Strategies for Students to Overcome Communication Barriers

People are social beings and should constantly develop their level of communicative competence for effective communication. One of its important elements is the ability to avoid or minimize communication barriers, which comprise all the factors that hinder interaction. Communication barriers divide into intrapersonal, interpersonal, semantic, and physical ones. When they interfere with communication, one should employ specific strategies to overcome them. Learning these strategies is especially crucial for university students first commencing their studies as they may also encounter communication barriers that might impede their interaction with teachers and groupmates.

Before looking at outside hindrances, it is important to note that many major communication barriers exist within the person. Kossen et al. (2021) called such barriers intrapersonal, highlighting that they emerge within a person’s mind and include individual in-built personal characteristics such as experience, education, personal values, and traits. Students often need to collaborate and communicate to deal with tasks or problems within and beyond the classroom. Higham (2016, p.101) noted that while coping with group challenges, the students’ major problem is often not “the lack of relevant factual knowledge” but rather “the tensions between people’s different ideas, attitudes and personalities – and their inability to reconcile them in pursuit of a shared goal.” Similar ideas are expressed by a number of other researchers. Lunenburg (2010) (cited in Chen and Agrawal, 2017) highlights that when a person feels uncomfortable communicating with their teammates, it creates barriers that impede discussion and cause team members to feel hostile or subservient. Communication apprehension (CA) is one of the intrapersonal barriers affecting interaction. It is defined by McCroskey (1978) (cited in Chen and Agrawal, 2017, p.156) as a level of fear or anxiety one feels because of “either real or anticipated communication with another person or persons.” Therefore, a student may have valuable information to share during a discussion, but their high level of CA would make them too nervous about expressing their thoughts properly. Apart from that, according to Blume and Baldwin (2013) (cited in Chen and Agrawal, 2017, p.154), people “with higher communication apprehension (CA) have lesser friends and smaller support networks.” Chen and Agrawal (2017, p. 154) point out that teamwork is a crucial element of studying, creating opportunities for developing such skills as “problem-solving, decision-making and creative behavior.” Thus, intrapersonal barriers can isolate a student and decelerate their learning progress. The strategy to overcome these barriers suggested by Higham (2016) and Chen and Agrawal (2017) focuses on developing students’ leadership skills. Chen and Agrawal (2017) emphasize a leader’s role in encouraging all team members to participate in discussions. In brief, developing leadership competence can minimize intrapersonal barriers, motivate students to interact and create valuable relationships.

When people fail to achieve communicative goals due to differences in beliefs or interests, they face interpersonal or intercultural barriers. Kossen et al. (2021) note that these barriers incorporate factors that interfere with communication due to misunderstanding, inflexibility, and intolerance. Rani (2016) notes that interpersonal and intercultural barriers often cause stereotypes, biases, and assumptions based on someone’s cultural or social background. They can lead to discrimination and “contribute to communication breakdown” (Rani, 2016, p.75). Hopson (2011) (cited in Castle Bell, 2019, p. 244) also states that “prejudice is (re)produced and sustained during dialogue and while sharing intercultural spaces.” Thus, communication and social attitudes are interconnected and interdependent: stereotypes and prejudices affect communication which, in turn, serves as a means of transmitting and sustaining them. This connection is also illustrated in Abdul Malek et al.’s study (2018) conducted in the Universiti Teknologi Kuala Lumpur campus in Malaysia. Its scale is narrow and restricted to only one university, but its involving subjects of different cultural backgrounds makes its findings valuable. Abdul Malek et al. (2018) interviewed several students and teachers and identified major barriers that obstacle their communication. The highlighted categories included general differences in views and attitudes and culturally specific ones. One student commented on the teacher’s arrogant, inconsiderate, and overly critical attitude that made her reluctant to interact with him(Abdul Malek et al., 2018). Another student said the teacher became more hostile towards him after he expressed his opinion on polygamy during a class discussion(Abdul Malek et al., 2018). Since foreign students also participated in the study, some examples show how cultural norms and values impede their interaction with the teachers. One Chinese student admitted she was shocked to see a teacher use red ink for corrections, as in China, it is considered an omen for near-death (Abdul Malek et al., 2018). A student from the Middle East said he felt uncomfortable and offended seeing a male Muslim teacher wearing neck jewelry, which is prohibited in his country (Abdul Malek et al., 2018). Abdul Malek et al. (2018, p.70) examined the students’ comments and concluded that many foreign students “do not have a high awareness of the norms, values, and practices in Malaysia.” The researchers suggested that for overcoming intercultural misunderstandings, “a comprehensive briefing or a course on the local cultures” should be held for foreign students commencing their studies (Abdul Malek et al., 2018, p.74). Apart from that, lecturers should also learn more about the cultural values of their students (Abdul Malek et al., 2018). Finally, Abdul Malek et al. (2018, p.74) highlighted that both students and lecturers should “avoid projecting their own background or culture onto others.” As for fighting prejudice and discrimination, Rani (2016, p.75) believes that people should “learn to treat everyone as an individual” and develop empathy towards others. Castle-Bell (2019) also emphasizes the importance of the dominant group members’ engagement in the fight against racism and other types of discrimination, including those expressed in communication. Thus, when interlocutors have different social or cultural backgrounds, they must balance acknowledging the other’s values and views and not being governed by stereotypes and prejudice. It would help them overcome interpersonal and intercultural communication barriers.

Language helps people express and transmit their thoughts to others, but it may also cause misunderstandings. In this case, inadequate use of language may become a semantic barrier that occurs when people speak different languages or lack proficiency in a language (Rani, 2016). Even if a person knows some foreign language on a very high level, they still process foreign speech slightly slower than their native language (Drozdova et al., 2021; Scharenborg and van Os, 2019). Sometimes such barriers emerge when a speaker utilizes jargon, slang, or professional vocabulary, which a limited group of people comprehends even among native speakers (Rani, 2016, p.76). Thus, semantic barriers are a major problem for students, especially those commencing their studies abroad. It is also demonstrated in the study by Abdul Malek et al. (2018) described above. The students that the researchers interviewed complain that “many of the lecturers who taught in English did not code-switch from English to Bahasa Melayu (Malay language)” (Abdul Malek et al., 2018, p. 68). At the same time, the teachers admit they also feel semantic barriers between them and foreign students due to their specific accents, limited vocabulary, and awkward, non-English sentence structures (Abdul Malek et al., 2018). In brief, the language barrier was identified as a major obstacle in the interaction between students and teachers. To overcome it, Abdul Malek et al. (2018, p.74) suggested lecturers “using the most specific and accurate words possible by using language that describes rather than evaluates and by presenting observable facts, events, and circumstances.” One of the teachers interviewed during the study noted that he sometimes used non-verbal means when he felt foreign students did not understand him (Abdul Malek et al., 2018). However, Rani (2016) warns that one should be careful with using non-verbal means in intercultural communication as a neutral symbol or gesture in one culture may be offensive in another. The scholar also notes that to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts, one should always consider “who they speak with” and prepare for communication (Rani, 2016, p.76). Thus, students and teachers would overcome semantic barriers if they always considered their interlocutor’s language level and were careful with their choice of verbal and non-verbal units of communication.

Finally, participants of educational discourse should also consider environmental factors that may negatively affect communication. They comprise the physical barriers that include “the physical setting or the situation where communication takes place” (Rani, 2016, p.76). According to Kossen et al. (2021), they may also be called noise and include all physical factors that interfere with the proper exchange of messages. Drozdova et al. (2021) and Scharenborg and van Os (2019) studied how background noise influences the perception of oral speech. They concluded that, depending on its volume and duration, it might either slow the perception and recognition of speech patterns or fully block the listener’s understanding (Drozdova et al., 2021; Scharenborg and van Os, 2019). Students need to hear the teachers’ explanations and instructions properly, so lectures and seminars should be conducted in quiet classrooms with no distracting sounds. However, disturbing and distracting sounds are not the only sources of noise. Rani (2016) notes that uncomfortable rooms or visual distractors can also contribute to physical barriers in communication. Therefore, the scholar gives the following suggestions: checking the temperature and overall comfort and security in the meeting room, turning off mobile phones and noisy machinery (Rani, 2016). Rani (2016) also advises avoiding loud places or the ones having visual distractors (such as television) for important meetings. To sum up, university facilities should follow certain standards to not interfere with the students’ interaction and learning processes.

To conclude, students commencing their studies at a university may encounter a lot of communication barriers, divided into intrapersonal, interpersonal or intercultural, semantic, and physical categories. Facing difficulties while interacting with new people in a new environment is natural and inevitable, but one should not be pessimistic about it. The students who encounter problems in interaction and instructors who want to help them should try implementing the suggested strategies to help develop their communicative skills and boost academic achievements.

Reference List

Abdul Malek, N. S. et al. (2018). ‘Communication barriers between students and lecturers’, LSP International Journal, 3(2), pp. 63–75.

Castle Bell, G. (2019) ‘“There’s a difference between Black people and N*gg*rs”: a cultural contracts exploration of interracial communication barriers Gina Castle Bell’, Communication Quarterly, 67(3), 243-270.

Chen, M.-H. and Agrawal, S. (2017) ‘Do communication barriers in student teams impede creative behavior in the long run?—A time-lagged perspective’, Thinking Skills and Creativity, 26, pp. 154-167.

Drozdova, P. et al. (2021) ‘The effect of intermittent noise on lexically-guided perceptual learning in native and non-native listening’, Speech Communication, 126, pp. 61-70.

Higham, R. (2016) ‘Communication breakdown: how conflict can promote responsible leadership in students’, School Leadership & Management, 36(1), pp. 96-112.

Kossen, C. et al. (2021) Communicating for success. 3rd edn. Melbourne: Pearson Education Australia.

Rani, K. U. (2016) ‘Communication barriers’, Journal of English Language and Literature, 3(2), pp.74-76. Web.

Scharenborg, O. and van Os, M. (2019) ‘Why listening in background noise is harder in a non-native language than in a native language: a review’, Speech Communication, 108, pp. 53-64.

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