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The importance of conversational skills is never undermined in the examination system. Many high-stake examinations, such as the HKALE and the HKCEE, include an oral section to test the student's ability to produce naturally occurring conversation. It is because to most people, including the examination authorities, mastering the art of speaking is the single most important aspect of learning a second language (Nunan 1991 as cited in Sze 1996). However, mastering correct grammar and writing a piece of good article is far more important fluency in oral interaction. Oral competency is a very important skill yet it is often neglected by English teacher in Hong Kong. Usually there are only two periods of speaking lesson set aside each week.
Misuse of lexical chunks
From the examination Syllabus promulgated by the examination authority for Use of English Examination of the HKALE, an examination used to select students for university admission, students are expected to demonstrate the ability to exchange information and ideas using natural conversational skills. In other words, they need to learn and master key interaction strategies relevant to group discussion and utilize them in the examination (Cheng and Warren 2007).
However, the performances in these examinations are often found to be unsatisfactory. In the examination report of this examination, there has been comment of candidates' misuse of formulaic phrases and strategies (HKEA, 1994:456 and HKEA, 1996:477 as cited in Andrews 2002). For example in the year where the examination was introduced (1994), it is report that "Some candidates tended to overuse such standard phrases as "May I interrupt? to try to get their points across without allowing others to finish". Similar comments were again reported in 1996 in which "Many candidates began their presentations with a rhetorical question based on the title/theme of the passage, which was typically asked in an exaggerated, unnatural manner."(HKEA, 1994:456 and HKEA, 1996:477 as cited in Andrews 2002). Such strategies will result in an unnatural conversation between group members and it is heavily condemned by the examination authority and experienced examiner (Martins 2000).
Despite the above situation, many students still consider that using such phrase would significantly improve their performances in examination. Martin (2000) suggested that the learning environment in Hong Kong encourages students to memorize chunks of language in preparation for topics in examinations. Once students learn generalities, they will use it in every "similar situation without actually regard to the topic". For instance, many students would use the phrase "let's move on to other topic" to signal others to change their topic of discussion, without paying attention to the situation whether it is necessary to use such expression or not. As a result, it makes the whole discussion sounds unnatural. Indeed Martins (2000) suggested that teachers and even textbook itself are responsible for such actions. He point out that a number of teachers purposefully coach their students with generic language and led them to believe that such strategies would convince
What contribute to students' misuse of formulaic expressions? There are numerous reasons contribute to the situation. Textbooks used by students may be one of them. As stated in the above, Hong Kong does not have a rich English-speaking environment for students. They need to have input from their teachers and textbooks in order to acquire relevant interaction strategies for discussion. A number of researches suggest that those textbook often present unnatural and unrealistic dialogues which are not an accurate reflection of real world language use (Cheng and Warren 2007). In Sze (1995), it states that an authentic conversation has a number of features, such as false starts, fillers, rephrasing, etc. Interaction will become contrived if the conversation's turn taking is neat and tidy and there are no performance errors such as hesitation, repetition etc (Gilmore 2004). Take "asking others for clarification" as an example. In the studies conducted by Cheng and Warren (2007), a number of textbooks phrases that are only confined in academic situation, such as "do you understand me? Is that clear?" instead of expression that often found in everyday conversations, such as "okay, I see".
From a personal perspective, the situation is worrying. Indeed, such practice still exists even in the most recent examination. In year 2010 examination session of the HKALE, it is not hard to observe that many candidates still use formulaic expression and lexical chunks inappropriately. The frequently used "chunks" is "I agree with you" to signal agreement. Another one is "let's start our discussion" to signal the beginning of a conversation. Not only these chunks are unnecessary and make the conversation unnatural, markers may be fed up with this phenomenon and consequently award lower mark to the candidate concerned.
Role of lexical chunk
The term lexical chunk consists of different definitions. From the paper written by Zhao (2009), he attempt to define the term with two widely accepted definitions by Natiinger and DeCarrio, as well as Wray. Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992:1 as cited in Zhao 2009) define "lexical chunk" as "chunks of language of varying length, and each is associated with a particular discourse function; they are multi-word lexical phenomena that exist somewhere between the traditional poles of lexicon and syntax, conventionalized form/function composites that occur more frequently and have more 7 idiomatically determined meaning than language that is put together each time". Wray (200o :465 as cited in Zhao 2009) defines lexical chunk as "a sequence, continuous or discontinuous, of words or other meaning elements, which is, or appears to be, prefabricated; that is, stored and retrieved whole from memory at the time of use, rather than being subject to generation or analysis by the language grammar". Based on the above definitions, Zhao (2009) concluded that lexical chunks are "fixed or semi-fixed lexical phrases with functional meanings which are frequently used and they are stored and produced automatically as whole units in the process of language acquisition."