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Review of  Conversation

Reviewer: Jose Aguilar
Book Title: Conversation
Book Author: Scott Thornbury Diana Slade
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 22.1956

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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.

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.

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