A more natural approach to L2 learning and use : informal L1/L2 conversations between English-speaking Spanish learners and Spanish-speaking English learners



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Heeding the call by Firth and Wagner (1997) for a re-analysis of some of the “facts” of modern second language (L2) learning theory and research, the goals of this present study are to determine if: (1) informal conversations between a NS of English (NES) learning Spanish and a NS of Spanish (NSS) learning English reveal insight regarding the natural use and interaction of the first (L1) and the target language (TL); (2) informal L2 conversations in which the L1 is permitted present opportunities for L2 teaching, learning or socialization; and (3) provided that evidence of possible opportunities for L2 teaching, learning or socialization is found, does this indicate a need for permitting both informal talk and the use of the L1 in the L2 learning context. It was hypothesized that in informal conversations, learners would demonstrate intuitive approaches to L2 learning, teaching and socialization, and that observations of these phenomena could help guide research and pedagogy regarding the L2 learning context. It was also hypothesized that informal language exchanges would demonstrate that when left to intuition, participants would provide quality NS input and modified NNS output for their partners as they alternated between L1 and L2 and between the roles of language teacher and language learner.
Previous studies have shown that the ability to control the language being used and the topic being discussed allows learners to access knowledge and linguistic structures that enable them to feel more comfortable using the L2 and less anxious about interacting in L2 conversations (Auerbach 1993; Tomlinson 2001; Lantolf and Thorne 2007). The design of this study was intended to address the concept of bi-directional informal discourse in learner/expert learner/expert pairs (i.e., participants who are each learners of their partners’ L1) and the informal exchange of two languages in the L2 learning context. Although the importance of language learning and use in context have been described since the early 20th century in the work of Vygotsky, and the phenomenon of participant orientation and role-switching has also been examined in recent years, there have been relatively few studies that have looked at the nexus of social talk and reciprocal teaching by pairs of learner/experts as this context interacts with the use of the L1 and the L2 in an informal communication event.
Data for the study were obtained from audio recordings of four conversations between pairs of native Spanish speakers learning English and native English speakers learning Spanish with the goal of determining what the participants would teach to one other through the use of informal, unstructured conversation using both the L1 & the L2. In addition, all of the participants completed an exit interview questionnaire on their experience with the interaction as well as their general opinions regarding language learning. The data showed that 7 out of 8 participants did teach (intentionally or unintentionally) both linguistic and extra-linguistic information from their L1 to their partners, and that in all pairs a local set of rules regarding the use of the L1was established (including the pair in which no English was used). The pairs modeled an intuitive use of the L1 demonstrating the ability of the L1 both to bridge conversational gaps and to enable teaching and socialization in the L2. The data also show how the participants built a community of practice by setting and changing the language used, requesting explicit feedback or evaluation from their partners, bonding over language learning struggles, as well the linguistic and extra-linguistic information that the participants provided for their partners. The results of the study indicate potential benefits both for the use of the L1 in the L2 learning context, and for allowing learners to teach from their own L1 while learning the L2 in informal conversations. However, the recordings and the exit interviews also show some potential problems for implementation (e.g., the possibility that a conversation may be carried out in just one language). The conclusions present implications and applications for the study, such as the establishment of language exchange programs as a supplement to traditional L2 classes, as well as the limitations of the study and suggestions for further research.