Volume 4 (2013) Issue 1 - Article Mir
JLLT Volume 4 (2013) Issue 1.pdf

Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching

Volume 4 (2013) Issue 1 (PDF)

pp. 77 - 95

Negotiation of Meaning in Spanish L2 Task-Focused Conversations

Montserrat Mir (Normal (IL) , USA)

Abstract (English)

The purpose of this study is to investigate the effects of topic familiarity and task design in the frequency and nature of meaning negotiations. Participants included 20 low-intermediate Spanish learners who completed a series of four different oral tasks. Results indicate that, as seen in previous research, spot-the-difference tasks offered more opportunities to negotiate meaning than descriptive tasks. Familiarity with the topic did not strongly impact the number of meaning negotiations occurred. In addition, learners reacted to meaning negotiations differently depending on the trigger used with requests for clarifications resulting in extensive and successful output modification.

Key words: negotiation of meaning, conversations, Spanish, spot-the-difference tasks, descriptive tasks, topic familiarity

Abstract (Español)

El objetivo de este estudio es investigar cómo la familiaridad con el tema y el diseño de la tarea influyen la frecuencia y forma de las negociaciones de significado en la conversación. El grupo de participantes está compuesto de 20 alumnos de español intermedio que completaron cuatro tareas orales. Los resultados muestran, que tal como se ha visto en investigaciones anteriores, las tareas de buscar diferencias entre imágenes resultaron en un mayor número de oportunidades para negociar significados. La familiaridad con el tema de la tarea influyó ligeramente en el número de negociaciones. Además, se observaron reacciones diversas a la petición de negociación y se concluyó que pedir aclaración durante la conversación produce modificación extensa y efectiva del output.

Palabras clave: negociaciones de significado, conversaciones, español, tareas de buscar diferencias, tareas descriptivas, familiaridad con el tema

1 Introduction

The role of interaction in language acquisition has been thoroughly studied (cf. Mackey and Goo [2007] for a thorough review). The Interaction Hypothesis (Long 1996) has shown that, when learners engage in interaction, communication breakdowns arise which lead to negotiations of meaning intended to overcome comprehension difficulties. These negotiations offer negative evidence about the individual’s output pushing them to make language more comprehensible and / or target-like (Swain 1985). It is during output that learners test their hypotheses about language and receive feedback from their interlocutors, pushing them to produce more precise language (Gass 1997, Swain 2005). During negotiated sequences, learners use metalanguage to process syntactic information, which leads them to modified output and - ultimately - language acquisition.

This paper addresses how Spanish L2 speakers engage in negotiation of meaning during conversation as triggered by different language tasks. The purpose is to explore which task characteristics impact the amount and nature of meaning negotiations, as well as how participants modify their ouput to achieve comprehension. An investigation with twenty adult learners of Spanish as an L2 was carried out in which learners engaged in conversations to complete four different language tasks. A review of related studies will be presented first, followed by a description of the current study and analysis, and a discussion of the data. The conclusion section will address teaching implications and directions for future research.

2 Review of the Literature

Negotiated sequences have a definite structure and consist of

  1. a trigger, which is an imprecise or erroneous utterance (e.g. “The house is painting”),
  2. an indicator by means of which the problem is signaled by the interlocutor (e.g. “Sorry?”),
  3. a response in which the speaker attempts to fix the problem (e.g. “is paint… painted”), and, optionally,
  4. a reaction to the response (“oh, yes, I get it”) by means of which the reception of the message is acknowledged (Varonis and Gass 1985).

The devices which typically perform the function of indicators include such conversational strategies as comprehension checks, expressions designed to establish whether the speaker’s own preceding utterance has been understood by the addressee (e.g. “Do you understand?”), clarification requests, expressions that elicit clarification of the preceding utterance (“I beg your pardon?”), confirmation check, utterances following the preceding speaker’s utterance intended to confirm that the utterance was understood or heard correctly (e.g. “S. She lived in the lock T. In the lock?”) and recasts utterances that rephrase what has been said. Recasts usually take place in classroom settings often initiated by a native speaker or teacher who directs student’s attention to a language form regardless of whether communication breakdown has taken place.

Comprehension checks usually serve to head off potential communication breakdowns whereas the remaining strategies are often employed to address problems that have already arisen and, when the negotiation work is successful, allow the interaction to continue. In addition, the ensuing exchanges often result in modified input, which has been adjusted to facilitate compre­hension, or modified output, which closer approximates the TL norm (Ellis 1999). However, a closer look at interaction shows that these commonly used strategies to describe negotiations of meaning are not always indicative of communication breakdowns and in fact, they may be used to encourage talk among participants. Foster and Ohta (2005: 413) provide the following example in which what seems to be confirmation checks (D2, C3) are turns to allow time to think what to say next and to invite continuation to speak.

C1: What do you like in London?

D2: London? (1.0) Ah, there are a lot of things to do here

C3: A lot?

D4: there are a lot of things to do in your free time. A lot of shops, and you can go bowling, skating (1.0) there are cinemas. Where I live, no.

Foster and Ohta (2005) point out that traditionally, studies in language interaction have placed emphasis on how to identify the form that constitutes a meaning negotiation marker but have failed in explaining its function, as shown in the example above. The question remains if episodes in which conversational strategies as illustrated in the example above, used to encourage conversation, can be beneficial to language acquisition, as claimed for strategies requesting clarification or confirmation during a communication breakdown (Foster & Ohta 2005: 413).

Interlocutors may react differently to the same type of meaning-negotiation prompt. The learner can ignore the signal, fail to repair the problem, express difficulty, repeat the utterance, offer irrelevant information, or change to a different topic (Shedaheh 2001: 455-456). In addition, a meaning negotiation sequence may elicit different types of output modification (Pica et al. 1989). In Van den Branden’s study (1997), learners modified their output in response to negotiation moves based not on who the interlocutor was - a peer or the researcher - but on the type of negotiation move they received. For example, the most common response to a confirmation check was a yes / no acknowledgement, whereas a clarification request prompted a more extensive response.

Communication tasks have often been used in interaction studies because tasks focus on what participants “say to others and what others are trying to say to them” (Tavakoli and Foster 2008: 441). Tasks have different features and conditions that influence how learners divide their attention to what they want to say and how to say it. Some of these task design features include content familiarity, task familiarity, cognitive complexity, planning time, and task repetition.

An exploration of the cognitive demands of tasks as exemplified by different components of task features, such as task complexity, difficulty, and condition in L2 task performance, have led to an attention model called the Cognition Hypothesis (Robinson 2001, 2003; Robinson & Gilabert 2007). According to this hypothesis, increasing the cognitive demands of task along certain dimensions will push learners to greater accuracy and complexity of L2 production, promote interaction, increase learning and retention from the input (Robinson & Gilabert 2007). Task complexity is influenced by two cognitive dimensions: the resource-directing and resource-dispersing dimension. Resource-directing variables distinguish tasks on the basis of the conceptual and linguistic demands of the task, such as whether the task requires reference to events happening now, reference to few and distinguished elements as opposed to easily identifiable elements or reference to mutually known landmarks as opposed to location without support. (Robinson & Gilabert, 2007: 5). On the other hand, resource-dispersing variables make increased performative / procedural demands on participant’s memory and attention. Tasks along this dimension are classified on the basis of the availability of planning time, background knowledge needed for task performance or the number of things to be done during the task (Robinson & Gilabert 2007: 5). The Cognition Hypothesis predicts greater accuracy and complexity along the resource-directing dimension of tasks. With regard to interaction, this hypothesis also claims that more complex tasks will result in more interaction and negotiation of meaning.

Samuda and Bygate (2008) caution about the predictions and claims made by the Cognition Hypothesis and suggest that Robinson’s conditions could be defined as aspects of task design or task implementation. They propose a simpler classification between task complexity and task conditions. The former includes information-load variables such as reasoning demands, participation variables such as split / shared or open / closed tasks, and number of sub-tasks present. Task conditions refer to task implementation variables such as planning time or presence of background knowledge, and participant variables such as gender, familiarity and power / solidarity.

Familiarity with the content of the task can define task complexity in the sense that familiar content may lower the conceptual and cognitive demands of the task as shared common background knowledge can help participants focus their attention on completing the task. Unfortunately, the research on this topic is scarce and unclear mainly as to the different ways in which task familiarity is defined in each investigation. Gass and Varonis (1984) investigated the comprehensibility of non-native speech by four advanced learners of English reading an English story and related and unrelated sentences. The results showed that learners performing tasks with familiar topics were comprehended better than those learners performing tasks with unfamiliar topics. Topic familiarity was defined as familiarity with the context of a story between comprehensibility tasks as well as familiarity with the interlocutor. Robinson (2001) examined interaction between participants during a closed task in which one participant would describe a familiar or unfamiliar map while the other participant would draw a route in the map. Robinson reported that participants involved in describing an unfamiliar route engaged into more negotiation work than participants describing the route of a familiar map. In Hardy and Moore’s investigation (2004), content familiarity was defined as background knowledge with plot, characters and cultural setting of a video that participants would use during a language task. Their results indicated that participants engaged into more negotiations of meaning when they were engaged with unfamiliar video content suggesting that task familiarity may reduce the need for meaning negotiation. However, not all research on this topic has led to the same results. Yule, Powers & McDonald (1992) reported no differences between groups in a study in which one group had access to sample transcripts of similar tasks and one group did not. More recently, Arslanyilmaz and Pedersen (2010) looked at meaning negotiations during four communication tasks, using subtitled videos to provide familiarity with the tasks. Some participants viewed the videos prior to completing the communication tasks whereas other participants completed the tasks without viewing any videos. The results confirmed researcher’s predictions that familiarity with the task resulted in more negotiation of meaning. The researchers concluded that

enhanced negotiation of meaning shows that task familiarity through subtitled videos freed up attention and memory resources of students from language form and meaning, which resulted in paying more attention to negotiation of meaning and formulating language needed to express ideas during task completion. (Arslanyilmaz and Pedersen 2010:74-75)

Besides topic familiarity, the task type has also shown to have an effect on the nature of the interaction displayed. A specific type of activity that has been shown to promote negotiation is the information-gap task. This type of gap activity involves the sharing of information in which one learner has what the other needs in order to complete the task, thereby creating a definite need for communication. With regard to task conditions for information-gap activities, there are two basic categories: shared information and split information, shared informations meaning that two or more participants have information which is needed by two or more other participants, and split information meaning that one person has all of the information needed by the other which results in description. Some studies suggest that shared information tasks elicit more complex language use than split information tasks (Newton & Kennedy 1996). Other studies have also shown that shared information-gap activities may increase the amount of meaning negotiation during interaction Long (1989) and Ellis (2000).

Furthermore, open or closed task design also plays a direct role in influencing the amount of learner interaction. Open tasks are those that require participants to find a solution where they are free to form opinions and acquire their own evidence through surveys, debates, ranking activities. Closed tasks, on the other hand, are those that have a single, correct solution. Long (1989) suggests that more learner interaction in the form of negotiation of meaning takes place in closed tasks because learners are less likely to quit before they have determined the correct response. Open tasks, on the other hand, present little need for the amount of communication that is necessary in closed tasks. Even so, open tasks such as role-plays and “authentic” interactions have been shown to promote accuracy and range of form or complexity (Tong-Fredericks 1984).

This body of research illustrates that the type of task that leaners engage into determines the nature of language interaction and, in particular, negotiation of meaning. However, the diverse nature of task factors in design and implementation is also responsible for a diverse body of results and conclusions. Therefore, the purpose of the present study is to add to this body of research by looking at one well-known task factor (i.e. type of task) and one less researched factor (i.e. topic familiarity). The following research questions were investigated.

1. Do task types impact on negotiations of meaning?

2. What task conditions elicit more negotiations of meaning?

3. To what extent do negotiations of meaning result in modified output?

3 Methodology

Twenty adult learners of Spanish as an L2 served as participants in this study. They were recruited from intermediate (ie. third-semester) college-level Spanish classes at a large Midwest University in the United States. Participants included 12 female and 8 male students between the ages of 18 and 25 who were native speakers of English. All students participated voluntarily. Two communication tasks were used. The first was a two-way spot-the-difference information-gap activity and the second was a descriptive discourse activity. The spot-the-difference task was performed by the participants twice: once with a culturally familiar photograph of a children’s birthday party and once with a culturally unfamiliar photograph of a money-exchange and tourism shop in a foreign country. Both spot-the-difference tasks were considered to be the same level of difficulty. The descriptive communication task was also performed twice: Once with a culturally unfamiliar photograph of a bull fight in Spain, and the once with a culturally familiar photograph of the participants’ own university campus setting. Participants were placed into random pairs. For the descriptive task, participants were asked to describe the photograph together. For the spot-the-difference task, participants were placed back to back and asked to interact so as to try to find differences between both pictures. Pairs were given five minutes to complete each task. All the four tasks were completed within one session. The order of presentation for each task was altered for each pair of participants in order to ensure that the presentation of materials did not affect the overall results of the study.

Data were collected from recordings of the conversations that took place between the participants as they completed the communication tasks. Participant conversations were then transcribed and separated into categories of familiar and unfamiliar topic interactions and spot-the-difference and descriptive discourse task design. Each of the conversations was subsequently analyzed for negotiation of meaning markers.

The negotiation of meaning measure followed closely the measure used in Bitchener which considered

the extent to which trigger items were modified according to target language norms as a result of feedback provided by the conversational partner in the signal of non-understanding (2004:84).

Any situation in which a sign of non-understanding was followed up by a response was considered a negotiation marker. These markers included comprehension checks, clarification requests and confirmation checks.

4 Results and Discussion

An analysis of the data found a total of 83 negotiations of meaning across the 20 participants with 64 (77%) occurring during the performance of spot-the-difference information gap tasks and 19 (23%) occurring during the descriptive tasks. In the first research question, the extent to which task types have an effect on meaning negotiations was investigated. The results clearly indicate that spot-the-difference information-gap tasks elicited a higher frequency of meaning negotiations. A spot-the-difference task is a closed task because participants know that their goal is to find differences between two pictures and only one solution is possible to complete the task. In addition, participants share the same information about the pictures and it is through description and questioning that they can complete the task. In the descriptive task, participants may not understand everything each one says in the conversation but the task can still be completed, especially if one of the interlocutors takes the lead and provides most of the information needed. On the contrary, in a spot-the-difference task, interlocutors need to understand each other in order for the conversation to continue. Therefore, the spot-the-difference task is more complex than the descriptive task because cognitive demands and information load are higher. These results support the Cognition Hypothesis (Robinson 2001) which states that task complexity correlates with the amount of interaction and meaning negotiations. Furthermore, these results are in accordance with similar research that has also found that information-gap activities lead to more meaning-negotiation episodes (Long 1989; Ellis 2000).

The tasks used also varied along the dimension of familiarity. Familiar topics triggered 46 (55%) instances of negotiation of meaning whereas unfamiliar topics elicited 37 (45%) meaning-negotiation episodes. These results show that familiarity with the topic influences the negotiation work during the interaction. However, the impact of familiarity with the topic was not as robust (i.e. a difference of 10% between familiar and unfamiliar tasks) as task type (i.e. a difference of 54% between the tasks). Task complexity may also be associated with the presence of background knowledge with familiar topics. When participants interact about a topic that is unfamiliar to them, their cognitive demands increase, especially among low-proficiency second-language learners due mainly to lack of vocabulary knowledge in the target language. Thus, according to the claims made by the Cognition Hypothesis, tasks involving unfamiliar topics would be more complex, which would in turn lead to more instances of negotiation of meaning. However, our results seem to lead to a different conclusion. Tasks that involved familiar topics triggered more negotiation work than tasks involving unfamiliar topics.

One of the main differences between the familiar and unfamiliar photos used in the study is the presence or absence of easily identifiable elements:

The bullfight scene shows a matador fighting a bull in the arena. On the background, one sees the public watching but only their upper bodies almost in shadow. The picture of the foreign exchange office shows the corner of two two-story buildings, one being the foreign exchange office and the other one being a souvenir’s store. The second story includes a balcony and two windows. The foreign exchange office shows many written signs in different languages on the wall.

The children’s birthday party depicts the back of two small children in front of a table with cupcakes, presents, sunglasses, party favors, cake and glasses.

The campus picture shows a group of students walking towards a campus building and although all students are shown from the back, one can clearly distinguish one person from another, something that was not possible with the public at the bullfighting arena.

In sum, the unfamiliar photos included fewer identifiable elements and thus, the task is more complex. On the other hand, the familiar pictures made the task less complex since the elements in the photos were easily identifiable.

In the study, the familiarity with the topic was determined by the cultural affinity that participants would have with the picture content. It was decided to include culturally familiar or unfamiliar topics based on the results obtained by Pulido’s (2004) study which showed that cultural background knowledge facilitates the incidental learning of nonsense words. Pulido argues that construction of meaning occurs when the appropriate knowledge structures and lexical meanings are activated and thus, in the case of reading, cultural background knowledge influences the nature of inferences one makes for unfamiliar words, affecting the form-meaning connections ultimately determined for these new words (Pulido 2004: 23). Although Pulido’s arguments pertain to the construction of meaning in reading, it was decided that the presence of cultural background knowledge during the task performance might also affect interaction, especially with regards to making form-meaning connections at the lexical level. However, a closer look at the culturally unfamiliar pictures shows that the photo of the foreign exchange office may not have been as culturally unfamiliar as one would have anticipated. The picture showed an office with many wall signs in different languages about currency exchange, but except for the signs, the buildings depicted could have been taken from any culture, including the participants’ own culture. In contrast, everything in the bullfighting photo was exclusive to the Spanish culture.

Another factor that may explain why negotiation work was predominant in certain tasks is the amount of talk in each task. In order to investigate this question, it was decided to analyze the amount of interaction for each task by calculating the average number of words used under each condition. Spot-the-difference tasks had an average of 223 words (55%) for each five-minute interaction, whereas descriptive tasks had an average of 188 words (45%). In addition, tasks with familiar topics triggered slightly more interaction (216 words; 52%) than tasks with unfamiliar topics (198 words; 48%). The data transcription also showed this disparity between the different task types. In the descriptive tasks, there were long pauses between turns, and the amount of information exchanged was limited. In contrast, in the spot-the-difference tasks, participants were engaged and moving from one turn to another as they tried to find the differences between the pictures. So there was more talk being produced. Familiarity with the topic only slightly influenced the amount of talk, but this marginal difference may help explain why familiar tasks had more negotiation work than unfamiliar tasks. Participants were more proficient talking about familiar topics than unfamiliar ones, especially at the lexical level, which led to more talk during interaction, and thus, more opportunities for negotiation work.

The statistics for the number of meaning negotiation episodes across all task conditions show that spot-the-difference tasks involving familiar topics produced 35 (42%) meaning negotiations whereas unfamiliar topics triggered 29 meaning negotiations (35%). The descriptive tasks elicited the lowest number of meaning negotiation episodes, with 11 (13%) episodes for the familiar descriptive task and only 8 (10%) for the unfamiliar descriptive task. The difference between the two spot-the-difference tasks may be explained by the familiarity with the topic. The lack of identifiable elements and possibly the limited lexical knowledge that participants had with the unfamiliar topic led to less talk and, thus, fewer opportunities to negotiate meaning.

Overall, these results show that task type clearly affects the amount of meaning-negotiation occurrences. The type of interaction resulting from a closed information-gap task benefits the presence of meaning-negotiation episodes, regardless of whether the topic was familiar or unfamiliar to participants. Although unfamiliar topics may characterize a language task along the complexity continuum, low-proficiency participants may not have the language skills, especially at the lexical level, to engage in interaction decreasing the amount of talk expected and consequently, limiting the opportunities to negotiate meaning.

Participants responded to negotiation-for-meaning moves in different ways. Sometimes, participants simply acknowledged confirmation or understanding. These often occurred as a response to confirmation and / or comprehension checks, as shown in examples 1-2.

Example 1: Spot-the-difference / familiar topic

S1: si yo también…el niño se lleva yes me too…the boy wears

una camisa que está rojo y blanco. a shirt that is red and white

S2: Ah, con rayas de verde, no? ah..with green stripes, right?

S1: ah…no sé…. más o menos ah…I don’t know….more or less

S2: qué color es el gorro? which color is the cap?

Example 2: Spot-the-difference / unfamiliar topic

S1: Si, a mi tambien….ah…..yo tenga yes, me too….ah…I have

tengo sign amrill amarillo con Money have a sign yell yellow with Money

Exchange cambio de divas, divisas Exchange change of curr, currency

S2: Divisas? currency?

S1: Si yes

In all these cases, once the participant confirmed understanding, the conversation continued with a topic change. These types of exchanges were the most common ones in the data. However, in some instances, confirmation moves functioned as requests for clarification as in example 3.

Example 3: Spot-the-difference / familiar topic

S1: ¿hay un chico en tu pictura? is there a boy in your picture?

S2: yes

S1: Uhm. ¿lleva una camisa roja y verde? uhm, does he / she wear a red and green


S2: Si. Uh. ¿una chica con blue jeans? yes, uh, a girl with blue jeans?

S1: ¿una chica o un chico? a girl or a boy?

S2: Una chica a girl

S1: Sí, ¿y tiene pelo moreno o rubio? Yes, does she have brown or blond


S1 starts the conversation by referring to the boy in the picture and asks two questions in two different turns (is there a boy in your picture?, does he / she wear a red and green shirt?). S2 provides an answer but follows up with a question about a girl in the picture (a girl with blue jeans?). S1 then responds with a confirmation check (a girl or a boy?). This confirmation move is intended to request clarification about S2’s utterance. Once that clarification is provided (a girl), the conversation continues.

In seven different occasions, the response to a confirmation move included an approximation to the target language form often triggered by the presence of an English lexical form. In these cases, the confirmation move included the target language form the participant was looking for in the previous turn as shown in example 4.

Example 4: Spot-the-difference / unfamiliar topic

S1: es edificio…um..la muchos it is a building….um the many

color, colors color, colors

S2: ¿colores? colors?

S1: colores, sí, y muchas rojo y mh.. colors, yes, many red and mh..

white, I don´t remember what white is white, I don´t remember what white is

S2: blanco white

S1: sí, blanco edificio yes, white building

The new TL lexical forms that appeared in confirmation moves rarely appeared again in the interaction and when they did, they were produced by the speaker who offered the TL form, not by the speaker who was searching for the word. Only in one interaction, the approximation offered was attempted later by the speaker who did not know the form, but instead of using the new lexical form, the speaker went back to the incorrect form showing that he had not incorporated the TL form, as seen in example 5.

Example 5: Description / familiar topic

S1: los estudiantes the students

S2: sí, muchos yes, many

S1: Mh.. cambiar cambian tus clases mh…to change change your classes

S2: ¿Caminan? walk?

S1: Caminan, si? walk, yes?

S2: Sí, si. yes

(later on)

S1: veintes estudiantes cambian twenty students change

S2: caminan a los clases walk to the classes

S1: sí. yes

More extensive output modification is evident after clarification requests and certain confirmation moves. The requests for clarification were made with simple phrases such as ‘what?’ or ‘repeat’, but the response rarely included an exact repetition of what the speaker had said. The speaker often clarified his / her previous statement by rephrasing it, using a more precise syntactic structure which resulted in comprehensible output as we see in the following examples.

Example 6: Spot-the-difference/Familiar topic

S1: ¿el plato que tiene los postres the plate that has the small deserts

pequeños es rosa en la mesa? is rose on the table?

S2: Repita repeat

S1: ¿Hay cinco postres pequeños en la are there five small deserts on the

mesa y el plato que tienen es rosa? table and the plate they have is rose?

S2: Sí, si yes, yes

Example 7: Spot-the-difference/Unfamiliar topic

S1: si y eh…en el edificio al lado de yes and eh… the builing next to

….eh… del edificio de blanco que es eh…the white building that is

el número de….el….por ciento …. the number of…the… percent…

de venda…a las cosas en la tienda? of sale…the things in the store?

S2: ¿Qué? what?

S1: Hay un número de un por ciento there is a number of a percentage

en mi pictura es… veinte por ciento a un… in my picture….twenty percent in a

S2: ¿Dónde? En la…en el edificio o where? In the …in the building or

en la tienda? in the store?

S1: en la tienda in the store

S2: Oh, veinte? Veinte porcentaje? oh, twenty? Twenty percent?

S1: Veinte, sí. twenty, yes.

In example 6, the question asked by S1 (the plate that has the small deserts is rose on the table?) is not ungrammatical but syntactically problematic because the prepositional phrase on the table is expected to be after the constituent that modifies it, which in this case is the plate. The question has three different informational components: the plate with the cakes, the color of the plate, and the location of the plate. By placing the location constituent at the end of the question detached from its modifying noun, the utterance meaning is obscured. After the request for clarification, the speaker modifies the structure by dividing the informational load into two independent utterances making their meaning clearer (´There are five small deserts´ and ´the plate they have is rose ´). The partner’s reaction to this modified output is positive, indicating successful understanding.

The speaker in example 7 pauses several times in trying to produce a subordinate sentence that includes a location phrase (in the building next to the white building) followed by a question with a noun modified by three prepositional phrases (the number of percent of things for sale in the store). The speaker´s hesitancy in producing this utterance contributes to the confusion clearly evidenced by the partner´s inquiry what?. In response to this request, the speaker offers a simple statement there is a number in my picture a 20%, focusing on the key piece of information, the number that will guide his / her partner in identifying the mentioned element in the picture. The partner asks for more information so as to try to locate this element (in the store or in the building?) which leads to a successful conclusion exemplified by the partner’s confirmation check twenty percent?

These two examples show how, through negotiation work, meaning is successfully expressed and the speaker is pushed to modify his / her utterance to make it more comprehensible. Some have called these modifications ‘repair’ (Shedahdeh, 2001), using examples containing ungrammatical structures further modified into more target-like forms. However, the examples in the present data of pushed output through negotiation do not necessarily involve an ungrammatical form but syntactically ill-formed structures. It is in response to a need for modification that the speaker rephrases what he / she intended, using simpler syntax. The participants in our study were low-intermediate language learners who are not yet ready to produce nor understand complex language structures. In closed tasks, such as spot-the-difference tasks, the focus is clear but challenging, to describe and / or ask questions about the picture in order to find differences. The need to accomplish the task objective may have negatively influenced participants’ attempts to convey meaning in successful grammatical utterances, leading to episodes in which meaning was misunderstood and, thus, negotiation was needed. In the descriptive tasks, participants planned more carefully what they wanted to say since both participants worked together and the task goal was open-ended.

The data also show that not all meaning negotiation work leads to successful expression and interpretation of meaning. Sometimes the response to a negotiation move failed because either the speaker ignored the request or simply repeated what had been previously said as in example 8.

Example 8: Spot-the-difference / unfamiliar topic

S1: Money Exchange es diferente, Money exchange is different

es no bueno, en… it is not good, in…

S2: ¿No bueno? not good?

S1: Sí, es diferente, no bueno yes, it is different, not good

en en Money Exchange in in Money Exchange

S2: No comprendo, lo siento, I don´t understand, I am sorry

¿diferente qué? ….¿grande? ¿pequeño? different what? Big? Small?

S1: No, es… No, it is…

S2:¿izquierda? ¿derecha? ¿vacación? left? Right? Vacation?

S1: No se, es no bueno, es no bueno… I don´t, it is not good, it is not good

(both participants laugh) cambio de divisas es.. currency exchange is…

This negotiation episode shows that repetition does not help in advancing the interaction. The speaker tries to explain a possible difference regarding the foreign exchange sign in the pictures but the statement is vague, Money exchange is different, it is not good. The other partner in the conversation reacts to that statement with a confirmation move, not good?, intended to request further explanation or precision about what the speaker means by saying Money Exchange is different or not good. We know that this is the intention of the confirmation move because when the speaker reacts to the confirmation check with a simple repetition, the speaker shows a lack of understanding (I don’t understand) and further tries to offer specific adjectives (big, small) or location adjectives (to the right, to the left) to help define what his / her interlocutor is trying to say about the Money Exchange sign. This does not result in modified output either and the participant once again repeats the initial statement it is not good. At that point, both participants realize that this negotiation work has been unsuccessful and they both laugh at the same time that the speaker changes topic. Changing topics in negotiation episodes has already been identified as evidence of failure in negotiation work (Shedhadeh 2001).

A comparison between negotiation episodes in examples 6-7 and 8 draws attention to how uneven linguistic proficiency between participants may impact the success of meaning negotiation. From the audio data and the transcriptions, it is clear that in examples 6 and 7, the speaker who initiates negotiation work requesting clarification has lower proficiency than the other participant in the interaction, who, when requested to negotiate, successfully responds with target-like speech which helps conclude the negotiation sequence. In contrast, in example 8, the speaker who requests clarification has higher language proficiency and tries to help his / her interlocutor modify his / her output unsuccessfully, most likely due to the interlocutor’s lower language proficiency. In sum, in interaction between non-native speakers, language proficiency may impact the opportunity to modify output and succeed in making interaction comprehensible. Nonetheless, considering language proficiency was not included as an independent variable in this study, the interpretation of these types of interactions is only suggestive and further research is needed before any claims can be made.

5 Conclusion

The results from this study add to the already accepted fact that information-gap activities generate more opportunities to negotiate meaning in interaction. The closed nature of these tasks facilitates the need to communicate and be understood by others. In addition, based on the transcriptions in the study, the spot-the-difference tasks resulted in more talk and were more evenly distributed than the descriptive tasks in which pauses were frequent and the most competent speaker would usually take the lead and produce the greatest amount of talk. With regard to familiarity with task content, the results suggested a slight advantage for familiar tasks which seemed to offer more opportunities to negotiate meaning. However, a closer look at the pictures used in the study also indicated the familiarity variable may not have been clearly defined. The cultural affinity towards the scenes depicted in the photos to distinguish familiar and unfamiliar conditions may be placed into question. Several elements in the unfamiliar photos could be easily found in the participant’s own culture. However, the number of identifiable elements may be a better differentiating factor between familiar and unfamiliar conditions. The unfamiliar photos included elements that were not easily identifiable, limiting the amount of talk and meaning negotiation opportunities. As already seen in the literature review, each investigation defines familiarity differently resulting in different results. Our study has also revealed mixed interpretations about what is familiar or unfamiliar to participants, and thus, content familiarity remains a variable that needs further study before any generalizations can be made about how it affects interaction.

The data showed successful negotiation episodes in which a confirmation move would result in an approximation to a target-language lexical form. However, very little evidence was found of these newly ‘learned’ forms appearing again in the conversation. The nature and design of the tasks may help explain why modified output was not incorporated in later discourse. In both tasks once one element in the picture was identified and described, there was no need to describe it again and, thus, participants would focus on other elements in the pictures. In addition, each conversation was limited to five minutes. In the descriptive task, the duration of five minutes was more than enough to get participants talking and in fact, one finds many pauses and silences in the transcription, showing there was not much to say about the photos. However, in the spot-the-difference task participants moved from one turn to another quite rapidly and were often asked to stop when the five-minute time limit approached. Therefore, longer interactions as well as different tasks may have resulted in the presence of more modified output in the conversations, which would evidence the positive role of meaning negotiation in acquisition. Consequently, it is clear that the current study cannot claim any long-term effects of meaning negotiation interactions in the language learning development of the participants.

Extensive output modification was evident after clarification requests. When given the opportunity, some participants were able to modify their output successfully to make it more comprehensible. However, due to the limited language proficiency of the participants, some of them were not able to modify their output to make it more comprehensible and simply repeated what had previously been said, which then resulted in unsuccessful communication.

The current study had its own limitations. On the one hand, the twenty participants led to only ten interactions to be studied. Also, even though all participants were recruited from the same Spanish language course, the data suggested that different levels of language proficiency were present. In addition, the conversations were limited to five minutes each which, due to participants’ low proficiency level participants, led to less amount of talk than anticipated and consequently, fewer meaning negotiation episodes than initially expected.

However, this study offers some insight into the direction of future research in the benefits of interaction in language acquisition. More research is needed in order to identify which conditions in interaction facilitate the negotiation of meaning in second language learning and how the negotiation of meaning leads to the acquisition of new forms. Longitudinal studies are required to see how new forms, resulting from meaning negotiation episodes, are incorporated into learners’ interlanguage. However, longitudinal studies have to account for all the instruction, exposure, and interaction which learners are engaged into between tasks in order to attest for any changes in interlanguage development. An alternative could be research that focuses on changes in task implementation, such as task repetition, where new forms resulting from negotiations of meaning may appear again in later conversations. Finally, language proficiency is a variable which rarely appears in language interaction research that focuses on negotiation of meaning. As evidenced by this study, low intermediate language learners use opportunities to negotiate meaning to access new lexical forms and to modify their output to make it more comprehensible. The lack of evidence of grammatical repair during meaning negotiation is closely related to participants’ low proficiency level and / or the nature of the tasks. In the present study, participants relied mainly on lexical forms to express meaning. More advanced language learners with a richer vocabulary and stronger grammatical knowledge may use meaning negotiation to repair grammatical structures. Therefore, language proficiency is an important factor that needs further attention in interaction and meaning-negotiation research.

Negotiation work shows that given a second opportunity and / or time, learners are able to produce successful meaning in correct grammar and syntax. Some pedagogical implications derive from this finding. Not only opportunities for pushed output are needed in language teaching but second opportunities and time to rephrase intended meaning may also contribute to assess language competence more accurately. Unfortunately, the vast majority of oral skills assessment tools today do not favor negotiation work even though proficiency-oriented instruction supports alternative assessments that try to imitate real-life language functions. Consequently, language pedagogy need not only offer opportunities for meaningful conversations, but also opportunities to let learners work through their language imprecisions so that they can make their output comprehensible. Similarly, in language assessment, focus should not only be on what learners know but on how they manage to make their message intelligible and comprehensible to others.


I would like to express my gratitude to Moisés Gómez-Pastor and Lexy Johnson for their collaboration in data collection.


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Montserrat Mir, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Spanish and Applied Linguistics

Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures

Illinois State University

Normal, IL. 61790


Tel. 309 438 7856

E-mail: montserratmir@ilstu.edu