Here’s an example of the kinds of functional phrase lists I used to teach with and write:
But for some years now, I’ve been tearing them up and hunting new alternatives. Why? Well, they just don’t seem logical to me.
It’s not so much what’s in the lists that bothers me. I think we can fix a lot of that these days with good corpora. But even with high frequency phrases from well suited corpora, I still have a problem with the lists. I just don’t like the way the phrases are extracted from their context.
Now if it’s grammar we’re teaching, I can sort of see how it’s a different matter. Isolating phrases might help if we want students to look at a structure and see how we can manipuate it. But when when we’re teaching speech acts like agreeing, disagreeing, greeting, requesting, inviting, etc, we need to be imparting usage information.
Think of all the times you’ve dished out lists like the ones above and told your students to use them in a role play. And then think of all the times you’ve winced when you’ve heard them use them inappropriately.
I can’t see a way to solve that problem if we extract phrases from context. Something pretty fundamental about conversation is it’s co-constructed. You can’t have one on your own, unless you’re like my ‘merican dentist. Maybe you remember him? Here’s a story about him that I blogged sometime back:
My dentist works in a tall building at 15th and Market in Philly. He got in the elevator one day and there was another passenger already inside. They didn’t know one another, but they made eye contact and acknowledged each other.
As he hit his floor button she said ‘I can’t believe it’s still raining’.
‘Yes, it’s terrible’, he said. ‘Really bad’.
‘When’s it going to stop?’ she said.
‘Well, the forecast’s not looking too good’
‘So, is it going to affect your plans?’
‘Yeah, we were thinking of going to the shore this weekend, but I don’t expect we will now.’
After a few more turns he arrived at his floor and stepped out. As he left, he noticed his fellow passenger was wearing a cell phone earpiece. She had been talking to someone else but he had been answering all her questions.
We’ve got 3 sets of adjacency pairs here, where someone says something that demands a response from someone else. Adjacency pairs are the building blocks of conversation. If I say ‘How are you?’, then you have to say ‘I’m fine thanks’. And you can deviate a bit, and say ‘Not too bad’, ‘Could be better’ or even ‘None of your business’. But there are limits to how far you can deviate without me thinking you’re a bit weird. And if you don’t answer – well, that will mean something too.
So I reckon there have to be better ways to illustrate how speech acts work. For me, it’s out with the lists and in with adjacency pairs and longer tracts that can demo how conversations develop over time. And I hope I’ll find more ways as I carry down this path, and maybe some of you are trying to do something similar?
So any thoughts anyone? Am I throwing a baby out with some bath water? And if not, any good ideas on how to bury those lists?
And for more on pragmatics and sociolinguistics, check out my Learning to speak ‘merican blog which explores how meanings get conveyed (or not) in greater depth, along with issues like politeness and directness.
Image by Ilco
IATEFL conference 2010