The Perks and Perils of Peer Interaction: Creating a Classroom Where Linguistic and Social Aims Align

This month we published (Re)defining Success in Language Learning by Katie A. Bernstein. In this post the author explains the “double obligations” of peer interaction at school and how they can be turned into double opportunities.

Interaction is a critical part of learning a new language. It provides input in the new language, as well as chances to practice producing that language. For young language learners (emergent bilinguals), peer interaction is particularly important to this learning.

Peer interaction is also where young children construct their social worlds, navigating friendships and identities as students and playmates. For emergent bilingual students, peer interaction is therefore what Shoshana Blum-Kulka and colleagues (2004) called a “double opportunity space”: a place to learn language and a place to create social relationships.

But, as I explore in my new book, (Re)Defining Success in Language Learning, those double opportunities also mean double obligations. For young emergent bilinguals, it is impossible to only use peer interaction for language learning without simultaneously having to attend to the social consequences of those interactions.

The story of four-year-old Kritika, one of the students at the center of the book, illustrates the tensions this double obligation can produce. Kritika was a Nepali speaker learning English in a US prekindergarten. At the start of school, she quickly earned a classroom identity as a competent and authoritative playmate and student. (To find out exactly how she used all her communicative resources to do this, you’ll have to check out the book!) However, across the school year, Kritika made many fewer gains in vocabulary and syntax than some of her less socially and academically successful peers. I found that, for Kritika, the double obligation of peer interaction produced a double bind: Maintaining a social identity as a competent student and playmate was, as Philp and Duchesne (2008) put it, “at cross purposes” with taking the kinds of linguistic risks in interaction that support language learning.

Other researchers have also noticed this double-obligation at work. Rymes and Pash (2001) noted it for a first grader in their study, Rene, who was from Costa Rica and learning English in a US school. When Rene arrived in the school, he carefully mimicked his peers’ actions to establish a social identity as a competent student. But Rene then avoided wrestling productively with content or tricky language, so as not to “blow his cover”. Cekaite (2017) noticed a similar pattern with seven-year-old, Nok, a Thai speaker learning Swedish in school in Sweden. Nok was willing to take language risks with teachers but tried to stick to language she was confident using when talking with classmates. This strategy helped her look competent, but it also meant missing out on language learning.

What role do teachers play in creating this double bind? While teachers aren’t the only socializing force in classrooms, they are powerful shapers of the status quo. In Kritika’s classroom, her teachers often made comments connecting English to other social skills. For instance, one day, when a young emergent bilingual student named Maiya grabbed a toy from an English speaker, the teacher explained to the toy-snatching victim: ‘Maiya doesn’t speak English too good yet, so we’re gonna help her. Say, “Here, let’s share.”’ While the teacher likely meant to help the English speaker build patience and empathy for his peer, her comment also served to equate language learning with struggling socially.

So, how can teachers create classrooms where struggling with language learning doesn’t equal social and academic struggle, but is considered productive and positive?

Two ways to start:

1) Elevate the status of language learning and multilingualism: Talk about how special it is that emergent bilingual students are on their way to knowing two (or more) languages. Ask them to teach some of their languages to the class. Validate and praise students for taking linguistic risks – both emergent bilingual students and students who try out what their emergent bilingual peers are teaching the class.

2) Model productive language struggle: Work on learning the languages of the students in your class. If you already know the home language of most of your students (say, Spanish), work on learning other languages (Maya, Mam, Arabic, Somali). Model legitimate not-knowing. Model being OK with discomfort. Ask students for help. Make public mistakes and be publicly proud when those mistakes lead to learning.

It is within teachers’ power to create a classroom where peer interaction is truly a double opportunity and linguistic and social aims aren’t “at cross purposes.” Creating such a space is one key piece of supporting emergent bilingual students’ learning.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Using Linguistically Appropriate Practice by Roma Chumak-Horbatsch.

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