Training learners to become autonomous language users

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The role of interaction in language acquisition

Interaction is at the heart of human activity and language undeniably plays an essential role in establishing social relations and interactions. According to Chomsky: “the use of language is a very important means by which this species, because of its biological nature, creates a kind of social space, to place itself in interactions with other people.”3 If we are to accept Chomsky’s point that an essential role of language is to create social relations and interactions, should this be transferred to language learning and therefore to practices in the language classroom? In other words, should the process of learning a second language be anchored in social relations and interactions in the same way that is the case for the acquisition of one’s mother-tongue?

The role of interaction in the learning process

The work of Vygotsky is the basis of much research in cognitive development and has played a particularly important role in Social Development Theory, which is based on the notion of social interaction playing a fundamental role in the development of cognition, that being the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding. For Vygotsky, learning is a process that uses a range of internal developmental skills that are only able to operate when the learner is interacting with people in his or her environment and in cooperation with his or her peers. In this sense, individual mental resources are developed through collective behaviour. In Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes he defines learning in the following way:
“Learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers. Once these processes are internalised, they become part of the child’s independent developmental achievement.”4 He depicts a learning dynamic, present throughout the span of a human life, which further anchors the learning process in social interactions:
“Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice, on two levels. First, on the social, and later on the psychological level; first, between people as an interpsychological category, and then inside the child, as an intrapsychological category. The actual relations between human individuals underlie all the higher functions.”
Vygotsky was also the first psychologist to introduce the idea of the zone of proximal development which he defines as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.”
He believed the role of education to be to provide learners with activities which are within their zone of proximal development so that they may gradually progress as they become increasingly more skilled and able to accomplish certain tasks independently. Often the teacher is considered as the sole person in the classroom able to help learners to progress by providing guidance or helping with the accomplishment of tasks. However, following the zone of proximal development theory, learners who have not yet reached total independent use of a certain skill may be aided by other learners who are able to perform the skill independently in group interaction tasks. Therefore, interaction between peers in the classroom may provide a valuable alternative to a teacher-centred approach.
Though Vygotsky’s work was centred on learning more generally, his theories provide an interesting starting point for the language teacher to begin to analyse the place of interaction in language acquisition.

The role of interaction in language acquisition

There exist numerous theories about how learners most effectively learn foreign languages each with diverging opinions on the importance of interaction in the language acquisition process. The CEFRL proposes an eclectic approach, combining elements from a number of different theories:
“Most ‘mainstream’ learners, teachers and their support services will follow more eclectic practices, recognising that learners do not necessarily learn what teachers teach and that they require substantial contextualised and intelligible language input as well as opportunities to use the language interactively, but that learning is facilitated, especially under artificial classroom conditions, by a combination of conscious learning and sufficient practice to reduce or eliminate the conscious attention paid to low-level physical skills of speaking and writing as well as to morphological and syntactic accuracy, thus freeing the mind for higher-level strategies of communication.”
Three key elements to take from this are firstly the need to provide learners with contextualised and intelligible foreign language input in the form of learning supports such as texts, videos, audio files and also in the form of language used during classroom interactions. Secondly, this may be combined with moments of conceptualisation based on lexical, grammatical, phonetic and cultural elements and finally this must be accompanied by opportunities for learners to practice the language in interaction activities. It is thanks to the opportunities that students have to interact and practice manipulating the language that they may become fluent users of the target language.
The emphasis that is placed on the need for practice and use of the foreign language in interaction can be linked to Anderson’s skill-based theory of language acquisition that he developed in his adaptive control of thought model (ACT-R model). This theory suggests that skill acquisition involves progression through three stages: the declarative, the procedural and the automatic stage.
In the first stage, which concerns declarative knowledge, the learner acquires knowledge about a skill generally from a more competent person. However, the learner does not necessarily try to use the skill at this stage due to the fact that this knowledge is “static information such as historical or geographical facts encoded in memory” or in terms of language acquisition “explicit mental representations of language items that may include word definitions or grammar rules”.
The second stage involves the proceduralization of the knowledge acquired in the first stage. During this stage the learner acts on their declarative knowledge resulting in them no longer needing to retrieve separate pieces of information from their memory, rather this information is readily assembled in chunks which can be called upon whenever the conditions for the specific behaviour are met. This stage of moving from exclusively declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge is achieved by “engaging in the target behaviour or procedure while temporarily leaning on declarative crutches.”
The final stage is the automatisation stage which happens over a large amount of time and involves practise in executing the task in order to reach spontaneity, with minimal errors and minimal distraction from other tasks and with a reduced demand on cognitive resources.10 It is this stage which corresponds to fluency in a foreign language.
Therefore, in terms of language acquisition, interaction plays an essential role in both the proceduralization and the automatisation stages of this skill-based theory. It is precisely during activities in which learners are required to communicate and interact with their peers that they are able to practice and verbalise their declarative knowledge and that with prolonged practice and repetition of the same or similar structures they are able to acquire a degree of spontaneity. It is thus essential for the language teacher to integrate interaction into each lesson.

Redefinition of the status of the language learner

As a result of the importance given to interaction in current teaching methods the status of the language learner has been subject to readjustment. Evelyne Berger explains this change 8 Lyster, R. & Sato, M. (2013). Skill acquisition theory and the role of practice in L2 development. Contemporary Approaches to Second Language Acquisition, p. 71-91.
in relation to research carried out in Conversation Analysis and Second Language Acquisition (CA-SLA) and she presents it as:
“a theoretical and methodological reconceptualisation of learning, orientated towards interactional and sociolinguistic language dimensions: 1) recognition of the learner as a ‘competent’ communicative individual, capable of participating in social activities using even limited ressources and 2) a vision of the acquisition process as anchored in social practices rather than confined to the mind of the individual.” (Translation) “une reconceptualisation tant théorique que méthodologique de l’apprentissage, orientée vers les dimensions interactionnelles et sociolinguistiques du langage : 1) une prise en compte de l’apprenant en tant qu’être communicatif ‘compétent’, car capable de participer à des activités sociales avec les moyens du bord et 2) une vision du processus acquisitionnel ancré dans les pratiques sociales plutôt que confiné au cerveau des individus.”11 (Original)
Berger adds that the learner must be considered as:
“a ‘competent’ communicative individual, capable of adapting to the context, even with limited second language resources (…) who may call upon alternative resources to compensate limitations in the second language and participate as a competent member in an exchange as a result.” (Translation) “un être communicatif compétent, capable de s’adapter au contexte, et cela, même s’il a des ressources en L2 limitées (…) qui aura recours à des ressources alternatives pour compenser ses limitations en L2 et ainsi participer comme membre compétent à l’échange.”12 (Original).
What is interesting here is the redefinition of the learner as a competent individual fully able to communicate and participate in social interaction, which is a radical reversal in the way that language learners have traditionally been considered by their teachers. Traditionally a learner was considered as an individual whose limited knowledge of the workings of the foreign language in question meant that certain more complex tasks were not possible until an advanced level of acquisition was reached.
However, with the current action-orientated approach proposed by the CEFRL it is not longer possible for learners to be considered in these terms. This approach considers language learners as “social agents”, which the CEFRL defines as “members of society who have tasks (not exclusively language-related) to accomplish in a given set of circumstances, in a specific environment and within a particular field of action.”13
Claire Bourguignon in “La démarche didactique en anglais: Du concours à la pratique” explains the aim of this approach as being the following:
“L’objectif est que l’apprenant développe des stratégies lui permettant d’être un usager autonome de la language (…) qu’il puisse mobiliser les connaissances et les capacités langagières dont il a besoin face à tout type de situation.”14 (Original)
Therefore, the current focus in teaching foreign langauges is on enabling learners to become autonomous users of the language, who are able to communicate in any situation without the help of a teacher. This takes into account the fact that in reality, outside of the classroom, when learners are required to interact in a foreign language they are not considered by the other interactants as ‘learners’, they are considered as language users who are able and indeed required to reach communicative goals without the observation, help and correction of their teacher. Even though in institutional terms the end goal of language learning is to achieve academic qualifications, the ultimate end goal is to be able to communicate fluently and spontaneously in real social contexts such as for travel, employment or educational purposes. It is clear that in order to succeed in these situations the learner must possess the necessary communication strategies to allow him or her to be autonomous without the presence of a teacher for guidance.
As a result, if the teacher’s role is no longer to transmit knowledge but rather to enable the learner to become an autonomous language user and a competent social agent through participating in interaction tasks, the role of the language teacher must inevitably also change.
14 Bourguignon, C. (2005). La démarche didactique en anglais: Du concours à la pratique. Paris: Presse Universitaires de France, p. 37.


Training learners to become autonomous language users

From teacher-student communication to student-student communication in small group tasks

As established in the first section of this study, for learners to effectively learn a foreign language they must actively take part in communicative interaction. In the traditional language classroom and indeed still in many other subjects today, the majority of the communication that takes place is between the teacher and the students. However, this type of interaction is not authentic in the sense that it does not mirror the types of interaction that occur in the social context outside of the classroom. This can be attributed to the fact that the teacher and the student are not on an equal footing and do not stand to gain equally from their interaction. On the one hand, the teacher aims to encourage students to speak in order to assess their abilities and their understanding and to help them progress. On the other hand, the students’ responses rarely help the teacher to progress in terms of language skills even if they may provide new cultural knowledge thanks to the students’ diverse backgrounds and education.
Robert Sarrasin develops this idea in Problématique des interactions verbales entre élèves:
“Teacher-student communication only ever represents, even in the classroom context, a restricted range of interactions compared to those that are possible during pair work. Because the teacher’s interventions, due simply to the teacher status, don an authoritative character (…) teacher-student interactions are characterised by a formal language use focussed on precision, whereas exchanges between students lead to a more spontaneous language use orientated towards exploratory aims.” (Translation).
“La communication maître-élève ne représente jamais, même dans le contexte de la classe, qu’un éventail restreint d’interactions, par rapport à toutes celles qui sont possibles entre pairs. Ensuite, parce que les interventions du maître, du fait même de son statut, revêtent forcément un caractère d’autorité (…) les interactions maître-élèves se caractérisent par un usage plutôt formel et axé sur la précision, tandis que les échanges entre élèves induisent un usage du langage plus spontané et orienté vers des fins exploratoires.”15 (Original).
In teacher-student interaction, the student knows prior to speaking that his or her production will be validated or otherwise by the teacher and that the teacher’s concentration will then move on to another student. Therefore, in this case there is no real need to communicate as the student understands that if he or she is not able to effectively respond to the teacher’s question, somebody else in the class will probably be able to do so. However, in small group-based interaction tasks students experience an increased need to use the foreign language to communicate as they are no longer one student in a whole class but rather one student in a small group who must collectively arrive at a solution to the given task.
Given that interaction holds an important place in language acquisition, it is necessary to find a way of ensuring interaction in the classroom without using a frontal method of teaching, by which all exchanges pass by the teacher. Interaction must take up a significant part of the time students spend in the classroom and these exchanges must take place between students, without interference from the teacher. By means of the student-student small group configuration learners are able to encounter an authentic usage of the foreign language in real communicative situations.
The number of students in each group is an important element to take into consideration. In L’apprentissage coopérant (1996) Robert Pléty explains:
“if the number of partners increases, the information exchanged is richer and so the exchanges themselves function better.” (Translation).
“si le nombre de partenaires augmente, il y a plus de richesse dans l’information échangée donc les échanges eux-mêmes marchent mieux.”16 (Original).
Though pair work is an obvious alternative to teacher-student interaction, larger groups of 3 to 4 students allow for more numerous and varied ideas to be exchanged and also incite exchanges more naturally and therefore create increased interaction and increased negotiation of meaning.
However, some teachers may worry that by taking a step aside and handing over control to students in group tasks they are less able to control the accuracy of the productions and are therefore less able to help the students progress. Pléty provides a response to this dilemma:
“With group work, learners are able to collaboratively identify the requested task, which enables them to orientate the work in the right direction and to limit errors, even though some will still persist, the learners will be able to inter-correct or auto-correct them.” (Translation).
“Avec le travail en groupe, les élèves peuvent identifier à plusieurs la tâche demandée, ce qui permet d’orienter le travail dans la bonne direction et de limiter les erreurs, même si elles seront forcément présentes, mais permettrons aux élèves de s’inter/auto-corriger.”17 (Original).
Group tasks provide a rich environment for students to take on the responsibility of helping each other to arrive at a solution to the task or simply to arrive at a general consensus in a discussion, whilst also helping each other to become more accurate users of the target language. The notion of inter-correction and auto-correction go hand in hand with Vygotsky’s theory, which was presented in the first section of this study, and which argues that individuals learn first by encountering information on an interpsychological level, corresponding to inter-correction, before internalising this information on an intrapsychological level, corresponding to auto-correction. If we are to adhere to Vygotsky’s theory, it is through auto- and inter-correction, which takes place during peer interaction, that learners may progress in their language acquisition.
Therefore, if teachers are to put in place successful interaction tasks between students without the presence of the teacher, it seems necessary to be aware of the fact that successful interaction is not simply based on the command of lexical, grammatical and phonetic structures and rules but also on students’ ability to use a range of strategies to ensure coherent, cohesive and accurate communication. Indeed, even during interaction between native speakers, a sufficient understanding of the language is not enough to ensure the successful communication of ideas and the arrival at a common consensus in the proposed task.

Beyond the linguistic elements of interaction

When taking part in verbal interaction, beyond the need to formulate appropriate linguistic content, there are other elements to take into account that are not solely language related. Evelyne Berger develops this idea in her book Prendre la parole en L2 : Regard sur la compétence d’interaction en classe de langue:
“Beyond formulating appropriate content, participation in any verbal interaction – including in the classroom – implies, for example, structuring speech in a pertinent and coherent way in relation to what preceded it. It implies adapting to the present situation and to the behaviour of others as well as managing problems relating to mutual understanding and other unforeseen events. It also implies keeping the attention and the interest of the conversation partner.” (Translation).
“Au-delà de la formulation de contenus appropriés la participation à toute interaction verbale – y compris en classe – suppose ainsi, par exemple, de structurer son discours de façon pertinente et cohérente avec ce qui précède, de s’adapter à la situation présente et aux conduites d’autrui, de gérer des problèmes d’intercompréhension et autres imprévus ou encore de s’assurer de l’attention et de l’intérêt de son interlocuteur.”18 (original).
When learning a second language it is easy to focus ones attention almost solely on lexical, grammatical and phonetic accuracy when conveying a message. However, it is not these elements alone that produce coherent and meaningful social interaction and on focussing too much attention on these elements the learner risks by-passing resources and techniques that can improve the quality of interaction and generate more coherent discussion.

Table of contents :

1. The role of interaction in language acquisition
1.1. The role of interaction in the learning process
1.2. The role of interaction in language acquisition
1.3. Redefinition of the status of the language learner
2. Training learners to become autonomous language users
2.1. From teacher-student communication to student-student communication in small group tasks
2.2. Beyond the linguistic elements of interaction
2.3. Introducing interaction strategies into the classroom
2.3.1. Modified-Interaction Strategies
2.3.2. Social-Interaction Strategies
3. Teaching experiments and results
3.1. Subjects and study model
3.2. Procedures for training learners in the ‘Skilled Use of Interaction Strategies’
3.2.1. Experiment lesson 1
3.2.2. Experiment lesson 2
3.2.3. Experiment lesson 3
3.3. Measurement
3.4. Hypothesis
3.5. Results and analysis
3.5.1.Overall participation
3.5.2.Use of Modified-Interaction Strategies
3.5.3.Use of Social-Interaction Strategies
3.5.4.The number of errors
3.5.5.Use of French
3.5.6.Unfinished sentences
3.5.7.Confidence in communicative tasks


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