Overview on Learning in Interaction

Stone wallFor many years, we thought of the process of language learning as a matter of construction, in which learners consciously memorized grammar rules and vocabulary, and recited them in a testing environment. In this view, we would build a language the way we might construct a wall of bricks. In such a process the learner consciously focuses on language rules and vocabulary. But second language acquisition research suggests that such a focus on form is inadequate if the goal is to use the language to communicate.

Plant growing on a brick wallCorder (1967) proposed a more organic view of second language acquisition, where learner language development is guided by the learner's 'built-in syllabus,' just as a plant's development is guided by its DNA. Like a plant, learner language develops best in good environmental conditions: communicative input, and meaning-focused interaction that includes supportive scaffolding from others.

Current research on second language acquisition (SLA) suggests that learners benefit if they use their learner language in interactions where they are focused on making meaning with someone else. Language teachers engage students In spontaneous, unrehearsed oral interactions where they are encouraged to help each other make meaning by providing input, scaffolding, and support at moments when each learner needs help. Research shows that when they learn to interact this way, learners co-construct more complex and accurate utterances than they could possibly produce alone. Research also shows that corrective feedback that’s provided and noticed in the midst of meaningful interactions can be more effective than grammar-focused drills. Learner language that is used in spontaneous, unrehearsed interactions has many opportunities to develop and grow.

We like the following summaries from leading proponents of a sociocultural approach to SLA research:

Second-language learners are ‘individually novices’ but ‘collectively experts’. Collective scaffolding [in interaction] can ‘reduce the gap between task difficulty level and individual abilities’ (Donato, 1994)

‘People working jointly are able to co-construct contexts in which expertise emerges as a feature of the group.’  The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) ‘is more appropriately conceived of as the collaborative construction of opportunities for individuals to develop their mental abilities’ (Lantolf, 2000, p. 17).

‘Speaker/hearers collaboratively produce utterances which they jointly own. And language acquisition is realized through a collaborative process whereby learners appropriate the language of the interaction as their own, for their own purposes, building grammatical, expressive and cultural competence through this process.’ (Ohta, 2000, p. 51)

Learning more

To learn more about the way second language learners acquire new vocabulary and grammar in interaction, read Donato (1994) and the chapters in Lantolf (2000) and Mackey (2007).

Multimedia Activities focused on Interaction

 


Photos used with Creative Commons permission from:
brick wall - http://www.flickr.com/photos/zircular/1968625590/sizes/s/
plant scaffold - http://www.flickr.com/photos/adombrowski/5031880031/sizes/s/

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