Adult EFL Students' Speaking Abilities
||Learning to speak a foreign
language requires more than knowing its grammatical and semantic rules. Learners must also
acquire the knowledge of how native speakers use the language in the context of structured
interpersonal exchange, in which many factors interact. Therefore, it is difficult for EFL
learners, especially adults, to speak the target language fluently and appropriately. In
order to provide effective guidance in developing competent speakers of English, it is
necessary to examine the factors affecting adult learners' oral communication, components
underlying speaking proficiency, and specific skills or strategies used in communication.
This paper explores these aspects so that teachers can more effectively help adult
learners develop their abilities to communicate in the target language.
||Speaking a language is especially difficult for
foreign language learners because effective oral communication requires the ability to use
the language appropriately in social interactions. Diversity in interaction involves not
only verbal communication but also paralinguistic elements of speech such as pitch,
stress, and intonation. In addition, non-linguistic elements such as gestures and body
language/posture, facial expression, and so on may accompany speech or convey messages
directly without any accompanying speech. In addition, "there is tremendous variation
cross- culturally and cross- linguistically in the specific interpretations of gestures
and body language" (Brown 1994:241). Furthermore, different cultural assumptions
about the purposes of particular interactions and expected outcomes of encounters also
affect communication. Consequently, due to minimal exposure to the target language and
contact with native speakers, adult EFL learners in general are relatively poor at spoken
English, especially regarding fluency, control of idiomatic expressions, and understanding
of cultural pragmatics. Few can achieve native-like proficiency in oral communication.
||EFL learners need explicit instruction in
speaking, which as any language skill generally has to be learned and practiced. However,
in practice, it is too often assumed that spoken- language skills can be developed simply
by assigning students general topics to discuss or by getting them to talk on certain
subjects. Evidently, not enough attention is given to the factors that inhibit or
facilitate the production of spoken language. Therefore, in order to provide guidance in
developing competent speakers of English, instructors of EFL should keep these questions
in mind: What affects adult EFL learners' oral communication? What are the components
underlying speaking effectiveness? And how can adult EFL learners' speaking abilities be
Factors affecting adult EFL learners' oral communication
||Age or maturational constraints.
The interactive behavior of EFL learners is influenced by a number of factors. Perhaps age
is one of the most commonly cited determinant factors of success or failure in L2 or
foreign language learning. Krashen, Long, and Scarcella (1982) argue that acquirers who
begin learning a second language in early childhood through natural exposure achieve
higher proficiency than those beginning as adults. Oyama's study (1976) also shows that
many adults fail to reach native-like proficiency in a second language. Their progress
seems to level off at a certain stage, a phenomenon which is usually called
"fossilization"-the permanent cessation of second language development. This
shows that the aging process itself may affect or limit adult learners' ability to
pronounce the target language fluently with native- like pronunciation (Scarcella and
Oxford 1992). Even if they can utter words and sentences with perfect pronunciation,
problems with prosodic features such as intonation, stress, and other phonological nuances
still cause misunderstandings or lead to communication breakdown. Adult learners do not
seem to have the same innate language-specific endowment or propensity as children for
acquiring fluency and naturalness in spoken language.
||Aural medium. The central role of
listening comprehension in the L2 or foreign language acquisition process is now largely
accepted. And there is little doubt that listening plays an extremely important role in
the development of speaking abilities. Speaking feeds on listening, which precedes it.
Usually, one person speaks, and the other responds through attending by means of the
listening process. In fact, during interaction, every speaker plays a double role-both as
a listener and a speaker. "While listening, learners must comprehend the text by
retaining information in memory, integrate it with what follows, and continually adjust
their understanding of what they hear in the light of prior knowledge and of incoming
information" (Mendlsohn and Rubin 1995:35). If one cannot understand what is said,
one is certainly unable to respond. So, speaking is closely related or interwoven with
listening, which is the basic mechanism through which the rules of language are
internalized. The fleetingness of speech, together with the features of spoken
English-loosely organized syntax, incomplete forms, false starts, and the use of fillers,
undoubtedly hinders EFL learners' comprehension and affects the development of their
speaking abilities, as well.
||Sociocultural factors. Many
cultural characteristics of a language also affect L2 or foreign language learning. From a
pragmatic perspective, language is a form of social action because linguistic
communication occurs in the context of structured interpersonal exchange, and meaning is
thus socially regulated (Dimitracopoulou 1990). In other words, "shared values and
beliefs create the traditions and social structures that bind a community together and are
expressed in their language" (Carrasquillo 1994:55). Thus, to speak a language, one
must know how the language is used in a social context. It is well known that each
language has its own rules of usage as to when, how, and to what degree a speaker may
impose a given verbal behavior on his/her conversational partner (Berns 1990). Due to the
influence or interference of their own cultural norms, it is hard for non-native speakers
to choose the forms appropriate to certain situations. For instance, in Chinese culture,
paying a compliment to someone obligates that person to give a negative answer such as
"No. It is not so good," and so on in order to show "modesty," whereas
in North American culture such a response might be both inappropriate and embarrassing.
||In addition, oral communication, as mentioned
above, involves a very powerful nonverbal communication system, which sometimes
contradicts the messages provided through the verbal listening channel. Due to a lack of
familiarity with the nonverbal communication system of the target language, EFL learners
usually do not know how to pick up nonverbal cues. As a result, ignorance of the nonverbal
message often leads to misunderstanding. The following example is a case in point. One
day, when a Chinese student heard, "Let's get together for lunch sometime," he
immediately responded to fix a specific date without noticing the native speaker's
indifferent facial expression. Undoubtedly, he was puzzled when his interlocutor left
without giving him an expected answer. It is evident that the student had not understood
the nonverbal message, which illustrates that the sociocultural factor is another aspect
that affects oral communication greatly.
||Affective factors. "The
affective side of the learner is probably one of the most important influences on language
learning success or failure" (Oxford 1990:140). The affective factors related to L2
or foreign language learning are emotions, self-esteem, empathy, anxiety, attitude, and
motivation. L2 or foreign language learning is a complex task that is susceptible to human
anxiety (Brown 1994), which is associated with feelings of uneasiness, frustration,
self-doubt, and apprehension. Speaking a foreign language in public, especially in front
of native speakers, is often anxiety-provoking. Sometimes, extreme anxiety occurs when EFL
learners become tongue-tied or lost for words in an unexpected situation, which often
leads to discouragement and a general sense of failure. Adults, unlike children, are
concerned with how they are judged by others. They are very cautious about making errors
in what they say, for making errors would be a public display of ignorance, which would be
an obvious occasion of "losing face" in some cultures such as in China. Clearly,
the sensitivity of adult learners to making mistakes, or fear of "losing face,"
has been the explanation for their inability to speak English without hesitation.
Components underlying speaking effectiveness
||"Language proficiency is not a
unidimensional construct but a multifaceted modality, consisting of various levels of
abilities and domains (Carrasquillo 1994:65). Hymes (1971) also assumes that L2 learners
need to know not only the linguistic knowledge but also the culturally acceptable ways of
interacting with others in different situations and relationships. His theory of
communicative competence (1971) consists of the interaction of grammatical,
psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic, and probabilistic language components. Built on Hymes'
theory, Canale and Swain (1980) propose that communicative competence includes grammatical
competence, discourse competence, sociolinguistic competence, and strategic competence,
which reflect the use of the linguistic system and the functional aspects of communication
respectively. In the framework of Canale and Swain (1980), we can show graphically the
abilities underlying speaking proficiency.
"Grammatical competence is an umbrella concept that includes increasing expertise in
grammar (morphology, syntax), vocabulary, and mechanics. With regards to speaking, the
term mechanics refers to basic sounds of letters and syllables, pronunciation of words,
intonation, and stress" (Scarcella and Oxford 1992:141). In order to convey meaning,
EFL learners must have the knowledge of words and sentences; that is, they must understand
how words are segmented into various sounds, and how sentences are stressed in particular
ways. Thus, grammatical competence enables speakers to use and understand English language
structures accurately and unhesitatingly, which contributes to their fluency.
||Discourse competence. In addition
to grammatical competence, EFL learners must develop discourse competence, which is
concerned with intersentential relationships. In discourse, whether formal or informal,
the rules of cohesion and coherence apply, which aid in holding the communication together
in a meaningful way. In communication, both the production and comprehension of a language
require one's ability to perceive and process stretches of discourse, and to formulate
representations of meaning from referents in both previous sentences and following
sentences. Therefore, effective speakers should acquire a large repertoire of structures
and discourse markers to express ideas, show relationships of time, and indicate cause,
contrast, and emphasis (Scarcella and Oxford 1992). With these, learners can manage turn-
taking in conversation.
Knowledge of language alone does not adequately prepare learners for effective and
appropriate use of the target language. Learners must have competence which involves
knowing what is expected socially and culturally by users of the target language; that is,
learners must acquire the rules and norms governing the appropriate timing and realization
of speech acts. Understanding the sociolinguistic side of language helps learners know
what comments are appropriate, know how to ask questions during interaction, and know how
to respond nonverbally according to the purpose of the talk. Therefore, "adult second
language learners must acquire stylistic adaptability in order to be able to encode and
decode the discourse around them correctly" (Brown 1994:238).
||Strategic competence. Strategic
competence, which is "the way learners manipulate language in order to meet
communicative goals" (Brown 1994:228), is perhaps the most important of all the
communicative competence elements. Simply put, it is the ability to compensate for
imperfect knowledge of linguistic, sociolinguistic, and discourse rules (Berns 1990). With
reference to speaking, strategic competence refers to the ability to know when and how to
take the floor, how to keep a conversation going, how to terminate the conversation, and
how to clear up communication breakdown as well as comprehension problems.
Interaction as the key to improving EFL learners' speaking abilities
||The functions of spoken language are
interactional and transactional. The primary intention of the former is to maintain social
relationships, while that of the latter is to convey information and ideas. In fact, much
of our daily communication remains interactional. Being able to interact in a language is
essential. Therefore, language instructors should provide learners with opportunities for
meaningful communicative behavior about relevant topics by using learner-learner
interaction as the key to teaching language for communication because "communication
derives essentially from interaction" (Rivers 1987:xiii).
||Communication in the classroom is em-bedded in
meaning-focused activity. This requires teachers to tailor their instruction carefully to
the needs of learners and teach them how to listen to others, how to talk with others, and
how to negotiate meaning in a shared context. Out of interaction, learners will learn how
to communicate verbally and nonverbally as their language store and language skills
develop. Consequently, the give-and-take exchanges of messages will enable them to create
discourse that conveys their intentions in real-life communication.
||Small talk. The ability to get
along with people in society may correlate somewhat with how well a person can engage in
brief, casual conversation with others or an exchange of pleasantries. Talk of weather,
rush hour traffic, vocations, and sports events etc., may seem "meaningless,"
but it functions to create a sense of social communion among peers or other people. So, at
the initial stage, adult EFL learners should develop skills in short, interactional
exchanges in which they are required to make only one or two utterances at a time, such
- A: I hate rush hour traffic.
B: Me too.
- A: Boy, the weather is lousy today.
B: Yeah. I hope it'll stop raining.
||As the learners get more experience, they will
be able to use some of the simple exchanges and know how to open conversations.
||Interactive activities. Since most
EFL learners learn the target language in their own culture, practice is available only in
the classroom. So, a key factor in L2 or foreign language development is the opportunity
given to learners to speak in the language-promoting interaction. Teachers must arouse in
the learners a willingness and need or reason to speak.
||A possible way of stimulating learners to talk
might be to provide them with extensive exposure to authentic language through
audio-visual stimuli and with opportunities to use the language. Likewise, teachers should
integrate strategy instruction into interactive activities, providing a wealth of
information about communicative strategies to raise learners' awareness about their own
learning styles so that learners can tailor their strategies to the requirements of
||In designing activities, teachers should
consider all the skills conjointly as they interact with each other in natural behavior,
for in real life as in the classroom, most tasks of any complexity involve more than one
macro skill (Nunan 1989). Effective interactive activities should be manipulative,
meaningful, and communicative, involving learners in using English for a variety of
communicative purposes. Specifically, they should (1) be based on authentic or
naturalistic source materials; (2) enable learners to manipulate and practice specific
features of language; (3) allow learners to rehearse, in class, communicative skills they
need in the real world; and (4) activate psycholinguistic processes of learning.
||Based on these criteria, the following
activities appear to be particularly relevant to eliciting spoken language production.
They provide learners with opportunities to learn from auditory and visual experiences,
which enable them to develop flexibility in their learning styles and also demonstrate the
optimal use of different learning strategies and behaviors for different tasks.
- Aural: oral activities. With careful selection and preparation, aural materials
such as news reports on the radio will be fine-tuned to a level accessible to particular
groups of learners. These materials can be used in some productive activities as
background or as input for interaction. In practice, students are directed to listen to
taped dialogues or short passages and afterwards to act them out in different ways. One
example which we have used in our micro-teaching practice in Northern Illinois University
is jigsaw listening. A story is recorded into several segments on an audio cassette tape.
Teachers either have each student listen to a different segment or divide the class into
small groups and make each group responsible for one segment. After each student/group has
listened to a segment, students are provided with a worksheet of comprehension questions
based on the story. Then, students work together in groups on an information gap activity.
They negotiate the meaning of the story and answer questions, which motivates students to
- Visual: oral activities. Because of the lack of opportunity in foreign language
settings to interact with native speakers, the need for exposure to many kinds of scenes,
situations, and accents as well as voices is particularly critical. This need can be met
by audiovisual materials such as appropriate films, videotapes, and soap operas. They can
provide (a) "the motivation achieved by basing lessons on attractively informative
content material; (b) the exposure to a varied range of authentic speech, with different
registers, accents, intonation, rhythms, and stresses; and (c) language used in the
context of real situations, which adds relevance and interest to the learning
process" (Carrasquillo 1994:140). While watching, students can observe what levels of
formality are appropriate or inappropriate on given occasions. Similarly, they can notice
the nonverbal behavior and types of exclamations and fill-in expressions that are used.
Also, they can pay attention to how people initiate and sustain a conversational exchange
and how they terminate an interactive episode. Subsequent practice of dialogues,
role-playing, and dramatizations will lead to deeper learning.
Visual stimuli can be utilized in several ways as starter material for interaction. Short
pieces of films can be used to give "eyewitness" accounts. An anecdote from a
movie can be used to elicit opinion-expressing activity.
Likewise, nonverbal videos can be played to have students describe what they have viewed.
While watching, students can focus on the content and imitate the "model's" body
language. In this way students will be placed in a variety of experiences with
accompanying language. Gradually, they will assimilate the verbal and nonverbal messages
and communicate naturally.
- Material-aided: oral activities. Appropriate reading materials facilitated by the
teacher and structured with comprehension questions can lead to creative production in
speech. Story-telling can be prompted with cartoon-strips and sequences of pictures. Oral
reports or summaries can be produced from articles in newspapers or from some well
designed textbooks such as Culturally Speaking , written by Genzel and Cummings
(1994). Similar material input such as hotel brochures can be used for making
reservations; menus can be used for making purchases in the supermarket or for ordering in
a restaurant. In fact, language input for oral activities can be derived from a wide range
of sources that form the basis for communicative tasks of one sort or another, which will
help learners deal with real situations that they are likely to encounter in the future.
- Culture-awareness: oral activities. Culture plays an instrumental role in shaping
speakers' communicative competence, which is related to the appropriate use of language
(e.g., how native speakers make an apology and what kind of form the apology is to take).
Generally, appropriateness is determined by each speech community. In other words, it is
defined by the shared social and cultural conventions of a particular group of speakers.
Therefore, it is essential to recognize different sets of culturally determined rules in
communication. Just as Brown and Yule (1983:40) say, "a great number of cultural
assumptions which would be normally presupposed, and not made explicit by native speakers,
may need to be drawn explicitly to the attention of speakers from other cultures."
Cultural learning illustrated by activities and strengthened through physical enactment
will motivate students.
||Teachers can present situations in which there
are cultural misunderstandings that cause people to become offended, angry, and confused.
Then, thought-provoking information and questions can follow each description or anecdote
for in-class discussion. Students can be asked to analyze and determine what went wrong
and why, which will force students to think about how people in the target culture act and
perceive things, and which will inevitably provide a deeper insight into that culture.
This kind of exercise can strike a healthy balance between the necessity of teaching the
target culture and validating the students' native culture, which will gradually sharpen
students' culture awareness.
||By and large, using audiovisual stimuli brings
sight, hearing, and kinesthetic participation into interplay, which gets students across
the gulf of imagination into the "real experience" in the first place.
Meanwhile, the task-oriented activities give students a purpose to talk. Ideally, the
flexibility and adaptability of these activities are essential if the communicative needs
of learners are to be met. With the limited time available in class, it is necessary to
follow open language experiences with more intensive structured situations, dialogues, and
role-playing activities. These will give students both the chance and confidence actually
to use the language.
||In conclusion, speaking is one of the central
elements of communication. In EFL teaching, it is an aspect that needs special attention
and instruction. In order to provide effective instruction, it is necessary for teachers
of EFL to carefully examine the factors, conditions, and components that underlie speaking
effectiveness. Effective instruction derived from the careful analysis of this area,
together with sufficient language input and speech-promotion activities, will gradually
help learners speak English fluently and appropriately.
Shumin is an associate professor of English at Qufu Teachers University in China.
Her research interests are in TESOL methodology and ESL/EFL material development.
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