Recent Research Findings: Cognitive and Interactive Processes
Learning = Cognition + Interaction

Lernen = Kognition + Interaktion
Learning = Cognition + Interaction | Illustration: Melih Bilgil

Acquiring a foreign language is not merely brain work, but also takes place within a social environment. What role is played by interaction in this context? And what practical relevance does this have for the correction of grammatical errors, for example, or indeed for GFL lessons as a whole?


The question of which cognitive and interactive processes underlie foreign language learning is the subject of many different approaches and research studies. Their results can help us better understand the conditions for successful foreign language learning and what can be done in the classroom to support this. These also include research findings which prompt us to critically question the effectiveness of everyday teaching methods and to change the way second and foreign language teaching is planned and carried out. A number of these results will be explained below.

Roughly speaking, acquiring foreign and second languages can be understood as the interplay of cognitive and social processes. Although this happens in the individual learner’s cognitive system, it always takes place within a social environment and is therefore subject to different external influences. As any learner of a foreign language knows, not everything that is taught in the classroom is necessarily learnt in practice. Much is learnt only considerably later, while certain errors (especially in grammar) are persistently made over long periods and then disappear suddenly again. There again, other things are learnt that were not even the focus of the lesson.


No matter how well a particular rule is explained or how thoroughly the language structures are practised, certain grammatical errors continue to be made time and time again in the classroom. Even once a student has mastered grammatical exercises, he or she may well make mistakes when speaking or writing freely. Many studies have shown that certain core grammatical structures are only acquired in a certain order of acquisition in unchangeable sequences – and indeed only once learners are “ready” to do so, that is to say once they have already mastered other structures which are required for the acquisition of the new structure. Certain very typical errors are then made during such phases, and it makes no difference what the first language of the learners is.

Unfortunately, the insights provided by these research results are limited to certain specific areas of grammar. These areas are of great interest, however, as they are precisely those which are often associated with German being regarded as a difficult language to learn! There is for example very strong evidence that in particular the second-place positioning of the verb in the main clause, inversion and end-positioning of the verb in the subordinate clause are issues that frequently cause problems and are learnt in a certain order of acquisition. There are similar indications about the acquisition of cases, adjective declinations and verb morphology, though these have not yet been proven by many studies.

Which conclusions for the classroom should be drawn from such research findings is a matter of some controversy. Undoubtedly, the fact that evidence is available only for certain areas should mean that there is no justification for declaring explicit grammar learning as merely a waste of time. Nonetheless, it should be taken into account at least that errors are inevitable intermediate stages of successful language acquisition. One might also conclude from such research results that more of the scant lesson time should be devoted to other areas of language (particularly vocabulary) and content (for example cultural studies).


Language learning cannot take place without linguistic input at an appropriate degree of difficulty. The latest research indicates that this is not sufficient, however. Learners additionally need to apply the language in speech and writing, that is to say by producing language. Verbal interaction between teachers and students, between native and non-native speakers or between non-native speakers is particularly important. This allows those taking part in the interaction to clarify anything that may not have been understood and to “negotiate” mutual understanding, with the result that obstacles to communication can be overcome. Processes of feedback and repair take place, understanding is checked, language use is clarified and rephrased, allowing input to be modified and potentially understood and then applied by the learner. There is evidence to suggest that use of the foreign or second language in particular forces learners actually to apply and expand their existing grammatical knowledge of the language: especially when they have to produce rather than merely understand utterances, learners have for example no choice but to put words into a functional order, making use of and applying their existing language knowledge until, ideally, they begin doing so automatically.

the quality of interaction is what counts in gfl and gsl!

Classroom interaction plays a particularly important role in the learning of German as a foreign language (GFL) because only limited verbal interaction is possible in many regions of the world or happens almost only during foreign language lessons. However, GLF lessons are often characterized by the teacher spending a very large proportion of the time speaking and by conversational patterns in which learners have too little scope to produce verbal language themselves, let alone to speak freely. At the same time, inhibitions and other personal variables influence the extent to which learners use the foreign language in interactions. Foreign language teachers have a tendency to control large parts of classroom discourse, thus far too often assigning learners a passive and purely reactive role. Consequently, efforts need to be made to provide GFL learners with much greater opportunity to speak during lesson time. One thing that can be helpful in this context is to create more possibilities for interaction and to allow learners to have a (greater) say in how such interaction is designed.

By contrast, learners of German as a second language (GSL) theoretically have a diverse range of opportunities to experience and apply German in their everyday lives and to learn it “on the street”, as it were. In the countries in which German is spoken and which nowadays are characterized by high levels of immigration, however, it is now obvious that such potential opportunities do not automatically result in successful language learning. A whole series of factors can be cited as possible explanations of why this should be the case, including the extent and quality of contact with German native speakers. Recent second language acquisition research within the sociocultural paradigm helps us better understand the bigger picture. Studies have found, for example, that immigrants do not as a rule lack the motivation to learn the second language. The problem is that an absence of social participation and equal opportunities, coupled with comparatively poorer socioeconomic framework conditions, inhibits the learner from speaking in the target language, reduces the chances for interaction and influences language development


Ever since a distinction between conscious “learning” and unconscious “acquisition” was introduced in second language acquisition research in the early 1980s, there has been a discussion of the relevance of conscious learning processes. The results of research into this are heterogeneous and controversial. What is undisputed these days is that both conscious and unconscious learning takes place within and outside the classroom, something that is often termed “incidental” learning. Various studies suggest that there is an interplay between consciousness  and interaction: interaction fosters language acquisition because it directs the learner’s attention to specific features of the foreign or second language that he or she has yet to learn. According to these cognitive/interactionist approaches, input has the best chance of being learnt when it is actually “perceived” – for example when learners observe during interaction that their own use of language differs in specific ways from the way the language is used by their conversation partners. Nonetheless, this does not necessarily go hand in hand with the learner recognizing or understanding a general principle or grammatical rule.

The question arises in this context of how effective it is to correct errors – during classroom interaction, for instance. It is widely agreed that feedback and repairs generally have a beneficial impact on language learning. Nonetheless, there is growing evidence from research that this does not apply to every form of error correction. For example, the implicit oral correction of errors that is often favoured by foreign language teachers, something they valued as a way of saving face, tends to have no impact because there is no guarantee that the learner will actually be aware of it. Mere (incidental) rephrasing or indirect corrections of grammatical errors by the teacher do not generally result in the desired success, as learners may well be focusing their attention on something entirely different and not even notice the correction.
That said, not every explicit correction of errors has a beneficial impact on language acquisition either: the aforementioned  order of acquisition in certain core areas of grammar cannot be varied by teaching or other influences, and cannot thus be varied by correcting errors either.


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