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Apr. 2007, Volume 5, No.4 (Serial No.


US-China Foreign Language, ISSN1539-8080, USA

Communication Strategies and Foreign Language Learning

(School of Foreign Languages, Qingdao University of Science and Technology, Qingdao 266061, China)

Abstract: This paper presents a literature-based review of communication strategies in Foreign Language Learning (FLL). The purpose is to facilitate learners communicative competence in English. The author concludes by giving suggestions of training communication strategies, creating an English-speaking environment as well as officially highlighting communicative competence. Key words: communicative strategies; compensatory strategies; communicative competence; foreign language learning

1. Introduction
For most people, the main goal of learning a foreign language is to be able to communicate. It is through communication that people send and receive messages effectively and negotiate meaning (Rubin & Thompson, 1994: 30). Nowadays, how to communicate effectively in Foreign Language Learning becomes much more important than reading and writing. As a result, communication strategies have turned into a crucial topic for all foreign language learners and teachers. Considerable research has been done on communication strategies, for example, Bialystok (1990), who comprehensively analyzes communication strategies for second language use; and Dornyei (1995 cited in Brown, 2000), who outlines an explicit classification of communication strategies. According to Bialystok (1990: 1), the familiar ease and fluency with which we sail from one idea to the next in our first language is constantly shattered by some gap in our knowledge of a second language. The forms of these gaps can be a word, a structure, a phrase, a tense marker or an idiom. The attempts to overcome these gaps are described as communication strategies (ibid). Wenden and Rubin (1987: 109) state that learners who emphasize the importance of using the language often utilize communication strategies. Besides, OMalley and Chamot (1990: 43) assert that communication strategies are particularly important in negotiating meaning where either linguistic structures or sociolinguistic rules are not shared between a second language learner and a speaker of the target language. For this reason, communication strategies, which involve both listening and speaking, can contribute greatly to FLL. As a former English teacher in a Secondary Vocational School in China, I have found quite a few problems concerning how to communicate efficiently in FLL. For most students, listening and speaking are deficiencies compared with reading and writing. Consequently, training students to communicate fluently in English becomes an urgent task for all language teachers in China. In an effort to solve these problems, the purpose of this paper is to survey the literature of communication strategies and develop some recommendations for teachers working in this context. To begin with, I will present some problems which occur among learners during communication when using English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Secondly, definitions of communication strategies are outlined. Thirdly,
ZHANG Ya-ni (1976- ), female, M.A. of University of Bath, lecturer of School of Foreign Languages, Qingdao University of Science and Technology; research field: communicative needs analysis. 43

Communication Strategies and Foreign Language Learning

some typologies of communication strategies are considered. Finally, recommendations regarding how to develop learners communicative competence are put forward.

2. Communication Problems among Chinese Secondary Level EFL Students

During my six-year teaching career in a Chinese Secondary Vocational School, I have observed several problems when students communicate in English. (1) Most students have no intention of communicating in English, nor do they feel the need to do so. Even though English is a key course for students in Hotel Management and Tour Guiding, teachers can seldom find them speaking in English on campus or even in classrooms. The reason for this may contribute to their limited acquisition of the language and their limited interest in it. (2) It is important to recognize that English and Chinese are two very different types of language. They belong to two different language families (the Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan) and thus, many structural differences exist (CHANG, 2001: 310). So it is not easy for students to sustain a conversation in English. According to CHANG (ibid), difficulties in various areas and at all stages of English language learning may be expected. When doing role-playing, learners most frequently recite what they have in the textbooks, in other words, to restrict to the fixed sentence pattern. Otherwise, they may not hold their own conversation in a smooth way. (3) A large majority of students have no idea about how to cope themselves when they are confronted with some words they do not know. This will undoubtedly result in the termination of a conversation. Consequently, a silence will occur until the teacher cannot tolerate it and offers help. For instance, if two students are asked to talk about the weather, one may say, it is a nice day! The other will respond, Yeah, but it is said there will be The second speaker is trying to say drizzle. However, he cannot find the word. Thus, they may just stop there and fall into silence. In my experience, this appears to happen frequently in EFL classes.

3. Definitions of Communication Strategies

In Bialystoks book Communication Strategies, she cites four definitions relating to the strategies of second-language learners (Bialystok, 1990: 3):
(1) a systematic technique employed by a speaker to express his meaning when faced with some difficulty; (Corder, 1977) (2) a mutual attempt of two interlocutors to agree on a meaning in situations where requisite meaning structures are not shared; (Tarone, 1980) (3) potentially conscious plans for solving what to an individual presents itself as a problem in reaching a particular communicative goal; (Faerch & Kasper, 1983a) (4) techniques of coping with difficulties in communicating in an imperfectly known second language. (Stern, 1983)

All the above definitions reveal the same purpose of communication strategies, namely, to solve an emerged communication problem by applying some kinds of techniques. Among these, Corders (1977) explanation seems to be more visual and pellucid from the viewpoint of a non-native speaker of English. The definitions from Faerch and Kasper (1983a) and Stern (1983) also provide us specific and precise descriptions for communication strategies, which refer to the employed techniques when speakers have problems in expressing themselves.

4. Taxonomies of Communication Strategies


Communication Strategies and Foreign Language Learning

Having considered definitions of communication strategies, I will begin this next section by examining Dornyeis (1995, see Appendix) Taxonomy of Communication Strategies, which is also cited by Brown (2000: 128) as a good example. The two branches given by Dornyei (1995) reveal two opposite directions in communication. One is avoiding and the other is compensating. Avoidance strategies can be further broken down into several subtypes, such as phonological avoidance, syntactic or lexical avoidance and topic avoidance (Brown, 2000: 128). These strategies may be an effective way but not a beneficial way for FLL students to learn a foreign language. Among these, topic avoidance may be the most frequent means that students have ever employed. When asked a specific question, the student who does not know the answer will just keep silent about it and lead to the occurrence of topic avoidance. In my experience, most students can hardly express their ideas or answers in a flexible way; that is to say, they presumably have not learned to think over a foreign language simultaneously while they are speaking it. The reason tends to be that they have not acquired basic knowledge of English and they seldom practice it. Compensatory strategies, on the other hand, involve compensation for missing knowledge (ibid: 129). Dornyei outlines eleven types of compensatory strategies in a very comprehensive way (see Appendix), which include circumlocution, word coinage, prefabricated patterns, appealing for help and stalling or time-gaining strategies, etc (Dornyei, 1995 cited in Brown, 2000: 128). Some of them happen in a high frequency, while others may seldom occur. Consider the example of foreignizing, which refers to using a L1 word by adjusting it to L2 phonology and/or morphology (ibid). Probably Chinese speakers will find it hardly to use a Chinese character to substitute the pronunciation of an English word; nor just simply add an English suffix to it, for Chinese and English are very different types of language. Whereas, many other types of compensatory strategies are perceived to be commonly applied. I will exemplify six of Dornyeis strategy types with illustrations and explanations. When students are taking an oral examination, the most popular compensatory strategy is to use fillers or hesitation devices to fill pauses and to gain time to think (ibid). By using fillers such as well or let me think, students can gain a little time to think before they speak. Thus, they will appear to be more fluent instead of stammering and as a result, a higher mark is expected to be given. Another common type is appealing for help. Dornyei states that people can ask for help directly or indirectly, such as using a rising intonation or a pause (ibid). As far as I am concerned, learners will directly ask the native speaker about an unknown word, for example, What do you call this? Cinnamon. With respect to circumlocution, it can be ranged to paraphrase strategy because it indicates describing or exemplifying the target object of action (ibid). Nonlinguistic signals apparently mean using sound imitation and postures, such as mime, gesture, and facial expression (ibid). On occasion, speakers will adopt circumlocution as well as nonlinguistic signals at the same time. For instance, when I was trying to speak the word apron to my flat mate in the kitchen, I could not think of it immediately. So I described it as I wear it when I am cooking together with gestures to show it should be worn in front of the chest. Word coinage is usually produced unwittingly. Dornyei claims that a speaker will simply create a non-existing L2 word when he does not know the exact one (ibid). One of my students once used the phrase electrical line instead of electrical wire to express his meaning. The coinage of a single word may not be as common as the invention of a phrase by the speaker. Through the combination of two possible words which can jointly create a new meaning, a non-existing phrase can be invented. Lastly, prefabricated patterns are described as the memorized stock phrases or sentences for survival purposes (ibid). They are generally adopted by those studious and diligent language learners. It is very common to notice that students rehearse typical sentences on a bus or in a park. Prefabricated patterns can assist

Communication Strategies and Foreign Language Learning

learners to reach their basis communication goal, such as asking for directions or shopping. Compared with Dornyeis, Tarones taxonomy seems to be simpler and have more categories. In the next few paragraphs, a summary of Tarones typology is proposed followed by comparison and contrast between the two.
Tarones typology of conscious communication strategies (Tarone, 1977 cited in Bialystok, 1990: 39) 1. Avoidance a Topic avoidance b Message abandonment 2. Paraphrase a Approximation b Word coinage c Circumlocution 3. Conscious transfer a Literal translation b Language switch 4. Appeal for assistance 5. Mime

From the above list and the appendix, we can generalize the similarities between Dornyeis and Tarones typologies of communication strategies. It is the seven types that they present in common, which include message abandonment, topic avoidance, circumlocution, approximation, word coinage, literal translation and appealing for help. Moreover, they explicate the application of the seven types in a similar way. To take an example, concerning approximation, Tarone (1977) explains it as the use of a single target language vocabulary item or structure, which the learner knows is not correct, but which shares enough semantic features. (cited in Bialystok, 1990: 40); and Dornyeis definition is using an alternative term which expresses the meaning of the target lexical item as closely as possible (Dornyei, 1995 cited in Brown, 2000: 128). However, there are more differences than similarities. On the basis of the differentiation, four obvious distinctions are summarized as follows: (1) Unlike Dornyei (1995), Tarone (1977) does not differentiate communication strategies into two opposite categoriesavoidance and compensatory according to the consequence of communication. Conversely, Tarone presents five major types: avoidance, paraphrase, conscious transfer, appeal for assistance and mime (Tarone, 1977 cited in Bialystok, 1990: 39). (2) Dornyei presents three more types of compensatory strategies than Tarone, which are use of all purpose words, prefabricated patterns and stalling or time-gaining strategies (Dornyei, 1995 cited in Brown, 2000: 128). The last two types, which I have exemplified above, are associated positively with the success of communication. (3) In Tarones typology, mime is a separated category which is explained as all nonverbal accompaniments (Tarone, 1977 cited in Bialystok, 1990: 42); while Dornyei ranges mime together with gesture, facial expression and sound imitation to nonlinguistic signals (Dornyei, 1995 cited in Brown, 2000: 128). In that case, nonlinguistic signals (Dornyei, 1995) provide learners a more comprehensive description than mime (Tarone, 1977). (4) Language switch (Tarone, 1977) can be assumed to be the combination of foreignizing and code-switch (Dornyei, 1995). The former is defined as the straightforward insertion of words from another language (Tarone, 1977 cited in Bialystok, 1990: 41). On the other hand, foreignizing refers to using a L1 word by adjusting it to L2 phonology and/or morphology; and code switch means using a L1 word with L1 pronunciation or a L3 word with L3 pronunciation while speaking in L2 (Dornyei, 1995 cited in Brown, 2000: 128). In brief, the classifying criterion of Dornyeis taxonomy is based on the consequence of communication, either success (compensatory strategies) or abandoned (avoidance strategies). In contrast, Tarones classification is

Communication Strategies and Foreign Language Learning

much simpler with similar sub-types placed in one category. Even though the latter seems to be typical and explicit as what Bialystok (1990: 39) states, it may not be as systematic and integrative as Dornyeis.

5. Conclusion and Recommendations for Foreign Language Teachers

To sum up, communication strategies remain an important element in FLL. Compensatory strategies, in particular, will undoubtedly promote learners communicative competence. Teachers can play an important role in conveying communication strategies to students and thereby assisting them to practice the target language. Oxford holds that language learning strategies are tools for active, self-directed involvement, which is essential for developing communicative competence (Oxford, 1990: 1). In accordance with this statement, I highly recommend that EFL teachers instruct learners communication strategies so as to value English language learning more meaningful and influential. Apart from that, teachers should also motivate learners to apply communication strategies as greater motivation relates to higher frequencies of strategy use. As supported by Oxford (1990: 13), highly motivated learners will adopt a significantly greater range of appropriate strategies than do less motivated learners. In addition, an English-speaking environment needs to be created to the largest extent, because by continual exposure to natural conversation students may learn through opportunities both to hear more of the target language and to produce new utterances to test their knowledge (Wenden & Rubin, 1987: 26). As a consequence, motivation for more learning can be enhanced. As Graham (1997: 89) states, key factors for communication strategies include the aim of decreasing anxiety and increasing participation. The English corner is one of the most effective ways to fulfill this goal. Although many schools do have this kind of activity, the frequency and the extent to be emphasized may not be satisfactory. Whats more, English speaking contest, short play performance, English tour guiding and other sorts of activities should be popularized in line with the specialties of different schools. Furthermore, local educational organizations should attach more importance to learners communicative competence in FLL. In an effort to improve the situation that communication strategies still do not feature in many L2 syllabuses in China, I am eager to suggest that (1) local educational organizations should highlight childrens communicative competence in English rather than their testing scores; (2) authentic English teaching materials including textbooks and other reading materials should be developed; (3) appropriate methodologies for English teaching should be applied and (4) new testing system should be created to accord with the requirements of fluent oral English. Lastly, I hope what I have suggested is helpful for all teachers to improve their own practice in foreign language teaching.
References: Bialystok, E.. 1990. Communication Strategies: A Psychological Analysis of Second Language Use[M]. London: Blackwell. Brown, H. D.. 2000. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching[M]. 4th ed. NY: Longman. CHANG, Jung. 2001. Chinese Speakers[A] // Swan, M & Smith, B., Eds. Learner English: A Teachers Guide to Interference and Other Problems. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Graham, S.. 1997. Effective Language Learning: Positive Strategies for Advanced Language Learners[M]. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. OMalley, J. & Chamot, A.. 1990. Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition[M]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Oxford, R.. 1990. Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know[M]. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House. Rubin, J. & Thompson, I.. 1994. How to Be a More Successful Language Learner[M]. New York: Heinle & Heinle. Rubin, J.. 1987. Learner Strategies: Theoretical Assumptions, Research History and Typology[A] // Wenden, A.& Rubin, J., Eds. Learning Strategies in Language Learning[M]. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall: 15-30. Wenden, A. & Rubin, J.. (Eds). 1987. Learner Strategies in Language Learning[M]. London: Prentice Hall International.


Communication Strategies and Foreign Language Learning

Appendix: Communication strategies (Dornyei, 1995 cited in Brown, 2000: 128) Avoidance Strategies 1. Message abandonment: Leaving a message unfinished because of language difficulties. 2. Topic avoidance: Avoiding topic areas or concepts that pose language difficulties. Compensatory Strategies 3. Circumlocution: Describing or exemplifying the target object of action (e.g. the thing you open bottles with for corkscrew). 4. Approximation: Using an alternative term which expresses the meaning of the target lexical item as closely as possible (e.g. ship for sailboat). 5. Use of all-purpose words: Extending a general, empty lexical item to contexts where specific words are lacking (e.g., the overuse of thing, stuff, what-do-you callit, thingie). 6. Word coinage: Creating a nonexisting L2 word based on a supposed rule (e.g., vegetarianist for vegetarian). 7. Prefabricated patterns: Using memorized stock phrases, usually for survival purposes (e.g., Where is the ___ or Comment allezvous?, where the morphological components are not known to the learner). 8. Nonlinguistic signals: Mime, gesture, facial expression, or sound imitation. 9. Literal translation: Translating literally a lexical item, idiom, compound word, or structure from L1 to L2. 10. Foreignizing: Using a L1 word by adjusting it to L2 phonology (i.e., with a L2 pronunciation) and/or morphology (e.g., adding to it a L2 suffix). 11. Code-switching: Using a L1 word with L1 pronunciation or a L3 word with L3 pronunciation while speaking in L2. 12. Appeal for help: Asking for aid from the interlocutor either directly (e.g., What do you call?) or indirectly (e.g., rising intonation, pause, eye contact, puzzled expression). 13. Stalling or time-gaining strategies: Using fillers or hesitation devices to fill pauses and to gain time to think (e.g., well, now, lets see, uh, as a matter of fact).

(Edited by Doris and Jessica)