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Scollon, Ron

  1. Najma Al Zidjaly

Published Online: 5 NOV 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal1043

The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics

How to Cite

Zidjaly, N. A. 2012. Scollon, Ron. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 5 NOV 2012

1 Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Academic Background
  4. Major Contributions
  5. So What?
  6. References
  7. Suggested Readings

Ron Scollon (1939–2009) was a prolific writer, social activist, and scholar who contributed multivariously to the study of language in (inter)action. Scollon is the author and editor of 17 books and over 90 essays, articles, and reviews on child language acquisition, intercultural communication, literacy studies, anticipatory discourse, mediated discourse analysis, and public discourse, with a special focus on native Alaskan languages and Asian interethnic communication (much of his research is coauthored with his partner Suzanne Wong Scollon). Scollon was also a founding editor (for North America) of Visual Communication, a cutting-edge journal on visual semiotics, and worked extensively as an intercultural consultant and in helping document a number of Athabaskan languages and cultures. Scollon's mediated discourse theory and its methodological framework nexus analysis advanced the field of applied linguistics by influencing the way discourse analysis is conceptualized and practiced. His vast theoretical contributions additionally have had wide application in education, public discourse, and professional and intercultural communication settings.

2 Academic Background

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Academic Background
  4. Major Contributions
  5. So What?
  6. References
  7. Suggested Readings

Ron Scollon received his BA in Japanese linguistics in 1971, his MA in linguistics in 1972, and his PhD also in linguistics (language acquisition, Athabaskan) in 1974, all from the University of Hawai'i. At Hawaii, Scollon also received training in Athabaskan linguistics from esteemed Athabaskanist—and a student of Edward Sapir—Li Fang-Kuei, resulting in Scollon collaborating with Li on the documentation of Dene Suline, Chipewyan (Holton, 2009). Once graduated, Scollon opted for an untraditional academic path—changing posts relatively frequently and doing a great deal of outside consulting work and freelance writing. This nonconformity broadened his academic and personal experiences, enabling him to develop his nonconformist ideas about language and the social space it occupies in reality.

After sporadically teaching linguistics courses at the University of Hawai'i from 1974 to 1978, Scollon took a post at the Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska at Fairbanks. While holding this position (1978–83), Scollon helped document the Alaskan Native language of Tanacross. To connect Alaskan faculty and students who lived across a 1,280-mile span, in 1981, the Scollons used the University of Alaska computer network to become the first in North America—perhaps in the world—to use e-mail conferencing to teach graduate for-credit literacy classes—four years prior to the invention of the Internet. Scollon additionally became the first to use the ethnography of speaking and sociologist Erving Goffman's interactional framework in an Athabaskan context to combat interethnic discrimination. These initiatives together with Scollon's 1980 pamphlet on Athabaskan–English interethnic communication, according to Holton 2009, have impacted Athabaskan classrooms tremendously, where his work is still used.

From 1983 to 1992, Scollon was an independent scholar, consultant, and lecturer on communication in organizations, media, intercultural communication, and language education, with a client list of over 50 governmental, business, and educational agencies in the United States, Canada, and Asia. In 1992 he joined the English Department at City University of Hong Kong, where his ideas about culture and communication culminated in the widely used Intercultural Communication (coauthored with Suzanne Scollon) that placed Scollon as a preeminent expert in the field. In 1998, Scollon became a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, Washington, DC. In 2001, he launched his theory, mediated discourse analysis, which investigates a relationship that had perplexed him since his dissertation: that between language and human action. In 2005 Scollon retired professionally but continued being intellectually active.

3 Major Contributions

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Academic Background
  4. Major Contributions
  5. So What?
  6. References
  7. Suggested Readings

Scollon's academic journey (shared with Suzanne Scollon) has contributed to—and created—a number of academic fields within and beyond applied linguistics. The belief that language was a part of a whole and that the whole needed to be examined to understand the part of language (Norris, 2009) led Scollon to draw upon philosophy (Bhaskar & Nishida), psychology (Vygotsky & Wertsch), literary theory (Burke), sociology (Latour & Goffman), semiotics (Peirce & Hall), and even geography (Tuan) (Stockburger & Jia Lou, 2009).

3.1 Applied Linguistics

Scollon's contributions to applied linguistics fall into two categories: language acquisition and literacy studies. Scollon launched his academic career in 1976 with a book—based on his dissertation—on child language acquisition, Conversations With a One-Year-Old. Through a detailed case study, this book influenced the field of child language acquisition by introducing an innovative, interactional approach to language development. Scollon introduced the concept “vertical construction,” meaning one-word utterances that, as opposed to horizontal constructions such as sentences, are connected semantically but separated by pauses, intonation, and stress. This concept enabled Scollon, first, to demonstrate, contrary to then-held beliefs, the primacy of discourse development over syntactic development and, second, to showcase child agency in directing conversations, pointing consequentially to the centrality of interaction in language development. These original findings, according to Wright Fogle 2009, have impacted the field of first and second language acquisition ever since, evidenced by the continued use of many of his ideas, especially that of “vertical construction.”

Ron Scollon contributed further to applied linguistics in his 1981 book Narrative, Literacy, and Face in Interethnic Communication (coauthored with Suzanne Scollon), which examines the relationship between language socialization and literacy. This book is considered a classic of the academic field of new literacy studies, an interdisciplinary approach that views literacy as a social practice (Gee, 1996). Just as Conversations With a One-Year-Old changed how people conceptualized child language acquisition, Narrative, Literacy, and Face alerted researchers to the crucial role of home language socialization patterns in school literacy. It did so by showing how children from Arctic Village, Alaska were socialized into literacy at home differently than those in English-speaking homes, giving the latter an advantage over Athabaskan children at English-speaking schools. Literacy thus is argued to be a culturally situated social and political practice instead of a mere act of reading and writing. This new conceptualization of literacy—together with Scollon's numerous other works on literacy that reject the great divide between orality and literacy by arguing for multiple types of literacies—has demonstrated the need to take into account cultural differences in language socialization—a concept that had previously eluded academics and educators alike (Zavala, 2009).

3.2 Mediated Discourse Theory

Scollon's biggest contribution to linguistics is his innovative approach of mediated discourse theory and its methodological framework, nexus analysis. Scollon has always been interested in language; his theoretical position, however, differed from mainstream discourse analysts: while others took the primacy of language as a mode of communication at face value and backgrounded everything else as context, Scollon spent a lifetime and many publications, such as Mediated Discourse as Social Interaction (1998), dissecting this “context” to unravel the exact role of language in human action. These investigations have led to the following truisms: language is not the primary mode of communication; language and action are mutually constitutive; actions are social (they create identities) and are always mediated by either language or other nonlinguistic mediational means such as using a computer or gaze; discourse, thus, is best conceived as either a form of action or a component of action—as a mediational means. This calls for a new approach to the analysis of discourse.

In Mediated Discourse: The Nexus of Practice (2001), Scollon names this new theory mediated discourse analysis (MDA), which shifts the unit of analysis from language to the mediated action, the moment social actors act, in real time, using various discursive and nondiscursive mediational means. MDA draws upon and links theories that centralize action (e.g., mediated action and practice theory) with theories that centralize language (e.g., critical discourse analysis and interactional sociolinguistics) and the dialectical relationship between discourse and action (e.g., conversational analysis and anthropological linguistics). In so doing, it provides a unifying starting point for discourse analysts and other communication-oriented scholars to understand language in conjunction with action.

Since linguistics to Scollon was a lens through which social issues can be addressed, he designed an ethnographic methodological guide called Nexus Analysis to accompany MDA (Nexus Analysis: Discourse and the Emerging Internet, 2004, coauthored with Suzanne Scollon). This “how to do socially active discourse analysis” manual postulates that to link discursive micro interactions with broader social issues, the analysis must be broadened to encompass not only moments of actions but also the histories, roles, and motives of involved participants and the mediational means they use. Only then can one truly uncover what really happens when people take action. With MDA and nexus analysis, Scollon challenges the limits of discourse analysis by providing a unifying theory and methodology that engages with discursive research that addresses social change—in so doing, he influences not only the field of discourse analysis but linguistics in general.

3.3 Intercultural Communication

Interethnic miscommunication was an interest of Scollon's throughout his career. Contrary to other linguistic anthropologists studying Native American languages, Scollon did not simply resort to “culture,” a term he constantly problematized, as an explanation for the breakdown in communication between members of different communities. Instead he continued posing two questions: What is culture? And what is intercultural communication? These questions enabled him to illustrate interactionally how otherwise incomprehensible differences blamed on culture originate from discordant interactional styles and worldviews that affect interactions (Vail, 2009). In Intercultural Communication (1995, 2001), the Scollons replace the murky concept “culture” with the concept “discourse systems,” which eliminates problematic overgeneralizations and oversimplifications. They also replace “intercultural communication” with “interdiscursive communication” since cultures do not interact, but individuals—and discourses—do. Scollon 2002 in a published article argues further for conceptualizing intercultural discourse as a nexus analysis because it is an ongoing process of construction and negotiation among individuals—thus widening the analysis to encompass action, mediational means, and participants' histories, roles, and motives because it is the only way to truly uncover the root of interethnic communication problems. In so doing, he establishes a theoretical framework for intercultural communication which, in addition to correcting many previous misconceptions, balances between theoretical inquiries and practical implications.

3.4 Public Discourse and Multimodality

Scollon's interests extended beyond conversations, such as those between people of different ethnic backgrounds and experiences, to public discourse. In Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World (coauthored with Suzanne Scollon, 2003), Scollon initiates a new approach to teaching and researching language in the material world, arguing that we can only interpret the meaning of public texts like road signs, notices, and brand logos by considering the world that surrounds them. The Scollons' theory of geosemiotics analyzes public discourse not only in terms of linguistic content but also ethnographically, in their physical context. This theory has important ramifications for semiotics, human geography, cultural anthropology, and linguistics; it illustrates that studying tools of communication as separate from their situated use is insufficient to understand communication. Additionally, it has led to a recent burst of dynamic multimodal research (e.g., Jones, 2005; Norris, 2007; Al Zidjaly, 2011). In contrast to Kress and van Leeuwen's 1996 renowned visual semiotics framework which analyzes multimodal texts separated from situated use, these new models postulate that visual analysis must be grounded in social and multimodal contexts. In 2008, Scollon's work in the area of public discourse culminated in an original book on how to do specifically public discourse analysis of public hearings.

4 So What?

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Academic Background
  4. Major Contributions
  5. So What?
  6. References
  7. Suggested Readings

Linguistics to Scollon was a tool to bring about social change by reducing ethnic discrimination and educational disparities; hence, his research was always driven by the question: So what? Scollon's original approach to academic and social research has advanced the field of linguistics theoretically, analytically, and practically. Scollon's work encourages scholars to broaden analytic contexts and question not only long-held beliefs but also their own motives and roles in creating change. His legacy is best expressed in these words from his last academic lecture (2009, p. 21): “we need to be more flexible in our thinking about the issues of social and political life that occupy so much of our time and analytical space.” The diverse career and innovative scholarship of Ron Scollon has opened a space for creative and flexible thinking, enabling others to continue to pursue the academic and activist paths he has forged in applying linguistics to the world.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Academic Background
  4. Major Contributions
  5. So What?
  6. References
  7. Suggested Readings
  • Al Zidjaly, N. (2011). Multimodal texts as mediated actions: Voice, synchronization and layered simultaneity in images of disability. In S. Norris (Ed.), Multimodality in practice: Investigating theory-in-practice-through-methodology (pp. 190205). London, England: Routledge.
  • Gee, J. P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (2nd ed.). London, England: Taylor & Francis.
  • Holton, G. (2009). Talking Alaska: Reflections on the native languages of Alaska. Retrieved July 5, 2011 from http://talkingalaska.blogspot.com/2009/01/ron-scollon-1939-2009.html
  • Jones, R. (2005). “You show me yours, I'll show you mine”: The negotiation of shifts from textual to visual modes in computer-mediated interaction among gay men. Visual Communication, 4 (1), 6992.
  • Kress, G., & van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading images: The grammar of visual design. London, England: Routledge.
  • Norris, S. (2007). Some thoughts on personal identity construction: A multimodal perspective. In V. Bhatia, J. Flowerdew, & R. Jones (Eds.), Advances in discourse studies (pp. 13248). London, England: Routledge.
  • Norris, S. (2009). Mediated discourse and social in teraction: A reflection. In I. Stockburger & J. Jia Lou (Eds.), A special issue in honor of Ron Scollon (pp. 323). eVox, 4(1).
  • Scollon, R. (1976). Conversations with a one-year-old: A case study of the developmental foundation of syntax. Honolulu: University Press of Hawai'i.
  • Scollon, R. (with Scollon, S. B. K.). (1980). Ethnic stereotyping: Some problems in Athabaskan–English interethnic communication. Method: Alaska Perspectives, 2 (2), 1517.
  • Scollon, R. (1981). Narrative, literacy, and face in interethnic communication. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
  • Scollon, R. (with Scollon, S. W.). (1995). Intercultural communication: A discourse approach. Oxford, England: Blackwell.
  • Scollon, R. (1998). Mediated discourse as social interaction: The study of news discourse. London, England: Longman.
  • Scollon, R. (2001). Mediated discourse: The nexus of practice. London, England: Routledge.
  • Scollon, R. (2002). Intercultural communication as nexus analysis. Logos and Language: Journal of General Linguistics and Language Theory, 3 (2), 117.
  • Scollon, R. (with Scollon, S. W.). (2003). Discourses in place: Language in the material world. London, England: Routledge.
  • Scollon, R. (with Scollon, S. W.). (2004). Nexus analysis: Discourse and the emerging Internet. London, England: Routledge.
  • Scollon, R. (2008). Analyzing public discourse: Discourse analysis in the making of public policy. Abingdon, England: Routledge.
  • Scollon, R. (2009). Aristotle fails to persuade the donkey: Conflicting logics in narrative social analysis (lecture prepared for Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark). In I. Stockburger & J. Jia Lou (Eds.), A special issue in honor of Ron Scollon (pp. 622). eVox, 4(1).
  • Stockburger, I., & Jia Lou, J. (Eds.). (2009). A special issue in honor of Ron Scollon. eVox, 4 (1).
  • Vail, P. (2009). Focus, literacy and power. In I. Stockburger & J. Jia Lou (Eds.), A special issue in honor of Ron Scollon (pp. 289). eVox, 4(1).
  • Wright Fogle, L. (2009). To start from the beginning: Conversations with a one-year-old. In I. Stockburger & J. Jia Lou (Eds.), A special issue in honor of Ron Scollon (pp. 235). eVox, 4(1).
  • Zavala, V. (2009). Ron Scollon and the new literacy studies. In I. Stockburger & J. Jia Lou (Eds.), A special issue in honor of Ron Scollon (pp. 267). eVox, 4(1).

Suggested Readings

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Academic Background
  4. Major Contributions
  5. So What?
  6. References
  7. Suggested Readings
  • Li, D. C. S. (Ed.). (2002). Discourses in search of members: In honor of Ron Scollon. Baltimore, MD: University Press of America.
  • Norris, S., & Jones, R. (Eds.). (2005). Discourse in action: Introducing mediated discourse analysis. London, England: Routledge.
  • Pan, Y., Scollon, S., & Scollon, R. (2002). Professional communication in international settings. Oxford, England: Blackwell.