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.


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.

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