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Review of  The Grammar and Lexis of Conversational Informal English in Advanced Textbooks


Reviewer: Elizabeth (Betsy) Craig
Book Title: The Grammar and Lexis of Conversational Informal English in Advanced Textbooks
Book Author: María Dolores Fernández Gavela
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
General Linguistics
Sociolinguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 27.3405

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Review:
Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry

SUMMARY

María Fernández-Gavela’s explicitly stated purpose in “The grammar and lexis of conversational informal English in advanced textbooks” is to examine whether newer textbooks for teaching informal conversation at the high-intermediate to low-advanced levels in English ultimately provide a more realistic portrayal of the register as discerned from corpus findings than such textbooks published during the 1990’s did, thereby demonstrating an improvement in ESL teaching materials based on presentations of actual native-speaker language usage. She sets out to determine whether the dialogues in some of the newer, commonly used ESL textbooks in Europe reflect more of the characteristics of speech as have been determined through contrastive corpus linguistics studies of frequency, such as Biber, et al. (1999) and Carter & McCarthy (2006). She contends that in a truly communicative approach to language teaching, we want to help our students achieve not only accuracy and fluency, but also pragmatic appropriateness, in that the prescriptions of formal, written discourse should not be applied to the standards of spoken discourse, especially in casual settings.

The first chapter begins with an introduction to the corpus-informed approach to teaching English and sets the author’s expectation (hope) of finding that more recent teaching materials will demonstrate a greater influence from corpus findings. Chapter Two discusses language variation in spoken discourse. The five-part outline of this chapter is adapted from the five factors of social discourse presented in Quirk, et al. (1985, p. 4): “region, social grouping, field of discourse, medium, and attitude.” The author limits her attention to informal attitude in the medium of speech, as this is the intended teaching focus. Fernández-Gavela cautions here that no clear dichotomy between speech and writing can be drawn because, for instance, lectures represent communication in the spoken mode while at the same time invoke many features of formal, academic English. And the modern phenomenon of emails represents a written form of communication incorporating many features of the spoken mode (p. 19). Halliday is also cited for positing a primary distinction between writing, as being more “lexically dense,” and speaking, as being more “grammatically intricate” (1994, p. 350). In Chapter Three, the author provides some historical background in the evolution of teaching methods as her intent here is to provide a diachronic perspective on the materials being used. Chapter Four then endorses the exploitation of corpus study results for the benefit of English language teaching, thereby lessening our former dependence on sometimes mistaken intuitions about what to include in the language teaching syllabus.

Chapter Five describes certain high-frequency features in everyday conversation as determined by corpus research, but it is not an exhaustive list of such features; the author includes both clausal and non-clausal (inserted) units (C-units in Biber et al., 1999) with a full explanation of their various functions in conversation, which due to its essentially interactive nature includes a great deal of ellipsis. Other features include discourse markers, interjections, hesitators, polite forms, greetings/farewells, etc. A discussion of multiple negation as a prominent feature of non-standard dialogue, and hence suitable for teaching, closes this chapter. Chapter Six highlights the primary lexical elements of the informal register, such as slang and taboo words. Vague language is also noted as a key feature because of the inherent lack of a need for explicitness in conversation, given its situated, collaborative nature. Mentioned briefly is the fact that “the use of possessive pronouns…seems to be preferred by speakers” and “(v)erbs…have a higher frequency (in conversation) than in any other register” (p. 129), but this is not elaborated on.

The bulk of the study is in Chapter Seven, where the author focuses on comparing the conversational features of quotidian English as presented in ‘mainstream’ British publications. She compares 10 teaching texts from each of two decades: the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century. This delineation is made because The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English was published in 1999 (Biber et al.), and the author wants to investigate whether corpus-based studies have had an effect on the usage of corpus-based data in such ESL textbooks. After a detailed analysis of the 20 texts to be analyzed for inclusion of the features of informal conversation as outlined in Chapters Five and Six, it is determined that the latter texts do not display a significant increase in the presentation of these features, and further that they should, if they are to be considered genuinely communicative.

EVALUATION

Fernández-Gavela begins by asserting that students find the productive skills in language acquisition more difficult than the receptive skills of listening and reading, and that they have a more difficult time with informal, spoken registers than with more formal, written forms. But to support this claim, she cites only one obscure report of final exam results from a public language school in Spain, a non-English-speaking environment. Certainly, there are more comprehensive results from peer-reviewed studies which could be cited to justify calling for reform in the teaching of casual speech norms in an EFL environment. The main concern here is pragmatic in that learners should not be using the stilted forms of formal, written English in their casual speech, and indeed they will want to communicate with native speakers both effectively and appropriately.

A total review of the synchronic categories of sociolinguistic variation in Chapter Two seems somewhat unnecessary, but the author wants to highlight the dynamic nature of casual conversation and to report her dismay that this particular register has been misrepresented in the lack of authenticity in teaching materials. In Chapter Three, the main point is that more communicative methods represent an improvement in the shortfalls of prior approaches, such as the grammar-translation and audiolingual methods. The author makes repeated endorsements of the current push to utilize more communicative approaches in language teaching, and corpus-informed materials do provide ready-made, meaningful input based on empirical descriptions of language usage. However, there seems to be an underlying assumption that such materials will lead to better acquisition, and, although I agree with this supposition, there should be more reference made to contrastive longitudinal studies of learner acquisition to support the notion. I find the first three chapters to be somewhat redundant, as the topic of Chapter One is resumed in the fourth, and there does not seem to be a need to cover the entire phenomenon of language variation (Chapter 2) nor the history of language teaching methodologies (Chapter 3) for this particular study.

Fernández-Gavela recognizes that there has been a disconnect between the theoretical underpinnings of corpus linguistics and the practical application of its findings to ESL teaching, but she seems inordinately concerned with including in instruction some of the more dysfunctional features of native-speaker conversation, such as hesitation/pausing, back-channeling, and false starts, to the neglect of more useful features such as the preponderance of lexical verbs and personal pronouns as identified in the corpus studies cited. It remains to be seen whether we should be teaching such characteristics of communication breakdown to learners who are ultimately striving for success in their communicative endeavors. Do we really want to teach such non-standard dialect features as multiple negatives to our students?

In the end, Fernández-Gavela finds an insignificant number of the features she is looking for in the newer textbooks, but I can think of several reasons why this search for conversational features in textbooks as determined through corpus study may not have been more fruitful: 1) it takes a very long time for new research findings to disseminate among and permeate their readership and thence to have an influence on practical teaching applications and publications;
2) this study looked only at high-intermediate to low-advanced level textbooks; 3) the conversational features searched for were only part of an exhaustive list of those found to be typical of the register; and 4) only one of the later textbooks under review even claims to be based on corpus findings. Many more corpus-informed materials with a pedagogical intent are making their way into the market just now. Maybe high-intermediate to low-advanced levels is not the stage at which these behaviors should be taught; perhaps, such ‘dysfluency’ characteristics as pausing and back-channeling should be taught earlier in the curriculum, when they are quite possibly most needed.

What is most surprising here is the absence of sufficient coverage of two of the most pervasive features of conversation (as opposed to academic writing): the presence of more lexical verbs and personal pronouns. Fernández-Gavela does make mention of the most common verbs in conversation, i.e. ‘say,’ ‘get,’ ‘go,’ ‘know,’ ‘think,’ etc., in a footnote on (p. 54) but fails to exploit this fact in her analysis. Also, phrasal chunks such as ‘you know,’ ‘I mean,’ ‘kind of,’ and ‘a little bit’ are given short shrift here although the author does note the most relevant reference to her study, Cullen and Kuo (2007), in which these chunks are explicitly identified. If these particular features had been included in the textbook searches, she may have found a greater affinity with corpus findings in the later ESL textbooks. Chapter Five does provide thorough and highly-detailed coverage of both the form and function of the many features selected for her query.

There is no doubt that the lexical grammar of spoken English should be taught to students wanting to acquire it, particularly in EFL contexts where the students are not exposed to interactive English on a daily basis outside the classroom. However, I would recommend teachers/researchers see the more comprehensive study already provided by Cullen and Kuo (2007) for a fuller coverage of those particular features in a broader range of teaching materials for any proficiency level. Indeed, we should all be looking for more corpus-informed teaching materials in the future in this happy marriage of theoretical approach and practical application.

REFERENCES

Biber, Douglas, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan Conrad & Edward Finnegan. 1999. Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow: Longman.

Carter, Ronald A. & Michael McCarthy. 2006. Cambridge grammar of English: A comprehensive guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cullen, Richard & I-Chun Kuo. 2007. Spoken grammar and ELT course materials: A missing link? TESOL Quarterly, 41(2). 361-386.

Halliday, Michael A. K. 1994. An introduction to functional grammar. London: Edward Arnold.

Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech & Jan Svartvik. 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Harlow: Longman.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Dr. Elizabeth Craig is Writing & ESL Specialist at Furman University. For the past 20 years, she has taught English for academic purposes in higher education and has trained English language teachers in Paraguay, Romania, Turkey, and Cambodia. Her research interests include corpus linguistics, academic writing, and the lexical grammar of English.

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