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The weak interface

What is meant by the "weak interface" in second language acquisition research? Why is it significant for language teachers?

The balance of opinion among second language acquisition scholars is that the large majority of second language is acquired implicitly, i.e. sub-consciously as learners hear, read and communicate meanings. In this regard second language acquisition is much like first language acquisition. You know yourself that you only became fluent once you were immersed in the language for lengthy periods. You would not have got there by learning vocab, doing grammar practice and comprehension exercises.

However, most researchers now believe that explicit instruction in rules and practice of forms (through drills, structured question-answer and other interactions etc) helps learners acquire language. This might seem obvious to most teachers who work on that assumption! When I talk to teachers and trainees the majority believe that skill-acquisition trumps input alone.

Studies of the brain show, however, that implicit (sub-conscious) and explicit (conscious) knowledge are stored in distinct parts of the brain. For learners to speak fluently they need their mental representation of the language to be stored in the sub-conscious area. You don't usually get time to "think through" sentences when you speak. The question is: can explicitly learned and practised language pass across the interface between the explicit and implicit "zones"?

Krashen hypothesised that this was not possible and that explicit instruction or "focus on form" was futile. Students only acquire language by understanding messages, he argued (and still does). It is an alluring and elegant hypothesis, but few scholars now seem to accept it. Essentially it is now usually thought that there is a "weak interface" between the explicit and implicit domains. This means that knowledge acquired through explicit instruction and structured practice, including speaking drills, can "leak" into the sub-conscious domain where we need it to speak fluently and have an intuitive grasp of rules.

If this view is correct, teachers have always been right to believe that you can present and practise new language in a structured fashion with a focus on form. In other words, "practice can make perfect" and you can acquire language, to a degree, in the same way you learn any complex cognitive skill.

But even if you accept the weak interface position and therefore the idea that some explicit knowledge can become implicit, the consensus view among scholars is still that meaningful input remains the foundation of second language acquisition. Most acquisition occurs "beneath the radar" as it does in child language acquisition.

What does this mean for language teachers?

It probably means that you should try to ensure that lessons contain lots of understandable and interesting target language (by no means 100%) but that you should (as you probably do) explain some rules, especially the simple ones, encourage output in speech and writing, and try to do enough controlled practice to give students the possibility of automatising ("internalising") their knowledge. Also worth noting is the fact that, when you do form-focused drills, students are receiving comprehensible input, even though it may not be the most interesting. In any case, with the limited time you have available success will always be patchy, but the principles remain sound.

Main source: N.Ellis: The weak interface, consciousness, and form-focussed instruction: mind the doors. In Form-focused Instruction and Teacher Education. Studies in Honour of Rod Ellis, Oxford, 2007.

(I think he meant "mind the gap" as this is what he mentions in his conclusion.)


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Comments

  1. Very interesting... I am only just beginning to look at theories of L2 acquisition but my gut feeling is that it must be a real melting pot of stimuli and conditions that must come together for optimal L2 acquisition. On 2 hours a week (our current curriculum time for Y7 and Y8), TL use would have to be very judiciously planned for 'implicit acquisition' to take place, combined with motivated and actively-engaged learners. Because of the lack of sustained exposure to L2, explicit teaching of grammar and much practice in different contexts seems intuitively to me to be the main way that L2 can be acquired, combined with motivation, opportunity and carefully-planned TL input.

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  2. Hi. Thanks for commenting. I would have thought you are on the right lines.

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  3. Thank you Steve. I very much enjoyed your article and agree it is important we understand how TL finds its place in the learner's long term memory.
    Language immersion that forces the learner to make dozens of daily new connections, constantly weaving prior knowledge with new content, leaving little or no room at all for alternative response in L1 is indisputably the most effective acquisition system. While it is difficult to reproduce the natural environment where you learn a language subconsciously (mainly due to restrictions of time, content, focus and the 'artificial' situation that classroom learning is), I believe it is our duty as teachers to emulate it as closely as possible by provoking strong emotional stimuli during language instruction/practice (through the exploration of cultural aspects, drama/role play practice as a medium to express a range of feelings, simple meaningful enjoyment, etc.) to help anchor this knowledge in the long term memory. Students, then retrieve L2 language subconsciously through the link of that specific memorable moment .

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for commenting. I agree with what you wrote. One factor which can impede us from making input as stimulating as possible is the exam syllabus. In England the backwash effect of GCSE exams is powerful and affects practice a lot. These exams are very "high stakes" so you do whatever it takes to get the best grades. This may not correspind with best language teaching practice.

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