A lot from a little VI

In my last post here I looked at a monologue from a non-native speaker of English, Dani and analysed what made him a proficient, fluent speaker (see A lot from a little V). The interesting thing about his monologue is that its sophisticated quality does not derive from grammatical or lexical complexity but rather from the communicative strategies that he employs.  I noted that his intonation and way of placing emphasis contributed greatly to his message.


But by analysing a monologue like this, we can also draw conclusions about the kind of spoken language we should be exposing our learners to. For example, it occurs to me that “being emphatic” is a key strategy that learners need to know early on. Unfortunately, this kind of emphatic language is not usually introduced in courses (both in textbooks and teaching programs) until quite an advanced level and when it is introduced, it is often given a grammar label like “cleft sentences”.


It strikes me that high frequency emphatic language in spoken discourse (e.g. “not only… but also…” “what I like about x is…”) should be introduced much earlier, perhaps at A2 rather than at B2 level.  Learners will see how useful this kind of language is when they compare what they do in their own language. They will hopefully see that many of the same strategies are employed in their L1.


Looking back at Dani’s intervention we can see how interactive it is, especially considering it is a monologue. This is because he is very adept at other things, aside from emphasizing. For example, he is able to engage the listener by addressing him/her directly (“you sit at a desk”), give examples to back up his argument (“it’s like that task…”), use present tenses (simple, continuous and perfect) to make his message more direct and immediate, etc..


It occurs to me therefore that even at basic level we need to develop a spoken language syllabus that includes these kinds of strategies. In other words, a focus on things like “Exemplifying”, “Clarifying”, “Adding immediacy”, “Being vague” as key strategies rather than focus merely on contexts in which transaction is the main aim of the dialogue (e.g. “at the bank”, “in a restaurant”).  Unfortunately, the latter still dominates in many courses, especially at basic levels. In the same way, we could focus on spoken interaction which is simply chatting – such as breaking the ice, gossiping, small talk, talking about the weather, etc.  All this could be exposed to learners at a much more basic level than these strategies and contexts are normally introduced.


Another reason to foreground the interactive over the transactional is that these days many transactions can be done without using any language at all or the minimum. For example, how often do you need to use all those phrases for buying clothes when going into Zara? So much can be done by just picking up a garment, trying it on and taking it to the counter.


It is a truism that designing a syllabus should reflect what we know about the nature of language and we should not forget that changes take place in spoken language very fast. For example, there can be no doubt that today the context for introducing the present progressive should be mobile phone conversations. Likewise, in spoken language we have to tell learners that “like” and “love” can now be used in the progressive (“I’m lovin’ it”).


Therefore, in conclusion, I feel we can design a more representative syllabus of spoken language by prioritizing what’s really heard out there, by listening to our learners and to how the world speaks English.

Ben Goldstein

Ben teaches on The New School’s online MATESOL program (New York). He is co-lead-author of the coursebook series ‘Framework’ and ‘The Big Picture’ (both Richmond). He has also published the teachers’ methodology handbook ‘Working with Images’ and co-authored “Language Learning with Digital Video” (due October 2014)

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