Scholarly article on topic 'Learners’ use of Communication Strategies in an Online Discussion via Facebook'

Learners’ use of Communication Strategies in an Online Discussion via Facebook Academic research paper on "Computer and information sciences"

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Abstract of research paper on Computer and information sciences, author of scientific article — Halizah Omar, Mohamed Amin Embi, Melor Md Yunus

Abstract This study investigates how learners compensate for their insufficient linguistic repertoire and enhance their online discussion (OLD) via the use of communication strategies (CS) in Facebook groups. Using a purposive sampling procedure, a group comprising 28 learners taking a communication course at a public university participated in the study. Ten voluntary learners were sample within the case for a more in-depth investigation of the phenomenon. Data were derived from threaded OLD, interviews, retrospective sessions and reflective journals. Thematic analysis revealed learners’ employment of an array of CS when completing the task which includes direct, digital media, paralinguistic and interactional strategies.

Academic research paper on topic "Learners’ use of Communication Strategies in an Online Discussion via Facebook"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 64 (2012) 535 - 544



Learners' Use of Communication Strategies in an Online

Discussion via Facebook

Halizah Omar*, Mohamed Amin Embi, Melor Md Yunus

Faculty of Education, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 43600, Bangi, Selangor, Malaysia


This study investigates how learners compensate for their insufficient linguistic repertoire and enhance their online discussion (OLD) via the use of communication strategies (CS) in Facebook groups. Using a purposive sampling procedure, a group comprising 28 learners taking a communication course at a public university participated in the study. Ten voluntary learners were sample within the case for a more in-depth investigation of the phenomenon. Data were derived from threaded OLD, interviews, retrospective sessions and reflective journals. Thematic analysis revealed learners' employment of an array of CS when completing the task which includes direct, digital media, paralinguistic and interactional strategies.

© 2012Publishedby ElsevierLtd. Selectionand/or peer-reviewunderresponsibility ofTheAssociationScience EducationandTechnology

Keywords: communication strategies (CS); online discussion (OLD); Facebook (FB) groups; language learners

1. Introduction

Less competent language learners often face great difficulties in expressing their thoughts and ideas when interacting in L2. Despite having a lack of lexis at their disposal, these learners have to compensate for their insufficient linguistic repertoire of L2 to ensure messages can be conveyed. Some learners might circumvent their insufficient linguistic resources by modifying or reducing the content of their messages, avoiding the topic or concept to overcome the lack of TL terms or expressions. Whilst others may be able to achieve their communicative goals and get their messages across by developing an alternative means of expression. This strategic behavior is commonly referred to as communication

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +06-03-89217618; fax +60389252976. E-mail address:

1877-0428 © 2012 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of The Association Science Education and Technology doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.11.063

strategies (CS). Numerous interactions can now be conducted virtually using ubiquitous technology such as computers, mobile phones and other telecommunication devices.

The application of Web 2.0 technologies, particularly on the use of social networking tools such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter has exponentially risen among youth in recent years. Tertiary level learners' heavy reliance on these tools is now common as they provide social and academic platforms to connect with friends, classmates, course mates, lecturers, and administrators Despite resistance to and skepticism over the incorporation of these social networking tools for classroom activities, some language educators have made attempts to explore and utilise these tools to enrich their teaching and assist learners in improving their language learning (Lockyer & Patterson 2008; Nakatsukasa 2009). In fact, a growing number of recent studies have been conducted on the educational use of FB (Buzzetto-More 2012, Melor & Hadi 2012; Sewlyn 2009), however, little is known about how ESL learners use communication strategies (CS) in an OLD via FB groups.

Learner's use of CS in a virtual environment is an area which is still under explored, particularly in Malaysian educational context. The study on the use of CS is indeed crucial as it is the means through which learners compensate and overcome their language deficiency to reach their communicative goal. Understanding the strategies that learners' employed could help them overcome their language deficiencies and utilize their existing knowledge to reach their communicative goal more effectively. As virtual discourse could have unique features in lieu of its resemblance to or mixture of writing and speaking, exploring learners' CS in FB would pave the way for a better understanding of their problems in the interactions. This paper, therefore, aims to shed some light on how tertiary level learners compensate for their gaps in L2 and enhance their OLD via the use of CS in an information-sharing task using FB groups.

2. Literature Review

CS have generally been observed as attempts made by learners to overcome communication problems due to insufficient linguistic repertoire, namely lexical deficiencies. They are subsumed under communicative competence, labelled as 'Strategic competence' in Canale & Swain's (1980) communicative competence framework and in Bachman's (1990) communicative ability model. It refers to the ability to use different ways and means of solving communicative problems or enhancing the effectiveness of communication via the use of strategies. Selinker (1972), who first introduced the notion of CS, viewed strategies in L2 communication as one of the central processes in second language acquisition (SLA).

Several definitions of CS have been proposed in view of a marked divergence in approaches to the conceptualizations of CS. Tarone's (1980: 420) interactional perspective proposes that CS involve "a mutual attempt of two interlocutors to agree on a meaning in situations where requisite meaning structures do not seem to be shared". CS are thus regarded as interpersonal phenomena, emphasizing mutuality of efforts by both parties to convey an agreeable and shared meaning. The psycholinguistic approach, however, regards CS as being intrapersonal, focusing on individual's internal and cognitive processes. Its proponent, Faerch and Kasper (1983:36) define CS as "potentially conscious plans for solving what to an individual presents itself as a problem in reaching a particular communicative goal". Language users can therefore employ CS when encountering communicative problems without getting help from the interlocutors.

The scope of CS has been extended by Dornyei and Scott (1995, 1995a cited in 1997: 179) to include "every potentially intentional attempt to cope with any language-related problem of which the

speaker is aware during the cause of communication". However, Canale's (1983) concept of CS is considered the broadest as it goes beyond all the approaches previously mentioned. Without restricting CS to problem-solving devices, it includes any strategy or plan of action that "enhances the effectiveness of communication" (Canale 1983:11).

Dornyei & Scott's (1997) taxonomy intergrates majority of the predominant earlier taxonomies of CS in the literature (Bialystok 1983, 1990; Faerch & Kasper 1983a; Paribakht 1985; Poulisse 1990; Tarone 1977). Their taxonomy is categorized CS based on the manner of problem management in their extended taxonomy of problem-solving strategies. Three basic categories have been proposed which are direct, indirect and interactional strategies. Direct strategies refer to the "alternative, manageable and self-contained means of getting the (sometimes modified) meaning across" such as circumlocution or approximation to compensate for the lexical gap (Dornyei & Scott 1997). Indirect strategies, on the other hand, facilitate the conveyance of meaning indirectly by creating the conditions for achieving mutual understanding (eg.the use of fillers and repetitions for preventing breakdowns and keeping the communication channel open). Interactional strategies involve cooperative trouble-shooting exchanges which among others include appeal for help and request for clarification.

CS have been extensively investigated in research on second language learning and teaching for nearly three decades. Nevertheless, a vast majority of the theoretical and empirical studies SLA have centered mainly on CS deployed offline i.e in face-to-face (FTF) oral production (Bialystok 1983; Chen 1990; Khanji 1996; Tarone 1980; Wannaruk 2003) and written task (Aliakbari & Allvar 2009). Even though there are some CS research on virtual context (Chun 1994; Smith 2003), these studies were conducted in SCMC environment where research subjects communicated using the technology at realtime (e.g instant messaging or chats). This study, nevertheless, selected FB as a platform for learners' interaction. As aptly suggested by Mohamed Amin and Ranjit (2009:4),"to truly understand the importance and complexities of asynchronous online interaction, one must study the discourse or interactions that occur within them differently from the ways one would study traditional classroom interactions".

Facebook (FB), regarded as the most popular social networking tool of this decade, has the highest number of visitors among all the social networking tools available in Web 2.0 with more than 840 million active users worldwide (Facebook Statistics 2012). Ranked 17th in the world in terms of FB usage, Malaysia has 12.23 million FB users, which is 72 per cent of the country's online population (Malaysia Facebook Statistics 2012). Kamaluddeen et al. (2010) and Safurah et al. (2010) found a higher FB usage compared to other social networking tools among tertiary level learners in Malaysia, with nearly half the number using it daily (Safurah et al. 2010). Their daily usage could possibly have been due to its distinctive features and various social applications (Kamaluddeen et al. 2010). These among others include 'groups', 'friends', 'wall', 'like', 'comment', 'links', 'video' and 'share photos' which facilitate users in staying connected for social and professional purposes. In view of its frequent usage among learners, FB can therefore be an interesting and a promising tool for educational endeavours. According to Kabilan et al. (2010), Malaysian learners perceived FB as an educational environment that could facilitate English language learning by enhancing language skills and motivation, confidence, and attitudes towards learning the language. The FB platform generates authentic interaction which could boost learners' confidence and collaborative efforts. In view of the increasing number of learners who are also avid FB users, it seems pertinent that this platform be explored and utilised to support language learning.

3. Methodology

This study adopts a multiple-case single site descriptive case study approach. Using a purposive sampling procedure, an intact group of 28 undergraduates taking a communication course at the National University of Malaysia was selected for this study. These learners participated in an information-sharing task via FB groups in which learners had to share and exchange views in groups of four or five members on general or academic topics and themes selected by the learners and the course instructor. The information-sharing task required each group to select one of three shortlisted topics for the OLD: Beauty and Health (BH), Technology in Education (TE) and Unusual Vacation (UV). Six groups were formed with each group comprising four or five members and two groups covered each topic respectively (BH1, BH2, TE1, TE2, UV1, UV2).

The participants' levels of English proficiency ranged between extremely limited and modest users of English, based on their Malaysian University English Test (MUET) results. A majority (82.1 per cent) were learners of MUET Bands 1 and 2, categorized as extremely limited and limited users of English, whilst only 17.9 per cent were of Band 3, modest users of English. These learners belonged to different course disciplines from the Faculty of Education, Faculty of Business & Economics, Faculty of Science & Technology or Faculty of Technology & Information.

Each group was represented by learners of mixed proficiency levels to facilitate the discussion. Within three weeks of initiating discussion on the topic, participants were required to post a minimum of 10 substantial entries, including a summary of the selected article, questions, and responses to questions asked by their group members. The assistant instructor-cum-researcher moderated the OLD. This included giving a briefing on how the task was to be conducted, inviting learners to FB discussion groups, responding to any enquiries regarding the task, and, at times, encouraging lurkers to participate in a more in-depth discussion.

There were 10 learners from the group (2 males and 8 females) who volunteered as sample within the case for a more in-depth investigation of the phenomenon. Data from these learners were collected from semi-structured interviews, retrospective sessions and reflective journals. Immediately after attempting the OLD task, the participants were requested to reflect on and write in their journals the problems faced and solutions taken while interacting online. Three to five journal entries were collected from each participant for analysis. Semi-structured interview and retrospective sessions were conducted as soon as the OLD task was completed. Dornyei & Scott's (1997) and Smith's (2003) taxonomies of CS were adopted as the basis for analysing CS in this study, whilst accommodating the new CS that emerged from the data. Descriptive statistical analysis was also undertaken to obtain the frequency count for CS which appeared in the OLD.

4. Results and discussion

The findings revealed an array of CS employed by the learners in completing the OLD task. This paper, however, only discusses the most frequently used sub-categories of the 4 types of CS namely direct, digital media, paralinguistic and interactional strategies. The sub-categories of each strategy and its frequency of use in the OLD are listed in table 1. The frequency of CS as surfaced in the OLD scripts is brought to light for a general overview of the pattern of CS usage among learners. Nevertheless, some other types of CS was further detected via an in-depth inquiry of 10 participants (P1 - P10) using retrospective comments, semi-structured interviews and reflective journals.

Halizah Omar et al. /Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 64 (2012) 535 - 544 Table 1. CS used by the learners in the OLD via FB Groups

Types of CS_Sub-categories_Frequency

Direct Resource deficit-related strategies:

Strategies • Literal translation 536

• Approximation 73

• Code switching 9 Own performance problem-related strategies:

• Self repair 4 Other performance problem-related strategies:

_• Other repair_2

Facebook Features:

• Like button 281

• Tagging 227 Digital Media Hyperlinks 54

Videos 10


Onomatopoeia 234

Paralinguistic Substitution 195

Strategies Using Emoticons 159

Capitalizing words for stress 85


Interactional Asking for clarification 7 Strategies_Appeals for help_4

Direct Strategies

Results show astoundingly high occurrences of literal translation (table 1). As the participants mostly comprised less competent ESL learners, they had to rely on their L1 to help them formulate hypotheses and rules of the TL in compensating for their lack of vocabulary or problems in constructing sentences. A sample of literal translation evidenced in group BH1 script is 'Thing that make us health and beauty is what we discuss about'. She literally translated word per word from L1to L2 sentence structure. Data from an in depth inquiry revealed that all the 10 participants reported their frequent usage of literal translation in words, phrases or sentences as they think in L1 while interacting in L2. A retrospective comment made by participant P4 clearly indicates her use of this strategy: "I actually constructed the sentence in Bahasa Melayu and I translated word per word to English".

Approximation is the second most frequently employed CS. The participants had to stretch their linguistic resources to compensate for the lexical gap, thus providing an alternative or related term that shares the target word structure, but less specific than the intended. For instance, the participants used the word 'consumers' to refer to 'hotel guests'. Results from retrospection and interviews also showed participants' option for simple words or sentences that they were more familiar with in coping with their lexical gap. P2 response pertaining to the use of this strategy is evidenced in her reflective journal stating "I tried to simplify the sentence using easy words that I know and commonly use". As the OLD task could be time consuming, learners therefore had to rely on their available linguistic system, which requires the least amount of time and effort to retrieve.

Code switching occurred only 9 times throughout the discussion. This is most probably due to the evaluated task which warrants some level of formality among the discussants. Participants opted for this strategy to refer to special terms such as names of diseases or traditional medications. A participant wrote 'kaki gajah' to refer to 'elephantiasis', while another participant used L1 term 'minyak gamat' for 'sea cucumber oil'. As these terms require a high level of knowledge and vocabulary in L2, participants resorted to code-switching since it is a faster and an easier way to get their message across. Even though

there are some occurrences of code-switching in the OLD scripts, only one participant explicitly mentioned about this strategy in the interview.

Despite few occurrences of self- repair and other-repair in the OLD, it is also pertinent to take note of the participants' use of these CS while doing the task. Amendments in writing particularly in terms of spelling mistakes, inappropriate or incorrect words could be done as the asynchronous mode allows such repair before or after the messages are posted. In addition to self-correction, there were also instances of a group member correcting another group member's language mistakes. A participant in group TE1 corrected his own error 'I think is article is...' to 'I think this article is...' Another participant in TE2 corrected her group member's mistake by stating 'I can't be a new experience but i will get a new experience...' A retrospective comment made by P3 confirms her usage of other-repair strategy: "I understand what he wanted to I corrected him. Perhaps this is the message he wanted to get across, but it could not be achieved."

The qualitative inquiry, nevertheless, revealed that 6 of the 10 participants opted for restructuring, even though it was not surfaced in the OLD scripts. For instance, P7 wrote in his reflective journal that "I began restructuring the sentence for the word to be used suitably". Facing difficulties in completing the sentence, he had to maneuver his initial goal via an alternative plan in order to get the message across. In addition, 7 participants reported the use of message reduction in the interview or retrospection when encountering language difficulties. Instead of writing 'Another way to heal dry skin is by soaking our feet in warm water', P1 posted 'Other than a foot soak in hot water'. Her intended message could not be fully expressed due to problems with sentence construction and vocabulary, and therefore had to reduce the message using her limited linguistic resources.

Digital media

Digital media were also highly employed by the participants as apparent in the OLD. There are 5 types of digital media used by the learners, with a substantial usage of FB features. As shown in Table 1, the 'like' button, a distinctive feature of FB, was utilized the most frequently. It indicates their agreement with their group members' comments and symbolizes appreciation to their effort and contribution in the discussion. Tagging group members' names were the second most frequently used. It helps participants get their group members' attention by the notification received in their e-mail. Additionally, there were substantial occurrences of the use of hyperlinks in the learners' entries to help enhance their group communication. Videos and pictures were also uploaded and posted in the OLD to help illustrate and explain the issues or topics discussed.

Apart from the above mentioned CS which appeared in the OLD, all 10 participants reported their heavy usage of online translators, either in the form of software that needs to be downloaded or readily available in the websites. Apparently, they used at least one of the translators, with Google translate ( being the most commonly used, followed by Citcat ( and Language translator software ( A remark made by P3 in the interview showed her employment of this type of CS: "To overcome the problem I usually refer to Google translate".

The participants also used Microsoft word and online or digital dictionaries to cope with their language problems. As Microsoft word provides grammar and spell check, some participants preferred drafting sentences prior to copying and posting their messages to FB groups. For example, in an interview with participant P8, he made this comment pertaining to his use of Microsoft word: 'there were instances before posting my comments and giving opinions... and once I've done the translation...I copied them to Microsoft word and checked for spelling". The asynchronous mode also facilitates referencing of other

tools such as the online dictionaries. Participant P5 mentioned in her retrospective session that she referred to online dictionary and aptly claimed that 'I have Cambridge dictionary in my laptop '.

As traced in the OLD scripts, some participants used pictures and videos to enhance their group interaction. The participants needed a rather high level of vocabulary to be able to describe places and procedures clearly. Uploading and posting the pictures and videos helped to facilitate and improve their group members' understanding, thus encouraging a more active and meaningful discussion. One of the participants demonstrates the use of this strategy in her statement: "I used pictures to let them know that the place is very beautiful, but they might not be able to visualize it. As such I used pictures so that they can see them themselves."

Paralinguistic strategies

As shown in table 1, the learners displayed a considerably high use of paralinguistic strategies, namely onomatopoeia, substitution and emoticons in the OLD. The absence of cues such as intonation, pitch and facial expression in virtual context was compensated by the use of symbols and textual substitutes (table 2). The use of onomatopoeia seems to resemble expressions of FTF oral interaction. The written nature of OLD, which in some ways is similar to chats, encourages the use of abbreviated words and phrases for simpler and faster typing. Emoticons were employed to enhance interaction by creating a friendly environment, replacing their actual smiling face and positive mood, hoping to boost their group members' confidence and motivation.

Table 2. The description and examples of paralinguistic strategies

Paralinguistic Strategies Description Examples (data from the present study)

Onomatopoeia Devices which take place of oral cues in FTF Woowww!; oohh...;hehehee...; ZZZzzz; hmm...


Substitution The use of abbreviated forms of a word before= b4; can u = cn u; as soon as possible=

asap;laugh out loud= lol

Emoticons The use of symbols to represent emotions A_A :) ¥¥ :P =D

Capitalized Learners capitalize some words to show TRULY innocent...; THANKS a lot...PEACE;

words for stress emphasis WHY?

Punctuation The use of excessive punctuation marks Ill; ???

All participants, except P7, used emoticons such as smiley symbols (eg. A_A) at the end of their comments as evidenced in the OLD. Nevertheless, data from the retrospective session and interview revealed this strategy was not employed to deal with language deficiencies, but rather to express their liking, agreement and appreciation to their group members' writing. Such a friendly symbol and atmosphere could influence their group members' affective domain by encouraging their group members to write more responses or questions. P4 mentioned about her usage of emoticons "to show my happy mood at that time... to know more about the topic discussed... and for Suria to provide more explanation".

Interactional Strategies

The OLD scripts revealed only few instances of interactional strategies when learners asked for clarification and appealed for help from their group members. This strategy is evidenced when a participant in group UV2 asked 'Can you explain to me more about solo vacation? ' and a group member of BH2 posting a question 'What is meant by lanolin? ' Since the OLD could be accessed anytime and

anywhere, the participants could read the posted messages repeatedly to enhance understanding. Perhaps as the scripts would likely remain on the OLD platform, it is rather embarrassing to explicitly and repeatedly ask for help and get clarification in written form from their group members. However, it is interesting to discover that even though the use of this strategy was minimal and remained unnoticed in the OLD, they actually often turned to their friends who were more proficient in L2. It is pertinent to highlight that all participants, except P10, asked from their friends or roommates for lack of vocabulary. P4 in her reflective journal wrote "Among the actions I took was to ask those around me, for example my roommate who was proficient in English ".

Out of the several sub-categories of CS mentioned, each participant was found to employ a minimum of 6 CS covering all the 4 main categories. There was a clear indication of preference to certain types of CS, particularly literal translation, using online translators, emoticons, simple and familiar words or sentences as well as appeals for help. Participant P4 and P6 employed 10 subcategories of CS, exploring most of the identified strategies to enhance the group interaction. Most participants employed a wide variety of CS, illustrating individual styles and preference, regardless of their language proficiency. Participant P10, being a modest user of L2, nevertheless, relied more on her own existing linguistic system without asking for assistance from her friends or roommates in solving her communication problems.

To sum up, despite facing great difficulties in L2 interaction, learners seemed to employ more of the achievement-oriented CS in that they struggled to get their message across via several ways and means. In fact, their use of translators should be seen in a positive light as this strategic behaviour involves evaluation and analysis of the word options in determining its contextual appropriacy. Therefore, apart from having access to the translation of words, phrases or sentences, the translators also provide some options of words for learners to choose from, thus helping learners to expand their vocabulary.

5. Conclusion and suggestions

It is evident from the study that learners opted for various CS to help them compensate for their inadequate command of the language. However, in addition to several types of CS available in literature, this study has elicited some new CS. Using FB groups for the OLD, learners had FB features and other online tools which could be utilised. It would be of great benefit, therefore, for language instructors to create such awareness of the possible variations of CS that they can employ while interacting online, particularly those features and tools from the latest emerging technologies. Due to frequent use of translation tools, learners need to be guided on the right way to help them translate more accurately.

Similar to Chen (1990) and Paribakht (1985), we believe that learners' communicative competence can be developed by building up their strategic competence. Sharpening their ability to use CS to compensate for language deficiencies can promote a creative use of their L2 knowledge. As OLD allows learners to focus on form and meaning which could help to promote and accelerate L2 development, greater attention could be given to tasks and activities that can develop their strategic competence.


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