Special guest-edited issue on 'Interaction and language learning in foreign language contexts': Introduction

International Review of Applied Linguistics (IRAL)

Second language acquisition (SLA) research provides evidence that interaction facilitates language learning and has sought to explain the processes involved (see the special issues on interaction and second language learning by Gass et al. [1998] and García Mayo and Alcón Soler [2002], as well as recent reviews of interaction research by Mackey [2007]; Mackey and Gass [2006] and Mackey and Goo [2007]). As Gass et al. (1998: 303) point out, this line of research has focused on the nature of conversational interaction, whether or not opportunities are present for the conditions and processes that are claimed to facilitate language learning, and the nature of the devel-opment that takes place. SLA research based on the interactional hypothesis has also provided empirical evidence about the opportunity that negotiated interaction offers language learners to connect input and learners’ internal capacities, particularly selective attention and output, in productive ways (Long 1996: 451–452). In addition, current research has begun to investi-gate the relationship between feedback, uptake and learning outcomes (Loewen and Philp 2006). However, to date most research on interaction and language learning has been conducted in second language contexts, initially in experimental set-tings, and more recently in language classrooms (Ellis et al. 2001a, 2001b; Mackey 2006). Different authors, such as Mackey and Silver (2005) sug-gest that there seems to be a need for more studies which might provide us with information about the role of interaction in new environments. In their book entitled Child’s play? Second Language Acquisition and the Younger Learner, Philp et al. (in press) respond to this need by reporting on empiri-cal research concerning children in second language and immersion con-texts in the early years of formal education. In a similar vein, the present thematic issue aims to focus on another learning environment: the foreign language (FL) context. Like research conducted in second language environments, while descriptive research has examined patterns of interaction and opportunities for learning (Alcón 2007; Alcón and García Mayo in press), quasi-experimentally based studies have addressed the relationship between tasks and interaction (Alegría de la Colina and García Mayo 2007; García Mayo 2002a, 2002b), and has examined the use of language as a mediated tool (Alcón 2002) to construct target language learning. In addi-tion, studies conducted within the framework of the interaction hypothesis point out the need to explore the range of conditions within FL classrooms and the variability across FL contexts.From this perspective, this thematic issue gathers theoretical and em-pirical investigations that explore the potential benefits of interaction in FL contexts and fills a void in the current literature on second language acqui-sition. Moreover, the contributors provide evidence of the effect of interac-tion in a range of foreign language contexts. In the opening article, Jenefer Philp and Rita Tognini (“Language acquisition in foreign language contexts and the differential benefits of interaction”) present an overview of the role of interaction in SLA and then focus more specifically on the findings of research on interaction in FL contexts. Although theoretical work on the relationship between interaction and second language development has placed great emphasis on the benefits of input, feedback and modified out-put when they arise from meaningful communication between learners in L2 settings, these issues have barely been addressed in FL contexts. The authors review research on interaction in FL non-immersion contexts and argue that research on this setting will provide an opportunity to explore the extent to which interaction facilitates L2 development in contexts where target-like input and opportunities for interaction are greatly limited.Taken together, the articles, written by scholars with ample research ex-perience in the study of interaction and language learning, will contribute to a better understanding of the potential benefits of interaction in foreign language contexts and will highlight some issues which will hopefully lead to pedagogical implications in the teaching of foreign languages.