Communication Strategies in Speaking Englishas a Foreign LanguageIn the Swedish 9th grade national test settingMonica LindbladAugust 2011C - Essay, 15 creditsEnglish LinguisticsSupervisor: Tore Nilsson, PhDExaminer: Alan Shima, PhD1
AbstractKeywords: second language acqusition, communication strategies, oral production, ESLinstructionSpeaking a foreign language is a major part of communicating in that language. Since LGY69, spoken English has received the same attention in teaching as the writing of English; andin the national tests today spoken English is considered 1/5 of the test grade. However,students in many cases find it more difficult to speak English than to write it and someteachers still focus more on writing and grammar than on speaking.In this essay I am trying to show how a group of fairly fluent students tackle the oral part oftheir national test and what strategies they use to overcome linguistic difficulties. In order todo so I have filmed five groups and a total number of 17 students when they do the oral partof their national tests in English in grade nine and also have the students fill out aquestionnaire about the experience. The tests took place in March and April 2010.This essay shows that the most frequently used strategy is pauses, unfilled and filled, but thatfor other strategies the individual differences are great. It also shows that group dynamics playan important role when doing the test and students who are not able to do the test with peoplethey normally talk to do worse in the test setting and that the performance of both boys andgirls suffer when being put in mixed groups.
Table of contents1. Introduction 31.1 Aim and Scope .41.2 Background .52. Method .92.1 Material .102.2 Data 113. Results .133.1 Group 1 Anna and Linn .133.2 Group 2 Lisa, Moa and Emelie .153.3 Group 3 Anton, Lukas, Kristian and Jesper 163.4 Group 4 Daniel, Linus, Arina and Anja . .193.5 Group 5 Ted, Ludde, Martin and Sonja .203.6 Analysis of the questionnaire .214. Discussion . 225. Conclusion 246. References. .257. Appendices . .277.1 Answers to the questionnaire .273
1. IntroductionI have worked as a middle school teacher for eight years now at the same school and I havehad the opportunity to follow a large number of students through their English progressionfrom sixth grade to ninth grade. The students at our school are divided into groups accordingto their proficiency level in English and the group I have been teaching for the last year andhave chosen to study is one of the top groups (there is one more group above this one andthree groups below) which means that all students should be fairly good at English. One thingthat I have noted is that students in general are hesitant to speak English, even if their skills inreading, listening and writing indicate that they should have the ability to perform as well inspeaking. In the classroom, exercises in oral communication are frequent and in addition, thestudents are instructed to speak English at all times, but they constantly have to be remindedto do so and some students speak Swedish all the time whereas others tend to switch toSwedish when things get complicated. No wonder then that fear of the oral part of the nationaltest manifests itself early and in some students this fear is very strong. In order to relievesome of this stress, students are encouraged to practice their speaking skills in the classroombut they are unwilling to do so, claiming that it feels awkward to speak English to theirSwedish friends. It is also sometimes difficult, in my experience, to get any help from theirparents in this matter since there still seems to be a misconception among some parents andstudents alike, that speaking English is not as important as writing, reading and listening, evenif this assumption has changed in later years with the internationalization of the world.1.2 Aim and ScopeMy aim in this study is to examine what strategies the students use during the oral part of thenational test in English in order to understand how teachers can help the students to do theirbest. I am also trying to show how a group of students who are rather fluent in Englishovercome linguistic difficulties when speaking English.The national test in English in grade nine consists of four parts namely listeningskills, reading skills, writing skills and speaking skills. The listening, reading and writingparts usually go very well for most students and many of them perform better on these teststhan they do ordinarily in the classroom, probably because they learn a lot of English outsidethe classroom which the teacher has no control over, and when they focus better, like on thenational tests, they are able to show these acquired skills. The speaking part however createsmuch stress among the students and many of them get lower results on these tests than they dogenerally. I have decided to look at different strategies that students use when they have tospeak English, but also to have a look at what effect the group constellations have on the4
students’ performances. What I hope to achieve is an understanding for what the students gothrough. I can hopefully use this knowledge in the classroom when preparing the students inthe future and maybe to pass on some of that understanding to my colleagues so that eventheir future students may benefit from it.1.2 BackgroundIn 1807, it became possible to study English in Swedish schools, but its status was low. Thedominating languages in schools were French, German, Latin and Greek. In the 1920s Englishwas considered equal to languages like German and French and with the end of WW IIGerman became less popular while English gained in popularity. From the fall of 1946English was introduced as the first foreign language to be learned in Swedish schools. When”grundskolan”, the Swedish primary school, was established in 1962 English becamecompulsory and French and German were choices (Flodin 2008). Also in 1962, standardizedtests in English were introduced which were replaced in 1994 by national tests. In thebeginning, the focus of English studies was on the written language which is still the case inmany countries today. In LGY 69, however, it was stressed that the spoken language shouldreceive the same attention as the written language and since then Sweden is considered one ofthe best countries in the world when it comes to speaking English. Most of us who were inschool during the 1970’s and 1980’s remember the language labs where you would practiceEnglish pronunciation individually supervised by your teacher. Since LPO 94 the nationaltests in English include a speaking part. The speaking part is today to be regarded as one fifthof the total test grade.When learning a foreign language, the language input that you receive has for along time been regarded as a very important part of learning the new language. Some studies,for example Hart and Risley (1995), have looked at children acquiring their native languageand noticed that the quality of the language input the children get from their parents had a lifelong impact on the language skills of those children. This work was followed up byHuttenlocher, Vasilyeva, Cymerman and Levine (2002) who showed that teachers inclassrooms could improve the students’ language skills by using a more complex speech. Itwas even suggested that children should develop oral skills before learning how to read andwrite the language and that if a student only had enough quality input from the language theywould automatically perform quality output. Recently however language output in itself hasbeen regarded as an important part of second-language learning. Language output is oftenused to assess what the children have learned like in answers to questions from the teacher5
either oral or written. But language output has recently been looked at as a learning processin its own right, where students test their output skills and learn from the feedback they get.Van Patten (2003) talks about two processes in language output, access and productionstrategies. First the student has to search his memory for the vocabulary he needs and thestudent has to make an effort to put the words together in a grammatically correct sentence.This requires a large effort from the student since the process is not yet automated. A study bySwain (2005) showed that even if students of a second language receive a lot of good inputtheir speaking and writing skills were still not as good as those students who had the languageas their native tongue. It has since been suggested that trying to produce the second languagein speaking and writing is essential to learning to use the language. Swain also suggested thatthe students, when trying to produce the second language, realize from the feedback they getwhat additional information they need.According to Nakatani (2006) communication strategies can be divided in twotypes: Achievement or compensatory strategies where a student tries different solutions inorder to achieve working communication, and reduction or avoidance strategies where astudent gives up when the first attempt on communication fails, the former strategy beingmore successful for the student. Through the use of questionnaires in a group of Japaneseuniversity students their “strategies for coping with speaking problems during communicativetasks”, (Nakatani 2006, p. 154) were examined and eight factors were distinguished. The firstfactor or “The Social Affective Factor” contained students who do not appear nervous andavoid pauses in order to give a nice appearance and they are not too worried about mistakes.The second factor or “The Fluency-Oriented Factor” contained students who listen a lot to thesound of the language and imitate it in order to make their speech clearer and easier tounderstand. They also take their time to speak so that they do not say things that areinappropriate in the context. The third factor or “The Negotiation for Meaning WhileSpeaking Factor” contained students who need the people they speak with because they lookto them all the time and repeat and rephrase until the listeners understand what they mean.The fourth factor or “The Accuracy-Oriented Factor” contained students who are veryconcerned about using the proper forms and who self-correct in order to achieve grammaticalcorrectness. Factor five or “The Message Reduction and Alteration Factor” included studentswho, when they can not express something, change it into an easier expression in order tokeep communication going if their first attempt was not understood. Factor six or “TheNonverbal Strategies While Speaking Factor” included students who use nonverbalexpressions such as gestures or facial expressions in order to help the listener understand what6
they are trying to say. Factor seven or “The Message Abandonment Factor” includes studentswho, when the first attempt of communication fails, give up trying or let others continue. Theeighth and last factor or “The Attempt to Think in English Factor” include students who try tothink in English instead of making up the sentences in their native tongue and then translatethem into English. Corresponding strategies were found in the listening part of theconversation. In testing the use of the different strategies Nakatani found that the high oralproficiency students tended to make more use of the Social affective strategies, fluencyoriented strategies and negotiation for meaning while speaking strategies while the low oralproficiency students used Message abandonment strategies and Less active listener strategiesmore (Nakatani 2006).Jasone Cenoz (1998) has investigated the use of pauses as a strategy in foreignlanguage production. Pauses and hesitation have been regarded as a problem when speaking asecond language but according to Cenoz pauses can have several functions1. to allow the speaker to breathe2. to allow the speaker to plan his speech3. to mark demarcations in the speechPauses can also be used to hand over the turn to another speaker. We can easily distinguishtwo types of pauses, silent pauses and pauses filled by mm, ah, er etc. and there are differentviews on what these different types of pauses signify; but they tend to occur in the samepositions. Researchers have also tried to differentiate pauses between phrases from pauseswithin.Cenoz (1998) investigated 15 intermediate and advanced learners of English atthe University of the Basque Country who had Spanish as their first language in terms of theirnon-juncture pauses i.e. pauses within sentences. He then looked at “the type of pauses (silentor filled), the length of the silent pauses, their distribution in the sentence, the hesitationmarkers used in the case of the filled pauses (um,eh,ah) and their association withcommunication difficulties (self-correction, reformulation, repetition)” (Cenoz 1998, page 4).The result of this investigation was that the students used 1085 non-juncture pauses in totalwith 64% silent pauses and 36% filled. More than 90 percent of the pauses were two secondsor shorter. Both silent and filled pauses have the same functions as mostly planning pausesand more silent pauses than filled pauses are used when a student has problems finding theright vocabulary. The hesitation phenomena mostly used in the survey were repetition, selfcorrection and reformulation and they are used more together with silent pauses than withfilled pauses. In the survey Cenoz also found that high proficiency speakers tend to use more7
pauses than low proficiency speakers and they also used more filled pauses. Other hesitationphenomena seemed to be used more in silent pauses but students of low speaking proficiencyuse more hesitation phenomena in both filled and silent pauses. His conclusion is that thereare great differences on the individual level both in the use of pauses and in the preference ofwhat sort of pause to use and that filled pauses repair communication by themselves but thatsilent pauses often require other methods as well. Students of higher proficiency seem to onlyneed time to retrieve the correct information while students of lower proficiency need to trymore options because they tend to use other strategies together with pauses to a greater extent.In a foreign language that you have not yet reached full control of, analyses ofspeech suggest that not all learners focus on the same thing. Some students focus on being asaccurate as possible, others focus on using a more complex language, thus taking a risk thattheir language will be less accurate and some focus on speaking as fluently as they can i.e.with as little pauses and hesitation as possible. The reason for this differentiation is, accordingto for example Skehan (1998b), limitations in our working memories. When we are learning aforeign language and the language structures are not yet automated we have to think aboutwhat we say and in this make full use of our working memories in order to recall languagestructures and grammatical rules to produce correct sentences in the target language. Since thecapacity of the working memory is limited both regarding storage capacity and activity wehave to limit the amount of processes going on at the same time. This makes it for examplevery difficult for the student to focus on both learning the language and understanding it at thesame time. The process of accessing words and grammatical knowledge from the long termmemory and keep it in the short time memory long enough to process them and producecorrect sentences is particularly demanding in real time speech where there is little time forplanning. Because of this students tend to simplify this process by concentrating on one issueat a time. This is more evident the more of a beginner the student is and it changes over time.Skehan (1998b) talks about exemplar-based and rule-based linguistic systems. Exemplarbased is when a learner learns chunks from a language i.e. idioms, fixed expressions etc. Thissystem does not take much processing to produce and can be accessed rapidly when time islimited. Rule-based is when a learner stores a lot of abstract linguistic rules which can be usedto produce good sentences but this system takes a lot of processing and is therefore difficult touse in real time speech. How these two systems are used by learners is still debated byscholars.Influencing learner output is familiarity with the subject, time for pre-planning,interaction; the learner’s mother tongue may make a specific grammatical feature more8
difficult and composition of groups. When analyzing learner language syntactical selfcorrections can be seen as a way to see how concerned the speaker is with accuracy, whereaslexical self-corrections show more of a concern with the meaning. A lack of self-corrections isalso sometimes regarded as a sign of fluency. Tarone uses a similar list of strategies asNakatani (2006):Avoidance: Topic avoidance – the speaker tries not to talk aboutentities for which the desired expression is not known.Message abandonment – the speaker begins to talk about anentity but is unable to continue.Paraphrase: Approximation – the speaker uses a simplenominal expression which shares enough features with theintended referential expression to satisfy a listener.Word coinage – the speaker makes up a new nominal expressionto refer to the entity.Circumlocution – the speaker describes the properties of theentity instead of naming it.Elaboration: the speaker builds redundancy into the messageby means of repetition, paraphrase and explication.Borrowing: Literal translation – a learner translates word forword from the L1Language switch – a learner uses an L1 expression withouttranslating.Appeal for assistance: a speaker asks for the desired referentialexpression.Mime: the speaker uses nonverbal expressions.(Tarone, 1986)It can also be debated whether avoidance really is a communication strategy since it doesn’thelp communication. Out of these strategies native speakers are more likely to usecircumlocution and approximation (Tarone and Yule 1983) since they require certain basicvocabulary and in the instructions for the national test the students are told to avoid theavoidance and borrowing strategies and try to use the elaboration and paraphrase strategiesinstead.2. MethodWhen I decided to use the oral part of the national test as material for my study the firstobstacle I had to overcome was to get the parents’ permission to film their children in thetesting situation and it was difficult to get the parents to answer the letter I sent. The secondobstacle was to get their permission, because some of them were hesitant. They were afraidthat the presence of the film camera might have a negative effect on their child’s performanceon the test. For a while it was very uncertain whether I would have any material at all. Butonce I had given parents and students a promise that if any of them felt that they performed9
worse because of the film camera they would get the chance to redo the test, more and moreparents handed in a permission slip. Out of the 26 students registered on the class list, I finallygot the permission from 17 students and their parents. Seven students opted to do the testwithout the film camera present and two students did not do the test at all. I then went on todivide the students into groups of three to four for the purpose of the test, taking intoconsideration their different proficiency levels and making sure that they were all in groupsthat they felt comfortable in. There were seven groups altogether and I filmed five
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