Art Tsang believes we should prepare our students to communicate with people less proficient than themselves, as that is the reality of much international communication in English.
English, as an international language and a lingua franca, is used widely throughout the world. This signals the importance of developing ESL and EFL learners’ communicative competence in English. A popular way of achieving this is to enhance their language proficiency, presuming that this will lead to improvement in their communication skills. This can indeed be the case when communicating with (more) proficient speakers, such as native English speakers. However, communication in English often takes place among non-native speakers nowadays, so it is also important for learners to be able to learn to communicate with less proficient speakers. Unfortunately, teachers generally do not pay much attention to this aspect of language learning.
As native or non-native English-speaking teachers, the abundant experiences we have in communicating with our less proficient learners show us that our own linguistic competence (eg having a large vocabulary, being able to comprehend and produce complex grammatical structures) alone cannot ensure successful communication in English. We also need some specific strategies. In fact, sometimes, the more we focus on showcasing our command of English (eg deliberately using big words and idioms), the more difficult it is for less proficient speakers to be able to engage in communication with us successfully.
The perceived linear relationship of higher proficiency and better communication skills has been taken for granted too often in ESL/EFL education. Because of their preoccupation with improving their learners’ grammar, increasing their vocabulary, and enhancing their fluency in speaking, teachers often neglect how English is actually used in communicating with less proficient speakers or, rather, how it can or should be used for this purpose.
Figure 1 illustrates how communication occurs between interlocutors with different levels of English proficiency. The arrows indicate the initiator and the addressee of a conversation. The upward arrow refers to situations where a less proficient interlocutor starts a conversation in English with a more proficient person, eg an intermediate-level EFL Korean learner (B) travelling to Britain and asking a British person (A) for directions in London. The downward arrow illustrates situations in which a more proficient speaker (A) talks to a less proficient one (B), eg an advanced ESL/EFL learner from Hong Kong (A) visiting Thailand and asking a beginner EFL Thai learner (B) for directions. It is the latter situation of conversing with less proficient speakers that is very often neglected in many, if not most, ESL/EFL classrooms across the globe.
Three strategies for success
Based on my experiences, informal conversations and interviews with people who are experienced in conversing with non-native, less proficient English speakers, I have come up with three language-related strategies which are worth incorporating into the ESL/EFL classroom. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. The use of body language (eg fingers signalling numbers), objects and pictures (eg showing pictures of what one wants on the phone) and changing the mode of communication (eg using Google Translate and showing translations to speakers) are practical strategies too. My three strategies are described below.
1 Word changes (semantic simplification)
Making word-level changes potentially leads to more effective communication. A common method is simplification using synonyms. For instance, rather than traffic congestion, we could use traffic jam (described by an interviewee in the context of Thailand and Malaysia, where congestion was thought to be a more difficult word). Another interviewee recounted his experience in Phuket, Thailand, where an airport staff member failed to comprehend ‘Is the taxi station near?’. The airport worker began to show understanding when the interviewee changed near to not far. It is unclear whether far can be considered simpler than near, but the use of antonyms is another strategy worth trying.
2 Grammatical changes (syntactic simplification)
Simplifying grammatical structures is another way to promote effective communication with less proficient speakers. This can be done in different ways, such as dropping the subject of a sentence, not using complete sentences or trimming elaborations (ie avoiding redundant descriptions or expressions like as far as I can tell). Some interviewees pointed out the usefulness of employing the demonstratives this and that, to replace full sentences. Another method is information repackaging. One interviewee illustrated how he once deconstructed a simple question – When is the next train? – into two separate units to engage an Italian station officer in a step-by-step manner (see Example 1 in Figure 2). It may also be a good idea to be deliberately ungrammatical in order to achieve simplicity. Another interviewee shared an experience in Burma when grammatical changes (eg to parts of speech) helped him to communicate successfully. He recounted that a masseur did not understand the adjective painful, but he managed to convey the painful experience when he switched to using the noun pain, albeit ungrammatically. Interestingly, another interviewee shared two cases where two native English speakers who travelled with her to Japan and Thailand had great difficulty communicating with the locals. She commented: ‘They insisted on using complete sentences and could not simplify their expressions effectively … even though they were much better than me in English, they had greater difficulty than I had conversing in English with these people!’
3 Phonological awareness and changes
Being aware of a speaker’s first language can be helpful. One interviewee was aware that the consonants r and l are not easily distinguished by the Japanese, who use a sound which is somewhere between the two. As a result, he would at times exaggerate his pronunciation of l or r when he was enunciating words containing these consonants. Another example is pronouncing egg as egg-gu (two syllables), imitating Japanese pronunciation or the Japanised form of English. This helped the interviewee to get his message across.
The table in Figure 2 illustrates two examples of different strategies used by two advanced EFL speakers who were experienced in intercultural communication. The two speakers were conversing with locals in Italy and Japan who had very limited proficiency in English. These are potentially useful examples to show to learners, in order to make them more aware of communication with less proficient speakers and approaches they can adopt to maximise the chances of success in communication.
Communicative competence for all
The strategies shown in Figure 2 echo two of the five components (avoidance/reduction strategies and achievement/compensatory strategies) in the theoretical model of communication competence proposed by Marianne Celce-Murcia, Zoltán Dörnyei and Sarah Thurrell. They also resemble the features of ‘foreigner talk’ to a large extent – for instance, less grammatical complexity and avoidance of low-frequency words and expressions.
The neglected mode of communication with less proficient speakers discussed in this article is germane to virtually all ESL/EFL speakers and, indeed, to native English speakers as well. As Barbara Seidlhofer points out, most users of English nowadays are ESL/EFL speakers. Consider, for example, two people who are both ESL speakers – let’s call them Speaker A and Speaker B. All along, ESL/EFL education has been preparing Speaker A primarily for the situation where Speaker B has a higher or similar level of English, but not for an encounter with a Speaker B whose proficiency is lower than Speaker A’s. In this latter case, Speaker A’s proficiency alone may not prevent communication from breaking down. Speaker A must employ certain strategies to aid Speaker B’s understanding. In this era of globalisation, one of the principal objectives of ESL/EFL curricula should be to teach English for international/intercultural communication. As Seidlhofer argues, the deep-grained assumption that ‘the only English that is worth striving for in the language classroom is that which conforms to some native-speaker norms’ should be questioned. This is especially true when adherence to such norms may hamper the effectiveness of communication with low-proficiency speakers.
All in all, as counter-intuitive as it seems, the taken-for-granted aim of enhancing our learners’ proficiency may not guarantee their success in using English to communicate with people of lower proficiency. Although I am all for language enhancement being one of the primary goals of ESL/EFL education, the long-held assumption that learners must improve their English continuously (in the sense of getting closer to a native-speaker level by, for example, learning more words and more complex grammatical structures) for successful communication is likely to be fallacious, based as it is solely on communication with more or equally proficient speakers, as well as with native speakers. Reality shows a different picture: it is extremely commonplace that specific strategies must be applied for effective communication with less proficient speakers. In no way is it my intention to call for the abolition of long-existing goals of language education such as accuracy and fluency. Rather, it is hoped that, through shedding more light on this neglected yet ubiquitous mode of communication, where one sometimes needs to be wrong to get it right (‘wrong’ in the view of prescriptivists strictly adhering to grammaticality, for instance), stakeholders in ESL/EFL education should become more aware of the reality and equip learners with the skills necessary to partake in international and intercultural communication.