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Interaction and Language Learning

Stacey Katz Bourns, Cheryl Krueger, and Nicole Mills

What does it mean to be able to communicate? In general, many researchers would say that competent communicators know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. In his discussion of language acquisition and classroom practice, VanPatten (2017, 3–6) highlights key terms to help instructors better understand the substance of communication: meaning, expression, interpretation, context, negotiation, and purpose. The following paragraphs provide paraphrased descriptions of each.

Meaning: Communication entails intentionally creating a message that contains meaning. Imagine that you order lunch and happily respond “That’s fine” when the server informs you that the chef needs to replace your onion rings with french fries. In contrast, another client who is not so easily appeased could respond with the same words—“that’s fine”—to convey frustration or disappointment.

Expression: Communication incorporates the expression of meaning (verbal and nonverbal). Gestures, use of space, tone, and intonation can all influence expression. For example, the phrase “uh huh” could be interpreted as an expression of sarcasm, happiness, or anger, depending on intonation or an accompanying nodding head or eye roll.

Interpretation: “Communication” implies that others understand the message. For example, if you explain your opinion to a colleague and he does not understand you, the message was not communicated (or not communicated effectively).

Context: Communication is closely connected to the setting and its participants. “I do” has a performative meaning when declared to your spouse at your wedding ceremony. The words have a different meaning when they are said in response to the question “Do you like jazz?” in a friendly conversation.

Negotiation: Communication sometimes requires negotiation when there is ambiguity or a misunderstanding. Clarification (“What do you mean by ‘one of a kind’?”), rephrasing (“He is one of a kind: he is unique”), and confirmation (“By ‘one of a kind,’ do you mean that he is unique?”) are all common ways to negotiate meaning.

Purpose: Communication requires a purpose—for example, social, informational, or transactional.

Celce-Murcia (2007, 48–49) included the notion of interactional competence as a component of communicative competence. Interactional competence is the ability to participate in and manage conversations in meaningful, appropriate, and relevant ways. Speakers do not simply know what to say, but they know how to say it and when to say it. They can open and close conversations, change topics, interrupt, collaborate, complain, apologize, and express feelings—with what sociolinguists call speech acts. Speakers can also interact using appropriate body language, turn-taking skills, and eye contact. Real conversations typically incorporate small talk (“I can’t believe it’s snowing again . . .”), expressive reactions (“No way!”), and comments that move the conversation forward (“anyway,” “on another note”). Effective communicators are also mindful of their environment and cultural cues.

Many language instructors prioritize preparing students to communicate in a wide range of situations. The challenge, however, is to create a classroom environment where students have ample opportunities to participate in authentic conversations. In her study on discourse, Hall (1995) was one of the first researchers to highlight how interactions that take place in class may not prepare language students for real-world conversations. She describes a typical classroom discourse pattern as what has come to be known as the IRE model: (1) teacher initiates, (2) student responds, and (3) teacher evaluates. In Hall’s well-known example from the 1990s, a Spanish teacher plays a Gloria Estefan song and then asks the students, “Is this music?” After confirming that the song is indeed music, the teacher asks the students a chain of questions (translated here from Spanish to English):

Do You Like the Music?

Teacher (T): It’s music, no?

Julio: No.

T: It’s music. It’s music. It’s music. Do you like it? Do you like it?

Julio: I don’t like it.

T: I don’t like it.

Julio: I don’t like it.

T: I don’t like the music. Do you like the music? I don’t like the music. Do you like the music?

Students: I do, yes. Yeah.

Rafael: Aw, man, where you goin’? [in English]

T: Yes, I like the music. Do you like the music?

Andrea: Yes.

If we return to the key words that define communication, does it seem as if the students understood and interpreted the purpose of the conversation in this exchange? Would this conversation take place in a real-world context? Does the exchange include negotiation of meaning? Are the students encouraged to change topics, interrupt, follow up, react expressively, or move the conversation forward? The answer to all these questions is no. Hall discusses how exposure to this sort of unnatural exchange in the classroom might promote communicative incompetence as opposed to communicative competence. VanPatten (2017) describes these types of interactions as language practice, not communication. He warns language teachers that “just because mouths are moving does not mean a classroom event is communicative” (14). Moreover, if there is a gap between how students communicate in the language classroom and how language is used outside the classroom, students will not necessarily become competent communicators who are able to connect with people in the real world (Levine 2014).

From Perspectives on Teaching Language and Content by Stacey Katz Bourns, Cheryl Krueger, and Nicole Mills. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Stacey Katz Bourns is director of the World Languages Center and professor of cultures, societies, and global studies at Northeastern University. Cheryl Krueger is associate professor of French and director of the French undergraduate program at the University of Virginia. Nicole Mills is senior preceptor in Romance languages and literatures and director of Language Programs (interim) at Harvard University.

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