Skip to content ↓

February 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Does Conversational Interaction Really Matter?

Ali Maskari is a former director of studies at ADNOC Technical Institute and has worked as a supervisor of the English Language Program in the Abu Dhabi Educational Zone and participated in Curriculum Development for technicians and engineers in the oil and gas industry. He is a regular presenter at TESOL Arabia events in the Gulf Region.




With the development of communicative language teaching, the field of SLA has extended to include conversational interaction. Hatch (1978) emphasizes the importance of conversational interaction in the developing grammar, and Krashen (1985) indicates that comprehensible input is essential for SLA. Many researchers in the field of SLA such as Long , Pica , Swain and others have investigated the role of interaction and its contribution to SLA. Mackey (1999) examines the relationship between conversational interaction and SLA.

Long (1983) investigates social discourse in NS and NNS interaction and the resultant changes in such interaction. This process is known as Interactional Modification, which is later referred to by other SLA researchers as negotiation. Based on the work of Hatch (1978) and Krashen’s Input Hypothesis (1985), Long (1985) proposes a theoretical connection between interaction modification, comprehension, and acquisition. Other researchers have investigated other factors in SLA beyond comprehensible input. Swain (1985), for example, argues that comprehensible input is not enough for NNS language acquisition, and that comprehensible output is important. Swain’s (1985) Comprehensible Output was then considered another important factor for successful SLA.


Defining interaction                                

Ellis (1999) defines Interaction as a “process that involves both intermental and intramental activities”. He also indicates that there are different theories on the role of interaction in SLA. The most important of these theories are the Interaction Hypothesis, Socio-Cultural Theory, and the Levels of Processing Model.  Also important is the role of the social process in SLA. The latter includes interaction modified by negotiation (Pica, 1994).


Interaction hypothesis

Long (1983) and Krashen (1985) state that when L2 learners interact, especially when exchanging information, they receive comprehensible input from their conversational partners, at the same time, there is an opportunity for the teacher to clarify input to match the student’s comprehension. Long suggests that there exists a possibility for L2 learners to develop new conversational structures through the interactional negotiation that takes place during interaction.  In his interaction hypothesis, Long emphasizes two major factors that play a role in SLA interactions.  First, comprehensible input is important in L2 acquisition.  Second, modifications in speech that takes place during conversation increase comprehensible input in SLA.  Further, Swain’s Comprehensible Output Hypothesis proposes that L2 learners are

 “Pushed toward the delivery of a message that is not only conveyed, but that is conveyed precisely, coherently, and appropriately” (Swain, 1985, p. 249). Based on this hypothesis, Swain (1995) claims:

   …Output may stimulate learners to move from the semantic, open-ended, nondeterministic, strategic processing prevalent in comprehension to the complete grammatical processing needed for accurate production. Output thus, would seem to have a potentially significant role in the development of syntax and morphology (p. 128)

Long (1996) updated his version of the Interaction Hypothesis to include Swain’s  Comprehensible Output:

Negotiation of meaning, and especially work that triggers interaction adjustments by the NS or more competent interlocutor, facilitates because it connects input, internal learner capacities, particularly selected attention, and output in productive ways. (pp. 451- 452)

Many scholars in the field of SLA suggest that comprehension is crucial for a successful conversational interaction between NSs and NNSs (Gass and Selinker, 1994).  Veronis and Gass (1982) describe two factors that determine comprehensibility between NNSs and NSs. The first factor is the NS’s ability to understand NNS speech. The second factor is the NNS’s ability to understand NS speech. They also mention three factors that affect comprehensibility between NSs and NNSs.

The first factor is the ability to understand NNS pronunciation and grammar. To do this, one must understand the NNS’s general accent. We also need to be familiar with the topic and content of the NNS’s conversation. In addition, the teacher needs to be familiar with the task.

The second area is NNS’s ability to understand a NS. Veronis and Gass(1985) have indicated  that NSs use backchannel cues as a way of interaction with NNSs. Backchannel cues are defined as verbal messages used to carry on conversational interaction such as, aha, ye and uh. Another variable that determines comprehensibility is familiarity. It includes familiarity with a foreigner’s personality, his/her speech, and a discourse topic. Moreover, Gass and Selinker (1994) also believe that the ability to use appropriate vocabulary and linking devices is also important in determining comprehensibility.


Importance of comprehensible input

In the light of this argument, comprehension is considered important for successful conversational interaction; lack of comprehension, therefore, will interrupt the flow of conversation. To resolve the lack of comprehension, an NNS as well as an NS will “negotiate the meaning” of their utterances.  Pica (1994) defines negotiation as “modification and restructuring of interaction that occurs when learners and their interlocutors anticipate, perceive, or experience difficulties in message comprehensibility.” 

Advocates of input processing models, on the other hand, make a number of claims about the role of interaction and negotiation in language learning. The first claim which is based on a research by Long (1980, 1996) suggests that in order for an NNS  to internalize new forms and structures, the meaning of the message they receive from their conversational partners should be comprehensible. The second claim is that interactional modification, which results from negotiation of meaning, facilitates second language learning.


Negotiated interaction

SLA researchers from different perspectives have also investigated the role of negotiated interaction in SLA. Gass and Selinker (1994) state that throughout the course of conversational interaction, negotiation allows involvement between the interlocutors and hence contributes to acquisition.  Its role in the acquisition process with respect to comprehension was investigated by Pica (1992) and Long (1983). Long (1983) states that negotiation is important in the early stages of SLA. Pica (1992) concludes that L2 learners do not need negotiation when they have achieved a high degree of comprehension. Moreover, research in this field has also led a number of SLA researchers to include other factors such as negative feedback and saliency to explain how negotiated interaction facilitates SLA.  Mackey (1999) suggests that negative feedback obtained during negotiation of meaning may help the learner to notice some forms of the target language, and hence contribute to their acquisition.

Another form of negative feedback currently investigated in SLA research is recast. Recast is defined in SLA literature as a way of saying something in a target-like way that  was previously articulated by an NNS in a non-target way. In the light of this argument, Mackey and Philips (1998) found that recasting with negotiation was more effective than negotiation of the interaction alone. Mackey (1999) has also found that negotiation with or without recast helped SLA. She asserts, however, that the focus of current research in SLA is on interaction containing negotiation rather than recast even though both of these elements may occur at the same time. Nevertheless, Long (1996) has argued that recasts are sometimes ambiguous for NNSs since it is difficult for NNSs to determine if the recast is a proper version of saying something or another way of explaining it.  In general, Pica (1994) argues strongly that negotiation plays a powerful role in the L2 learning. She states that L2 learners who participate in negotiation interaction “can facilitate comprehension as well as assist in the segmentation and analysis of input; make certain; after problematic items in the input more salient; and trigger the provision of important negative feedback from interlocutors.” In contrast, Ellis, Tonaka, and Yomazaki (1994) have concluded that there is no empirical study to support the role of negotiated interaction and acquisition. Interestingly, they have indicated in their study which  investigated the effect of modified interaction on comprehension and vocabulary acquisition, that  interactionally modified input has led to better comprehension and better acquisition of new vocabulary than premodified input. On the other hand, the participants in negotiation interaction did not understand or acquire more new words than those who were exposed to modified interaction.

In a study to investigate the role of recast in the context of conversational interaction between NSs and NNSs, Philip (1999) presents evidence that NSs do notice feedback during conversational interaction.  Ellis (1985), however, has indicated that the quality of interaction is considered to have a better influence on L2 learning. The advocates of this claim have also found that conversational interaction that is not structured or open ended does not facilitate better interlanguage development than the interaction that is more controlled or goal oriented.  (e.g. Doughty, 1996; Long 1992; Pica,1992). 



Pica (1994) states that negotiated interaction with NSs in goal-based activities caused better production of question forms and interaction that took place without negotiation had limited result.  Moreover, Pica (1995) claims that in order for negotiation and input feedback to assist L2 learning, additional contributions are needed to support the psycholinguistic process of SLA such as collaborative dialogue which is important to provide scaffolding, completion, and production.  Despite her claim, collaborative dialogue in her study did not offer any contribution to SL development. Therefore, more research is needed to understand the processes of SLA and the types of modification of NSs as well as NNSs’ speech that determine comprehensibility.



Ellis, R., Tanaka, T., & Yamazaki, A.(1994) Classroom interaction, comprehension and the acquisition of L2  word meanings. Language Learning 44, 128-143.

Ellis, R., (1999).  Learning a second Language through Interaction. Studies in Bilingualism, Volume 17 ED 445 535.

Gass, S. & Veronis,  E. (1994). Input, Interaction, and Second Language production. Studies in second language acquisition 16 283-302.

Gass, S.& Selinker, L., (1994) Second Language Acquisition: An introductory Course.  New Jersey:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Krashen, S., (1985). The Input Hypothesis: Issues and implication. New York: Longman.

Long, M., (1983).  Linguistic and Conversational Adjustments to non-native speakers. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 5,177-193.

Mackey, A (1999).  Input, Interaction, and Second Language Development. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 21, 557-587.

Mackey, A., Philp, J. (1998).   Conversational Interaction and Second Language Development: Recasts, Responses, and Red Herrings. The modern language journal 82:3 pp 338-356.

Nakahama, Y., Tyler, A., Van Liar, L.,(2001). Negotiation of Meaning in Conversational and Information Gap Activities: A comparative Discourse Analysis. Tesol Quarterly 35, 378 -386.

Pica, T. (1996).   Second Language Learning through Interaction: multiple perspectives. ED 401 756.

Pica, T. (1994). Research on Negotiation: What Does It Reveal about Second Language Learning Conditions, Process, and Outcomes?  Language Learning 44:3, pp 493-527.

Polio, C & Gass, S (1998).  The role of interaction on native speaker comprehension of nonnative speaker speech. The Modern Language Journal 82:3 pp 308-319.

Swain, M., Lapkin, S., (1998) Interaction and Second language learning: two adolescent French Immersions studies working together. The Modern Language Journal 82:3 pp 308-319.


Please check the Advanced Level English Update for Teachers course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the NLP and Coaching for the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the  Creative Ways to Get Students Speaking More course at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Various Articles 
  • Does Conversational Interaction Really Matter?
    Ali Maskari, United Arab Emirates

  • Constructing Conversations: The Viability of Student-centered Pedagogy in Confucian Heritage EFL Classrooms
    Ian Roth, Japan