Interaction Hypothesis

For his PhD at the University of California in the 1980s, the British academic Mike Long, decided to conduct research into how native and non-native speakers of English overcame communication difficulties. Pairing up native speakers and non-native speakers of English, he asked them to engage in face-to-face oral tasks, such as giving instructions for games, playing games or informal conversation.

Long found that when there were communication difficulties, the pairs would negotiate meaning to make the conversation comprehensible through a variety of methods. These included:

  • repetition of words and phrases
  • confirmation checks (when one speaker sought confirmation of the other’s preceding utterance through repetition or rising intonation)
  • comprehension checks (when one speaker – usually the NS – checks if the other has understood)
  • clarification requests (when one speaker – usually the NNS – asks the other for help in understanding).

This negotiation has also been colourfully termed ‘conversational repair’.

This negotiation of meaning  usually takes place at a level just above the NNS’s current level of proficiency, so there is an opportunity for acquiring new language.

Vivian Cook suggests that second language acquisition depends on interaction that involves resolving comprehension problems. The adjustments that come from this interaction connect input, intake and output.

Negative feedback obtained during negotiation work or elsewhere may be facilitative of L2 development, at least for vocabulary, morphology and language specific syntax, and essential for learning certain specificable L1-L2 contrasts.

(Long 1996 page 414)

Here’s an example of a native speaker (NS) and a non-native speaker (NNS) negotiating meaning to complete a task, taken from Mitchell and Myles (2004, p.168, citing Pica et al. 1987)

NS: And right on the roof of the truck place the duck. The duck

NNS: I to take it? Dog?

NS: Duck.

NNS: Duck.

NS: It’s yellow and it’s a small animal. It has two feet.

NNS: I put where it?

NS: You take the duck and put it on top of the truck. Do you see the duck?

NNS: Duck?

NS: Yeah. Quack, quack, quack. That one. The one that makes that sound.

NNS: Ah yes, I see in the…in the head of him.

NS: Ok. See?

NNS: Put what?

NS: OK. Put him on top of the truck.

NNS: Truck?

NS: The bus. Where the boy is.

NNS: Ah, yes.

Long (1996)

Later studies found that these interactional modifications led to increased comprehension, but had mixed findings on whether it led to the acquisition of new language, so in 1996, Long revised his interaction hypothesis; he proposed that acquisition during these interactional modifications depended upon the NNS being aware of those modifications and that negative feedback from the NS had an important role to play in the acquisition of vocabulary, morphology and syntax. Once again, we see the importance of noticing and feedback in language acquisition.

Interestingly, Long and Porter (1985) found that learners of English talked more with other learners of English (especially advanced learners) than they did with native speakers. Yule and MacDonald (1990) found that this was especially the case when advanced learners were given a less dominant role – when advanced learners were given a dominant role in a group or paired task, the less advanced learner became passive. This has considerable implications for grouping students, suggesting that mixed ability groupings facilitate learning more than grouping students of similar ability.

Interaction and First Language Acquisition

There is, in fact, a growing body of evidence to suggest that it’s through interaction that children learn their mother tongue. But it’s more than just conversational interaction. Rather, it’s about the interaction between language, the cognitive ability of a child and the environment in which they develop.

This isn’t a new idea. The argument that language develops primarily through social interaction was first proposed by Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky said that conversations provided children with scaffolding for their developing language. To Vygotsky, all learning starts as a social activity, and only later does it become internalised by the individual. So language learning has to start as a social interaction – it’s not something that can be learned by oneself, no matter how much input they receive.

The type of conversational repair referred to by Mike Long in his second language research is reflected in the speech between adults and young children: as well as using things like comprehension checks and repetition, parents make use of what has been termed ‘motherese’ or ‘child-directed speech’: speech that is deliberately slowed and simplified (but very rarely ungrammatical), with exaggerated intonation and stress on key words. Parents ‘repair’ their speech to a point where the child can just understand them.

We can see this happening in an amazing study by Deb Roy of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He videoed the first two years of his infant son’s life and his progress learning words, and then engaged with his colleagues at MIT in an analysis of how words in his sons vocabulary were ‘born’. What he found was that his son’s parents and nanny were subconsciously modifying their speech down to a point where the child could understand. What interaction does, then, is to enable one or both parties to adjust their speech to their level of comprehension.

Usage-based Language Learning and Cognitive Linguistics

It may be better to put the idea of interaction under a more general label of Usage-based Language Learning. This is the idea that languages are learned by using them. Through experiences. Looking at it from this perspective, conversational interaction is simply one, albeit major, way that we use language.

“Language learning is possible because of children’s general cognitive capacities and the vast number of opportunities they have to make connections between the language they hear and what they experience in their environment.” (Lightbown and Spada)

To put it another way, you acquire language by using it, not by learning it. It’s not about habit formation or mimicry, but associating language and experience. This usage-based perspective on language learning is known as cognitive linguistics.

Children learn language from their language experiences – there is no other way (Lieven and Tomasello, 2008)

Cognitive psychologists emphasise the crucial role a child’s environment and expeirence play in language learning – the role of innate ability, as suggested by Chomsky, is emphasised far less, and they reject the idea of some kind of language acquisition device in the brain. Instead, language learning is no different than learning to see – it’s just a facet of cognitive development.

Long and Porter (1985)


Mitchell, R. and Myles, F. (2004), Second Language Learning Theories

Lightbown and Spada, How Language are Learned

Lieven EV, Tomasello M. (2008). Children’s first language acquisition from a usage-based perspective: In P.Robinson and N.Ellis (eds). Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. (pp. 168-196).

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