Information Processing in Communication Strategies

Iwai, Chiaki

Hiroshima City University, Japan

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I. Introduction
Studies on communication strategies (CS) have focused almost exclusively on personal use of CS for lexical deficits in relation to second language (L2) learners' proficiency and their first language (L1) background. Despite some CS researchers' insightful and intuitive indication at the early stage of CS studies that CS use would be related to personal traits and cognitive styles (e.g., Tarone 1977 and Corder 1983), this has never been examined empirically in the preceding CS studies.

By exploring inadequately touched domains of traditional CS studies, this study aims at clarifying theoretical and taxonomic problems of CS studies in the past. Main findings in this study from the analysis of oral data collected from Japanese college EFL learners provide us with evidence that traditional CS studies have not achieved their essential role yet and have to investigate additional variables empirically.

II. Theoretical and Taxonomic Problems of Process-oriented CS Studies
Two conflicting theoretical frameworks have been advanced in CS studies. The more traditional one emphasizes L2 learners' linguistic deficits in the target language and their alternative abilities to compensate for them. Most of the CS studies until the 1990s can be categorized in this framework (e.g., Tarone 1977, Paribakht 1985, Hirano 1987, Chen 1990). If we call this a micro theoretical framework of CS, the other framework in recent CS studies presents more a macro linguistic perspective concerning CS use in discourse and sociolinguistic contexts (e.g., Cohen and Olshtain 1993, Clennell 1995, Williams et al. 1997, Iwai 2000a).

Although the author of this study acknowledges the importance of CS studies focusing on the macro aspect, the discussion in this study will be directed toward the traditional micro framework, especially toward process-oriented CS studies. This is because the following two major theoretical problems have not been fully examined yet: 1) the processes of CS use addressed by the Nijmegen project (e.g., Poulisse 1990) and by Bialystok (1990) are by no means clear in terms of how L2 learners attempt to solve and, thus, process their linguistic problems within the sequential time span of their utterances; and 2) none of the traditional CS studies has clarified the influence of personal and cognitive factors on CS use quantitatively as stated above.

One more problem of the process-oriented CS studies on the operational level concerns a taxonomy of the Nijmegen project. The prototype of CS taxonomies was created by Varadi (1983, originally 1973). Once this study was made public, its revisions and renewals were employed repeatedly by different researchers from the late 1970s to the end of the 1980s. Among them, three of the most prominent and often quoted taxonomies are the first systematic taxonomy by Tarone (1977), a psycholinguistic taxonomy by Faech and Kasper (1983b), and the process-oriented CS taxonomy by the Nijmegen project (see Poulisse 1990 for a detailed presentation). The Nijmegen researchers harshly criticized CS taxonomies of the first two types because they depended only on surface structures (i.e., products) of utterances for their theoretical ground and because findings from such product-oriented taxonomies contribute little to clarifying the involved processes of CS use.

The Nijmegen researchers' process-oriented taxonomy captures language users' conceptual, strategic solutions to their problems of connecting their semantic concepts with linguistic resources. However, it represents only language users' static state of mind concerning CS use. Processes of language use must be more dynamic, and several states of mind must be occurring to reach a communicative goal. In other words, we cannot say that we have clarified the underlying psychological processes of CS use unless we disclose the dynamic changes of states of mind within a sequential time continuum to fulfill a communicative purpose.

III. The Present Study
In order to verify and attempt to rectify the theoretical and taxonomic shortcomings mentioned in the preceding section, empirical data was collected from 32 Japanese college EFL learners, using a computer program to collect and analyze oral data (see Iwai 1999 for details). Photo description tasks were given to each one of the participants. They were requested to describe 3 sets of photos (5 photos in each set), first in Japanese for the first set and in English for the second and third sets. To compare the description performance in the two languages, the same photos were used in the first and second sets. The photo images (e.g., air cushion used to wrap fragile goods) had no conventional Japanese names and their English names were not known to the participants so that the participants were obliged to rely on some sorts of CS to describe them in either language.

In addition, the participants took two English tests (CELT and a cloze test), three psychological tests [a Group Embedded Figures Test (Witkin et al. 1971) for field dependence and independence, an Ambiguity Tolerance Scale-IV (Imagawa 1994) for ambiguity tolerance, a Matching Familiar Figures Test (Kagan 1965) for reflection and impulsivity], and a questionnaire consisting of questions about each participant's background in English learning and his/her experience of using English.

The empirical data was analyzed in terms of temporal features of utterances (e.g., total utterance time, substantial description time for target items, and filled and unfilled pauses) to investigate how the participants verbalized their intended concepts within a sequential time span, and the relation between the temporal features and personal factors was also examined. Due to space constraints, only the main findings of the analysis are summarized below. (See Iwai 2000b for the details of the analysis.)

1) Comparison of task failures in the two languages
Task failure is defined here as the case in which a participant could not complete the task satisfactorily within a given time due to communication problems. The results show that task failures occurred predominantly in English description sessions, and the participants frequently avoided verbalizing their intended meanings, did not complete their descriptions, and/or stopped their description before they reached their communicative goal. These failure patterns were rarely observed in the Japanese session. These results indicate that the participants' failures stemmed mainly from their linguistic problems rather than from difficulties finding conceptual solutions to their problems, which means that task failures cannot be accounted for adequately by simply observing the utterance outcomes to determine their conceptual solutions of their communication problems as the process-oriented CS researchers did.

2) Comparison of utterance time
  In general, the subjects in this study needed a total description time (including filled and unfilled pauses) for each photo about two times longer in the English sessions (about 20 seconds on the average) than in the Japanese session (about 10 seconds on the average). Even though the time length for the substantial description of the target items in the Japanese session was slightly longer than the other two sessions, the large difference in the total description time was mainly due to long pauses, especially unfilled pauses, in the English sessions. During these long pauses (and probably even during the utterance), it can be considered that the speakers attempt to solve their linguistic problems, relying on linguistic resources available to them and manipulating their intended concepts. The process-oriented CS researchers tried to discover the processes underlying the strategic solutions simply from the utterance outcomes; however, it is impossible to know actual strategic processing unless we can reveal what the speakers are doing during the silent periods as well as the actual utterance.

3) Relation between personal factors and temporal variables
  The relation between personal factors, which were measured by the English tests and the psychological tests mentioned above, and temporal variables of the oral tasks was examined statistically. The results showed that the participants' task performance was influenced by personal factors and their experience of language learning and use. Two of the most influential personal factors were language proficiency and impulsivity of the participants.

A close scrutiny of temporal features of the participants' utterances revealed the tendency for more proficient speakers to verbalize their intended concepts with little processing time and provide more detailed information than their less proficient counterparts. Furthermore, the impulsive learners, or high risk takers, who were unafraid of making errors in the MFFT test, initiated essential description of the target items in English much quicker than their counterparts, spent more time on the description of the target items themselves, and used less time for unfilled pauses.

IV. Conclusion
It was claimed in this study that, in order to clarify what actually occurs in an individual's internal mind when solving communication problems, we have to investigate the dynamic changes in problem-solving stages from the beginning of encountering a problem to the end of its solution.

Temporal features of L2 learners' utterances were analyzed in this study to discuss theoretical and taxonomic problems of traditional CS studies. One of the main findings was that L2 learners' failure is caused not by how they conceptually solve their problems, but mainly by their linguistic problems. This means that the process-oriented CS taxonomies may account for the phenomena of CS use on a theoretical level; however, they are of limited help to pursue L2 learners' communication problems on a practical level.

Another important finding of this study was that strategic solution of communication problems cannot be accounted for only by linguistic competence. General conceptual and linguistic processing of CS use has been discussed in process-oriented CS studies, but we still know very little about how personal factors affect processes of strategic solution of communication problems. Thus, it is necessary for us to accumulate our knowledge in this untouched domain in order to promote CS studies at the micro level.



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