Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy (Cambridge Language Teaching Library)

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The transfer from one mode speaking to another writing means that most of the prosodic features of the spoken 8 The nature of conversation language, i. In order to redress this omission, here is a transcription of Text 1.

Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy

One has only to imagine a conversation between two Daleks the robotic characters in Dr Who, who speak in an uninflected monotone to appreciate the importance of these prosodic features, and how they are implicated both in the interactive nature of conversation, and its interpersonal function. Moreover, there are no erms or ahs or false starts and back-trackings.

It conveys the sense of being locally planned in real time. Compare this to the news article, where the production process has been elaborated through several stages of drafting, re-drafting, editing and publication. The real-time spontaneity of talk accounts for a number of features that distinguish it from writing.

Texts 1. What went wrong was that the storm developed down near Wollongong. The ability to achieve fluency by stringing chunks together accounts for one of the basic constructional principles of spoken language, which is 12 The nature of conversation that talk is built up clause by clause, and phrase by phrase, rather than sentence by sentence, as is the case with written text see Chapter 3. This explains why utterance boundaries are less clearly defined in spoken language, and why coordination is preferred to subordination the use of subordinate clauses.

Spoken language consists of frequent sequences of short clauses joined by and, but, then, because. Thus, in order to foreground the theme of an utterance i. Another characteristic of spoken language which is attributable to its spontaneity is the fact that information is relatively loosely packed. One measure of this density is the proportion of content words such as nouns and verbs per clause. Spoken texts are not as lexically dense as written texts. So, for example, in Text 1. In the spoken Text 1. This lower lexical density is partly a consequence of production pressure, but the more thinly spread occurrence of propositional content, as represented in lexical words, also helps make spoken language easier to process by listeners, who, like speakers, are also having to work under the constraints of real-time processing.

Even the city Sydney is named, although most readers of the paper will be Sydney residents, and many will have experienced the storm themselves. The writer cannot assume, however, that this is the case, hence most referents that is, the people, places and things that the content words refer to have to be made explicit. The only reference that a reader who is removed from the events in both space and time may have trouble identifying is last night.


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In the conversation, where the context is both shared and immediate, Odile can take it for granted that her listeners will be able to identify the referents of the kids, there and that hole, and that they know who Debbie is. By the same token, Rob can safely assume that they in turn 23 will be taken to refer to the kids, and that everyone knows that tomorrow is Monday although in fact it is Sunday, as the others are quick to point out.

This heavy reliance on the shared knowledge of the participants, including knowledge of the immediate temporal and spatial context, accounts for a number of features of talk that distinguish it from most written text. In summary, in face-to-face interactions participants share not only the physical context so that explicit mention of referents is often not necessary but also the institutional, social and cultural contexts, as well. This sharing of contextual knowledge — resulting in, among other things, a high frequency of pronouns, the use of ellipsis and substitute pro-forms — means that the interpretation of the conversation is dependent on the immediate context.

It is dialogic — or, very often, multilogic — in that it is jointly constructed and multi-authored. Conversation is co-constructed reciprocally and contingently: that is to say, speakers respond to, build upon and refer to the previous utterances of other speakers. Meanings are jointly constructed and negotiated to form a complex and textured semantic network. As van Lier puts it: Progression is fast, unpredictable, and turns are tightly interwoven, each one firmly anchored to the preceding one and holding out expectations creating possibilities, raising exciting options for the next one.

These are known variously as discourse markers and interactional signals see Chapter 2. So, in this extract from Text 1.

Conversation: From Description to Pedagogy (Cambridge Language Teaching Library)

Of course, written language employs discourse markers, too, but usually not with anything like the frequency they are used in interactive talk. At the same time, there is a greater variety of discourse markers in written language. The following, for example, would be rare in spoken language but are frequent in certain kinds of texts, such as academic prose: moreover, therefore, however, whereas, by the same token etc.

Talk has a narrower range of markers, but uses them more frequently: McCarthy notes that the words yes, no, so, well, oh and right occur significantly more frequently in collections of spoken data spoken corpora than in collections of written data written corpora. Occasionally, ambiguities need to be resolved, as in this exchange: 32 Grace: 33 Odile: Is the school OK? Such repair work is possible because of the reciprocal nature of conversation.

She uses the term involvement to characterize this quality, and identifies features such as the rhythmic and repetitive nature of much conversation as being indicative of its high-involvement style. We also saw, earlier, how the use of pitch — and high key in particular — contributes to a high-involvement conversational style. But what distinguishes the two spoken texts?

To answer this question, we need to identify differences in the channel, the purpose and the tenor of each exchange. Text 1. Telephone talk, as we shall see, very often falls within the parameters of conversation, despite not being face-to-face communication. Radio talkback programmes share many of the features of casual conversation, especially when more than two interlocutors are involved.

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Nevertheless, the purpose of Text 1. Hence, the direction of the questioning is entirely one-way: it would not be appropriate for the interviewee to ask questions of the interviewer.


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  4. The management of the discourse 17 Characterizing conversation is very much in the control of the interviewer, therefore. Even when a third speaker joins the talk her questions to the expert are directed through and by the interviewer: 1 PC: 2 E: 3 PC: 4 E: 5 PC: 6 SS: Erm just hang on there for a second because Emilia wants to ask a question about that.

    Yes Emilia, good morning. Some of the stuff that I saw was actually bigger than than a cricket ball, I mean it was like a big huge orange, you know? Yeah, all right.

    I have heard reports that that too not all the hail that fell was in a in a ball. It comes down in all sorts of jagged shapes and lumps because very often the various hailstones aggregate together. Thus, even with more than two participants involved, the interview structure, and the roles inherent in this, are still in place: the interviewer PC manages the interaction in a way that in casual conversation between friends would seem out of place and extremely assertive. It is hard to imagine, for example, that the conversation between friends could have gone like this: Rob: Odile: Rob: Grace: Odile: So erm they go back to school tomorrow?

    Erm just hang on there for a second because Grace wants to ask a question about that. It is clear that the conversation in Text 1. In other words, the right to initiate, to ask questions, to direct the flow of talk is not equally distributed. In 18 The nature of conversation casual conversation, however, such as in Text 1.

    Symmetry refers purely to the talk and the interaction itself. Typically, these initiating moves can take the form of questions, as in 23 Rob: So erm they go back to school tomorrow? The equal distribution of rights in conversation contrasts with the situation in other spoken genres such as interviews as we have seen , and service encounters such as those that take place in shops. The function of service encounters is primarily transactional: the speakers have a practical goal to achieve, and the success of the exchange depends on the achievement of that goal.

    Typical transactional exchanges include such events as buying a train ticket, negotiating a loan or returning a damaged item to a store. To a certain extent it could be argued that the radio interview is transactional, too, but, rather than the transaction of goods or services, it is the transaction of information that is the objective. The same argument might apply also to the interaction that characterizes classrooms including language classrooms , another context in which rights are not equally distributed and where information is being transacted — typically in the form of facts.

    The storm conversation in Text 1. That is to say, the satisfactory achievement of the goals of the encounter is not product-oriented.

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    These goals can be partly inferred from what participants themselves often say after a conversation: We had a nice 19 Characterizing conversation chat or The conversation really flowed, or, less positively: No one had very much to say to each other or Graham went on and on. What is at stake in casual conversation is the social well-being of the participants, the aim being essentially phatic, i. Rather than being directed at the achievement of some practical goal, the talk is primarily directed at the establishing and servicing of social relationships. For this reason conversation has been labelled interactional as opposed to transactional.

    Brown and Yule further refine the distinction between these two purposes: We could say that primarily interactional language is primarily listener-oriented, whereas primarily transactional language is primarily message-oriented. It is important to emphasize that talk is seldom purely transactional or purely interpersonal, but that both functions are typically interwoven in spoken language: even the most straightforward transactions are tempered with interpersonal language such as greetings and chat amongst friends would be ultimately unrewarding without some kind of information exchange taking place as in Text 1.

    Nevertheless, the primary purpose of a shopping exchange is not social, and nor is the primary purpose of the storm conversation to exchange factual information about storm damage. Informality in speech is characterized by lexical choices — such as the use of slang, swearing and colloquial lan20 The nature of conversation guage — and by pronunciation features, such as the use of contractions. Examples of an informal style in the hailstorm conversation include: lexical: Is the school OK?

    Whatever they want they gets. Me and Jody had a contest for the ugliest pictures. Biber et al. In fact, it has been claimed e.

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    Dunbar, Conversation is marked, therefore, by continual expressions of likes, dislikes and emotional states. Interactants express their attitudes about each 21 Characterizing conversation other, about others who are not present and about the world. There are also constant expressions of politeness, such as please, thank you, sorry; would you. There is also a lot of humour in conversation: funny stories are told, jokes are exchanged, and participants tease one another. Consider this transcript below from an authentic conversation between four men during a coffee break at work: 1.

    But the purpose of casual talk such as this is also to help construct cohesive relationships between a group of people who are not necessarily friends but see each other on a daily basis.

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