Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rejoinders and Exclamations(!): They Keep the Conversation Flowing

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Ever talk on the phone and not hear the person on the other end say anything – I mean, anything at all? Unsettling, isn’t it. The reason isn’t rocket science. It’s that you’re looking for feedback, for that other person to acknowledge (1) that he or she is paying attention to you; (2) that he/she understands what you’re saying; and (3) that she or he feels there’s some kind of worth in what you’re saying. But that’s not all. You also want to know if (1) the listener agrees or disagrees with you; (2) if he or she is being “entertained” or “amused” by what you have to say; and (3) if she/he has anything worthwhile to add.

Wow! That seems like a lot to expect from a listener, and I’m not just talking about somebody on the phone. Oh, no. It can be somebody standing or sitting a few feet from you right there in front of your eyes. Even if you’re looking at the listener (unlike on “regular” phones, which don’t allow for that), you want – no need – some feedback. That’s when rejoinders and exclamations kick in and do their thing.

Rejoinders are quick responses or replies to something that another person has said. So are exclamations, but rejoinders don’t necessarily have the strong emotional reactions that exclamations tend to have. Rejoinders and exclamations not only supply the feedback desired by the person who’s talking, but they also keep the conversation flowing in a very smooth, easy way. Of course you can go with your basic grunt or uh-huh, but we get more sophisticated than that, and you owe it to your students at a certain point to introduce them to some of the more common and useful rejoinders and exclamations they should start developing the habit of using during a conversation.

In alphabetical order, here are some basic rejoinders and exclamations our students should know and start using by the time they reach the intermediate level:

And how!
Come on!
Get out of here!
How about that!
I’ll be damned!
I’ll be darned!
I’ll say!
No fooling?
No kidding!
No way!
Oh, puh-leez!
Only time will tell.
Ouch! (not as a reaction to physical pain)
Over my dead body!
Tell me about it.
That’s amazing!
That’s great!
That’s outrageous!
That’s ridiculous!
Well, I’ll be!
What else is new?
Wouldn’t you know it!
Yeah, right.
You bet!
You better believe it!
You can say that again!
You don’t say.
You (just) never know.
You’re kidding!
You’ve got to be kidding!

So what’s the toughest part of teaching rejoinders and exclamations? Nope, it’s not when it’s appropriate to use this one or that one. Actually, it’s easy enough to set up a situation and create what somebody would say to trigger the use of a rejoinder or exclamation. For example . . .

A: Hey, Ken! Guess what.
B: You just won the lottery.
A: Almost as good. The boss just made me general manager.
B: No way!
A: Really! And I’m getting a big raise along with the promotion.
B: Well, I’ll be darned! Congratulations, my friend. You deserve it!

Of course, you can show your students how other rejoinders or exclamations would work just as well with these triggers. Instead of saying No way! a person could just as easily say Get out of here! or No fooling? or You’ve got to be kidding! in order to register surprise and the like.

No, the hardest part of teaching these little conversational gems is pitch, stress, and intonation. In almost all cases, they don’t work unless they’re said with just the right use of these prosodics, these suprasegmental features.

This is usually when a teacher who’s a native speaker is needed. Let’s take Come on! as a perfect example of what I mean. There’s a very different way of saying these two words when you mean “Let’s go” as opposed to “I’m skeptical about what you’ve just said.” And what about the rejoinder Tell me about it. When the correct stress and intonation are used, it means “I agree with you completely,” not “I want you to tell me what happened.” So that’s why a native speaker is usually so necessary, unfortunately, to teaching rejoinders and exclamations.

So, are rejoinders and exclamations important to create fluid, spicier discourse? You better believe it!


Comment from Clarissa Ryan
April 19, 2011 at 2:36 pm

These are definitely good things to learn. Students know this to some degree, and they can get themselves into trouble by trying to teach themselves–for example, I’ve seen students use “Surely!” instead of “Definitely!” because they looked up a Japanese word in a dictionary and came up with the wrong choice for a translation. However, I think it’s important to teach this kind of thing strategically (focusing on the common and appropriate words), ideally based on some kind of corpus rather than the individual teacher’s instincts. It’s easy to accidentally give equal weight to regionalisms or even idiolects if you make a list based on what you *think* people say. (For example, I can’t remember the last time I heard someone other than Maxwell Smart say “And how!” ;)) In fact, this is one way that native speaker teachers can be a liability in the classroom: we trust our instincts too much sometimes, and may give students information with no foundation.

I don’t know that we need to privilege native speakers in this context, either. Many non-native-English-speaking teachers are fluent enough to handle correct stress and intonation (which can vary in different forms of English, anyway). Those who aren’t can find creative ways to model it, such as by using TV and film clips. Since acting out correct stress and intonation often results in totally unnatural stress and intonation, native speakers may want to consider this, too.

Comment from Clarissa Ryan
April 19, 2011 at 2:42 pm

(It also has to do with HOW you teach it. I’ve worked with students who’ve learned “No way!” and “You’ve got to be kidding!” from native speakers, but still can’t make them flow correctly. The teacher could, indeed, say all of those things perfectly, but that didn’t transfer to the students. There’s a lot more to teaching and learning than that!)

Comment from Richard Firsten
April 19, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Thanks for such an in-depth response to my piece, Ms. Ryan. You’ve brought up some very interesting points.

As for when rejoinders and exclamations such as the ones featured should be taught, I think a lot of that falls into the area that some label “the hidden curriculum” and others call “teachable moments.” We should always look for the appropriate moment when it would make sense to bring up one of these little gems and show how it can be used to help the flow of a particular conversation.

On another note, I haven’t meant to suggest that my list be used in that order to teach students. I just wanted to list some basic rejoinders and exclamations English speakers do use. I don’t use all of them; you obviously don’t use all of them. But they are used. 🙂

As to your last point, I’m afraid I have to disagree. Sure, you may find the occasional teacher whose not a native speaker and can handle the suprasegmental features I’m talking about that are so important to deliver accurate meaning, but for the most part I don’t think that’s very realistic in the wide world of EFL, just as I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that teachers would have to exaggerate stress and intonation to get the rejoinder or exclamation across properly.

Thanks for your comments, Ms. Ryan. You’ve definitely given us food for thought!

Comment from naleeni das
April 21, 2011 at 4:55 am

Hi! Agree with both of your points. I’m a non-native speaker of English and I use all of the above rejoinders, back channeling, etc appropriately enough. I certainly didn’t
learn them in a classroom but from exposure to the connected speech of the native speakers I see and hear on TV.

As a teacher I may not be able to teach them but I certainly use them with students in normal interactions with them, in the hope that they get it.

Listening lessons using soundtracks from movies and radio shows is something I have used and enjoyed using to point out prosodic

Your article clearly underscores the need to teach intonation to EFL learners. Many thanks for bringing it up!

Comment from Richard Firsten
April 21, 2011 at 8:18 am

Thanks for your input, Ms. Das. You’ve made very interesting points.

I like that you’ve mentioned the use of listening to movie soundtracks and radio shows. They work very well for students with good ears and the ability to reproduce accurately what they hear — skills that aren’t all that commonplace, by the way.

Thanks again for enriching this conversation!

Comment from naleeni das
April 21, 2011 at 7:51 pm

One of my favourite exclamations is : What in tarnation? Learned from ole Westerns and my daughter’s favourite : You Betcha! From the Roly Poly kiddie show. Yup, none is more powerful a medium than the TV when it comes to creative language.

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July 10, 2014 at 9:59 am

[…] Editor’s Note: Another good article on this subject is Richard Firsten’s Rejoinders and Exclamations(!): They Keep the Conversation Flowing […]

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