A web site for the developing language teacher

Exploring Strategic Competence
by Sarn Rich
- 2

Problems inherent for adult learners

Discouraging factors - sociocultural

If we always had the language at hand to express precisely what we mean to say we would have no need of communication strategies. Resorting to such means therefore puts on display a failure in grammatical competence, a competence traditionally associated with high status, education and power.' For this reason politicians use communication strategies carefully, always giving the impression of certainty, and masking their use of delaying devices and avoidance strategies to convince us that they are actually in control ('Let's be absolutely clear about this.' 'I'm very glad you asked me that question.' 'But what the people of this country really want to know is...'). From discussions with learners in Poland, Taiwan and India my impression is that there may be a universal presumption that grammatical competence implies political competence, indeed social competence in general.

At the other end of the scale, over-use of communication strategies, fillers in particular, can give an impression of uncertainty or low social status - hence their use as a quick labelling device in drama and TV. soaps. Once aware of our own use of fillers or gestures we may try to do without, wary of the impression we are putting across. If such factors influence native speakers it would be surprising if they did not occur also to adult L2 learners, in particular perhaps those whose native culture emphasises the importance of 'face~ in social relations - as well as male learners whose background forbids them to express uncertainty.

Discouraging factors - pedagogic

The admission of defeat implied by resorting to communication strategies is also a factor in its exclusion from the traditional curriculum. The emphasis here is on grammatical competence, with communication strategies considered, if at all, as tools of last resort, usually in the hands of the teacher, not to be passed on to learners. Once a learner can get across meaning by these devices, progress in grammatical competence is arguably put in danger.

There are certainly people with the strategic competence to convey ideas far beyond anything achievable with their other competences. I stayed with an Uzbek woman in Tashkent whose use of gestures in particular was so subtle and highly developed that she could simultaneously engage two other people in long conversations where none of us had even the basics of a common language, so fluently that she gave the impression of being telepathic. For her work, running a Bed and Breakfast, she had little need of language lessons.

Of course this suggests that strategic competence in the classroom is more problematic for the teacher than for the learner, but there is another concern. A successful communication strategy is not necessarily a desirable learning strategy. When an appeal
for assistance takes the form of looking in a dictionary or phrasebook, for instance, this simple and often effective way of getting across one's meaning may not be good for one's learning. For this reason teachers often discourage over reliance on dictionaries in class. Communication strategies employing Li are also generally frowned upon, where this might interfere with developing skills. Whether for fear of fossilisation or adverse effects on learning, a learner denied some tools of strategic competence might understandably feel unsure about the legitimacy of using the others.


Learners used to traditional approaches may be put off by strategic competence's unfamiliarity as a topic. Accustomed to listening activities involving recordings of disembodied voices, they may consider facial expressions or gestures irrelevant. Developing 'an ability to select an effective means of performing a communicative act that enables the listener/reader to identify the intended referent' (Yule and Tarone 1990:18 1 in Brown:228) might look like a waste of time: why not just do what teachers have always done and teach the vocabulary, so we can identify the referent straightaway? And why waste time on 'avoidance strategies' - we're learning English so we won't need them! If facing a test the learner is more likely to be worrying about grammar, lexis and phonology than about being tested for strategic competence (Nic Underhill's 'Testing Spoken Language' (1987), for example, makes no specific mention of strategic competence or communication strategies.). Learners may feel that this is not a proper area of study, that 'real' language learning means learning the codes of grammatical competence. In such situations the teacher is faced with the challenge of developing learners' holistic understanding of communication, as composed of complementary competences rather than of separate and distinct elements, and of demonstrating the transferability of communication strategies from situation to situation.

Particular problems with fillers

Fillers do more than just fill. 'You know' gives the speaker more time to think, but has an additional function (indicating shared knowledge). 'You see' has another function, too (imparting something new). A look at a few other fillers - 'I mean', 'Let's see now', 'Frankly', 'so', 'I'll tell you what' -- shows that they are unfortunately far from interchangeable. When native speakers string fillers together ('Well, yeah, I suppose, it's sort of... .... . you know...') we are not using any old combination willy nilly, but are actually saying something, at the same time as gathering our thoughts.

Apart from meaning and function the learner has to consider appropriacy. Use of fillers can convey decisiveness (such as those favoured by politicians) - preferable in ajob interview to a collection of fillers which together suggest dithering uncertainty. Overused, other fillers can be irritating (I knew a Columbian learner who was so pleased with 'Anyway' that she threw it around at every opportunity, until her American flatmate begged her to cut down.), or inadvertently amusing or offensive. In Cairo I taught a charming business man and film enthusiast who was disappointed to learn that in most
professional situations it would probably not be appropriate to use the fillers he had gathered from Martin Scorcese films.

Even native speakers find it difficult to look closely at our use of fillers. Like other discourse markers they tend to be used without our being aware of them (Watts 1989, in McCarthy 1998:59). They also magically disappear from normal speech when native speakers are aware of being recorded, and are strangely difficult to deliberately include (as I have found when asking native speakers to make recordings of 'authentic dialogue'). This is one of the many areas of discourse on which we can look forward to the corpus projects shedding more light.

A particular consideration for some learners arises from sociocultural differences and attitudes. Whereas native speakers will resort to fillers, repetition and even hums and grunts to prevent silence from intruding, Finnish or Japanese learners, for example, will be content to accept periods of silence and use them for thinking. Unless sensitively handled, for a Japanese learner to be told either to keep talking or to cram irrelevant words and noises into these spaces may appear bizarre at best, and insulting at worst.

To page 3 of 4

To the lesson plan

Back to the articles index

Back to the top

Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us Online Development Courses    Lesson Plan Index
 Phonology — Articles Books  LinksContact
Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page

Copyright 2000-2016© Developing