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This study follows two main aims: (1) Identification of the types and frequency of interactional modifications employed by Iranian EFL learners in CMC environment versus a typical classroom environment. And (2) examination of the efficacy of CMC medium for foreign language development.
By considering the role of negotiation of meaning in L2 development (Pica, 1987; Gass and Varonis, 1989), several studies on computer-mediated communication (CMC) have shown that CMC medium is capable of providing a conductive learning environment in which interactional modifications might be generated. (Lee, 2001, 2002; Kotter, 2003; Jepson 2005; Isharyanti, 2008).
Lee (2001, 2002) conducted two similar studies in which she explored the types of interactional modifications (called by her as "modification devices" and "negotiation strategies", respectively) employed by Spanish Learners at intermediate level of proficiency. Considering both studies, a total of ten categories of interactional modifications were identified including Comprehension checks; Clarification checks; Confirmation checks; Use of English, Word invention; Request (for help); Use of approximation; Self corrections; Topic shift ,and Use of keyboard symbols as discourse makers. The result showed that request (for help) happened the most frequently followed by clarification checks self- correction and comprehension check (Lee, 2001, p. 238; Lee, 2002, p.280). According to Lee (2002) "the employment of these devices assisted learners in expressing their ideas more clearly, as well as allowing them to attend to feedback and make input and output adjustments" (p. 6). Through a comparison of the result of her study with the literature on face-to-face communication Lee (2002) argued that the learners negotiated with each other "using a variety of modification devices similar to face-to face communication" (p. 280). Being one of the first studies in this area, the studies conducted by Lee were subject to a number of limitations. For example the definitions used in coding categories are somewhat problematic (Thomas & Reinders, 2010) since as Kotter (2003, p.157) has stated "there is substantial overlap between the definitions of clarification checks and requests".
In the same vein of research, the study by Kotter (2003) confirmed the potential of CMC environment in generating interactional modifications as he called them "repair moves". He examined negotiation of meaning in MOO-based discourse between German and English learners. Providing a "more coherent classificatory system" he focused on eight types of interactional modifications including: Confirmation checks; Clarification request; Comprehension checks, Repetitions; Recasts, Overt indications of understanding; Overt indications of agreement; and Overt indications of non-agreement (p. 157).The comparison of the online environment in this study with the findings of face-to-face environment revealed a "marked difference between conversational repair in spoken interactions and in the MOO-based exchange" (p. 145). He discussed that these differences may due to a number of "medium-specific" factors (p.163).
In another study Jepson (2005) explored the types of repair moves used by NNSs in synchronous text-based chat in comparison to voice-based chat during 10, 5-minute sessions. (5 text-based chat sessions and 5 voice-based chat sessions). Jepson classified the repair moves into two main categories: Negotiation of Meaning (NOM) which included Clarification Request, Confirmation Check, Comprehension Check, and Self repetition/Paraphrase; and Negative Feedback (NF) which contained Recast, Explicit Correction, Question, Incorporation and Self Correction (p. 86). Analyzing the patterns both quantitatively and qualitatively, the result showed that "voice chat generated a number of repair moves that was significantly higher than the number in text chat" although they were mostly "pronunciation related" (p. 88). The findings also revealed that some types of repair moves such as Comprehension checks, Questions and Self-corrections did not occur in the data. This study was also subject to a number of limitations. There was no information about the proficiency level of participants as this issue may affect the interaction and the interactional modifications generated during the process of negotiation. Furthermore, the duration of the sessions was limited (5 minutes). These two issues may question the external validity of the findings.
In a more recent study, Isharyanti (in Marriott & Torres, 2008) examined the types and frequency of interactional modifications employed by NNSs during synchronous text- based chat generated by two task types: jigsaw and decision-making tasks. In this study a selection of interactional modifications identified by previous research(Lee, 2002 & Kotter, 2003) was used in order to examine a more varied number of interactional modifications and to investigate the impact of task type in generating different kinds and frequency of interactional modifications. With regard to the potential of SCMC environment in generating interactional modifications, this study echoed the findings reported in literature. The participants did engaged in online negotiation process and in order to understand and to be understood, they used a variety of interactional modifications among which "confirmation check" (24%) was the most frequent one followed by "overt indication of agreement" (21%) and "clarification request" (21%). Comparison of the aforementioned two tasks in producing interactional modifications suggested that there was a significant difference between task types (jigsaw task versus decision-making task) in generating certain types of interactional modifications namely "clarification requests; overt indications of agreement, the use of Indonesian, confirmation checks, overt indications of understanding and overt indications of non-agreement" (p. 280). According to Isharyanti this may due to "(1) the nature and the requirements of the tasks; (2) the importance of information being supplied and (3) an idiosyncracy" (p. 285). Although a variety of interactional modifications was explored in this research, its limitations are significant. Firstly the study was conducted over a short period of time, thus provided limited support for claiming that "Decision making task generate more occurrences of each IM" (p. 285). Furthermore, his research focused on just two types of tasks (jigsaw task versus decision-making task). And most importantly to discuss the potential of CMC technology as an environment for generating negotiation of meaning and interactional modifications, the presence of a control a group (a typical class environment in which learners communicate face-to-face) is necessary. Despite the shortcomings of this research, the categorization of interactional modifications utilized in this research has guided the current study. (See Marriott & Torres, p. 277).
Gap: considering the related literature, most of the studies have been conducted within the classroom or language laboratory. Thus, conducting in a non-natural learning environment, these studies suffer the temporal and spatial constraints typical to class environment. Moreover a few numbers of studies have compared the results of CMC environment to those in classroom environment directly. If such a comparison was conducted it was a comparison between the findings of a certain study with the findings reported in literature. Most importantly the studies conducted during short period of time.
With regard to the second objective of this study, the findings of previous studies are unsatisfactory and controversial. It is important to mention that language development in this study is understood from two perspectives: (1) accuracy perspective according to which the participants' accuracy-based scores were examined and (2) acquisitional perspective according to which the participants' developmental level of question formation was assessed based on Pinemann and Johnston's (1986) framework.
Following the accuracy perspective, a few studies have been conducted although their findings are controversial. However, as far as the researchers are aware, there is not a single study addressing the issue of acquisitional perspective in CMC environment(with regard to the development of question forms). Accordingly, what follows is a review of studies which investigated the efficacy of CMC medium for grammatical development.
Sotillo (2000) compared syntactic complexity of 25 learners' output produced in synchronous versus asynchronous computer mediated communication(SCMC Vs. ACMC) in order to examine which mode of CMC is capable of producing more syntactically complex structures. She observed that the discourse functions cultivated in SCMC were similar to those occurred in Face-to-Face (ftf) communication. She claimed that "the rapid scrolling of messages from multiple users of the chat ware (mIRC) exerted pressure on students to post short messages rapidly without paying attention to form (accuracy)" (p. 97); in the meantime, due to the delayed nature of ACMC, this medium was capable of generating more syntactically complex structures. However as Fiori (2005, p. 569) stated "While Sotillo reported that grammatical accuracy may suffer in the SCMC environment, her data revealed that the synchronous group's interactions exhibited fewer errors than the asynchronous group's utterances." Thus, further investigation is needed in order to better understand the potential of SCMC environment in fostering the grammatical development.
By considering the efficacy of SCMC environment for grammatical development, Lee's studies (2001, 2002) echoed similar findings. Comparing CMC environment with ftf discourse reported in literature, she found that although the participants did engage in negotiation of meaning, negotiation of form rarely happened among them. She argued that due to the rapidity of the interaction occurred in SCMC, participants produced brief utterances using simple sentence structures and moreover, they preferred to ignore linguistic errors (Lee, 2001, p. 239). Thus she concluded that interaction mediated via SCMC technology fostered fluency rather than accuracy. Suggesting that "students need to be advised of the need to write correctly to maintain a balance between function, content, and accuracy" (p. 242), she emphasized on further studies on the effectiveness of CMC medium for the development of learners' interlanguage.
Blake (2000) examined the online discourse of 50 Spanish learners at intermediate level of proficiency during two semesters in order to gain some insights into the relation of task type and elicited negotiation of meaning. Using, four task types namely jigsaw; decision making; two-way information gap; and one-way information gap tasks in his study, Blake observed that the negotiations occurred in CMC environment were "incidental" and "task-sensitive", and "lexical negotiations" predominated the learners' exchanges (p.127). By considering the potential of CMC environment for eliciting negotiation of meaning, Blake concluded that "carefully crafted tasks stimulate L2 learners to negotiate meaning which. . . . appear to constitute ideal conditions for SLA, with the CMC medium being no exception" (p. 133). However, Blake's stand on the effectiveness of CMC medium for grammatical development is uncertain as he stated that "the predominance of incidental lexical negotiations, in contrast to the paucity of syntactic negotiations, leaves unanswered or unsatisfactorily addressed the issue of grammatical development" (p. 120). Therefore, further research is to be conducted in order to declare this issue with certainty.
On the contrary, Pellettieri (2000) claimed that bearing a "striking resemblance" to oral interaction, "network based communication (NBC)" is capable of facilitating grammatical development. She examined online discourse produced by 20 NNSs during 5 30-minute sessions. As far as the potential of CMC medium in stimulating negotiation of meaning is concerned, the results of her study echoed the findings reported in literature. She observed that, engaging in online negotiation process is as facilitative as it is typical to oral interaction. She also found that the learners seek mutual understanding and try to "convey their meaning" by using some communicative strategies. Adopting an interactionist perspective, she argued that
Because through negotiation, interlocutors can zero in on the exact source of communicative problem they are trying to resolve, and because often at the root of the problem is some aspect of the L2 form, be it lexical, syntactic, or semantic, L2 learners are even more likely to notice the problem and attend to these very aspects of form in their output while negotiating meaning. (p.61)
As Pellettieri reasoned, engaging in the process of negotiation of meaning, the interlocutors' attention will be drawn on linguistic form and consequently they are able to notice the gap between their interlanguage and the target form. This process "focus on form" has been claimed necessary for grammatical development (Gass and Varonis, 1994; Schmidt, 1990; Spada & Lightbown, 1993 as cited in Pellettieri, 2000).
Finally Salaberry (2000) compared the efficacy of two environments: CMC environment versus face-to-face environment in fostering "L2 morphosyntactic development". He analyzed the discourse produced by four NNSs qualitatively. The findings revealed that "with respect to the use of past-tense verbal morphology across tasks, some initial changes in the development of morphological endings were more evident in the CMC session than in oral session" (p. 17). According to Salaberry (2000), the outperforming of CMC environment over face-to-face environment in facilitating morphological development may due to medium-specific characteristic that is CMC provides a learning environment in which the learners' attention will be drawn on both form and function (p. 19).
Differences in the mixed findings regarding the effect of SCMC medium on the grammatical development may be due to the difference in target items used to measure development. In Sotillo's (2000) study, the target feature was "Syntactic complexity" which was defined as "the ability to produce writing that uses subordination and embedded subordinate clauses" (p. 99) and Lee's (2001, 2002) measure of development was sentence structure (simple sentences versus complex ones) ,while Salaberry (2000) used "past tense verbal endings" as the target grammatical feature. However, as far as the researchers are aware, there is not a single study to address the effect of CMC environment on the development of question forms in English as a foreign language. Therefore, In the light of ongoing discussion as to the role of CMC in foreign language development, the present study was designed to answer the following research questions:
Do Iranian EFL learners engage in meaning negotiation process through SCMC?
What types and frequency of interactional modifications do Iranian learners employ in CMC environment versus of those in class environment?
What is the relationship between group membership (Experimental group: CMC environment Vs. Control group: Class environment) and the production and development of question forms in English as a foreign language.