November 1997 — Volume 3, Number 1
Input, Interaction, and the Second Language Learner
Susan M. Gass (1997)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers
Pp. xi + 189
ISBN 0-8058-2209-7 (paper)
This text explores the role of input and interaction in second language acquisition and is intended for an audience interested in acquisitional and pedagogical aspects of second language learning.
In the initial chapter, “Modeling Second Language Acquisition,” Gass argues for the need of an interactive model incorporating all the attributes of second language (L2) acquisition. She presents a model depicting the different stages that transform input– through intermediate stages of apperceived and comprehended input, intake, and interaction–into L2 output.
Apperceived input characterizes the awareness of new L2 information that is not yet part of the learner’s L2 repertoire. Comprehended input goes one step beyond recognition. It may be analyzed and has the potential of being assimilated through the process of intake. Psycholinguistic processing occurs at this stage where new information may be matched against existing stored knowledge. The next stage, integration, involves storage of new information for later use, hypothesis formulation, and confirmation or reformulation of existing hypotheses. The final stage, output, is an “overt manifestation” of the acquisition process. The different stages may be influenced by a number of factors, such as saliency and frequency, prior knowledge, and attention, as well as by affective factors.
Comprehended input is different from intake (incorporation into L2 grammar). Input may be comprehended “for the purpose of a conversational interaction” (p. 25), i.e., comprehended input, or may be “used for the purpose of learning” (p. 25), i.e., intake.
Output (not to be equated with internalized grammar) is the learner’s overt manifestation of L2 knowledge, and may be influenced by factors such as confidence and strength of knowledge representation.
In chapter 2, Gass reviews the literature on the innateness hypothesis: that children are innately equipped with abstract principles of Universal Grammar (UG) that enable them to internalize a complex grammar within a relatively short period, in spite of a degenerate, disorganized, and insufficient input. Some first [-1-] language (L1) acquisition theories argue that children initially hypothesize the narrowest grammar compatible with the input and later expand the grammar to include additional information received. This ensures acquisition primarily through positive evidence since children are argued to be generally insensitive to negative evidence.
Gass also presents three kinds of evidence that the L2 learner may benefit from: positive evidence, direct negative evidence, and indirect negative evidence.
Chapter 3, “The Nature and Function of Input,” discusses the nature of input, argued to vary across cultures, and the function of input, which may be influenced by the environment in which the language is used. Speech directed at non-native speakers is characterized by simplification in virtually all aspects of grammar (phonology, morphology, syntax, vocabulary, and discourse), and Gass points out that such input, though simplified, is generally grammatical. Ungrammatical input is, however, not uncommon, particularly to low proficient learners when emphasis is on meaning. Such utterances are usually imitations of the learner.
Chapter 3 ends with a presentation of Krashen’s Monitor Model; a distinction is made between Krashen’s comprehensible input (from interlocutors) and Gass’s comprehended input (from the perspective of the learner). Gass reiterates the role of negative evidence (direct and indirect), which Krashen’s model does not acknowledge.
Gass presents an overview of the role of input in L2 acquisition from the perspective of different frameworks in chapter 4, “Input and Second Language Acquisition Theories.” Gass’s model advocates an input/interaction interface as the basis of language development. It emphasizes comprehended input rather than comprehensible input, which is espoused by another framework. Input is also presented within the framework of UG, whose accessibility to adult L2 learners is still debatable. Input to the adult learner could further be influenced by prior language acquisition and by affective factors, among other things. Another framework presented discusses input from a psycholinguistic perspective; that is, the automatic or controlled processing of input.
Gass leaves open the possibility of differential comprehension of the same input. The social relationship between the learner and interlocutors may affect the attention of the learner or the premium attached to the input. Specific aspects of the L2 grammar may be comprehended easily or may be difficult to absorb in spite of repeated occurrence in the input. This may be the result of similarities and differences (real or perceived) between the target language and other languages previously acquired. [-2-]
Conversational interaction in L2, the major topic in chapter 5, “The Role of Interaction,” is considered the basis for the development of L2 grammar. Miscommunication does occur sometimes, and negotiation (of form or meaning) is proposed as a key to avoiding miscommunication. In negotiated communication, interlocutors are aware of difficulty in communication and all parties work toward avoiding a breakdown in communication. Successful negotiated communication may be affected by factors including the nature of the task the learner is required to do; differences in status, age, and gender; and the personality traits of the interlocutors.
Gass further attempts to link negotiation to practical uses, unlike previous discussions of negotiated conversation, which have been mainly descriptive. Negotiation draws attention to erroneous or inappropriate forms, and also creates a situation in which learners receive feedback through direct and indirect evidence. Negotiation is thus described as “a facilitator of learning” (p. 131).
Gass distinguishes two kinds of comprehension in chapter 6, “Comprehension, Output, and the Creation of Learner Systems”: semantic comprehension which is meaning-based, and syntactic comprehension which is necessary for further grammatical development. The latter is crucial in transforming input into intake, the stage at which information is assimilated into the learner’s grammar.
Output, the productive use of language, is presented as a necessary part of language development, complementing the comprehension aspect of language. It serves as a means of hypothesis-testing and feedback. Output may also enhance the fluency and automaticity of processing and could facilitate grammatically based processing, a key requirement for grammatical development.
The final chapter, “Epilogue: Classroom Implications and Applications,” evaluates the relevance of the information provided in the text to different teaching methodologies. Gass further presents the benefits and shortcomings of content-based learning as opposed to form-focused instruction, which are largely dependent on the learning task required.
The Input-Interaction model demonstrates the different stages that input goes through before it can be utilized productively by the learner. This model, an interactive model of second language acquisition, attempts to incorporate all attributes of L2 development and to embrace the different and often incompatible proposals in the literature. The different theories of language acquisition, in general, are presented and Gass’s approach is to show how they complement, rather than contradict, each other. Her efforts have been largely successful. However, as Gass admits, the model demonstrates that input and interaction do play some role in [-3-] language learning, but precisely what role is still to be determined.
The text further offers an excellent review of the acquisition literature (L1 and L2). Like so many other acquisition texts, it does not show any direct correlation between acquisition and pedagogy. The final chapter, dedicated to pedagogy, does not provide direct answers to burning classroom questions. Such a feat is, however, almost impossible because of the volatile nature of L2 acquisition. The text nevertheless provides insight into some of the aspects of the learning process which could be useful in language pedagogy.
Malcolm A. Finney
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Editor’s Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work. [-4-]