Teaching speaking #2 – Styles and functions of speaking; talk as interaction (i)

Jack Richards

In the second part of his new series on teaching speaking, Interchange author Jack C. Richards explores different styles and functions of speaking.

Styles of speaking

An important dimension of conversation is using a style of speaking that is appropriate to the particular circumstances. Different styles of speaking reflect the roles, age, sex, and status of participants in interactions and also reflect the expression of politeness. Consider the various ways in which it is possible to ask someone the time, and the different social meanings that are communicated by these differences.

  • Got the time?
  • I guess it must be quite late now?
  • What’s the time?
  • Do you have the time?
  • Can I bother you for the time?
  • You wouldn’t have the time, would you?


Lexical, phonological, and grammatical changes may be involved in producing a suitable style of speaking, as the following alternatives illustrate:

  • Have you seen the boss? / Have you seen the manager? (lexical)
  • Whachadoin? / What are you doing? (phonological)
  • Seen Joe lately? / Have you seen Joe lately?

Different speech styles reflect perceptions of the social roles of the participants in a speech event. If the speaker and hearer are judged to be of more or less equal status, a casual speech style that stresses affiliation and solidarity is appropriate. If the participants are perceived as being of uneven power or status, a more formal speech style is appropriate, one that marks the dominance of one speaker over the other. Successful management of speech styles creates the sense of politeness that is essential for harmonious social relations (Brown and Levinson, 1978).

Functions of speaking

Numerous attempts have been made to classify the functions of speaking in human interaction. Brown and Yule (1983) made a useful distinction between the interactional functions of speaking, in which it serves to establish and maintain social relations, and the transactional functions, which focus on the exchange of information. In workshops with teachers and in designing my own materials, I use an expanded three-part version of Brown and Yule’s framework (after Jones, 1996, and Burns, 1998): talk as interaction; talk as transaction; talk as performance. Each of these speech activities is quite distinct in terms of form and function and requires different teaching approaches.

Talk as interaction

Talk as interaction refers to what we normally mean by “conversation” and describes interaction that serves a primarily social function. When people meet, they exchange greetings, engage in small talk, recount recent experiences, and so, on because they wish to be friendly and to establish a comfortable zone of interaction with others. The focus is more on the speakers and how they wish to present themselves to each other than on the message. Such exchanges may be either casual or more formal, depending on the circumstances, and their nature has been well described by Brown and Yule (1983). The main features of talk as interaction can be summarized as follows:

  • Has a primarily social function
  • Reflects role relationships
  • Reflects speaker’s identity
  • May be formal or casual
  • Uses conversational conventions
  • Reflects degrees of politeness
  • Employs many generic words
  • Uses conversational register
  • Is jointly constructed


Jack will be back soon with some further analysis of talk as interaction. Click the link to find the References-and-Further-Reading for this series of posts.

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