Communication Strategies Used By Vietnamese Students Cultural Studies Essay

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In Vietnam, English is now the most popular foreign language and anyone who would like to integrate themslves into the global society and access the world's knowlege to be sucessful in life is aware that English competence is one the most important characteristics they need to have. English is seen every where in education, business, entertainment and cultural exchanges. Therefore, English is becoming the main communication language in the country.

In light of sociolinguistics development, linguistic researchers have been paying more and more attention to the importance of communication in its social context. The social factors in communication competence have been recognized and studied. These have impacted strongly on teaching and learning the language. English learning is changing basically and positively. Learners of English do not learn English for the sake of learning itself by treating grammatical knowledge primarily and separately but in the belief that it is more important to communicate effectively in the language by sending and receiving messages, creating meaning and negotiating meaning. These lead to the tendency toward which communication competence has recently been enjoying learners' great popularity. However, the effectiveness of communication in the target language is still both learners and teachers' deepest concern since learners who have already spent significant periods of time on learning the language to communicate as the main goal of their learning but then most of them encounter too many difficulties in communicating in the language.

The learning context

In Petrovietnam Manpower Training College, where I am working as a teacher of English, students, the subjects of the research, are engineers and graduates who are recruited to work in Petrovietnam's projects and plants taking a special training course. They have graduated university with nearly equivalent English language education but have different English proficiency and like almost Vietnamese students, they have been trying to learn English in purpose of communication but find difficult to communicate in the language. At the college, English is taught as one of the main subjects to equip the students with the language that they would need to perform their job. English speaking is attached special importance to and students are expected to be good at communication in all circumstances after finishing the course. To serve these purposes, communicative language teaching Approach (CLT) is applied in teaching these students so that they can particularly improve their communicative skills.

The rationales and purpose of the research.

Communication is interactive. So in pre-intermediate speaking class, students are usually given topics to discuss in groups with the assistant of their teacher before presenting their ideas to the class. These activities aim to get students involved in interpersonal communication or interaction to compensate their lack of practice in the EFL environment. These tasks require the students' big effort in trying to understand the others and getting themselves understood using any means at their learning stage. According to my observation, in most situations, students at this level of English proficiency appear to struggle with expressing their thoughts because of their deficiency in linguistic proficiency, general knowledge of the given topics or confidence in using the language. Some of them exert themselves to the utmost to reach their communicative goals by unconsciously or consciously using different strategies to solve their particular communication problems and relatively confident in completing the given task meanwhile the others just keep silent because they do not know what to do to deal with the problems they have during the conversation and they fail to keep most of the conversations going on as they want to. So the purpose of this study is to identify the common communication strategies used by the students to enhance efficiency of communication when they deal with the task of group discussion and the communication strategy use of students of different English proficiency.

The research questions.

The study is conducted to find out the answers to the following questions:

What types of communication strategies are used by Vietnamese students in English speaking class to compensate for their breakdowns in communication and to enhance communicative effectiveness in small group discussion?

Do students of different English proficiency employ communication strategies differently?

Definitions of key terms.

The term communication strategies is simply understand as methods or techniques that language users use to help themselves overcome problems occuring during communication to achieve communicative competence


Communicative competence

The main goal of any language learners is to achieve communicative competence to get the best communication proficiency. According to Canale and Swain (1980), to attain communicative competence, learners need to gain the following perfect knowledge:

Grammatical competence which is related to the language knowledge (words and grammar rules) itself.

Sociolinguistic competence which is concerned to the ability to use and to interpret the utterances appropriately in different sociolinguistic communication situations.

Discourse competence is the ability to combine grammatical forms and meanings "to achieve a unified spoken or written text"

Strategic competence is the ability of using verbal and non-verbal communication strategies to compensate for breakdowns in communication due to limiting conditions in actual communication or to insufficient competence in one or more of the other areas of communicative competence and to enhance the effectiveness of communication

Among the four components that make up communicative competence, strategic competence is likely relating to EFL learners most because of the problems they commonly run into in communication and the communication strategies they usually employ to solve the problems. These strategies are considered extremely 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" (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990, p.43). Canale & Swain (1980) once confirm that good strategic competence can help leanres with limiting L2 skills evade communication breakdowns.

Communication strategies

Many researchers have conducted research or studies on communication strategies so far. Consequently, each of them in their own view states different definitions and classifications of communication strategies.

Definitions of communication strategies

What happens if interlocutors do not understand each other because of their limited language resources? Can they keep their conversation going on when they can not make themselves understood? Cohen (1990, p.56) believes that " a major trait of successful speakers is that they use strategies to keep the conversation going on". - They use communication strategies.

Tarone (1980, p. 419) describes communication strategy as "a mutual attempt of two interlocutors to agree on meaning in situations where requisite meaning structures are not shared." Communication strategies, to Tarone's interactional view, are socially-motivated strategies which are used by more than one interlocutors to solve the problems of mutual lack of understanding by negotiating meanings.

A communication strategy is simply defined by Corder (1977 as cited in Bialystok, 1990) as "a systematic technique employed by a speaker to express his meaning when faced with some difficulty."

According to Faerch and Kasper (1983 as cited in Bialystok, 1990) communication strategies are "potentially conscious plans for solving what to an individual presents itself as a problem in reaching a particular communicative goal." More relating to forms of discourse, communication strategies in this definition are psychologically-motivated strategies which are related to mental plans of each interlocutor implemented in response to the problems of expression.

Different authors define communication strategies differently. However , most of the definitions show the purpose of communication strategies which is to deal with the problems that the language users face up to when communicating by employing appropriate techniques.

Classifications of Communication strategies.

In the research on communication strategies, Dornyei, Faerch and Kasper and Tarone introduced their own classifications of communication strategies and their classifications.

Dornyei (1995 as cited in Brown, 2000) shows two branches of strategies: negative and positive.

Avoidence strategies (negative): topic avoidance and message abandonment

Compensatory strategies (positive): circumlocution, approximation,use of all purpose words, word coinage, prefabricated patterns, non-linguistic signal, literal translation, foreignizing, code switch, appeal for help, stalling or time-gaining strategies.

Faerch and Kasper (1983) classify communication strategies in to two main categories with their subcategories:

Avoidance behavior - reduction strategies:

Formal reduction: phonological, morphological , syntactic and lexical.

Function reduction: reduction of speech art modality, reduction of propositional context

Achievement behavior - compensatory strategies.

Code switching

Interlingual transfer: generalization, paraphrasing, word coinage, restructuring.

Cooperative strategies

Non-linguistic strategies

However, Tarone's typology of conscious communication strategies (1977 as cited in Bialystok, 1990) seems to be simpler. Tarone classifies communication strategies into the following categories:

Avoidance: topic avoidance and message abandonment

Paraphrase: approximation, word coinage, circumlocution.

Conscious transfer: literal translation, language switch

Appeal for assistance


Prior research found that all language users used communication strategies consciously or unconsciously. Bialystok observes that communication strategies should be classified according to different cognitive processes and should be seen as a process of language use. I agrees with her at this point because of the fact that as language users, we all know that communication breakdowns may occur with anyone at any time during a conversation and when these problems happen, we all try some ways to get out of the trouble by using some techniques called communication strategies.

Besides, Bialystok insists that communicative strategies are used by language user in both L1 and L2, in this view, communicative strategies only reflect the way in which the language processing system extends and adapts to the demands of communication (Lee, 2004).

In fact, the communication strategy use occurs during communicating consciously or unconsciously. However, learning and using a language are activities related to cognitive processes so when language learners use the language and the breakdowns come, they are aware of what situation they are in and consciously think of an escape by employing different negative or positive strategies solve the problems like avoiding talking about the topic or concept that they do not know much, leaving the utterance unfinished, using many words to describe , creating new word or switch to their mother tongue when they cannot find the right words to use and et ceteras. So, what exactly do learners do in each communication strategy?

In this paper, I would like to focus on the simpler classification, Tarone's typology of conscious communication strategies but in comparison with the other two of Dornyei and Faerch and Kasper .

Avoidance strategies

Both Dornyei and Tarone define avoidance strategies in the same way by mainly referring to two substrategies:

Message abandonment strategy which is used by learners when they encounters language difficulties. To deal with these unpleasant situations, learners tend to leave their utterance unfinished.

Topic avoidance is another strategy learners use when they lack of or forget necessary linguistic knowledge to express their thoughts on the topic. Their language difficulties may related to vocabulary or grammar rules that they do not know or remember. To overcome them, learners keep way from talking about the topic.

In my experience of teaching, students of very low proficiency usually use these strategies because of their serious deficiency for the target language instead of using the strategies called compensatory strategies in Dornyei's or Faerch and Kasper's classifications or paraphrase and conscious transfer strategies as Tarone mentions in her typology of conscious communication strategies.


Including circumlocution, word coinage and approximation which Faerch and Kasper suggest can promote learning as well

Circumlocution strategy

Bialystok argues that circumlocution strategy in fact is paraphrasing strategy. In terms of linguistic, the conception of the two strategies are very similar. Both strategies help learners make good use of simpler language or structures they have at their learning stage to convey their thoughts that need more complicated vocabulary and grammar rules to express.

Dornyei states that circumlocution is the strategy used by learners when they want to describe something that cannot find the exact word or phrase to use by paraphrasing it. Doing so, they use more words to describe a word in the hope that the listeners can get what they mean by themselves.

Approximation strategy

Dornyei and Tarone'ideas meet each other when they name the strategy approximation which Tiono and Sylvia (2004) found to be used the most by students with low communication apprehension and high proficiency in speaking class in Petra Christian University in Surabaya, Indonesia to compensate their failure in retrieving the lexical items they have learned or their deficiency in vocabulary when they are asked to retell a pictorial stories. In the strategy, learners appear to be confident and willing to make mistakes by using an alternative or similar lexical term which they know that is not correct to illustrate the meaning of another word or phrase they aim to refer to. By doing this learners try to make themselves understood by using their limiting vocabulary.

Word coinage is another compensatory strategy that learners use when they lack of vocabulary. In this strategy they make up a target language word which is based on the morphological rules that they know well. For example: they know well that worker is a person who works so they create cooker (a person who cooks) from the verb cook.

Conscious transfer strategies

Literal translation strategy is usually used when the language users share their first language or background. Learners translate a word or an idiom or even a structure from their first language into that of the target language. In my learning context, learners use literal translation mostly when they have difficulties with finding correct collocations for a word. In this case they tend to translate word for word from another language. For example: deep coffee ( which is not stated in dictionary) for strong coffee. However, relating to translating a structure from learners first language, Faerch and Kasper name the strategy Restructuring in which learners reformulate the syntax of their utterance.

Language switch strategy or code switch or code switching by Dornyei or Faerch and Kasper

In this strategy, learners use lexical terms or sentences from their first language when they cannot find the appropriate ones in the target language to express their thoughts (They insert some words or phrases from their first language). The strategy is also often employed by first language or background shared learners. This strategies may be expected to use the most by the subjects of this study for all of them are Vietnamese and in reality, it is also easy to see this in any of the English class in Vietnam.

Appeal for assistance

Explicit request is the strategy where learners ask for help from the other people like more advanced learners or teacher by saying " How do you say….?" or " What is this called….?".

Referring to dictionary strategy is made use by learners when they need the correct words or structures

Mine or Non-verbal communicative strategy also what Dornyei calls non-linguistic signal or Non-linguistic strategy by Faerch and Kasper. In this strategy, learners use non-verbal language like gestures, facial expression or even imitating sounds to express meanings.

Mine and message abandonment seem to be coi in Faerch and Kasper in terms of learning. They think that these two strategies cannot help learners with their learning. But as a teacher I share Tarone's opinion that in some extent, by using these two strategies, the speaker can get help from the listener to find the appropriate or correct word or structure to express what he or she wants to say. In both teaching and learning context, mine and message abandonment can be positive signals from the learners to interact with their teacher so that they can be taught event while communicating.

The review of related studies

Many studies and research have been done so far on communication strategies and their findings showed that almost every strategy were used by learners. However what strategies employed were contingent a lot on the task given because different problems would arise depending on different types of task, one -way task or two- way one (Mei & Nathalang, 2010). So that the task requires learners different effort and strategies to solve the problems.

It is easy to understand this because less interactive activities exist in one -way task like story telling while two- way task like role playing or discussing includes mostly interaction. To deal with one-way task, learners tend to use paraphrase, restructuring and message abandonment since these strategies helps them to make clear the meanings as they try to ensure the listeners' comprehension. Whereas to deal with interactive task like doing role play or discussing, learners need to make special effort to negotiate to get communication goals so they cannot simply employ avoidance strategies if they still want their conversation to continue and reach a mutual agreement on what they exactly mean. This agrees with the finding of Dobao & Martinez's study of Negotiating Meaning in Interaction between English and Spanish Speakers via Communicative Strategies. The finding revealed that in interaction, when linguistic problems arose, intermediate or advanced EFL learners and their interlocutors (who were English native speakers or other EFL learners of their level) worked together to find solution by coordinating their use of CS, negotiating meanings to reach a mutual agreement on the learners originally intended meaning.

Prior research also showed that the numbers of strategies used by learners were not influenced by their target language proficiency (Ting & Phan, 2008). However, concerning to only the numbers of strategies used by learners is not enough in terms of language teaching and learning. Fortunately, the result found in Kwok's study of communication strategies used by Hong kong students in small group discussion (1987) revealed that students were able to make good use of different communication strategies in discussion to make their communication more effective. Moreover, the result also showed that the more the students mastered the communication strategies, the much better they could do in small group discussion.

Althought Bialystok believes that we should teach learners language rather than strategy but as a teacher I do argue in favour of implication about teaching strategies to learners from studies of Manchón (1999) and Faucette (2001). In my learning context, the class with both high and low proficiency learners is common. So it is not difficult to recognize types of strategies that different learners use when the language problems arise and the effectiveness of strategy use that the learners achieve in communication thought what is seen in the learning context can be subjectively observed and assessed. So, the study is hopefully an opportunity to confirm the phenomenon through its findings.


The fact is that learners can frequently run into communication difficulties because of varied reasons related to language problems and all of them find some ways to escape from the trouble they got in. Those ways are called communication strategies. Looking back at the studies and research that have been done on communication strategies so far, some significant pedagogic implication have been recognized. That is communication strategy use can promote learners' communicative competence or the confirmation that employing appropriate strategies can enhance communication effectiveness and communication strategy use is teachable. So, what types of communication strategies that can help learners increase communication efficacy should be considered mainly in this paper in the hope that more useful pedagogic implication closely involved English teaching will be found as reference for language teachers to deal better with their job as well as to help their students improve their learning.