The importance of interaction and negotiating meaning
Chia Suan Chong investigates how promoting interaction and communicative competence is key to what we do.
When I was in my 20s, before I embarked on a career as a language trainer, I decided that I wanted to learn to speak French. Influenced by traditional ideas of language learning, I bought myself several books on French grammar and drills and started to do the exercises. I sped through the chapters and finished the book on Advanced French grammar within months.
However, when I headed across the channel to Lille that summer, I found that I was completely unable to muster up the simplest of sentences. Browsing in a market one day with my French friend and his mate, my attempts at French was shot down with a quick ‘Tell your friend to stop speaking French. She sounds like pregnant woman giving birth.”
My confidence fell faster than a speeding bullet and I never engaged in any French interactions after that. Needless to say, I never was able to speak French.
Although having the grammar and vocabulary resources can help put a sentence together, it is the opportunity to interact and to negotiate meaning that promotes language development.
In trying to get our meaning across, no matter how weak we feel our language ability might be, we learn to become communicatively competent by:
- drawing on all the linguistic resources we have e.g. existing knowledge of grammar, lexis, pronunciation, discourse;
- practising communicative strategies like paraphrasing, using synonyms, explaining, summarizing, repeating, asking for clarification;
- using paralinguistic or non-linguistic features like gestures, intonation, facial expressions.
In interacting and having a conversation,
- we receive feedback (albeit not always explicitly) on our language use and adapt it to make ourselves understood;
- we learn from the language use of our interlocutors: expanding our lexical range, opportunities to notice new structures and discourse patterns, and our exposure to different pronunciation models;
- we hone our listening skills and our spoken fluency;
- we become aware of the gaps in our knowledge and therefore are more able to bridge those gaps.
The interaction hypothesis states that face-to-face interaction is key to language learning. Often associated with Long’s 1996 article, this is in line with the approach to Communicative Language Learning and the focus on meaning before form. After all, we all know that one cannot learn to speak a language without the practice of actually using it.
To foster an environment that is truly conducive to promoting interactions, we however need to allow for engaging tasks in the classroom that do not simply serve to practise a particular language point that has been taught. While the PPP (Present-Practice-Produce) lesson shape can be useful in building a student’s confidence in using a grammar item or lexical set, it can shift the focus from meaning to form and deprive the student of opportunities to negotiate meaning and to utilize their existing knowledge of the language.
Nevertheless, second language acquisition academics like Ellis (1997) suggest that interactions could have negative effects. If the interlocutor’s language ability is a lot higher than the learner’s, there is concern that the overwhelming amount of language input could serve to confuse the learner and even affect their confidence.
Another theory often referred to by those talking about second language acquisition is Krashen’s input hypothesis (i+1). Krashen suggests that the input should preferably be just a level more advanced than the learner’s, making input intelligible and manageable for the learner.
In a language classroom where students are often grouped according to language proficiency, this speaks positively towards pairing students or putting students together in groups as input will not be too overwhelming for any one individual. Teachers-in-training are also taught to grade their language and to provide appropriate scaffolding so that the learner is guided towards the next stage of their language acquisition. In the safe environment of the classroom, the students are protected from real-life authentic communication, they are protected from being wounded by comments like the fact that they sound ‘like a pregnant woman giving birth’ when they speak.
However, this seems to presume that communicative competence is but a subset of language acquisition, which is often seen as the primary goal of an English language teacher.
The primary goal of the English language learner however is the ability to communicate in different circumstances with a range of conversation partners, some of whom might have a language ability much higher than the learner and some of whom might not be skilled in international communication and thus unaware of the challenges the learner might be facing.
When faced with such interlocutors, the learner needs to make use of appropriate communication strategies and meaning negotiation strategies to render the communication a success. The learner needs to employ paraphrasing and clarification strategies and not shy away from asking when something isn’t clear. This might mean learning to take control of the interaction and helping the more advanced speaker become aware of what is needed to get meaning across successfully.
Through practice and reflection tasks, the learner can learn to not let such interactions overwhelm them or undermine their confidence, but to instead realize that what they lack in linguistic ability can be made up by collaboratively negotiating meaning.
While the comment about my French sounding like ‘a pregnant woman giving birth’ might have had a detrimental effect on my confidence and my subsequent motivation for learning the language, if I had the opportunity to reflect and discuss my experience, it might have helped me handle my own language learning expectations and better prepared me to deal with French speakers who are less understanding to my predicament in the future. A move away from my focus on French grammar drills, with further opportunities to interact in French would then have served to empower and motivate, rather than overwhelm.
By focusing on improving our learners’ communicative competence and offering opportunities for interaction, we can help prepare them to be communicatively successful in the wider context of international English language usage that goes beyond the protective walls of the classrooms.
Ellis, Rod (1997). Second Language Acquisition. Oxford Introductions to Language Study. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 47–48.
Long, Michael (1996). "The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition". In Ritchie, William; Bhatia, Tej. Handbook of second language acquisition. San Diego: Academic Press. pp. 413–468.
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