This article explores the Interactionist Theory of language acquisition, one of the many theories of how children and adults learn languages.
Language Learning at an Early Age
From birth, children are surrounded by others who talk to them or with them. This communication plays a part in how the baby learns to speak his or her native language. Some argue that "nature" is entirely responsible for how a baby learns a language, while others argue that "nurture" is responsible for how a baby picks up his or her mother tongue. Social interactionists argue that the way a baby learns a language is both biological and social.
Everyone loves to coo at babies, and this "baby talk" is exposing the child to language, whether we realize it or not. Interactionists believe that children are born with brains that predispose them to the ability to pick up languages as well as with a desire to communicate. Some Interactionists even argue that babies and children cue their parents and other adults into giving them the linguistic exposure they need to learn a language. The Interactionist Theory posits that children can only learn language from someone who wants to communicate with them.
Perhaps two of the biggest names in the Interactionist Theory of language acquisition are Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner.
Vygotsky and Bruner
Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, created a model of human development now called the sociocultural model. He believed that all cultural development in children is visible in two stages. First, the child observes the interaction between other people and then the behavior develops inside the child. This means that the child first observes the adults around him communicating amongst themselves and then later develops the ability himself to communicate. Vygotsky also theorized that a child learns best when interacting with those around him to solve a problem. At first, the adult interacting with the child is responsible for leading the child, and eventually, the child becomes more capable of problem solving on his own. This is true with language, as the adult first talks at the child and eventually the child learns to respond in turn. The child moves from gurgling to baby talk to more complete and correct sentences.
Bruner, best known for his discovery learning theory, believes that learners, whether they are adults or children, learn best when they discover knowledge for themselves. He believes that students retain knowledge best when it is something they have discovered on their own. Bruner argues that an adult and an infant have conversations despite the child being unable to speak. The interaction between the two, such as games and non-verbal communication, build the structure of language long before the child is able to communicate verbally.
Interactionist Theory and ESL
How does the Interactionist Theory fit in with ESL in a classroom? When faced with learning English as a second language, the student is essentially an infant. They cannot communicate with the teacher except through non-verbal communication. Therefore, it is up to the teacher to act as the adult in the infant-adult relationship. He or she is responsible for leading all interaction at first, and as the student becomes more familiar with the English language and able to communicate, the control of the interaction can be relinquished a bit and the students can take more control of their own language learning. Also, if students are encouraged to experiment with the language and learn that it is okay to make mistakes, they will be able to discover for themselves how to combine words and phrases to form full sentences and dialogues.