Communication Skills in a Foreign Language: Achieve Fluency by Solving Tasks

Communication is not just speaking. To improve communication skills in a foreign language, shift the focus of teaching from the language itself to actually doing things in that language.

2018/10/20

Stefano Lodola

By STEFANO LODOLA

Improve your communication skills in a foreign language, don’t just practice speaking

It is important for teachers and students to understand the different types of oral activities in foreign language teaching as well as the different goals of activities. Unfortunately, we often confuse oral practice with oral communication. In general, the goal of guided practice activities is to improve accuracy, whereas the goal of communicative activities is to improve fluency. While guided practice activities have their place in beginning foreign language teaching, they are no replacement for actual communication.

Communication skills in a foreign language require four different sub-competencies:

  • Grammatical – ability to create grammatically correct utterances
  • Sociolinguistic – ability to produce sociolinguistically appropriate utterances
  • Discourse – ability to produce coherent and cohesive utterances
  • Strategic – ability to solve communication problems as they arise

Speech production is made up of four separate cognitive processes:

  1. Conceptualization
  2. Utterance formulation
  3. Speech articulation
  4. Self-monitoring

Speaking as a communicative activity requires all four processes. However, much oral practice in the classroom merely requires the repetition of prefabricated phrases that does not entail the first two cognitive processes. This is not enough to improve your communication skills in a foreign language.

Actually do things with task-based language learning

Task-based language teaching (TBLT), also known as task-based instruction (TBI), focuses on the use of authentic language and on asking students to do meaningful tasks using the target language. It is a student-centered approach to second language instruction. It is an offshoot of the communicative approach, wherein activities focus on having students use authentic target language in order to complete meaningful tasks, i.e. situations they might encounter in the real world and other project-based assignments. These project could include visiting the doctor, making a phone call, conducting an interview in order to find answers to specific questions or gathering information to make a poster or advertisement.

Assessment is primarily based on the completion of real world tasks rather than on accuracy of prescribed language forms. This makes TBLT especially popular for developing target language fluency and student confidence. It’s a branch of communicative language teaching (CLT). A task-based class to makes language in the classroom truly communicative, rather than the pseudo-communication that results from classroom activities with no direct connection to real-life situations.

In task-based teaching the focus is not on grammar—you have already introduced your students to necessary constructions earlier in the chapter or unit, as well as to the vocabulary they will need to complete the task—but rather on helping students develop linguistic strategies for completing the assigned tasks within the constraints of what they know of the target language. Because the emphasis is on spontaneous, creative language use, whether spoken or written, rather than on absolute accuracy, assessment is based on task outcome. Any attention to form, i.e., grammar or vocabulary, increases the likelihood that learners may be distracted from the task itself and become preoccupied with detecting and correcting errors and/or looking up language in dictionaries and grammar references.

How task-based teaching improves communication skills in a foreign language

The process of task-based learning itself teaches important skills. Students learn how to ask questions, how to negotiate meaning and how to interact in and work within groups. Within this group work, they are able to observe different approaches to problem solving as well as to learn how others think and make decisions. These are all skills that people need in order to be successful in the real world, regardless of which language(s) they use there.

In addition, task-based teaching provides students with the linguistic components they will need to accomplish these real-world tasks. These include: How to introduce themselves, how to talk about themselves, their families, their interests, their likes and dislikes, their needs, etc. in the right socio-cultural context. In task-based teaching, students come to the realization that language is a tool to tackle and (re)solve real-world problems.

By moving the focus away from mechanical drills—although such drills do still have their place even today in language teaching, especially when teaching highly inflected languages—task-based teaching focuses on communication and interaction, using appropriate language at the correct time. That’s necessary to improve communication skills in a foreign language.

Designing Communicative Tasks

A task has the following characteristics:

  • At task involves a primary focus on meaning exchange
  • A task has some kind of ‘gap’
  • The participants choose the linguistic resources needed to complete the task
  • A task has a clearly defined, non-linguistic outcome
  • The outcome is attainable only by the interaction among participants
  • A task has mechanism for structuring and sequencing interaction
  • A task requires an endeavor to comprehend, manipulate, and/or produce the target language

There are three main categories of task aimed at improving communication skills in a foreign language:

  • Information-gap activity. It involves a transfer of given information from one person to another. For example: pair work in which each member of the pair has a part of the total information (for example an incomplete picture) and attempts to convey it verbally to the other.
  • Reasoning-gap activity. It involves deriving some new information from given information through processes of inference, deduction, practical reasoning, or a perception of relationships or patterns. One example is deciding what course of action is best (for example cheapest or quickest) for a given purpose and within given constraints.
  • Opinion-gap activity. It involves identifying and articulating a personal preference, feeling, or attitude in response to a given situation. For example, taking part in the discussion of a social issue. The outcome differs between individuals or on different occasions.

Teachers and students still spend too much of their time talking about the foreign language and precious little time actually doing things in the foreign language.

A communicative task places three demands on the student: cognitive, linguistic and communicative. It is important to strike a balance when designing a task: not too hard, not too easy.

  • Cognitive demands (familiarity with topic; memory requirements; processing demands)
  • Linguistic complexity (vocabulary, grammar, textual/genre conventions)
  • Communicative stress (face-threatening topic or task; number of people involved; relationships of those involved)

The way a communicative task is structured has a great deal to do with its ultimate success in the classroom and the improvement of communication skills in a foreign language. When considering how to structure a task, designers should ask themselves these four questions:

  • What information is supposed to be extracted from the interaction by the learners?
  • What are the relevant subcomponents of the topic?
  • What tasks can the learners carry out to explore the subcomponents? (e.g., create lists, fill in charts, etc.)
  • What linguistic support do the learners need to perform some set of workplans?

Here are some guidelines for implementing communicative activities in order to improve communication skills in a foreign language:

  • Make the goal clear from the beginning
  • Involve all participants equally
  • Make sure students are adequately prepared
  • Provide clear instructions and examples
  • Make an effort to mix groups
  • Assign activities that are relevant and interesting to students
  • Circulate, circulate, circulate
  • Teach group interaction skills
  • Hold group accountable for completing task on time

It’s fun to do things in a foreign language

Now the difference between guided practice and communication is clear: it’s the difference between apparent communication and real communication. The reason for this emphasis is obvious: the goal of communicative language teaching is “communicative competence,” which is achieved through the use of the foreign language for actual communicative purposes. Common pedagogical practices such as reading dialogues aloud or performing oral drills all have their place, but should never be confused with oral communication. Guided oral practice lacks communicative intent and creative use of the language. What you want is to improve your communication skills in a foreign language.

Teachers and students still spend too much of their time talking about the foreign language and precious little time actually doing things in the foreign language. We need to create more opportunities in their classrooms for students to develop oral communicative competence. This is linked to students’ gratification. They’ll experience how motivating it is to solve tasks in the foreign language.

What is listening?

Listening is the ability to accurately receive and interpret messages in the communication process. Listening is key to all effective communication. Without the ability to listen effectively, messages are easily misunderstood. As a result, communication breaks down and everyone can easily become frustrated or irritated.

Listening is not the same as hearing. Hearing refers to the sounds that enter your ears. It is a physical process that, provided you do not have any hearing problems, happens automatically. Listening, however, requires more than that: it requires focus and concentrated effort, both mental and sometimes physical as well.

The stages of listening

A well-designed listening activity, if it is to improve your listening skills in a foreign language, should be broken down into carefully sequenced phases that build on each other:

  1. The initial pre-listening phase should prepare you by activating your background knowledge and clarify your expectations and assumptions about the text
  2. Holistic listening aims to understanding the gist of the listening text after the first or second listen
  3. Intensive listening aims at a detailed understanding of some segments of the text
  4. Post-listening aims to utilize the knowledge gained from listening

Pre-Listening

An ideal pre-listening helps you to activate the background information and language components needed to comprehend the text without “giving” this information.

You might want to make list of vocabulary included in the passage before listening. I’d rather avoid looking at a transcription of the text, unless it’s very hard.

The goals in this pre-listening phase are:

  • To activate the vocabulary related to the topic
  • To form some preliminary assumptions about the content of the text
  • To pose some questions that could give a reason for listening

Global comprehension

“Global comprehension” refers to understanding the very general idea(s) or gist of the listening text after the first or second listen. While you might pick up some details after the first listen, your aim should be to focus on the general meaning first, so that you can establish a preliminary framework that will enable you to get more details in the subsequent listens. This is an important step to improv your listening skills in a foreign language.

“Holistic listening” means listening to the “whole” text while “segmental listening” involves listening to specific “segments” of the text. Holistic listening should precede segmental listening, and its aim is to allow students to develop strategies and build stamina in processing listening texts. Segmental listening is very beneficial while doing intensive listening.

To become proficient listeners, you need to be exposed to tremendous listening input and you need training. Input is paramount for your listening skills in a foreign language

In doing while-listening activities, it is important to remember the following:

  • Allow students to listen to the text two or three times as a whole before going to intensive listening
  • Encourage student to focus on global meaning first and don’t pose questions that ask them for details after the first listen
  • Make assumptions after the first listen and verify them after the second listen
  • Focus your questions and attention at this stage on the segments of the texts that are accessible in terms of vocabulary and structures. You don’t need to “get” everything in the text.

Intensive Listening

In addition to global comprehension, we need to focus our attention on intensive listening. This is crucial to help develop effective listening strategies and build bottom-up listening skills, in addition to the top-down skills that are emphasized in global listening activities. This is the natural development of the listening activity to improve your listening skills in a foreign language.

Intensive listening involves zeroing in on particular segments of the text, and this should come only after the students have developed global comprehension of the text. Intensive listening may target different goals such as:

  • Getting a more detailed understanding of some segments of the text
  • Transcribing certain segments in the text
  • Guessing the meaning of a word or phrase from context
  • Looking at certain grammatical structures in the text to see how they can aid comprehension, etc.

Post-Listening

A post-listening activity represents a follow up to the listening activity and aims to utilize the knowledge gained from listening for the development of other skills such as speaking or writing.

Like post-reading activities, post-listening activities allow for recycling and further activation of vocabulary and structures as long as they are interesting and engaging and are carefully thought out.

Follow these stages to hone up your listening skills in a foreign language

To become proficient listeners, you need to be exposed to tremendous listening input and you need training (especially at the lower levels of proficiency) on how to develop effective listening strategies.

Listening is a challenging skill, yet, with constant practice, support, and encouragement, you will develop both strategies and confidence.

How to Practice Conversation in a Foreign Language without going Abroad

It is a given that you can learn a foreign language faster by going abroad, as you can only speak in a particular language. That’s ideal to practice conversation in a foreign language. However, what if you are in a situation where you can’t go abroad due to personal commitments? Does that mean you give up on your dreams to learn a foreign language and become fluent in it?

No. Because there are several ways you can continue to practice your conversational skills. Here are six ways you can practice conversation and learn a foreign language without going abroad:

Attend language exchange events

Many mid-large cities have language exchange events. There are various kinds of events called “language exchange”. Basically, any event that encourages speaking foreign languages with foreigners is a language exchange event. That’s how in the Far-East many international parties with white guys flirting with local girls could is called that way (I’ve been to some in Taipei, Taiwan). Although I myself am a serial flirter, I also like studying languages in a more systematic way. Anyway, any motivation is good to practice conversation in a foreign language.

“Serious” language exchange events are typically between one language and another (i.e. “English-Chinese language café”, “Italian-German tandem dinner”) or, if are open to multiple languages, have a table for each language, where people gather to speak that language and that only. At some events people sit down and is more like a study group, in others you exchange leisurely conversations standing hold a wine glass. Good examples are Speakeasy in Berlin and Polyglot Cafè in Taipei.

Resist the temptation to switch to your language, stick with your target language, and results will come at once. In Berlin, I used to go to an Italian-German language exchange event every few weeks, and all the Italians were speaking Italian, many were even speaking with other Italians only! I was the only one pesting all the Germans and taking notes. Everybody was amazed at the progress I made from week to week, and yet they kept chatting in Italian.

Change the settings on your apps and smartphone

When you use your smartphone, you generally configure the language to your native language. If you want to practice the art of conversation, while learning new words at the same time, you should change it to a foreign language. Even though this change is simple, it creates an immersive experience, encouraging you to complete your goal of learning a foreign language.

Find a partner

Another great way to practice your conversational skills is to find a partner. Thanks to improvements in technology, you can talk to anyone in the world from the comfort of your home. It isn’t necessary that the partner should be a teacher because you just need to practice having friendly conversations. That’s already enough to practice conversation in a foreign language.

Immersion is key when you want to learn a new foreign language. Use these techniques every day, so that it becomes a part of your daily routine.

As time goes by, you will get the hang of the foreign language, allowing the words to flow naturally. You will also learn colloquial phrases, which will make you sound like a native.

Label everything in your house

The house is one place where you spend a large portion of your time. Why don’t you convert it into a learning hub so that you can be productive, while you go about your day? Take time off and start labeling everything in your house with the help of post-it notes. By going through these notes every day, you will learn the foreign language faster than expected. Talk to yourself and it’s like practicing conversation in a foreign language.

Listen to the radio and podcasts

Another way to practice conversation is to listen to the radio and podcasts in the foreign language. The advantage of using these types of media is that you can listen to them while you are on the go. Also, you don’t have to spend a lot of money on them, as most of the material is free. Yes! You can practice conversation in a foreign language for free.

Start reading

Why don’t you start living like a local so that you can get the complete immersive experience while learning the foreign language. For starters, find out which news channel is popular among the natives of the foreign language and follow the same. Not only will you be able to increase your vocabulary, but it will also act as a confidence booster.

Turn speaking into a daily routine

These are six ways you can continue to practice conversation in a foreign language without going abroad. Remember, immersion is key when you want to learn a new foreign language. Make it a point to use these techniques every day, so that it becomes a part of your daily routine. With a little persistence, you will surprise yourself by learning the foreign language quickly!

Stefano Lodola lecturing about learning languages

Do you want a complete guide on how to learn a foreign language?

The tips in this article are taken from my on-demand course on Udemy “Fluent. Simple. My proven quick-start guide to learn any foreign language”. There I share what I actually do to learn foreign languages, in the form of a presentation based on contents that I usually show in polyglot clubs.

After this quick-start guide, you’ll know exactly what to do from day one. I put popular tools and personal tips together into a complete language workout for your brain. These tools can be used to learn a language in the spare time that you have each day and can be applied without going abroad.

This is not a generic guide: I only recommend methods and materials that I actually use myself and find useful. This treasure of life experience will spare you years of ineffective studies.

The course includes:

  • My experience as a language learner
  • Links to select learning resources
  • Study methods and tips
  • Advice to draft your study plan

To make sure that you’ll actually put that into practice, the course comes with the option to book a 30-minute consultation on Skype (not included in the course enrollment fee). We’ll discuss your study plan and I’ll answer any questions that you may have.

Click here to read the course program and watch the free preview.

Take it today and become a language learning machine!

Stefano Lodola

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As a language learner, I was raised speaking only Italian, but now I speak nine foreign languages.

As a teacher, I’ve taught Italian to adults in language schools and universities.

I’ve lectured in polyglot clubs and coached students on their way to fluency.

I’m eager to share my secrets with you.

Stefano Lodola

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