Heidi Byrnes


Emeritus Professor


Department of German
General profile



+1 202-687-8386




463 ICC


A native of Germany, I began university level studies in Germany and completed B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States. I have been a member of the ordinary faculty of the German Department at Georgetown University since 1979.
My research, scholarship, and teaching address a range of issues pertaining to adult instructed second language learning and teaching, with a particular emphasis on German. This general interest has led to a focus on the development of advanced levels of literacy in non-native languages in a variety of areas.
Specifically, in considering phenomena that are central to L2 advancedness and learners' development toward them, I have turned to systemic functional linguistics as developed by M. A. K. Halliday as an advantageous theoretical framework. Its fundamental concern with oral and written texts that are embedded in contexts of culture and contexts of situation and realized in culture-specific genres provides the intellectual environment for most of my recent professional work. But I have also been influenced by sociocultural theory and the work of Vygotsky and Bakhtin. Together, these areas provided the intellectual context for the 2005 Georgetown University Round Table on the advanced learner, which I chaired. They have also informed four edited volumes, Advanced foreign language learning: A challenge to college programs (with Hiram Maxim, Heinle, 2004), Educating for advanced foreign language capacities (with Heather Weger-Guntharp and Katherine Sprang, Georgetown University Press, 2006), Advanced language learning: The contribution of Halliday and Vygotsky (Continuum, 2006) and The longitudinal study of advanced L2 capacities (with Lourdes Ortega, Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2008). And, finally, they have found their way into two guest edited issues of journals: Linguistics and Education, 20.1 (2009) Instructed foreign language acquisition as meaning-making: A systemic-functional approach, and Journal of Second Language Writing, 22.2 (2013) Teaching for meaning-making - Writing to mean.
Using the SFL-inspired understanding of genre, I have established an additional link to the educationally vibrant area of task-based teaching and learning. A co-edited volume (with Rosa M. Manchon), Task-based language learning: insights from and for L2 writing, was published by John Benjamins in 2014. Two authored articles highlight my engagement with complexity as a text- and meaning-oriented phenomenon, rather than a primarily processing-oriented, psycholinguistic phenomenon, and with a curricular framework as a highly advantageous, perhaps even necessary context for arriving at substantive statements regarding instructed language development. Two co-authored papers, together with Rosa Manchon, provide an expansive review of the task-based literature in order to make the argument for expanding ‘task’ to writing ( the volume’s introductory chapter) and offer in-depth consideration of the implications of such a shift for research into ‘task.’
In the German Department my interest in advanced literacies has enabled me to be instrumental in the creation of a four-year integrated content-oriented, genre-and task-based curriculum that has gained national and international recognition since its development from 1997 to 2000. The departmental website provides extensive information on this collaborative project, entitled "Developing Multiple Literacies.” Numerous publications, individual and collaborative have documented various aspects of adult learning within this context (e.g., Peter C. Pfeiffer and Heidi Byrnes, 2009.
Our initial research focus was to trace learners' syntactic development, both cross-sectionally and longitudinally. Recently, this work has been expanded in two directions: (1) exploring writing development as an entry into overall language development (learning to write as writing to learn; and (2) considering APPRAISAL resources within the framework of interpersonal resources as a way of capturing learner's evolving intercultural capacities. This latter interest is part of a humanities assessment initiative which returns to a foundational assumption of our curriculum, namely that language and content are best learned simultaneously and that content learning should therefore be traceable in language use.
The most comprehensive treatment of this line of research is available in a jointly authored monograph (with Hiram Maxim and John Norris) in the MLJ monograph series, entitled "Realizing advanced L2 writing development in a collegiate curriculum: From outcomes expectations to assessment" (MLJ, supplement to volume 94, monograph issue, Dec. 2010).
I see those efforts as broadening and deepening my earlier involvement, in the 1980s and 1990s, in the shift in foreign language education toward communicative- and proficiency-oriented approaches, including the Standards Project. An advanced literacy orientation motivates my current interest in reading and writing, curriculum and materials development, assessment of L2 abilities (especially in writing but also in content-based instruction), and integrated curricular structures for linking content, culture, and language. Publications on those topics have appeared in The Modern Language Journal, Language Testing, Language Teaching, International Journal of Applied Linguistics, Foreign Language Annals, Profession, Text, The German Quarterly, Die Unterrichtspraxis, The Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, in the Encyclopedia of Language and Education and in numerous edited volumes. Those topics have also been the subject of a variety of presentations at professional conferences, both nationally and internationally, and invited talks and keynote addresses. They have also influenced my undergraduate and particularly my graduate course offerings.
My long-term association with the Modern Language Journal, as an associate editor in charge of the twice-yearly column Perspectives, saw a significant expansion. As of July 2012 I have been editor-in-chief of the journal. It is an exciting and challenging position that I will hold until December 2017, a time period that will include the journal’s celebration of its 100th anniversary in 2016.
I have held diverse academic and administrative positions within the University, as department chair (1987- 93), as chair of Georgetown's reaccreditation self-study by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Universities (1991-93), and as Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs (1993-95.I have filled various leadership roles in the major professional organizations dealing with languages (e.g., the AAAL, AATG, ACTFL, MLA, the Northeast Conference, and the College Board), including the presidency of AAAL. This work has been recognized with several awards, most recently the Distinguished Scholarship and Service award of AAAL (2013).
At the end of the academic year 2014-2015 I retired from the faculty of the German Department, now holding the position of Professor Emerita.
August 2015


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  • Ph.D. () Georgetown University, German with an emphasis in Linguistics
  • M.A. () Kansas State University, German/Linguistics
  • B.S. () University of Kansas, German/Education


  • German (speak, read, write)