Intercultural communication strategies for learner autonomy
In Menegale, M., (2013) (Ed). Autonomy in language learning: Getting learners actively involved. IATEFL: Canterbury, UK. Preface by C.M.Coonan. http://lasig.iatefl.org
Strategies for learning and using a second or foreign language have always been considered as a valuable, indeed necessary, component of the profile of an autonomous language learner. They have often been associated with the more operational side of the learning process: the title of Wenden’s seminal book Learner strategies for learner autonomy (1991), for example, clearly focused on the contribution of strategies to learner autonomy.
A few of what are usually considered in
the literature as ‘communication strategies’ already appeared in some of the
first, and still very influential, taxonomies of learning strategies (e.g. ‘overcoming
limitations in speaking and writing’ or ‘asking questions’ in
Communication strategies, however, have had a long history of their own, dating back to the very beginning of the communicative approach. As early as 1980, Canale and Swain (1980) had already included strategic competence as a component of their communicative competence model, as Bachman (1990) and Bachman and Palmer (1996) would do a few years later. But the bulk of the research in this field (Faerch and Kasper 1983, Tarone and Yule 1989, Bialystok 1990, Poulisse 1990, Kasper and Kellerman 1997) has had, all in all, a rather limited influence on the ‘strategies for learner autonomy’ approach. In addition, some of the applied linguists responsible for much of the early research on communication strategies adopted a rather negative view of the opportunity, and even the possibility, of ‘teaching’ strategies, for reasons which will be discussed later in this paper.
And yet, for those more directly concerned with pedagogical approaches, and with learner autonomy in particular, communication strategies have never lost a certain appeal of their own. One was left to wonder why learners could not be equipped with ways to assist them in coping with the demands of oral interaction tasks in the same way as they were provided with ample opportunities for coping with other communicative activities. So one crucial way to bring communication strategies back to the front of L2 pedagogy is to look at why and how they can contribute to learner autonomy.
Strategies as tools for learner autonomy
From the very start of communication strategy research, it was apparent that the role of such strategies in communication could be seen in a double perspective. Strategic competence has been described both as
the mastery of communication strategies that may be called into action either to enhance the effectiveness of communication or to compensate for breakdowns in communication (Swain 1984: 189)
the ability to successfully ‘get one’s message across’ … the investigation of strategic competence is very much tied to the use of communication strategies which enable language users to organize their utterances as effectively as possible to get their messages across to particular listeners. Such strategies are also considered to be part of the ability to repair, or compensate for, breakdowns in communication (Tarone and Yule 1989:19).
Strategies themselves have been referred to as ‘a systematic technique employed by a speaker to express his meaning when faced with some difficulty’ (Corder 1983: 16) as well as ‘all attempts to manipulate a limited linguistic system in order to promote communication’ (Bialystok 1983: 102).
Two different, but not mutually exclusive, conceptions of communication strategies seem to emerge from these definitions. On the one hand, strategies serve a compensation purpose, i.e. they assist learners in bridging the gap between the present state of their interlanguage system and the meanings and intentions they wish to express – or, in other words, between their limited linguistic competence and the communicative purposes they set out to accomplish. Strategies like using paraphrase or circumlocution instead of a specific word or asking one’s interlocutor for help would serve this purpose. On the other hand, strategies can also serve an enhancement purpose, i.e. they assist learners in making the most of their resources and in improving the effectiveness of their communicative efforts: in other words, they make learners more capable to, e.g. open, develop and close a conversation, manage turn taking, monitor intercultural interactions and, if necessary, repair misunderstandings. In contrast to the former view, implying a deficiency or limitation, this latter view emphasizes the ‘normal’ function of strategies in managing interactions, stressing the implication that strategies belong to the ways in which communication takes place under ordinary circumstances.
Both such views seem to suggest the important role that communication strategies can play in helping learners to become more autonomous by pushing them to make the best and the most of their present (limited) linguistic and communicative resources, stretching, so to say, their resources beyond their ‘comfort zone’. However, to fully appreciate the contribution that communication strategies can make to learner autonomy, it is necessary to specify in more detail what I have called their compensation and their enhancement functions.
Compensation strategies: managing problems
The problems that learners may have to face in learning and using an L2 encompass all levels of intercultural communicative competence, and therefore strategies are correspondingly called forth at all these various levels, starting with linguistic competence. The most obvious limitation appears at the lexical level, when learners simply do not (yet) know the specific terms to refer to entities. In such cases they may, e.g. use all-purpose words (like thing, stuff, person …), use more general words like superordinates (flower instead of geranium, animal instead of pet), use a synonym or an antonym (very small instead of tiny, not deep instead of shallow), use examples instead of a category (shirts, jeans, jackets instead of clothes), and, in more general terms, use definitions and descriptions, approximation and paraphrase (it’s the person that cuts your hair instead of hairdresser; it’s like a very tall houseinstead of skyscraper). Notice that native speakers (NS) and non-native speakers (NNS) employ similar strategies when they have to cope with problem-solving situations of this kind, as the examples in Task1 below show.(N.B. The tasks in this paper are taken, with minor changes, from Mariani 2010. See also the Author’s website www.learningpaths.org )
By closely looking at these examples and the relevant strategies, I am in a position to question three long-standing ‘myths’ about language and language users. First, there is nothing like ‘the ideal native speaker’: even in using our mother tongue we often need to resort to strategies in order to, e.g. rephrase or repair our utterances, ask for help, make an effort to make ourselves understood. Second, there is nothing like ‘exact communication’: the production and reception of messages is always the result of a process of adjustment to interlocutors and settings (and perhaps one of the most extraordinary paradoxes in language teaching is the fact that students are rarely taught, or even allowed, to behave in ways that are common in native speaker usage). Third, there is nothing like ‘an independent speaker’: meanings and intentions are always negotiated between interlocutors, so that both parties are required to engage in a shared effort to reach an agreement – even more so in intercultural settings, where speaker and listener often do not share the background of knowledge, attitudes and social conventions which underlie effective communication.
Other levels of linguistic competence can cause problems to learners and affect the overall result of communicative interaction. For example, at the grammatical level, one might not (yet) master more elaborated verb forms and thus fail to directly implement higher level of politeness in addressing her/his interlocutor: instead of producing a request by using a form like Would you mind if I …, a learner may have to resort to other (verbal and non-verbal) strategies to mark the intended politeness level. In the same way, problems at the phonological level may require the speaker to resort to strategies, as the example in Task 2 (quoted in Nelson 1989) shows.
However, it is at the sociolinguistic and pragmatic levels that misunderstandings and communication breakdowns can become most serious, since at this level we are concerned with the ability to use language in order to reach a communicative goal in a way that is not only effective but also appropriate to the norms of the specific socio-cultural context. In addition, while mistakes at the linguistic level are often excused and justified, inappropriate behaviours at the pragmatic level, especially if performed by a person with a relatively good linguistic competence, can be interpreted as a sign of bad manners or as individual or cultural ‘strangeness’. This happens, for example, when one interprets the American formula ‘Let’s meet for lunch one of these days’ as a real invitation, when in fact it is often just a polite way of closing a conversation, even with a person that one has just met. In the same way, overgeneralizing the (stereotypical) view of Italians as warm and friendly in social relations can lead one to ask an Italian stranger inappropriate questions like, ‘How much do you earn each month?’. Of course, sensitivity to contexts is crucial in such cases and this is where the autonomy of the language learner/user is most seriously put to the test. How does one know when it is (in)appropriate to ask a question like, ‘Have you put on weight lately?’. In many Western socio-cultural contexts this would be banned as a question (sometimes even between close friends!), but in a situational context like a doctor-patient interaction it would be perfectly acceptable – not to mention strictly personal contexts, where asking a very thin person a question like, ‘Have you lost weight again?’ may cause discomfort and embarrassment. Dealing with such sensitive areas is probably the biggest challenge that must be faced by anyone wishing to promote learner autonomy through intercultural communication strategies – but these are also areas where the compensation function of such strategies (dealing with problems) clearly overlaps with their more general enhancement function (‘protecting’ and even optimizing the effectiveness of communication). It is the latter kind of strategies that we now therefore turn our attention to.
Enhancement strategies: managing (intercultural) interactions
As we have seen, the scope of communication strategies can be (and indeed has been) extended to cover pragmatic and discourse competences. Here we are concerned not just with the expression and negotiation of meaning, particularly at the word and sentence ‘local’ levels, but also, and most importantly, with such more ‘global’ areas as managing conversations and monitoring intra-and inter-cultural interactions. In this case strategies are called forth to assist a learner in dealing with particularly challenging aspects like opening and closing conversations, trying to keep a conversation open, turn-taking, managing topics and ‘gaining time’ (see Task 3 below).
By listening to the conversation and reading the transcript, learners can be made aware of the subtle but crucial aspects of the woman’s utterances that express her attitude towards the man and ultimately make the conversation so difficult and even embarrassing: the flat tone of voice and falling intonation, the use of short answers, the absence of questions, exclamations and expressions of empathy, the use of very simple ‘fillers’ and ‘gambits’ (like I see … Aha … Mm …), and so on. Making such a conversation ‘flow’ would imply the use of a range of strategies, which speakers often use in an intuitive way: asking questions, using comments and exclamations to show emotional involvement, rephrasing the speaker’s statements, introducing new topics, using a wider range of fillers, etc. The importance of paralinguistic (like the use of a rising (or falling/rising) intonation) and extralinguistic features or non-verbal language should of course not be underestimated.
In intercultural interactions, these strategies play an even more sensitive role since they could help learners to, e.g. ask their interlocutor for comments, corrections or advice; check if their interpretation of the situation is correct; obtain explanations or clarifications by asking ‘non-judgmental’ questions; apologize for doing or saying something inappropriate; and, generally speaking, deal with the uncertainty as to the acceptable behaviour in unknown or ambiguous contexts.
To introduce the concept of an intercultural communication strategy, ‘critical incidents’ are a very valuable starting point. A ‘critical incident’ is a situation when there is a gap in assumptions and expectations between people from different cultures. Since we tend to judge what we see or hear on the basis of our own cultural norms, if and when we see these norms broken, we may be struck by the unfamiliar and the ‘strange’. The result may be a failure to communicate or a communication breakdown. From the viewpoint of learner autonomy, it is precisely this ethnocentric position that limits the flexibility of interaction and exposes language learners’ and users’ limited ability to make informed choices in their linguistic behaviour.
People who have had an extensive experience of intercultural contacts are usually able to recall such incidents, but students can often also make reference to things that have struck them as strange or unfamiliar when watching a film, navigating the Internet, using a social network or going abroad on a class trip or a school exchange. A narrative of a critical incident can thus be used as the first step in discussing what lies beneath a cross-cultural misunderstanding and what kind of strategies could be found useful to deal with ambiguous situations (see Task 4 below).
The point in this task is obviously not just to ‘discover’ the missing piece of cultural information that triggered the critical incident (i.e. the fact that wedding cakes in Italy are usually made with fresh cream, while wedding cakes in Britain are often made with nuts, almonds, etc. and can be kept longer). One of the reasons we can mention to explain what made the misunderstanding worse (or, in other terms, what limited Marios’s range of available choices and therefore his autonomy as a language user) is the almost total lack of flexibility in dealing with the unexpected and the unfamiliar. Notice that I am not suggesting that strategies can solve problems, but that they can help to manage problems in the best possible way given the constraints of the situation. This is the point in asking learners (through questions 4 and 5 in the task above) to focus on the ways and means which could have been useful to deal with this ambiguous situation both at the time it took place and later on. Discussing and sharing insights, comments and suggestions within a group could help identify some possible strategies and a few examples of linguistic behaviour (or ‘verbal strategy markers’), both on Mario’s and on Mrs Cross’s parts, e.g.
Monitoring the interaction during the incident
“gaining time to think”
Mm ... Aha .. A wedding cake ... Your daughter’s wedding cake, did you say? ...
You said she got married two months ago?... So it’s her wedding cake, did I get it right?
Don’t you like cakes? Really?
asking one’s interlocutor to explain her/his culture
How are wedding cakes made here?
Do you use wedding cakes? Are they made like this one?
clarify one’s culture
see, we in
Look, this is made with nuts and almonds ...
apologizing: thanking, toning down and justifying a refusal, suggesting a compromise or an alternative
I’m really sorry ... You’re really very kind, but ... Thank you very much, but just a tiny little bit, because I’ve just been to Mc Donald’s ...
Repairing the interaction after the incident
checking that one’s interpretation was correct
it so? ... Did I get it right? ... So in
clarifying both cultures, repairing misunderstandings
I ‘m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding ... Can you tell me ... I think I didn’t understand ...
apologizing: explaining and justifying one’s reactions
I’m sorry ... I didn’t know ... I hope you don’t mind if I have ... I think I upset you, but I’m not sure why ...
The most important point to stress here is that through collecting and comparing possible ways of reacting to a critical incident we are not prescribing or teaching fixed formulae: the important part of this reflection and discussion process is not the focus on the linguistic exponents (although some expressions are worth noticing and adding to one’s repertoire), but the increasing awareness that a breakdown in communication can be approached and managed by taking several options into consideration, i.e. by focussing on a variety of strategies (the items in the left column in the two tables above) which can improve the language learners’/users’ flexibility through equipping them with more pragmatic choices. In other words, though you cannot predict the unpredictable, you can do something to prepare yourself for the unexpected and develop the ability to monitor, expand and adapt your reactions to the unfamiliar. By taking such a perspective, we are clearly relying not only on extending and refining cultural knowledge or intercultural skills, but are also setting out to promote a change in beliefs and attitudes – a crucial pedagogical consideration.
Reflecting on critical incidents, and, more generally speaking, on one’s personal intercultural experiences, is a very useful tool to evaluate past experience with a view to expanding one’s strategic repertoire for possible future use. In addition, monitoring one’s affective reactions to ambiguous or unexpected situations and comparing the possible changes that can take place in the course of time in one’s overall intercultural communicative competence can increase the learner’s awareness of her/his path towards a greater degree of autonomy as a language user. Such metacognitive activities can greatly profit from appropriate documentation tools, which, like a language portfolio, help learners to ‘keep track’ of thoughts, feelings and insights which would otherwise be difficult to store and access on later occasions (see Task 5 below).
Potential advantages of strategy use
Before I turn to the implications that intercultural communication strategies can have for teaching approaches, it is useful to summarize some of the most important potential advantages of strategy use. In many cases, such advantages are more direct and local, as when strategies allow language users to solve or manage an immediate communicative problem; in other cases, advantages are more indirect and global, extending their effect beyond a pressing need and into the ongoing language users’ interlanguage development. Of course, in most cases the two kinds of advantages overlap, blurring this distinction: for example, the use of paraphrase can help solve the immediate problem of expressing meanings, while at the same time stretching learners’ ability to make the most of their available resources and thus allowing them to enrich their communicative repertoire. We should also notice that the advantages of strategy use encompass both the cognitive and the socio-affective domains of autonomy in language learning.
Summarizing many of the concepts introduced in the previous sections of the present paper, we could say that intercultural communication strategies can potentially
· help learners to remain in conversation, thus allowing them to receive more input, which in turn increases their opportunities to build and validate hypotheses about their interlanguage system;
· help learners, on the receptive side, to notice new language forms and to exercise some kind of control over their intake, by allowing them to adjust what they hear to what they are actually ready to include in the present state of their developing system;
· help learners, on the productive side, to generate more output, and, through appropriate negotiation with their interlocutor, to obtain useful feedback on their performance;
· promote the flexibility learners need to cope with the unexpected and the unpredictable, which are inevitable features of personal and intercultural interaction;
· encourage learners’ risk-taking, individual initiative and an active and responsible role in their learning process;
· boost learners’ self-confidence, by giving them the feeling that they can in some way increase their control over language use, i.e. the perception that they have more choices both in what to say and in how to say it.
Should and can strategies be ‘taught’?
Recognizing the potential advantages of communication strategies does not automatically imply that they should and/or can be ‘taught’. ‘What one must teach students of a language is not strategy, but language’, wrote Bialystok as the very last words in her book Communication Strategies (1990: 147), and Kellerman soon echoed, ‘Teach the learners more language and let the strategies look after themselves’ (1991: 158). If problem-solving behaviour and strategy use are considered as standard features of oral interaction management, one is naturally tempted to say that, as one learns to function in everyday communication, one also develops the underlying strategic competence. This position is often combined with the view that L2 learners have already acquired at least some level of strategic competence in their L1, which then transfers to the L2. In this case, what one might wish to teach would be the different linguistic forms that strategies take on in the L2.
However, one could also argue that L2 competence results from L2 performance if and when learners can be engaged in tasks which maximize the need for (and therefore the use of) strategies: in other words, task-based learning, for example, by asking learners to face situations which require meaning expression, negotiation and interaction management, would provide the conditions for learners to develop appropriate strategies, which in turn could benefit interlanguage development. Learners could certainly have recourse to their L1 strategic competence, but this is subject to two crucial conditions: first, establishing if and at what level learners actually possess L1 strategic competence (which cannot be taken for granted), and second, if and at what level learners can be expected to automatically transfer knowledge and skills within their overall individual linguistic repertoire (which may include other L2s). This points to the importance of different sets of variables in judging the possibility and opportunity of pedagogical intervention, like task design and individual differences (in terms of, e.g., age, language proficiency level, learning styles, motivation, beliefs and attitudes, and metacognitive abilities).
The arguments for and against the teachability of communication strategies are difficult to evaluate also because they are often based on research that reports indirect or inconclusive evidence, refers to different strategy conceptualizations and classifications, and, above all, seems to imply many different interpretations of the term ‘teaching’ (Dörnyei 1995, Nakatani and Goh 2007). For example, if by ‘teaching’ we mean the mere presentation and ‘drilling’ of linguistic forms (like conversational gambits or pre-fabricated chunks of language), or the training of learners in producing standardised responses, then there seems to be little scope for pedagogical intervention in a challenging field like strategic competence. Nevertheless, many researchers report at least partial success as the result of various forms of explicit strategy instruction (e.g. Dörnyei and Thurrell 1991, Gallagher Brett 2001, Ogane 1998, Manchón 2000, Williams 2006).
A new paradigm: strategy education
Looking for an alternative to such terms as strategy instruction, strategy training and even strategy coaching means refusing a view of strategies as simple techniques, tactics or gambits. Quoting Wenden’s pioneering book (1991) at the beginning of this paper we noted that, since the early days of strategy research, strategies for learner autonomy have been closely associated with both declarative and procedural knowledge, on the one hand, and with beliefs and attitudes (including motivation and its related constructs), on the other. We have also described the development and use of strategies as a competence (strategic competence), which the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe 2001) describes as the interaction of a language user/learner’s skill or know-how (savoir faire), knowledge (savoir) and existential competence (savoir-être).
Indeed, the successful implementation of strategies relies on some kind of knowledge: facts, concepts, rules and relationships, both linguistic and (inter)cultural. For example, to use circumlocution, approximation and paraphrasing strategies, we need to build up a set of ‘verbal strategy markers’, or language exponents in terms of words, phrases and morpho-syntactic structures (such as synonyms, antonyms, phrases like in the shape of …, the size of …, a kind of …, relative clauses as in it’s a person/thing who/which …) and be able to know if, when and how to use them appropriately and effectively. In the same way, knowledge of cultural facts (like, in Task 4, the use of wedding cakes in different cultures!) is important, although we cannot obviously even think of covering every item of information that we may need in all possible circumstances (incidentally, it is this impossibility of predicting everything that makes strategies so valuable for learner autonomy, as the ways and means of ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’).
This knowledge must be put to active and flexible use, i.e. it acts as the basis for developing actual skills or know-how. This necessarily entails some kind of practice, through which learners manipulate lexical, grammatical and semantic elements with a view to acquiring flexibility in the activation of knowledge and eventually going through stages of gradually higher proceduralization.
However, ‘being or becoming competent’ (rather than ‘possessing a competence’) is very much a personal enterprise, which implies relating and adapting knowledge and skills to one’s own unique individual profile as a (gradually more autonomous) language learner, making the most of one’s strengths while coming to terms with one’s critical areas. For all this to take place, the role of beliefs and attitudes cannot be underestimated.
To be able to use strategies in a confident way ... one needs to believe that
· you can keep a conversation going even if you do not understand every single word;
· interaction is based on the interlocutors’ cooperation;
· you can at least partially control the communicative ‘flow’ by using strategies.
In the same way, one needs to develop positive attitudes like
· be prepared to run reasonable risks both in comprehension and in production;
· tolerate ambiguity and anxiety, at least to a certain extent;
· be flexible enough to change strategies if and when needed (Mariani 2010: 46)
Developing strategic competence is thus a whole-person engagement, involving the activation of affective and social, in addition to just cognitive, factors. Changing the terminology to refer to pedagogical intervention and using a term like strategy education across the (linguistic) curriculum is not just a formal operation but involves a change of paradigm, with important implications for teaching approaches.
Approaches to strategy education
The tasks included in this paper can now serve as illustrations of some crucial features of possible approaches to communication strategy education – approaches that could basically be described as descriptive, experientialand explicit.
A descriptive approach. We have already considered that the linguistic and intercultural behaviours which are the visible implementation of strategies cannot be reduced to formulaic language to be applied in a mechanical way, whether it refers to expressing meanings, negotiating intentions or managing intercultural interactions. In other words, the verbal and non-verbal behaviours associated with the use of strategies cannot be the result of prescriptive rules, but only possible patterns observed in actual native and non-native speakers’ performance. Tasks 1-3 above are examples of activities where learners (and teachers) work as reflective observers of the problems that people experience and the ways in which such problems are managed and possibly solved. The result of such activities is a descriptive database of strategies (together with possible linguistic and extra-linguistic exponents) which learners can be invited to add to their individual linguistic repertoire.
An experiential approach. Engaging learners as reflective observers (as well as cross-cultural analysts) implies the value of experience as a source of knowledge and learning. The starting point of communication strategy education is exposure to experience, whether this refers to learners’ previous contacts with languages and cultures (inside and outside the classroom) or to other people’s. This experience (e.g. transcripts of actual interactions as in Tasks 1-3 or narratives of critical incidents as in Task 4) is explored with a view to highlighting strategies, which learners can then be invited to experiment with, i.e. use and creatively adapt to the demands and constraints of different contexts, on the one hand, and to the communicative style associated with their own individual and cultural profile as language learners, on the other. This means asking learners to experience with strategy use and to evaluate to what extent their own implementation of strategies has been effective and appropriate. So what we are pointing at here is really a cycle in which experience alternates with observation and exploration.
An explicit approach. I am not suggesting an approach in which strategies are simply embedded in the teaching materials and activities, so that learners are left to infer their presence and function in interaction and to make the most of such inference if and when they decide to do so. I am rather in favour of a more explicit approach, one in which learners are asked to become aware both of the linguistic and cultural content of their experience and of the cognitive and affective procedures they go through in processing that content (as in Task 5 above). In other words, metacognition is seen as essential both in terms of knowledge and in terms of skill. The overall aim is to raise learners’ awareness of language/culture, of the learning process and of themselves as language learners and users, thus reinforcing the strong link between such kinds and levels of awareness and the development of learner autonomy.
Promoting learner autonomy necessarily qualifies as an ambitious, far-reaching and long-term process, which aims at educating learners to make learning an overall life experience, extending beyond the classroom and into a life-long commitment. Faerch and Kasper’s words sound prophetic in this respect:
By learning how to use communication strategies appropriately, learners will be more able to bridge the gap between formal and informal learning situations, between pedagogic and non-pedagogic communicative situations (1983: 56).
I believe that learner autonomy can be both the process and the product of bridging that gap.
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