The role of input modification and internal language processing in foreign language learning

How can we promote L2 acquisition through the negotiation of meaning and input adaptation?

Here are some points to consider on the role of comprehensible input and learner discourse modifications in the development of our learners’ interlanguage.

    With regard to L2 acquisition, a lot of research has been focusing on the role of input and interaction and to what extent these can promote language learning. Behaviourists view language as determined ‘environmentally’ by the stimuli and reinforcement learners receive during discourse. The mentalist view stresses the importance of the learners’ ‘black box’ and their innate ability to pick up any language through minimal exposure to input. The interactionist view on language acquisition is somewhere in between the two previous viewpoints and acknowledges the importance of both input and internal language processing in language learning. The belief here is that learners develop their interlanguage through a combination of complex interactions and their internal mechanisms that allow them to communicate with others and decipher meaning out of the input they receive.

  • Input modifications and negotiation of meaning: Do they foster language learning?

    When examining learner discourse and its role in language acquisition we first of all need to consider its similarities and differences with native speaker talk and whether there are any modifications. Researchers divide this foreigner talk into two types: ungrammatical and grammatical. The first one (i.e. the simplification of speech by deleting certain key grammatical structures when talking to foreigners) is likely to be rejected by some learners as it may sound pragmatically inappropriate to them. The grammatical one is the most common one, where  input is simplified or delivered at a slower pace, using shorter sentences and having as a primary focus the negotiation of meaning.

  • Comprehensible input

   To promote language learning in our EFL classrooms it is important to examine to what degree such modifications of speech assist in interlanguage development. For Stephen Krashen and his input hypothesis, learners need to be exposed to input (i.e. lexis and grammatical structures) that are ‘input +1’, i.e. one step more advanced than the learners’ knowledge and linguistic development. Michael Long’s interaction hypothesis further emphasizes the importance of comprehensible input but claims that it is most effective through the negotiation of meaning.

    Having these theories in mind, we can therefore come up with a plan to help our learners get the most out of their interactions and of the input we expose them to. Below you will find some key points to consider with regard to learner discourse and some tips on how to promote interlanguage development during our EFL lessons.

–       Input authenticity (variety in context/sources)
    By loading the input we give to our learners with the target forms we want them to notice, we facilitate the learning process and give them the necessary clues they need in order to process and eventually absorb the new knowledge. Variety and authenticity in tasks is also important here as learners have the opportunity to reproduce the grammatical patterns in many different scenarios and for different communicative purposes.
–       Encouraging learner interaction through creative communicative tasks
    For Harmer(2001), ‘successful language teaching’ should be judged according to the ‘balance of the activities our students are involved in’. Since in most EFL classrooms learners have limited opportunities to practice the language outside the classroom, Harmer considers ‘genuine communicative tasks’ as an important part of the lesson. We therefore need to come up with activities that will increase student talking time (STT) and will give our learners the opportunity to utilize their knowledge and find ways to interact, express themselves in a creative way and get their message across in the target language.
    In many cases our EFL learners have limited exposure to the TL outside the classroom and therefore they do not have many opportunities to practise the language. In order to foster their language development we must create the appropriate environment to help them do this during the lesson. We must help them develop communicative skills that will eventually promote language acquisition. By encouraging interaction among the students through collaborative writing or speaking tasks, STT (student talking time) is increased and our learners gradually begin to develop language fluency and learn from one another.
    We must give them the freedom to interact in the TL, to try to communicate successfully and appropriately (not necessarily accurately), to get their message across without the fear of errors. Our learners’ interlanguage will constantly evolve through creative mistakes. It’s not just the drilling and the exercises that will boost their linguistic development but the interaction, the constant effort to turn their passive vocabulary into active.
–       Focus on the different learning styles
    In order to grasp our learners’ attention and increase their willingness to participate in the lesson we need to focus on their different learning styles, on their personalities, their feelings, their likes and dislikes. A whole class discussion or students filling out questionnaires on what they like and what they don’t in terms of topics and task types could enlighten us on the activities we can select for our specific language classrooms. We need to focus on topics our students will feel eager to write/talk about. This way we will be satisfying our learners’ different learning styles and we will be more successfully directing our teaching towards their needs.
–       Learning by discovery (learning to ‘read’ the contextual clues)
  The importance of noticing in successful language learning has been highlighted by many linguists and SLA researchers (Skehan, Long, Harmer, Thornbury). There seems to be a general consensus among them that some form of attention to input is necessary for effective learning to take place. Noticing is considered to be successful when it leads to language acquisition, when our learners’ attention is shifted towards a TL structure, which is then acquired, internalized and eventually becomes part of their TL output.
    The key, therefore, is not just to make our students notice linguistic patterns in the TL. Something that has ‘grasped’ our attention could easily be forgotten after a while. Our goal as teachers is to create the appropriate circumstances in order to raise our learners’ consciousness, to help them successfully acquire this new knowledge and to begin to actively use it by turning input into intake and then into successful TL output. This blog post’s main purpose will be to draw our attention as teachers to the importance of this concept in foreign language learning and in particular to grammar teaching.
    Noticing mainly has to do with our learners being able to understand and grasp the meaning from the input they receive in terms of a newly introduced structure or grammar point. Successful learning will take place when they notice this ‘gap’ between the target language and their interlanguage and will actively try to incorporate the new structures in their TL output.
    For Ellis (2001), noticing occurs mainly due to a ‘communication breakdown’. Before our learners ‘pick up new knowledge’, they have to ‘notice’ the difference between what they know and what they need to learn in order to effectively communicate meaning in the TL (The noticing hypothesis). In order to negotiate meaning, they need to figure out what they need to learn in order to fill in their linguistic gaps. Teacher interference could be very useful at this point, as long as it is subtle and it simply helps students into a better understanding of their learning gap.
–       Grading the tasks
    Age plays a very significant role when it comes to negotiation of meaning, noticing and language learning. Younger learners have a limited attention span and will focus mainly on the communication of meaning and less on form/grammar. Adult learners on the other hand are more reflective and are thinking more analytically about their own learning. Their metacognitive awareness and their previous knowledge of learning languages play a very significant role in triggering this noticing that will eventually transform their interlanguage and will foster language learning.
Bygate, M., Skehan, P. & Swain, M. (2001). Researching Pedagogic Task: Second Language Learning, Teaching and Testing. Harlow: Pearson Education
Ellis, R. (2001). Non-reciprocal task, comprehension and second language acquisition. In M. Bygate, P. Skehan & M. Swain (Eds.) Researching Pedagogic Tasks: Second Language Learning, Teaching and Testing (pp. 49-74). Harlow: Longman
Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford: OUP
Gass, S. M., & Madden, C. (1985).  Input in Second Language Acquisition. London: Newbury House
Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.
Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In G. Cook& B. Seidlhofer (Eds.),  Principle and Practice in Applied Linguistics. Oxford: OUP.
Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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