Epistemic incongruence in question-answer sequences as part of doing second language learning in pair work situations

Fredrik Rusk, Åbo Akademi University, Finland

Several strands of classroom research show that teachers often ask questions, with an interrogative syntax, to which they already know the answer. Using conversation analytical (CA) terms regarding epistemics the teacher takes an incongruent stance and appears less knowledgable when asking these questions. Reasons for the teacher to ask incongruent interrogatives are several (e.g. to evaluate students’ understanding and/or learning) and they seem to be a common part of the talk-in-interaction in classrooms and thus do the actions they promote seem to be of importance to participants in the classroom. CA studies on second language (L2) classrooms that study exam questions have mostly investigated whole-class discussions and not pair work, which is promoted in modern communicative language pedagogies. It would therefore be of interest to investigate its role in the doing of L2 learning in pair work situations.

The aim of this study is to investigate the use of incongruent interrogatives as part of doing L2 learning and as part of the dynamic epistemic relationships at play. The data consists of video recordings from two second language (L2) educational settings; a content-based Finnish as a L2 program for 7-year-old children and classroom tandem courses (Finnish and Swedish as L2) for 16-year-old students. The focus is on situations in which a more knowledgable participant asks an incongruent interrogative question regarding the current task in response to the less knowledgable participant’s display of unknowing in pair work situations.

The results show that the interaction seems to run smoothly if the L2 learner knows or with only little help knows the answer to the problem. But if the L2 learner truly is unknowing it may be hard for him/her to convey this to the more knowledgable co-participant, since the incongruent interrogative rejects the L2 learner as unknowing. The accountability of knowledge and rejection of a participant’s right to his/her own knowledge becomes apparent. The practice of asking an incongruent interrogative also seems to be a way for the participants to construct the roles of L2 learner and teacher. With a perspective on learning as an activity that participants do it seems that the incongruent interrogative in these situations is specifically designed and used with regards to doing L2 learning. Especially in dyadic interaction where the accountability of who has or has not learned what becomes evident.