AUTHORS: Scott Thornbury & Diana Slade TITLE: Conversation SUBTITLE: From Description to Pedagogy SERIES TITLE: Language Teaching Library PUBLISHED: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2006
Jose Ignacio Aguilar Río, Département de Didactique, UFR de Langues, Lettres et Sciences Humaines, Université du Maine, Le Mans, France.
Thornbury and Slade's work presents a thorough and multidisciplinary description of conversation in English that comprises lexis, grammar, discourse analysis, genre theory, and L1 and L2 acquisition (certain aspects of spoken discourse, such as prosody, are not dealt with in detail, though). Throughout the book the authors characterise ''everyday English'' conversation, and then select aspects of this characterisation, which they regard from a pedagogical perspective. The book is intended for English language teachers -- an invitation is made to compare personal language teaching approaches with the characterisation of conversation in English that is put forward.
In chapter 1, ''Characterizing conversation'', spoken and written English are compared; seven specific properties of conversation are suggested: a) it is spoken; b) it occurs in real time; c) it is context-dependent; d) it is dialogic/multilogic: its main function is interpersonal; e) as a consequence of its interpersonal function, conversation is informal; f) it is ''a critical site for the negotiation of social identities'' (p. 21). These properties justify specific language phenomena such as hesitations, repetitions, back-channelling, appraisal language and the use of non-specialized lexis, as well as the occurrence of humour and swearing. Chapter 1 ends with an classification of specific approaches to the analysis of conversation -- sociological, sociolinguistic, philosophical and linguistic. The authors claim that their eclectic approach aims at a more comprehensive and useful analysis.
Chapter 2 is entitled ''The vocabulary of conversation''; by drawing on corpus linguistics, the authors compare the lexis of conversation with other forms of spoken language and with written discourse. Repetition and vagueness are then presented as characteristic of conversation; both features are described as a consequence of conversation taking place in real time -- this also accounts for the use of fillers. The use of idiomatic ''lexical phrases'' and of specific vocabulary associated with the functions of appraisal and involvement is also discussed. Ultimately, the authors suggest a lexicon of around 1,500 words needed by learners in order to be effective language users; as regards learners' effectiveness and fluency, it is also recommended to have them memorize lexical phrases and items that allow them to appraise.
In chapter 3, ''The grammar of conversation'', the authors oppose the assumption that speech is a result of grammatical knowledge, and argue for a distinction between written and spoken grammars: contrary to written discourse, since conversation is dialogic, and because it occurs in real time, its complexity is achieved by the successive accumulation of clauses. Grammatical incompletion is another feature of spoken language that L2 teachers need to be aware of, as regards their expectations of the learners' accuracy. As for ellipsis and deixis, they result from conversation context-dependency. Questions are described as an essential component of conversation -- namely the interpersonal function of ''tag questions'', as well the elliptic yes/no, responsible for maintaining conversation flow. As regards tense, the present is common in casual conversation, whereas the past is favoured for narratives and anecdotes -- differences between American English and British English are acknowledged, though. Modality is related with the expression of interpersonal meaning; as regards reporting, direct reporting is preferred in spoken English. Chapter 3 concludes with some pedagogical implications; concerning English language teaching (ELT) contexts, pedagogical grammar often corresponds to written grammar, which is unsuited for spoken communicational purposes; a softer approach to interlanguage is recommended in order to tolerate -- or even encourage -- instances of pidginization, provided that this leads to greater fluency and communicative competence. However, the authors acknowledge the risk of fossilization. Ultimately, the authors argue that the acquisition of a 'core grammar' by learners may be more appropriate than traditional syllabuses, as regards the development of conversational competence.
Chapter 4 is ''The discourse features of conversation''; it deals with the structure of conversation -- beyond the level of the sentence -- and draws on discourse analysis. Grammatical means such as substitution, ellipsis and repetition -- whose functions are not only structural and textual, but also interpersonal -- contribute to conversation cohesion. As regards the interactional nature of conversation, the authors draw on Conversation Analysis (CA) to characterise the organisation of conversation and of turn-taking in terms of adjacency pairs and turn-constructional units (TCUs); they draw on the Birmingham School and Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) to account for the functions accomplished by speakers' moves in specific conversational contexts. Interactional sociolinguistics allow the authors to account for topic management in conversation; the importance of cultural affiliation is highlighted as it determines the speakers' discursive expectations of specific genres such as gossiping, jokes and stories. As regards pedagogy, the authors argue that cultural differences are linked to the learners' needs, and that the teachers must cater for these.
Chapter 5 is entitled ''Genres in conversation: Storytelling and gossiping'', and it gives an account of genre theory. Different genres are said to have different materialisations, and thus different purposes in different cultural contexts. Since genres are culturally embedded, not being able to recognize specific genres can handicap the learners' competence to use a second language effectively -- which supports a ''genre-based approach to the teaching of spoken language'' (p. 147). The kind of analysis typically produced by genre theory is discussed in detail. Five specific genres are then presented -- stories, narratives, anecdotes, exemplums and recounts. Special attention is paid to the micro-features of each, as well as to their functions. One last genre -- gossip -- is discussed in further detail. As regards classroom applications, it is argued that learners may profit from becoming familiar with the genres reviewed -- these genres are said to be pervasive in spoken English. Ultimately, the use of transcripts and audio recordings is recommended in order to raise ''awareness about spoken discourse'' (p. 182).
Chapter 6, ''Acquiring L1 conversational competence'', deals with the differences between the acquisition of a first language (L1) and of a second language (L2). The authors argue that grammatical competence on its own does not prepare for conversation; conversational competence is constituted by three other competences -- sociolinguistic, discourse and strategic -- and three specific kinds of knowledge -- pragmatic, functional and sociolinguistic. Child-directed speech is presented as the discursive site where the child can develop an L1; two main features of this kind of speech -- formulaic language and repetition -- are discussed. The discursive relation between the parent and the child is further developed in terms of the verbal scaffolding that the former sets up along the latter's discourse. Child-directed speech and talk at school are then compared; although certain aspects of the caretakers'/parents' role in the former relate to aspects of the teachers' roles in the latter, the authors highlight the passive role that children -- or learners -- play as regards talk in classrooms -- which is dominated by display questions and a pervasive IRF (initiation -- response -- feedback) structure that limit the participants' discursive rights. At the end of this chapter, the authors state their sociocultural stance as they define conversation as the medium for learning.
Chapter 7 is ''Acquiring L2 conversational competence''. Second language speakers' (often approximate) spoken discourse in an L2 is characterised in terms of fluency, formulaic language, communication strategies, and pragmatic competence. Concerning formulaic language, the authors discuss the use of exemplars-based systems and rule-based systems in class; they express their preference for the former. As for pragmatic competence, it is uncertain whether classroom talk leads to the acquisition of certain speech acts. The notion of transfer from the L1 to the L2 is developed; the authors concentrate particularly on the negative sociolinguistic transfer that may result from an insufficient pragmatic competence, perhaps due to cultural differences. The likely effects of instruction -- direct or explicit -- are discussed as regards the development of aspects of an L2. The authors conclude that neither the reliance on acquisitional processes, nor explicit instruction by the teacher alone are sufficient. Chapter 7 concludes with further questioning classroom talk -- it is doubted that it favours L2 acquisition. In effect, classroom talk is described as essentially transactional, which goes against the interpersonal and collaborative nature of conversation. Notwithstanding this, the authors discuss recent research conducted on classroom talk -- namely Bannink (2002) -- that suggests the possibility of keeping a certain balance between transactional talk and talk that is closer to conversation, and which could be incorporated in language lessons.
Chapter 8 is entitled ''Teaching conversation: A history''. The chapter presents a panorama of language learning methods over the years -- some of which go as far back as the 16th century. The direct method, audiolingualism, situational English, communicative language teaching (CLT) and task-based learning are discussed in detail; the authors highlight the principles and the learning theories supporting each of these methods, as well as the roles played by the actors in the learning/teaching process -- not only learners and teachers, but also course book designers and developers.
The final chapter of the book is chapter 9 ''Teaching conversation: Approach, design, procedure and process''. It presents ideas to integrate conversation, as it has been characterised in the preceding chapters, in language teaching programmes. Drawing from the SLA literature, the authors confront arguments in favour of direct and indirect approaches to conversation teaching, and argue for a direct approach to the teaching of conversation, where there is active memorisation and transfer. Bottom-up approaches are said to extend indefinitely the teaching phase -- at the expense of talk -- whereas top-down approaches have the advantage of presenting contexts of authentic language use right away. Some of the analytical approaches presented in chapter 1 are discussed with respect to the design of materials. The idea of learners' needs permits the authors to support a kind of teaching that is sensitive to intercultural competence -- essential in order for learners to explore and negotiate difference away from stereotypical and folkloric views. As regards the authenticity of conversations, it is recommended to use non pre-scripted conversations, as well as excerpts of films and television dramas. The kind of teaching routine that is recommended integrates three main elements: exposure -- instruction -- practice, that can be sequenced freely; as for instruction, the authors associate it with consciousness-raising tasks. It is recommended that language assessment adhere to a realistic view of communication and conversation, akin to the descriptor scales from the European Framework (Council of Europe 2001). At the end of the chapter, the authors' stance for sociocultural approaches is further confirmed -- for a conversational approach to second language teaching -- as they insist on the possibility of bringing together classroom talk and authentic conversation.
Thornbury and Slade provide valid arguments in favour of a sociocultural conversation teaching approach. Throughout the book, English spoken discourse is finely described and the pedagogical implications of such discourse are adequately stated. All 9 chapters are laid out with a clear pedagogical intention; ideas are systematically supported by data and discussion, and every chapter is followed by practical tasks in relation to the concepts that have been discussed. A short summary at the end of each chapter aids in organizing the main points for the reader.
Chapters 1 to 4, 6 and 7 are nicely and adequately woven, yet the book loses momentum by chapter 8; notwithstanding its interest, the historic overview of the teaching of conversation might have better served the authors' aims had it come earlier in the book. As for Chapter 9, although the authors make substantial recommendations as to how teachers willing to reconsider the scope of spoken discourse in their classes may renew their own teaching, a certain repetition is felt. The conclusion at the end of chapter 9 seems heartfelt yet hardly convincing -- it somehow fails in being up to the relevance of some of the authors' arguments in the preceding chapters. Concerning chapter 5, the link with pedagogy is somehow blurred; it seems as if the authors' arguments about genre theory were too technical, or too far from strictly pedagogical matters.
Throughout the book, the authors seem to support the idea that, in order for learners to make the best of their learning time, language teachers must make the best of their teaching time -- it is often suggested how time can be misspent in classrooms. As regards this profitable use of the classroom, a clearer depiction of the roles that the profitable teacher should play seems to be missing -- should the teacher act as a decision-maker and organizer who takes the lead, should the teacher be a facilitator who follows the learners' initiative, or rather something else?
As for learning theories, the authors seem to adhere to a hybrid cognitive/sociocultural perspective of second language acquisition/learning (SLA). Yet, the authors' arguments about learning might have deserved a more consistent layout -- if not a chapter, at least a section? In effect, certain concepts borrowed from SLA are presented in a somehow abrupt manner, as was the case of ''interlanguage''.
Finally, among the substantial recommendations made to bring the teaching of conversation closer to the authenticity of spoken English, the authors seem to cherish the use of transcripts. Notwithstanding the likely positive outcome of using transcripts in language classrooms, the fact that no mention is made about the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in second language classrooms seems surprising. Computer-assisted language learning (CALL) is nowadays a well established domain as regards language teaching (Bertin, Gravé & Narcy-Combes, 2010). It is hardly understandable that the authors seem to ignore it.
In general, I found Thorbury and Slade's book clear, interesting and inspiring. Scholars unfamiliar with multidisciplinary tools to analyse conversation will see their intellectual horizon enlarged, while Language teachers looking for ways to assess the scope of oral communication in their classes will profit from the authors' clear and pedagogical approach.
Bannink, A. 2002. Negotiating the paradoxes of spontaneous talk in advanced L2 classes. In C. Kramsch (ed.), Language Acquisition and Language Socialization: Ecological Perspectives, 266-288. London: Continuum International Publishing.
Bertin, J.-C., P. Gravé, and J.-P. Narcy-Combes. 2010. Second Language Distance Learning and Teaching: Theoretical Perspectives and Didactic Ergonomics. Hershey: IGI Global.
Council of Europe. 2001. Un Cadre Européen de Référence pour les Langues : Apprendre, Enseigner, Évaluer. (Ed.) Département de Politiques Linguistiques.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jose Ignacio Aguilar Río has a PhD in Applied Linguistics. His research
interests are in foreign language teaching, foreign language teachers'
education and cognition, computer-assisted language learning, second
language acquisition, sociology, conversation analysis, social psychology,
and research methodology in social sciences. He is a part-time lecturer at
University of Maine in Le Mans, France.