This study addresses the question: How do the structural conditions of university organisation modulate subject position, social relations and discourse and therefore shape individual consciousness and activity? The response is informed by an empirical pedagogical problem located at the tertiary level in Japan: What makes acquirers attain higher levels of language mastery in foreign language (Spanish) settings informed by communicative language teaching? The attempted answer is framed within cultural-historical activity theory, the cultural theory of Holland et al. (2001), and Basil Bernstein’s code theory. These theories have been combined using Marxian-Hegelian notions of culture and subject, which allow language development and mastery to be treated as the acquisition by an individual of a cultural tool (semiotic mediation) subject to both individual agency and historical forces. The organisational and pedagogical contexts of three institutions engaged in Spanish language education have been analysed using motive-action/educational task as the unit of analysis that situates the observation in between micro and macro levels of analysis, in combination with the methodologies for ascertaining subject position provided by Bernstein’s code theory and the cultural theory of Holland et al. This procedure made it possible to determine acquirers’ coding orientations (orientations to meaning) and to establish comparisons between organisation and learning settings. The findings indicate that acquirers who have a formal trajectory of language learning and who are able to recognise grammar instructional discourse – i.e., who possess a representational gaze – attain better levels of language mastery (active realisation) than those with informal trajectories (e.g. learning languages overseas in a conversational fashion without following a formal programme) and who do not recognise grammar instructional discourse. Evidence is provided to indicate that there is no way to avoid representational-function programmes. The bottom-up move within Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development is suggested as a feasible intervention without a drastic reshaping of the programmes
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