Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Investigating Negotiation of Meaning in EFL Children with Very Low Levels of Proficiency

Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Investigating Negotiation of Meaning in EFL Children with Very Low Levels of Proficiency

Article excerpt

1. INTRODUCTION

The interaction hypothesis (Long, 1996) states that second language acquisition (SLA) is facilitated when conversational partners modify their interactions in order to avoid communication breakdowns. Based on this, numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of interaction in second language contexts, not only for adults, but for child learners as well (Mackey, 2007, 2012 for a review). However, to date, only very few studies have concentrated on children in foreign language contexts (Philp & Tognini, 2009; Tognini, 2008; Tognini & Oliver, 2012). In order to fill this research gap, our study examines the dialogues of eight pairs of 7-to-8-year-old learners of English as a foreign language (EFL) in Spain while they are performing a communicative task in the classroom. The participants were learning English in a school context exclusively, and, given the fact that they received a very limited amount of input, their level was lower than that of those participants reported in previous studies.

Addressing this population might not only provide deeper insights into interaction research, but it can also have important pedagogical significance: children learning EFL in schools worldwide represent an enormous (and fast-growing) number of English learners (Cameron, 2003), and communicative tasks, particularly those promoting negotiated interactions, have become common place in many L2 classrooms and are "being used more frequently in school-based foreign language classrooms" (Oliver, 2002: 98). Therefore, the findings of this paper could be of great interest to make decisions about more successful practices in EFL lessons the world over.

Thus, the purpose of the present study is to investigate whether young EFL children with a very low level of competence can negotiate for meaning while performing a task in the classroom and, if they can, to provide a description of the strategies they use and to compare them to those documented for adults and children in second language contexts.

2. LITERATURE REVIEW

2.1. Why is interaction beneficial?

In order to better understand the facilitative effect of interaction on language acquisition, several authors have strived to describe this process with greater precision by focusing on a specific type of interaction: negotiation for meaning. Negotiation for meaning has been defined as "the process whereby interactions are modified between or among conversational partners to help overcome communication breakdowns (Long, 1983a, 1983b; Long & Porter, 1985; Porter, 1986)" (Oliver, 1998: 373). In layman's terms, negotiation for meaning is what happens when two people taking part in a conversation do not (fully) understand each other. Then, in order to achieve mutual understanding, they need to repeat something, rephrase ideas in different ways, ask their conversational partners to repeat or clarify something, let them know if they have or have not understood, make sure that the other has understood, etc. All these conversational efforts, usually referred to as conversational adjustments, have been claimed to act as triggers for language acquisition and have been classified into three main types (for a meta-analysis, see Mackey & Goo, 2007): modifications to achieve comprehensible input (Long, 1983b; Pica, 1987, 1992); modifications to produce comprehensible output (Swain, 1985, 1995) and, finally, provision of feedback to trigger the corresponding modifications.

In addition to the above, the authors of these studies have pointed out that while negotiating meaning the interlocutors are highly likely to (consciously or unconsciously) pay attention to the form of the language, that is, they are forced into some kind of noticing with greater or lower levels of awareness or attention. Since noticing is also a vital factor in SLA (Schmidt, 1995), it can also be added to the list of factors that make interaction beneficial.

Nevertheless, doubt can also be cast on the effectiveness of interactive activities, especially when analysing its benefits with learners who possess two limiting features: they are very young and they have a very low proficiency level. …

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