A thumbnail sketch of an academic event (by Mehdi Babaei)

Today, I’m posting an overview of my sojourn at the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) and the Canadian Association of Applied Linguistics (CAAL) 2015 joint conference. The conference was held at the Fairmount Royal York Hotel in Toronto, a flashy, swanky hotel, with beautiful architecture, fancy rugs and chandeliers, and historical pictures, which to me, looked like the Grand Budapest Hotel– which hosted those interested in language-related issues. These people include top-notch scholars, editors, faculty members, new and senior researchers, and graduate students, who were congregated to discuss, share, or brainstorm ideas in the field of Applied Linguistics. What struck me was the diverse ways these scholars positioned themselves in the field and how they wanted to be identified. As I’m delving into my recollections of the conference, I will take you through the floors, hallways, rooms and tables of the conference venue, in which one or more people were either looking back at the history of applied linguistics, talking enthusiastically about their findings, or politely criticizing others’ ideas.


The topics catered to almost everyone’s taste, ranging from language and identité(s) (the conference theme), to socialization, heritage language education, bilingualism and multilingualism, and replication. In this, everyone was made to feel that they belonged to this place, where they could develop their academic identities, with their interest in language (s), and in a diverse milieu of people, experiences, and ideas. In the figurative sense, I saw BILDers everywhere, but I really missed my own, small, friendly group of BILDers. I felt lonely oftentimes, but this independence had some advantages: I could easily go wherever I wanted, wandering freely here and there, chatting with people with whom I really wanted to speak.

I engaged with scholars whose publications I have read and enjoyed, struggled to digest, or frowned upon over the past years. I met Diane Larsen-Freeman whose green book Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching has always been a part of my positive memories. Larsen-Freeman’s complexity theory framed a big part of this conference. As the complexity colloquium was coming to an end, I watched audience members’ faces: some with bewildered expressions, some smiling as if they were relieved as they had found what they were looking for, and some sitting and looking at their notes, or perhaps thinking about what exactly the colloquium was all about.


In the first day of the conference, twelve internationally recognized scholars gathered to go “Toward an Integrative Framework for SLA,” with Dwight Atkinson as their organizer. Atkinson’s gentle humor underpinned the session, as he emphasized that the world is still sociocognitive in nature. This panel included Bonny Norton who talked about identity, Larsen-Freeman who discussed complexity, Lantolf who rooted for sociocultural theory, and Patsy Duff who discussed socialization. Unfortunately, I had to run to the Algonquin room to talk about my own research, which was almost certainly going to end up with a heated discussion.

On my way to get coffee, I saw James Lantolf standing around, looking at books. I passed by him to get my coffee and stir it with a golden spoon (so much class at the Grand Budapest Hotel!) On my return, I saw him still standing around, and still staring at the books: “what is he thinking about?” I wonderMehdi3ed. Maybe Lantolf was there to take care of his own books, which were on the table. Maybe he was there to dust them off, or to check the other books hanging around structuralists, cognitivists, or socialists. As I entered the Canadian room, I saw Paul Matsuda, the conference chair, who seemed to be everywhere at once: helping presenters and audience members to find presentation rooms, introducing presenters, or ensuring that everything was going as it had been planned, while simultaneously tweeting!

I had the opportunity to converse with several great scholars such as Zoltán Dörnyei, who politely adhered to his psychological approach to motivation, Larsen-Freeman who described everything through her complexity theory, and Bonny Norton who argued that everything is interpretable through identity and her new investment framework. I had a great conversation with Bonny in the library bar and told her about my research. Then she asked me difficult and critical questions. She was so excited to hear about the interculturalism policy we have in Quebec, and told me to read the last issue of the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, which had been published the week before, and centered on the topic of identity.

This calm sea of knowledge had, of course, some who dived into it, making small or loud splashes. And undoubtedly, Alastair Pennycook (who actually holds a master diver certificate) was a part of the second group, with his “Post- Fishmanian Applied Linguistics?” In it, he politely criticized this emerging game of word coinage, and the evolution of new terms in Applied Linguistics, arguing against the usefulness of translanguaging, for instance.

On Monday morning, I attended a colloquium on “Identity in Applied Linguistics” at the big Canadian room. I made sure that I got there early enough to find a seat in the front row. I saw someone was up on the stage, literally jumping around anxiously, and noticed that it was Bonny Norton, who was making sure everything was perfect for her and her doctoral student, Ron Darvin, to talk about their new model of investment. After the colloquium, I saw Pavel Tromofovich and told him that his presentation was great. He said that he felt as if he didn’t belong to this sociolinguistics group of scholars, since his presentation on ethnic identity and accent was more related to applied linguistics than to sociolinguistics. It was clear to me that these scholars identified themselves as applied linguists, sociolinguists, or some combination of both (applied/sociolinguists, as in David Block’s words). I later asked Alastair Pennycook if he thought that applied linguistics and sociolinguistics were two different fields, or if all these fields work under the umbrella of applied linguistics (which is what Norton believes). Pennycook’s answer to most of my questions was “yes and no!”: “did you call for a return to Hymes and Gumpers?” I asked, “yes and no,” he replied; “why do you think translanguaging or superdiversity are not appropriate terms?” I asked. “I mean, what is the use of having another term when there is already a term which does the same thing?!”

After this conversation, I rushed into the exhibition room where I saw Lantolf who seemed to be engaged in a lively conversation with David Block. “What are they talking about?”, I wondered. “Is Lantolf telling him why he doesn’t talk about sociocultural theory and Vygotsky when discussing language and identity?” Sometime later, however, Lantolf and I had an interesting conversation about this very thing. I began, “why do you think there is little research on language and identity drawing on sociocultural theory?” He replied, “I really don’t know! I mean, Bourdieu’s habitus is similar to Vygotsky’s internalization? Right?” This made me think. So, I asked, “are you positive about this ‘integrative framework for SLA’?” Finally, he replied, “ well, I don’t really think it’s going to be integrated!”

I realized that I had to run to attend my last presentation: “Parler Bilingue, Parler Multilingue: Mixage & Métissage on the Move Linguistique.” Entering the room, I saw Patricia Lamarre sitting there in the front row. This colloquium centered on multilingualism, plurilingualism, both in the North American context (Montreal and Vancouver specifically), and Europe (France), with rich, fun, and informative presentations. Mela and Patricia’s joint presentation included an introductory Sugar Sammy’s video, while the next presenter’s colorful slides and her Language Portrait technique with children reminded me of Alison’s workshop at our symposium last week.

At one point in the conference, I found myself standing in the hall speaking in Persian with a graduate student from UBC. David Block stood beside us speaking Spanish with someone, some Chinese students standing further away were speaking in Mandarin, and some ladies coming behind us were speaking French. While I was thinking about the beauty of having this linguistically diverse group, with different cultures and languages, congregating at this conference, I realized that I experienced belonging, interrogated identity and participated in linguistic diversity all within the span of a conference. I look forward to attending next year!

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