Building Learner Autonomy

Este texto intenta determinar cómo la competencia estratégica, lingüística y sociocultural pueden contribuir al desarrollo de una competencia comunicativa general.

The concept of strategic competence can be related to that of interlingua. This includes two basic types of communication strategies (reduction and achievement strategies), and we will concentrate particularly on the use of «achievement strategies» at the discourse level.

You will remember that any person who is not a mother –tongue speaker or a true bilingual must necessarily rely on some incomplete and imperfect competence. This corresponds to the present stage in his or her interlanguage system.

Each of us, and each of our students, could be placed somewhere along an imaginary line between the two extremes of an ideal zero competence and an ideal native speaker competence. If we are still in the process of learning a language, we are moving along this line, we are gradually approaching a native speaker competence by successive approximations.

Why ideal competence?

Because in practice there is no absolute zero competence –you can at least rely on some form of non-verbal communication and, more importantly, there is no absolute native speaker competence, just think of how often, in native language communication, we cannot find the words to say something and have to adjust our message, or to ask our interlocutor to help us, or to use synonyms or general words to make ourselves understood.

One of the most extraordinary paradoxes in language teaching is the fact that we rarely teach, or even allow, our students to use the kind of strategic devices (or communication strategies) that even native speakers are often forced to use. We are still very much concerned with exact communication –something that perhaps does not even exist.

In ideal terms, we could say that in oral interaction we have some kind of communicative goal and we set out to make a plan and execute it. If we meet a problem, that is, if our command of the linguistic and sociocultural code is not adequate, we have two basic choices.

On the one hand, we can avoid the problem by adopting a reduction strategy: in other words, we keep our message within our communicative resources, we avoid the risk, we adjust our ends to our means –in this way we change our goal. On the other hand, we can decide to keep our goal but develop an alternative plan, we adopt an achievement strategy, we take the risk and expand our communicative resources, we adjust our means to our ends.

Here are some examples of reduction strategies:

  • Reduction strategies can affect content: topic avoidance; message abandonment; meaning replacement; modality (e.g. politeness makers); speech acts. Reduction strategies can affect the content of our communicative goal: we are all familiar with the essential strategy of avoiding a topic we do not feel confident to talk about.
  • Also we have all had the experience of abandoning our message, or rounding it off quickly, because we felt it was going to involve us in all sorts of problems with grammar or vocabulary. And the reason why a non-native speaker can sometimes sound vague is possibly the fact that he or she is replacing the original meaning, the original goal, with a simpler message. (Does this sound familiar?)
  • Reduction strategies can also affect modality (for example I may miss out markers of politeness and fail to observe the rules of social distance) or whole speech acts: for instance, if I cannot use pre-topics in opening a telephone conversation, I may do without such starters as Are you busy? or Am I ringing at a bad time? which are sometimes useful and necessary. Of course such failures are not always serious, but they may lead to false perceptions on the listener's part.
  • Reduction or avoidance strategies are difficult to spot, and are an obvious and essential part of a learner's instinctive repertoire. However, we want our students to widen their resources, to take risks, to actively expand their competence, so we shall probably be more interested in achievement or expansion strategies.
One useful first distinction is between strategies at the word or sentence level, and strategies at the discourse level. It is important to make this distinction because when considering achievement strategies, one almost automatically thinks of, for example, ways of expressing the meaning of a word when the exact term is not available. In fact, as we shall see, some of the most interesting things happen in the actual interaction that goes on between people.

One of the simplest things one can do when faced with a problem in a foreign language is, of course, to borrow words from the native language: we know that monolingual classes, such as the ones that we teach in, often use this easy way out. Also, some of our students are very good at «foreignizing» Italian words, pronouncing a word as if it belonged to English, or even adjusting its form to take account of typical morphological features of English. And we could all quote examples of literal translation, when case popolari become popular houses and false friends lead to all sorts of unusual and often funny utterances.

However, achievement strategies become much more interesting when they are based on the learner’s actual interlanguage, that is, when learners try to use their present knowledge and skills and stretch them, so to say, to their limits. It is this active use of one's limited resources that I think we should be particularly concerned with. The first area of strategies has to do with generalization and approximation: if you don't know a word, you can fall back on general words, like thing or stuff; you can use superordinates, like flower instead of daffodil; you can use synonyms and antonyms, like not deep to mean shallow. Of course, generalizing implies a disregard for restrictions on word meaning and word usage, and can therefore be dangerous: this is a problem we shall soon get back to.

Another area of strategies involves the use of paraphrase. Paraphrase can consist of definitions and descriptions, examples and circumlocutions.

The problems that learners can meet at the discourse level are possibly endless, since they cover the general ability to manage the interaction. Moreover, as we know, managing interactions is a very complex affair which calls into play not just strategic and pragmatic skills, but sociolinguistic and sociocultural conventions as well.

Can you think of other strategies learners use to pass on their messages? Can you give examples? Can you keep a diary on them?


BIALYSTOK, E. (1990). Communication Strategies. A psychological analysis of second-language use. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.


Publicado: 15 de enero de 2015

Última modificación: 03 de marzo de 2015



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