Posts Tagged language + rhetoric

Conversation by numbers

Two weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Prof. Michael McCarthy at Osaka Shoin Women’s University, and sponsored by Cambridge University Press. The title was “The Learner’s Turn”, meaning both “It’s the learner’s turn to say something” and “How learners take turns in conversation”. Michael McCarthy is a linguistics expert specialising in corpora, and has authored several books on corpora and language teaching, including From Corpus to Classroom and the recent Touchstone EFL series.

McCarthy gave several examples from spoken English corpora of how fluent speakers take turns in conversation. He said, “Every turn in the conversation, except for the opening one, is a response to the previous speaker”, and proceeded to demonstrate how this works from actual examples. “Well, actually…” was one example, showing a speaker signaling that his answer was not a straightforward answer to the question that was put to him. Remove the “well actually” and you get an abrupt change of topic that sounds like a non-sequitur, and jolts the smooth flow of the conversation. The examples were all very interesting.

“Flow” and “fluency” were key themes in McCarthy’s talk, and ironically it was at one such moment when McCarthy was talking about “confluence” and “fluency” that I wondered whether I wanted to “go with the flow”.

McCarthy stated that conversation must flow; it’s not just an exchange of information. An example he gave was a short exchange between two strangers, one of whom asks the other for the time. The respondent, obviously searching for some kind of timepiece, but unwilling to simply remain silent (thus possibly giving the interlocutor a wrong message, such as “I’m deaf; did not hear your request”), says “Erm… uhhh….” before finding the timepiece and announcing the time. No problem with this; I teach the importance of flow in conversation to my students, and it’s one of the reasons I like and use AlmaLang’s Conversations in Class, especially its Cultural Golden Rules of English conversation (pdf).

McCarthy then gave another example of confluence or cooperation between speakers in conversation: leaving a question half-finished with a hanging “or?”, such as, “So, you wanna have lunch, or…?” with several examples from the corpora of spoken English. McCarthy pointed out that it would be odd, strange, abrupt for the interlocutor to follow this with a cold, “Or what?”, and this is the point, dear reader, where a doubt crept into your author’s mind.

I don’t disagree that it would be odd, or strange or cold to ask “Or what?”, but does this mean that speakers should avoid using this, simply because the corpora shows us that 99% of conversational exchanges show the speakers politely taking their turns and showing cooperation and confluence? There may be cases where you want to be cold and abrupt. Should we pattern our ways of speaking on that of the majority? Does the fact that “this is how most people speak” automatically mean that this is how I should speak? Isn’t this conversation by numbers?

McCarthy’s other main theme, apart from “fluency”, was that teachers can make use of this vast amount of corpora-data to identify what fluent speakers do with the (English) language, and then teach this to learners of English. The justification he gave was that by this means, teachers can help learners at least give an appearance of greater fluency. In other words, you take data on what most, fluent speakers of the language do, and then teach this to language learners so that they will sound like fluent speakers as soon as possible.

This has been tried before, in the area of language-learning strategies. The idea was first proposed by Joan Rubin and Anita Wenden in the classic A. Wenden & J. Rubin (Eds.), Learner strategies in language learning (145-156). London: Prentice Hall. The idea was, first, study efficient EFL learners’ language-learning strategies; then, teach those strategies to other, less efficient, learners, and presto!

This idea morphed into teaching autonomous language-learning strategies to less autonomous students, as it seemed that efficient language-learners were autonomous. I have had less than stellar results with this theory.

McCarthy did not address the question of why non-fluent speakers do not use the strategies of fluent speakers. Is it because they are less quick-witted than fluent speakers, or is there something else at work? The parallel that occurred to me is that of infants learning to walk or talk. Why not “teach” crawling infants the techniques that “successful walkers” use? Then they could perhaps make faster progress towards walking.

Or, why not “teach” speaking strategies to babbling infants? The babblers could perhaps then speed through the annoying babbling stage and move more quickly into speech (or perhaps into “speech-sounding” verbal behaviour), that would most assuredly impress relatives and neighbours!

But perhaps there is a reason why infants go through a crawling phase before walking? Perhaps there is a reason why infants babble before speaking? (See Wikipedia’s entry on Jean Piaget’s developmental process model for children). Similarly, perhaps there is a reason why fluent speakers use such words as “actually” and why non-fluent speakers do not; i.e. because the use of “actually” in conversation requires a conceptual understanding of the target language that is beyond beginners or even intermediate speakers. Perhaps the progression from beginner to fluent speaker requires going through stages, like the stages of physical and mental development in infants; stages that can neither be rushed nor bypassed.  (Cf Second Language Acquisition: Developmental Patterns).

Although the theory sells a lot of books, I remain sceptical. And rather than training speakers to “sound” fluent when in fact they are not, I  prefer a more cognitive approach: helping people to express what they want to say, rather than “selling” them the most popular expressions and turns of phrase.


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Disclosure of Material Connection: My recommendations above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a commission. Your cost will be the same as if you order directly. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Yes we can… what?

The newspaper headline yesterday (Thursday, Nov. 6th, 2008) was イエス・ウィー・キャン  We can what? Americans pride themselves on being a can-do nation: not just a nation of practical people of ability, but also of an optimistic attitude that is expressed in that old chestnut: “The possible we do straight away. The impossible takes a little longer.” An admirable attitude, and one that is rooted in a strong sense and understanding of personal freedom, and the excitement that generates.

But just being able to do something (or anything) is not, in itself, suffficient. A sense of ethics, or a code of values, is also required in order to judge which of many possible courses of action should be chosen. In this area, recent events do not inspire immediate confidence. When I say “recent”, I include 1945 and the decision to drop not just one, but two atomic bombs on civilian populations.

And the other question that occurred to me as I read the headline was, “Who is ‘we’?” This is often an interesting, and fruitful, question to ask. In movies and popular fiction, the lead character is often a magnet for the viewers’ and readers’ hopes, fears, expectations and dreams. In the opening chapters (actually, more like the first third- to one-half of the book) of any Harry Potter novel, Harry himself actually does very little: he more of a foil for all the other characters. But the reader imagines himself or herself in Harry’s shoes and easily relates to his situations – of embarrassment, of anger, of alienation, of revenge, of being mistreated and misunderstood. Harry needs to do very little. The reader does most of the work.

In a similar way, when a politician says “we”, he or she does not need to define this “we”: the listeners, viewers or readers fill in the empty space by themselves.

I was reminded of an article by GoldMoney founder James Turk, Government Money or Sound Money? in which Turk takes the government to task for the proposed $700 billion bailout. Turk wrote,

Secretary Paulson even brought out an old bromide to justify this pillaging of American taxpayers: “The financial security of all Americans…depends on our ability to restore our financial institutions to a sound footing.”

Note the use of the communistic “our” in Paulson’s quote. It’s not “our financial institutions”. I don’t own any bank stock, nor do most Americans. What’s more, it’s not the “financial security of all Americans” that is at stake here.

Well spotted, Mr Turk.


I recommend the following digital products: WP GDPR Fix, a WordPress plugin that quickly and easily helps you make your WP blog GDPR compliant. Brett Kelly's "Evernote Essentials", Dan Gold's $5 guides to Getting Everything Done with Evernote and Springpad, and DocumentSnap Solutions' Paperless Document Organization Guides. Be sure to try DocumentSnap's free email course on going paperless first before buying his products. Sign up for it on his homepage.
Disclosure of Material Connection: My recommendations above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a commission. Your cost will be the same as if you order directly. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Japanese version of “The Office” and other Japan news

Thanks to Japan Probe, I discovered that the British comedy series The Office had a Japanese inspiration. Like The Office itself, people seem to either love it or not find it funny at all.

And speaking of Japan news, those foreigners living in Japan may be glad to know that the term “gaijin” has been officially banned and replaced with a longer (and hence more respectful), erm, replacement. Thanks to Japan Probe and The Outside World News for this tidbit.

One commenter to the above notes that he discourages his students from using the word “foreigner” because

I mean, it can sound a bit silly when people say “I want to live in London and make friends with foreigners.” I ask them if they want to make friends with Japanese people in London? and they say no, of course not….

My other reason for discouraging “foreign” is that the word does have the implication of “something that does not belong/should not be there”. Think about “foreign object”, “foreign ideas”, etc. There are many other much nicer words that can be used.

Not sure about the “nicer words”; “more specific” perhaps, and why not point out that “should not be there” is not an intrinsic characteristic of things non-Japanese? It may well be the first time Japanese students of English have been made aware of this.


I recommend the following digital products: WP GDPR Fix, a WordPress plugin that quickly and easily helps you make your WP blog GDPR compliant. Brett Kelly's "Evernote Essentials", Dan Gold's $5 guides to Getting Everything Done with Evernote and Springpad, and DocumentSnap Solutions' Paperless Document Organization Guides. Be sure to try DocumentSnap's free email course on going paperless first before buying his products. Sign up for it on his homepage.
Disclosure of Material Connection: My recommendations above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a commission. Your cost will be the same as if you order directly. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. This disclosure is in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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