10 – Interaction Theory

We acquire language through interaction, causing feedback, making input more comprehensible.

In basically every conversation, people interact. These two people are talking at a dance party, and the music is loud.

Girl: Hi, there. Do you want to dance?
Boy: What? I can’t hear you.
Girl: Do you want to dance?
Boy: Dance?
Girl: Yeah!
Boy: Yes, sure!
Girl: Then please go dance. I want to talk to your friend.

In this bad joke, the girl asked a question because she couldn’t hear. But we ask questions like this for many reasons. Maybe we can’t hear. Maybe the speaker did not speak clearly enough. Maybe the speaker made a grammar mistake, so we cannot understand. But when we interact with the speaker, the speaker can adjust his speech. He can try to speak more clearly. He can try to fix his grammar mistakes.

Interaction also works the other way. Maybe the speaker did speak clearly. Maybe he made no grammar mistakes. But maybe the speaker spoke too quickly for the listener. Maybe the speaker used language that was too difficult for the listener. In this case, the listener can interact, saying things like, “More slowly and simply please?”

This fits with Long’s (1983) interaction hypothesis, which states that we acquire language through interaction, causing feedback, making input more comprehensible. Interaction works with Swain’s (1985) comprehensible output hypothesis. That is, we acquire language as we try to produce comprehensible output, which also produces feedback and more input.

To practice interaction, learners can memorize and use a set of simple questions.

  • Could you repeat that please?
  • Could you repeat that slowly please?
  • Could you repeat that simply please?
  • What does *** mean?
  • How do you say *** in English?
  • Could you write that down?
  • Could you draw or show a picture of that?
  • Is this right? Does this make sense?

Sometimes we can see questions like these in body language, so we can learn to interact with body language. If a speaker sees body language that shows the listener does not understand, then the speaker can try to speak more clearly.

We can also apply interaction theory with extensive reading. Readers can interact with books. For example, with e-books or online texts, learners can select words and easily look them up in a dictionary. Readers can also have the e-book speak texts.

In short, interaction is a powerful theory because it helps us control the input we hear and read. It helps us learn from mistakes. It helps us get more input and make input more understandable.

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.