An Analysis of Peer Activities to Inform Foreign Language Learning: Word Searches, Voice, and the Use of Non-Target Languages
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This empirical study investigates language use and collaborative learning in informal non-classroom settings by learners of German as a Foreign Language (GFL). I examine learner interactions resulting from a language course requirement for which small groups of students composed a role-play to be performed in front of the class. Bridging the two research traditions of activity theory and the socio-interactionist approach, my research starts with an analytical focus on speech events as they are embedded in an object-oriented educational activity. The activities are further analyzed using a conversation analytic (CA) approach within the socio-interactionist framework by focusing on the ways participants construct knowledge of the second language (L2) through word searches and the re-use of word search solutions. I also examine the role of voice when participants speak German, and the role of non-target languages in L2 learning. The video-recorded peer-to-peer interactions are the substantial part of the dataset for analysis. The data also include questionnaires, class observations and interviews, stimulated interviews, and in-class presentations that further inform the analysis. The data were gathered during the Fall 2007 semester with learners from two beginners courses of GFL. Two groups of three and two students, respectively, were chosen for closer analysis from among 31 students and 9 instructors participating in the study. This research found that students’ past individual and group histories serve as resources for the formation of the German role-play which becomes an analytical achievement based on shared understanding of the object at all phases of its construction, including the storyline and the formulation of the text in L2. Learners engage each other in learning, simultaneously displaying different kinds of expertise linked to task instructions, the circumstances of the context, speakers' biographies, and learning histories. The artifacts (e.g. textbook and dictionary) serve to support the authoritative knowledge when negotiating different types of expertises. Similarities in dealing with language problems could be observed in that participants learned lexical items by solving language problems, whereby the solution-word becomes a resource for further learning to produce the same item in different types of talk. Also, voices show up as the social facets of the construction of the knowledge in L2. Speaking voices gave learners the opportunity to practice varieties of vernacular German and to negotiate their discursive identities in the new language. Non-target languages provided cognitive support in solving problems with L2, serve social functions such as interpersonal work and expression of public self-image, and proved to be an essential tool enabling participants to work in the pursuit of the object of the activity as a collective achievement.