, then why not online? Classroom and coursebooks are also good for PP of course, but these may be inaccessible for reasons of cost/location/time. A mixture of online and classroom would be ideal.

    3) Lucrezia supplied missing single words. Who supplies syntax? Who explains syntax? Who supplies collocations? Who explains the difference between related words? Who points out false friends? Lucrezia can’t – native speakers are unaware of the mechanics of their own language.

    4) If supplying these things is important, then why not online? Again, classroom and coursebook also good, but may be inaccessible. And again, a blended solution best of all.

    5) Are Edmund White and you typical or not typical as language learners? You both can learn and improve by having informal conversations with native speakers who provide missing words. I know that I, on the other hand, cannot. So let’s take a much bigger sample, in fact the biggest possible. Let’s consider all the first generation immigrants in every country in the world. They live a life full of interactions with native speakers, real-life tasks, comprehensible input. After ten years, how good is their English? For some of them, yes, it’s very good. For most, it’s not.

    6) And why cannot production and fluency be attempted F2F online? The interaction may not be as effective when there are webcams involved – a cafe might suit many people better – but isn’t online better than nothing? Actually, I personally would prefer online to a cafe. I would be much more focussed and attentive. I believe that in most conversations with most Lucrezias we would both quickly give more attention to the interesting content than to supplying and writing down missing words. I know that I would exit the cafe with my interlanguage largely unchanged, because I had many such experiences while living in Portugal. I enjoyed the coffee and the chat but didn’t have the cognitive resources to focus on both form and meaning at the same time. Certainly if I had to choose just one location for fluency work, a classroom would beat either online or a cafe. Always assuming that the teacher was experienced at giving me personalized feedback.

    So, in brief, in the light of Lucrezia do you now disdain explicit teaching? And if you don’t, then why cannot some of it (noticing, awareness, presentation, controlled practice) be done very effectively online? And why cannot the other more messy parts that require output also be attempted online?


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