A theoretical revision of the nature of input and interaction in second language learning

Seminar Paper, 2013

20 Pages, Grade: none



Several researchers have drawn their attention to the process of second language acquisition (SLA) from many different perspectives, both the psychologically (e.g. behaviourism and nativisim) and socially (e.g. interaction) in order to provide an explanation about how languages are learnt (e.g. Skinner, 1957, Chomsky, 1956; Krashen, 1985; Long, 1983, 1996). It seems, however, that there is not a common agreement on how this particular phenomenon takes place: Nonetheless, what has been recognised is that input is paramount in second language (SL) development. The role of input within the field of SLA has received great attention from different perspectives. For example, from a behaviourist approach or innatist approach. Nevertheless, despite the fact that these theories has exerted a great influence on SLA, one of the most important contributions to SLA and in particular to the role of input has been done be Krashen (1985).

Krashen (1985) acknowledges the input hypothesis which emphasises that learners need to be exposed to an input which is a bit beyond their current level (i.e. i+1) in order to acquire language. Krashen’s ideas, however, have received criticism from several researchers (e.g. Long, 1983, 1991; Mackey & Gass, 2006) who have questioned the validity of the input hypothesis. In this regard, Long (1983) establishes the so-called interaction hypothesis in which it is pointed out that learners not only need to be provided with sufficient input, but also opportunities for achieving comprehensible input by means of interaction as well as interactional adjustments (i.e. pre-modified input and interactionally modified input) (Long, 1983; Varonis & Gass, 1985; Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991). Findings suggest that by proving learners with linguistic adjustments, they might achieve comprehensible input (e.g. Mackey, 1999; Rawal, 2008).

In addition to this, within language teaching practices there is a particular controversy as regards the perspective that should be taken in order to foster language learners’ development of SL. More specifically, this particular dichotomy involves the following perspectives; focus on meaning, focus on forms focus on form. The first refers to language teaching practices in which attention is exclusively paid to meaning while the second one postulates a more traditional view in which linguistic structures are explicitly taught in isolation. The third perspective, however, seems to be in an intermediate position since they focus is that of providing linguistic information when learners present a problem while working on communicative tasks.

Bearing in mind the previous assumptions, in the paper I provide a general overview of the role of input and interaction in SL learning as well as the some of the major features related to the linguistic adjustments that might be done. Finally, the paradigm of focus on meaning, focus on forms focus on form will be discussed from a theoretical viewpoint.

2. The role of input and interaction

The following sub-sections provide an overview of the role of input and interaction within the field of SLA. Hence, we will first describe Krashen’s (1985) input hypothesis and the construction of comprehensible, and I will pay attention to some of the major contributions made by Long’s interaction hypothesis as well as the linguistics adjustments that might be done for facilitating language learning.

2.1. Input hypothesis

Krashen (1985) establishes the so-called input hypothesis in which it is emphasised the necessity of achieving comprehensible input in order to reach SLA. According to Krashen (2009: 81), “language acquisition is a subconscious process; while it is happening we are not aware that it is happening, and the competence developed this way is stored in the brain subconsciously”. In addition, Krashen (1985) suggests that learners need to be exposed to a type of input which is somehow a bit beyond the current proficiency level, specifically, as termed by the author, i+1. Moreover, the author argues that learners might be able to understand the given input through contextual and extralinguistic information. In this regard, Krashen (1985) points out that input should be comprehensible for learners so that they can understand the message and as a result acquisition takes place. On the contrary, when learners receive any type of input which cannot be understood, acquisition may not take place. Moreover, another factor to consider is that of focusing on message rather than on form.

Krashen’s ideas, despite being very promising, have been strongly criticised from different points of view (White, 1987; Swain, 1985). White (1987) suggests that being able to understand the incoming input does not necessarily imply that learners might be undertaken a process of SLA. White (1987), who coins the incomprehensible input hypothesis, however, claims that acquisition could possibly take place when facing incomprehension. In other words, the author implies that when learners find specific aspects of input that are not understood, they might focus their attention on the unknown or new linguistic item. However, I might partly disagree with this particular statement. I consider that learners might not necessarily draw their attention to unfamiliar linguistics features, and when they do so, this situation perhaps might to some extend impede the achievement of full comprehension since in paying too much attention to the specific unknown aspect, learners might lose sight of the whole meaning of the content. In addition to this, Swain (1985) claims that only by providing input, SLA might not possibly occur. In line with this, the author suggests that both comprehensible input and comprehensible output are key factors in the development of SLA. Swain (1985) advances the so-called comprehensible output hypothesis in which the author establishes the relation between output and input: (i) noticing/ triggering function; (ii) the hypothesis testing function; and (iii) metalinguistic function (Swain, 2005: 474-480). Following Swain (1985, 2005), learners might notice the gap of their interlanguage when they aim to convey certain meaning or specific output and they realised what they are able to produce. Then, learners need to employ other resources so as to communicate successfully.

2.2. Interaction hypothesis

The interaction hypothesis is developed mainly through the work of Long (1983, 1996) and it is based on the idea that by means of interaction learners can provide and understand meaning as well as communicate successfully since they can make input comprehensible. Hence, this hypothesis proposes that interaction can facilitate SLA as learners, when taking part in interactions, need to understand the receiving input, negotiate the meaning in order to make the input comprehensible, and finally produce certain amount of output. Concerning this, several authors (e.g. Long, 1983; 1996; Pica, 1994; Gass, 1997; Gass et al., 1998; Mackey, 1999) have praised the value of the interaction hypothesis since by means of negotiation SLA can take place. It is suggested that learners need to focus on their linguistic knowledge in order to be able to identify the problems of their interlanguage (Gass et al., 1998). Moreover, speakers tend to modify their speech in order to facilitate learners’ involvement in the interaction (Long, 1983; 1996; Pica, 1994; Gass, 1997). In so doing, learners might understand the receiving input, participate in conversational exchanges and avoid miscommunication problems (Long, 1983; 1996). It is also important to note that Long (1996)[1] provides a revision of the interaction hypothesis in which the focus is on learners’ internal capacity to achieve both input and output. Therefore, the focus is on negative feedback, modified output, comprehensible input. In short, Long (1983, 1996) considers that input can be made comprehensible by means of negotiation of meaning in which certain modifications should be done in order to help learners to interact appropriately. In Long’s (1996) words, negotiation of meaning involves a process in which learners and speakers are expected to provide input and interpret whether the other interlocutors comprehend the given information. Moreover, linguistic adjustments should be done in the case that there is a possible breakdown of communication.

In addition to this, Varonis and Gass (1985) identify the structure of interaction routines between a native speaker (NS) and a non-native speaker (NNS) which consist of trigger, indicator, response and resolution. The trigger makes a breakdown in the communication so that the indicator signals the problem. In so doing, the other participant provides further information, that is to say, a response. Finally, optionally, the participants can react to the response in order to finish the negotiation of meaning. Example 1 shows the structure of a conversational exchange with a miscommunication problem.


[1] Despite the fact that modified output and negative feedback are the interaction contributions to Long’s (1996) revised version of the interaction hypothesis, attention will not be paid to those aspects since they might be beyond the scope of this paper.

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A theoretical revision of the nature of input and interaction in second language learning
University of Jaume I
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Ph.D. Student Vicente Beltrán-Palanques (Author), 2013, A theoretical revision of the nature of input and interaction in second language learning, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/214502


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