by Sarn Rich
We know that communication strategies are useful because native
speakers use them so much to help interaction and communication
to proceed more smoothly. The Radio 4 gameshow 'Just a Minute'
in which contestants attempt to speak for a minute without
hesitation, repetition or deviation (i.e. obvious fillers
or avoidance strategies) demonstrates how difficult it is
to manage without. The vast number of synonyms for 'thing'
or 'stuff indicates how often we find ourselves lost for words.
Having relatively fewer linguistic resources to hand, learners
naturally have even more to gain from communication strategies
than native speakers. And just as there are learners whose
strategic competence is far greater than their grammatical
competence (like the Uzbek woman mentioned earlier), so the
reverse is sometimes true, and I have known many learners
whose general communicative competence has been enhanced with
attention paid to this area.
second reason to teach communication strategies is their overlap
with learning strategies. In their respective lists O'Malley
et al. (1985:582-584, in Brown 1994:116-117) mention 'cooperation'
and 'question for clarification' under the heading 'socioaffective
strategies,' and Rebecca Oxford approximation, circumlocution,
word coinage, switching to mother tongue, mime and gesture,
getting help, avoidance and message adjustment under 'compensation
strategies'. Each of these implies a willingness on the part
of the learner to admit uncertainty and to take risks. Though
communication strategies can be misused in the classroom (with
overuse of dictionaries, for example) and could encourage
fossilization if progress in other competences looks superfluous,
on balance these concerns are outweighed by the potential
benefits to the learning process.
There is considerable overlap between communication and conversational
strategies, and all may be taught either indirectly 'as the
product of engaging learners in conversational interaction'
(Richards 1990:76 in Dornyei and Thurrell 1994:4 1), or directly,
'providing the learners with specific language input' (Dornyei
and Thurrell 1994:4 1)
the preeminence of grammatical competence in most curricula
and coursebooks it is unlikely that the indirect approach
will provide learners with the material to develop communication
strategies. For example few coursebook listenings feature
fillers. Unless the learner is exposed to authentic L2 outside
the classroom the teacher will have to use authentic recordings
to provide any chance of fillers 'being acquired.
and Thurrell suggest three elements to a direct approach:
'- adding specific language input
- Increasing the role of consciousness raising
- sequencing communicative tasks systematically' (ibid:47)
Consciousness raising refers to fostering learners' awareness
of how language works (Rutherford and Smith 1985, cited ibid:47),
but in the case of communication strategies might also be
applied to teachers' own examination of how we use language,
particularly the sociocultural aspects to our use and teaching
of fillers and non-linguistic devices.
1989 Tarone and Yule remarked 'There are few, if any, materials
available at present which teach learners how to use communication
strategies.' (1989:114-5 in Dornyei and Thurrell 1991:19).
Matters have since improved.
'Conversation and Dialogues in Action' Dornyei and Thurrell
(1992) introduce ten activities in section 2: 'Conversation
Strategies.' Apart from one which practises what Labov (1972)
called 'evaluation' (generally making one's narrative more
interesting to the listener), these deal with fillers, various
co-operative strategies,2 paraphrase, mime and avoidance strategies
(going off the point or bringing conversation round to a particular
topic). Each includes a useful 'Input box' of conversational
phrases and a 'Teacher's diary' containing questions to guide
reflection, including reference to sociocultural considerations.
section is most satisf~ring when it includes the target language
in genuine communicative activities. For example, fillers
are used when trying to think of answers to difficult questions
(though a weakness here is that until we reach the Teacher's
diary at the end all the listed fillers are treated as if
they were interchangeable - see above). (Other activities
to practice the use of fillers are in Dornyei and Thurrell
1994:19-20 and in Nolasco and Arthur 1987:53-54). A couple
of other activities (those dealing with paraphrase and asking
for help when lacking vocabulary) are relatively disappointing
in this respect as both involve learners acting out known
dialogues, while pretending not to remember certain words
for which they devise descriptions or approximations. Though
these give useful practice and provide realistic contexts,
since the words are already known to all parties involved,
the descriptions and approximations the learners come up with
do not serve any genuinely communicative purpose.
and approximation can be practised communicatively in the
game called Taboo: players take turns to pick a card and elicit
the word written upon it by describing, approximating and
talking about associations (However, though this would provide
a communicative point for these target strategies, it lacks
an authentic context to exemplify when we might use them.).
and Arthur (1987) suggest several feedback tasks suitable
for drawing learners' attention to communication strategies.
Communication strategies are a vital part of a native speaker's
repertoire. It seems only fair to pass them on to learners
at all levels of interlanguage. As well as expanding their
communicative competence learners are likely thereby to gain
in confidence and to develop their learning strategies.
development of strategic competence appears to be largely
a matter of overcoming affective and sociocultural rather
than cognitive or psycholinguistic difficulties. A significant
factor in this is arguably the very primacy that has traditionally
been granted grammatical competence in our understanding of
language in the classroom.
teachers, then, we must be resourceful and sensitive in relation
to learners' attitudes to language learning and the proper
place of strategic competence within it, and learners feelings
about expressing uncertainty and the use of fillers and non-linguistic
devices. There is scope in this area for research not only
into native English speakers' use of communication strategies,
but also into attitudes and assumptions which prevail in other
A longer discussion of why this should be so is unfortunately
outside the scope of this essay. Conceivably one small factor
in its perpetuation in the traditional classroom is the fact
that communication strategies are generally not a feature
of classical Greek and Latin.
Asking for repetition or clarification, checking that one's
interlocutor understands and is listening, reformulating messages
and asking for help when lacking vocabulary.
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