Interactionist Theory

The social-interactionist theory in child language acquisition recognises both our genetic predisposition for learning language (like the Nativist Theory) and the importance of our social environment in developing language (like the Behavioral Theory). So, you could see the interactionist theory as a compromise between the two! It also emphasises the importance of interaction with other people in acquiring and developing language skills. 

Interactionist Theory Interactionist Theory

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Table of contents

    What is the Interactionist Theory?

    The interactionist theory was first suggested by Jerome Bruner in 1983 who believed that, although children do have an innate ability to learn language, they also require plenty of direct contact and interaction with others to achieve full language fluency.

    In other words, the theory of interaction suggests that children can't learn to speak just by watching TV or listening to conversations. They have to fully engage with others and understand the contexts in which language is used.

    Caregivers tend to provide the linguistic support that helps a child learn to speak. They correct mistakes, simplify their own speech and build the scaffolding that helps a child to develop language. This support from caregivers can also be referred to as the 'Language Acquisition Support System' (LASS).

    The interactionist approach looks at both social and biological perspectives to explain how children develop language. It moves away from Noam Chomsky's Nativist Theory which failed to recognise the importance of the social environment in language acquisition.

    The interactionist theory also suggests that:

    • Children learn language as they have the desire to communicate with the world around them (i.e., it is a communication tool to do things like interact with others, ask for food, and demand attention!)
    • Language develops depending on social interactions. This includes the people with whom a child may interact and the overall experience of the interaction.
    • The social environment a child grows up in greatly affects how well and how quickly they develop their language skills.

    Interactionist theory mother and child reading interaction StudySmarter Fig 1. Language develops through social interaction with caregivers.

    Interactionist Theory meaning

    Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) first laid the foundations for the interactionist theory when he developed the sociocultural theory of language development.

    Vygotsky suggested that children acquire their cultural values and beliefs through interacting and collaborating with more knowledgeable people in their community (conveniently called the 'more knowledgeable other'). He also emphasised the importance of the cultural and social context in language learning, arguing that social learning often comes before language development.

    In other words, we pay a lot of attention to the world, the culture, and the people around us!

    Interactionist Theory example

    What are some examples of the interactionist theory?

    Think about how different cultures have different cultural norms that affect the language they use.

    For example, Brits may have a better understanding of sarcasm, which is common in the British language. Vygotsky argued that these social understandings are learned through social interaction, especially with caregivers in early development.

    Vygotsky developed key concepts such as:

    • Cultural-specific tools - these are 'tools' specific to a certain culture. This includes technical tools such as books and media as well as psychological tools such as language, signs, and symbols.
    • Private speech - this is basically talking out loud to yourself, for example, if a child is trying to figure out a maths question they may talk themselves through it. After this stage, children's private speech will become internalised monologues (i.e., the inner speech in your own head) - although we all do talk to ourselves sometimes!
    • The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) - This is the zone of potential development in which a child can develop skills that require the support of a more knowledgeable teacher. This teacher can provide scaffolding, encouraging the child and helping them to master skills and gain more knowledge.

    Interactionist Theory Zone of Proximal Development StudySmarterFig 2. The Zone of Proximal Development is the zone in which children can develop with support.

    Characteristics of Interactionist Theory

    Let's have a look at some of the key concepts within the interactionist theory such as scaffolding, the Language Acquisition Support System, and Child-Directed Speech.

    What is scaffolding?

    With regards to the interactionist theory, Bruner used the concept of 'scaffolding' to explain the role of caregivers in child language development. He first developed the idea from Vygotsky's theory of proximal development which emphasised that children need a more knowledgeable other to develop their knowledge and skills.

    Think of scaffolding on a building - it is there to support the building whilst the bricks and windows are being put into place before it is then gradually removed once the building is finished and stable.

    Bruner argued that caregivers provide the same kind of support for children. They provide support (referred to as the 'Language Acquisition Support System' (LASS) and this is gradually removed as the child learns and develops by themselves.

    What is the Language Acquisition Support System (LASS)?

    LASS is a term used to describe the support from caregivers/parents/teachers in a child's early language development. They provide active support in social interactions such as:

    • Adjusting language to suit the child. This is sometimes referred to as 'motherese', 'caregiver speech', 'baby talk', or 'Child-Directed Speech (CDS)'.
    • Collaborative learning such as joint reading. This can involve an adult looking at picture books with a child and pointing out key vocabulary, for example, by saying 'this is a banana' as they point to a picture of a banana.
    • Encouraging the child and providing feedback through interactions. For example, the adult may smile when the child talks and say 'yes, good, that's a banana!'
    • Providing examples for the child to imitate. This includes using certain vocabulary in certain social situations, for example, by encouraging the child to 'say hi!' or 'say thank you!'
    • Games such as 'peek-a-boo' that practice the turn-taking that is necessary for interactions

    Bruner developed the concept of the LASS in response to Noam Chomsky's Language Acquisition Device (LAD). Both concepts of the LASS and LAD argue that we are born with an innate ability to acquire language, however, the LASS takes this one step further, arguing that we also require interaction with others to learn.

    What is Child-Directed Speech (CDS)?

    In the interactionist theory, child-directed speech (CDS for short) refers to the way in which caregivers and adults typically speak to children. It is thought to enhance communication between child and caregiver by helping the child to identify sounds, syllables, and words in sentences. The slow and melodic speech is also thought to hold the attention of toddlers.

    What are examples of Child-Directed Speech?

    Some examples of Child-Directed Speech in the theory of interaction includes:

    • Simplified language - generally, adults will use straightforward language when talking to children so that they are more easily understood, e.g., by using a more limited vocabulary and grammatically simplified sentences.
    • Repetitive questioning - e.g., 'what is it? what's this?'
    • Repetitive language - e.g., 'it's a cat. Look, it's a cat'
    • Slowed speech
    • Higher and more melodic pitch - i.e., by making their voice go up and down
    • More frequent and longer pauses

    Evidence for Interactionist Theory

    The interactionist theory is supported by some studies that emphasise the importance of interaction in language learning. This includes the following:

    The importance of parent-child social interaction

    A study by Carpenter, Nagell, Tomasello, Butterworth, and Moore (1998) showed the importance of parent-child social interaction when learning to speak. They studied factors such as joint attentional engagement (e.g., reading a book together), gaze and point following, gestures, and understanding/producing language. The results showed a correlation between parent-child social interactions (e.g., joint attention) and language skills, suggesting that interaction is important in a child's development of language.

    The importance of joint attention

    The importance of joint attention in language learning is also shown in Kuhl's (2003) study. Joint attention helped children to recognise speech boundaries (i.e., where one word ends and another begins).

    The importance of a lack of interaction

    The Genie Case Study about Genie the 'feral' child' (1970) shows how a lack of interaction in early life negatively affects language learning. Genie was kept locked in a room and deprived of contact for her first 13 years of life. This early stage is believed to be the critical period of language acquisition (i.e., the key timeframe in which a child acquires language).

    When she was discovered, Genie lacked basic language skills, however, she had a strong desire to communicate. Over the next few years, although she did learn to acquire plenty of new words, she never managed to apply grammatical rules and speak language fluently. Genie's lack of language skills and failure to acquire fluent language can therefore support the idea that interaction with a caregiver is vital in language acquisition.

    Limitations of Interactionist Theory

    There are some limitations to the interactionist theory:

    1. Researchers such as Elinor Ochs and Bambi B. Schieffelin have suggested that the data collected from studies supporting the Interactionist theory are actually over-representative of middle-class, white, western families. This means that the data may not be as applicable to parent-child interactions in other classes or cultures who may speak to their children differently but still acquire fluent speech.
    2. It has been noted that children from cultures where Child-Directed Speech isn't used as frequently (e.g., Papua New Guinea) still develop fluent language and pass through the same stages when acquiring language. This suggests that Child-Directed Speech isn't essential in language acquisition.

    Interactionist Theory - Key takeaways

    • The interactionist theory emphasises the importance of interaction and social environment in acquiring language, whilst also recognising that language is innate, suggesting that children develop language because they desire to communicate with the world.
    • The theory was first suggested by Jerome Bruner in 1983 and derives from Vygotsky's socio-cultural theory which emphasises the importance of culture and social context in language learning.
    • The sociocultural theory highlights the importance of social-pragmatic cues (e.g., body language, tone of voice) that are taught to a child alongside language in relation to the context of a situation.
    • Scaffolding, first inspired by Vygotsky's 'Zone of Proximal Development', refers to the assistance provided by a more knowledgeable caregiver that helps a child to develop their language.
    • A limitation of the theory is that some linguists believe the data supporting the theory is over-representative of middle-class, Western families.
    • Carpenter, M., Nagell, K., & Tomasello, M. 'Social cognition, joint attention, and communicative competence from 9 to 15 months of age.' Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development (1998).
    • Kuhl, PK, Tsao, FM, and Liu, HM. 'Foreign-language experience in infancy: effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning.' Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, (2003).
    • Senghas, RJ, Senghas, A., Pyers, JE. 'The emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language: Questions of development, acquisition, and evolution.' In Parker, ST, Langer, J., and Milbrath, C. (eds.), Biology and Knowledge Revisited: From Neurogenesis to Psychogenesis, London, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (2005).
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Interactionist Theory

    What is the Interactionist Theory?

    The social interactionist theory in child language acquisition recognises both our genetic predisposition for learning language as well as the importance of our social environment in developing language. It also emphasises the importance of interaction with caregivers.

    Who came up with the Interactionist Theory in English Language?

    The Interactionist Theory was first suggested by Jerome Bruner in 1983.

    What is an example of interactionism?

    Different cultures have different cultural norms that affect the language they use, e.g., Brits may have a better understanding of sarcasm, which is common in the British language. Vygotsky argued that these social understandings are learned through social interaction, especially with caregivers in early development.

    What is a symbolic interactionism?

    Symbolic interactionism suggests that people attach meaning to elements of their environments. An example of this is a drawing of a heart being symbolic of love. 

    Society is a construction of all of these meanings which people communicate through generations.

    What are the 3 theories of language learning?

    There are 4 main theories of language learning. These are:

    • Interactionist Theory
    • Nativist Theory
    • Behavioural Theory
    • Cognitive Theory

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is an example of scaffolding?

    Which of the following are strengths of Bruner's Social Interaction Theory?

    Which one of Bruner's three modes describes the stage of cognitive development where new information is stored in the mind as images?

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