Cognitive-Interactionist SLA: Findings, new methods and the big picture

Alison Mackey, Georgetown University


Cognitive approaches to interaction, feedback and task-based learning have developed and shifted dramatically over the last two decades. Taking up the Looking Back, Moving Ahead challenge of AAAL 2020, this talk begins with a brief review of the theoretical and empirical foundations of cognitively oriented interaction, feedback and task-based L2 research, including how these constructs are related and how social factors are increasingly considered.

I then highlight important methodological developments that can further our understanding of how interaction, feedback and tasks drive L2 learning. These include psychology-based measures like working memory tests (in L1 and L2), the eye-tracking paradigm, and education and sociology-derived approaches like verbal introspections. I next turn to techniques with currently untapped potential, including neurolinguistic measures like EEGs, MEGs and fMRIs, together with the emergence of forms of imaging new to interaction, feedback and task-driven research, for example, the use of (portable) ultrasounds of tongues to provide feedback on pronunciation accuracy.

Then I turn to emergent constructs, focusing on one under-studied but promising new area: whether and how individual differences in cognitive creativity are related to interaction, feedback, tasks and L2 learning. I consider how creativity is measured in varied fields, and overview findings from two new studies of creativity and language learning, highlighting how future research addressing cognitive-interactionist questions might benefit from considering creativity scores.

Lastly, I consider how we can best move ahead.  I will give some examples of how cognitive-interactionist work can deepen engagement with the increasingly important open science movement, and I will raise questions about why funding in this area is so scarce in the U.S. in particular (as illustrated with findings from a new survey). We can address both through informed advocacy, and collaboration with related fields. I conclude by arguing that interaction, feedback and task-based research has uncovered many important insights into second language learning, with the new tools and constructs that are emerging suggesting an even more productive time lies ahead.


Alison Mackey is Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and in summers, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Lancaster University. Her interests include interaction-driven L2 learning, L2 research methodology and the applications of interaction and feedback through task-based language teaching, as well as L2 dialects and identities. She has published 75+ journal articles/book chapters, and 15 books in total, including the Mildenberger prize-winning Handbook of SLA (co-edited with Susan M. Gass). Mackey is Editor-in-Chief of the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, published by CUP, #1 of 181 Linguistics Journals for 2017 Impact factor. She is co-founder of the Instruments for Research into Second Languages  (IRIS) database project (funded by ESRC and the British Academy) and co-editor of the Taylor and Francis Second Language Acquisition series. She has lived and taught applied linguistics and ESL/EFL in the U.K., Japan, Australia, and the U.S.