Monday, April 21, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 4: It Just Doesn’t Sound Natural

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

In his helpful book, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Jack Richards (2008) points out that one of the big problems with Intermediate level learners’ speech is that, though it might be grammatically accurate and reasonably fluent, it often just doesn’t sound natural. How frustrating this must be for students who have studied English for years but still sound like learners, not users of English! That would make almost anyone throw up his or her hands in despair. After all, what does it mean to “sound natural”? Actually, it turns out this is surprisingly straightforward, as defined by Richards. To sound natural, apparently, is to integrate a lot of multi-word chunks and formulaic phrases into one’s language.

Multi-Word Chunks & Formulaic Phrases

Richards cites O’Keeffe et al. (2007) when he presents the following ranked list of the most common multi-word chunks, as identified by the CANCODE corpus of spoken English.

  1. do you know what I mean
  2. at the end of the day
  3. and all the rest of it
  4. and all that sort of thing
  5. I don’t know what it is
  6. but at the end of the
  7. and this that and the other
  8. from the point of view of
  9. a hell of a lot of
  10. in the middle of the night
  11. do you want me to do
  12. on the other side of the
  13. I don’t know what to do
  14. and all this sort of thing
  15. and at the end of the
  16. if you see what I mean
  17. do you want to have a
  18. if you know what I mean

It’s not entirely clear to me how Richards differentiates between chunks and formulaic phrases, but, to him, the latter refers to language associated with routines. For instance, there are conversational routines we follow when greeting someone, leaving a party or breaking up a business meeting. For example, if someone said “This one’s on me,” what would the context probably be? Where would the speaker be? What would they be doing? A successful user of English would probably guess that the exchange might be taking place in a restaurant or bar, and the speaker wants to pay for the other people. An English learner might not be able to guess that, as there is nothing in the utterance that refers to money, food or drinks.

Now, Richards is certainly not arguing that a learner can bust out of a plateau simply by memorizing these phrases. However, being comfortable with them can go a long with to making them sound more natural and native-like, which may boost their confidence and interest in continuing their English studies.

As I was saying …

For teachers, introducing these phrases and expressions in intermediate level classes bit by bit might be useful. Richards recommends a few steps that mirror what I do when I teach pragmatic functions, such as asking for favors (see my earlier post). First, I begin with an awareness raising activity. For instance, if I wanted students to think about the language and body language English speakers might use when winding up a conversation, I might first ask students to consider this in their own language. I might have them

  •  demonstrate, with L1 speaking peers in the L1, in front of the class how a conversation might wind up,
  •  think about the language and body language a person might use when they want to finish a conversation in their L1, or
  • observe people finishing conversations in in their L1 community and take notes.

Then, I would show a video I had made of native speakers finishing a conversation. (I got a bunch of friends together one summer day and, in exchange for lunch, I asked them to, spontaneously and as naturally as possible, have a bunch of interactions that contained specific conversational acts as I filmed them with my camera. I then chose the best examples of each act and transcribed the conversations. It was a lot of work, but I now have these forever and use them year after year.)

It was Lovely to See you!

We watch the video several times and read the transcription and then I ask them questions designed to elicit information about the language that proficient English speakers use to, for instance, end a conversation. I might also explicitly teach some alternatives before I give the students time to “practice” this language. Skits work well for this, but another possible activity specifically to practice leaving a conversation involves giving each student an “identity” (we brainstorm a list of jobs before and I assign each student a job) and telling them to imagine they are at a party where they have to talk to each other in groups for a few minutes. I set my timer and after 1 or 2 minutes, when the alarm rings, they have 30 seconds to leave the conversation using the strategies we studied earlier and join a new group. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to prepare students to mingle at parties in the future.

Now, not all students will be interested in exerting the effort to make their English sound more natural. As Richards (2008) points out, mastering these chunks of language “often mark[s] membership of a cultural group (e.g. Americans) that learners may not wish to claim membership in.” If students don’t live or work in a native English speaking context, for instance, if their purpose for learning English is to communicate with other non-native speakers, perhaps sounding natural is not necessary for them. It just depends on what their goals are.

O’Keeffe, A.., McCarthy, M.. and Carter, R. (2007) From Corpus to Classroom, Cambridge University Press.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.

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


Comment from janice weiss
April 22, 2014 at 1:44 pm

So would you be willing to share your video, Tamara? I’d love to see it!

Comment from Tamara Jones
April 22, 2014 at 11:00 pm

Thanks for your interest in this blog. Unfortunately, the videos I refer to were made of friends. When they were being filmed, they understood it would be for class purposes, not to be posted on the internet. So, I am afraid I can’t share them publically. I am very sorry!

Comment from satiar nemati zader
April 23, 2014 at 3:54 am

Dear Tamara, can never thank u enough for all the sincere effort u r putting into all this . I’m a 40 year old Iranian English teacher on the verge of puablishing my third book which is on English grammar. I was wondering if u’d be kind enough as to answer questions I might have regarding grammar. Thank u.

Comment from Tamara Jones
April 23, 2014 at 4:27 am

I would be happy to whenever possible.

Comment from Richard Firsten
July 7, 2014 at 1:13 pm

An article I wrote back in April 2011 called “Rejoinders and Exclamations(!): They Keep the Conversation Flowing” fits in very nicely with this article by Tamara Jones. If you haven’t seen it, please check it out.

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