The L2 Passionate Interactional Imperative (for short “The L2 Pie”): It’s Hot or It’s Not!

Tim Murphey, Kanda University of International Studies, Japan

Murphey, T. (2011). The L2 Passionate Interactional Imperative (for short “The L2 Pie”): It’s hot or it’s not! Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2(2), 87-90.

Paginated PDF version

At the American Association of Applied Linguistics (AAAL) 2011 conference, John Schumann described how Lee, Dina, Joaquin, Mates & Schumann’s (2010) interactional instinct unfolds between infants and caregivers such that learning an L1 is assured in normal development through emotional bonding between infants and caregivers which is substantiated by motivation, proficiency, and opportunities (all co-constructing concepts). In subsequent second language learning at an older age, these three characteristics are not environmentally and contextually assured, and this seems to account for a great part of the shortcomings of much of the late-L2 instruction in the world (Lee, Dina, Joaquin, Mates & Schumann, 2010).

The implication is that in late starting L2 learning we still need sufficient interaction (opportunities), motivation and proficiency in order to reach intermediate/advanced levels.  Thus, when L2 learners wish to become intermediate and advanced speakers/users of other languages, they need to engage in what I would call passionate L2 interaction such that they immerse themselves and create “hot cognition” (Pintrich, Marx, & Boyle, 1993), “hot language learning” (Oxford 2010), “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 1997), repeated intensive emotionally-charged learning episodes, or what we might call “positive emotional cognitizing.” All of these terms describe a basic “excitement” from challenges meeting our skill levels, which creates dopamine rushes (i.e. states of excitement, Sapolsky, 2009) and makes our lives exciting, meaningful, and fulfilling.

One way to promote more “emotional use” is to assure that learners make “friends” with each other and bond and form effective group dynamics such that they really want to communicate with each other. I further contend that being able to help each other learn is an agency (dopamine) rush that emotionalizes the learning conditions (Murphey, 2010). This, then, is the L2 Passionate Interactional Imperative (L2PII, possibly orated as “the L2 pie”).  This contention is far from being new (cf. Trần, 2009 for a review of the interaction hypothesis), but it is greatly supported by the observations in the The Interactional Instinct. And, while at risk of be-laboring the pie metaphor still further, we might say, a pie is not a pie until it goes through the cooking process which requires heat; i.e. SLA is not SLA without passionate, emotional interaction of some sort (flow episodes), and these might be in only certain categories for certain needs (speaking, reading, writing, emailing, etc.).

Flow episodes happen when we really enjoy interacting with someone in a foreign language, and they somehow adjust to our level and help us understand. We may not feel completely successful, but when we can feel we are communicating what we want to say, we often feel a dopamine rush of excitement and agency (control) that we might not often feel. To have many of these flow episodes, we need more interaction with people willing to adjust to us in repeating activities, such as playing sports, doing work tasks, and socializing. While this can happen alone (for example, learning a new song), it is immensely more stimulating when done socially with helpers and with people we can help, like our classmates. The socializing does not need to be with native speakers or teachers, but rather can occur with fellow students when they dare to interact in the target language.

Schumann (2011) further writes:

Scientists studying the development of expertise have concluded that to master a body of knowledge or skill generally takes about 10,000 hours (20 hours a week for 10 years). Children are exposed to that number of hours by the time they are five … [For example] researchers found that elite violin performers had practiced for 10,000 hours (i.e. 20 hours per week for 10 years, good performers 8000 hours (eight years) and adequate musicians 4000 hours (four years at 20 hours a week). Using this research as a metric and putting aside the notion of an elite second language learner, we can hypothesize that to become an adequate speaker of an L2 would require between 4000 and 8000 hours of opportunity for L2 practice/use. This amount of time is not built into social structure. It’s the equivalent to about six years’ study. Of course, the rate might be shortened somewhat by residence in the country where the target language is spoken. To achieve this “adequate” level is not a trivial matter. It is what would be expected of a person majoring in a foreign language in college and then going on to an MA degree.

So the question is not “How can we give our students this many hours?” It is rather, “How can we get students excited enough about learning to spend that much time with a foreign language?” because there is no way that our school systems are going to provide that many contact hours. But we can explain this research to our students and help them understand how they might structure their own lives for more interaction time. While this is already advocated by those creating Self-Access Learning Centres (SALCs) and promoting independent learning and autonomy, I still feel we need to do a better job at creating group situations where interactions take place more often and naturally (mixed dorms, language clubs, language cafés, etc.)

Jerome Bruner (1990) writes in Acts of Meaning:

Language is acquired not in the role of spectator but through use. Being “exposed” to a flow of language is not nearly so important as using it in the midst of “doing.” Learning a language to borrow John Austin’s celebrated phrase is learning “how to do things with words” (p.67)

Wilga Rivers (1976) wrote that, “The essence of language teaching is providing conditions for language learning…” (p. 96). The above research is indicating that “hot” or “flow” conditions seem to be not only enjoyable but also necessary for substantial learning to take place. So how can we help learners create such passion for language learning? My own research points to the importance of providing conditions for play and the thrill of agency (control) in “learning flows” (Murphey, 2006, 2010). Increasing enjoyable play in the L2 augments pleasant interaction and socialization of people-in-context (Ushioda, 2009) involved in activities that help them have even more contact time. Because of the challenges, mistakes, and emotional tuning to social situations that play allows and the thrill of assuming some control (agency) over the world, people normally want to engage even more in the activities, especially when they can be at least partially successful (Murphey, 2010). Such play can boost confidence and entrain more use, and instigate the passionate interactive imperative (the L2 Pii). Einstein and Bohr reportedly each had a lifelong boyish curiosity and pleasure in play (Pais, 1991). They took science very seriously, but to them it was ultimately a game. Thus, when something is intriguing and play-like, we tend to spend more time on it and might even become passionate about it, to the extent that we will spend 10,000 hours or more with it.

10,000 hours is a long bake, but better than burned cakes and reheated leftovers. With a bit of environmental engineering and persistence, anyone can create their L2 Pii. Teachers and learning advisors can help students understand how this might work for them and how they can take more control over their own L2 Pii; how they might devote themselves more to a lengthy training period, and reap those finger licking rewards of a well baked pie through gradually and consistently turning up the heat on the co-developing concepts of motivation, proficiency, and opportunities.

Notes on the contributor

Tim Murphey holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the Université de Neuchâtel, Switzerland. He is co-author (with Zoltan Dörnyei) of Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom (Cambridge University Press, 2003). He is also the editor of TESOL’s Professional Development in Language Education series. He is currently researching Vygotskian sociocultural theory (SCT) applications with particular emphasis on student voice, agency, identity, and community construction.


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Pais, A. (1991). Neils Bohr’s times: In physics, philosophy, and polity. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Pintrich, P. R., Marx, R.W., & Boyle, R.B. (1993). Beyond cold conceptual change: The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational Research, 63, 167–199.

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Schumann, J. (2011, March). A Unified Perspective on First and Second Language Acquisition. Paper presented at the American Association of Applied Linguistics (AAAL) Conference, Chicago, USA.

Trần, Hòan-Thu (2009). The interaction hypothesis: A literature review. ERIC Document Reproduction Service. Retrieved June 23, 2011 from