Grammar and the teaching of conversation

Michael McCarthy

What has grammar got to do with conversation? Michael McCarthy takes a look at corpus data to explore how grammar influences how we organise information and use tenses in natural conversation.

This article brings together two aspects of language teaching which are not often dealt with at the same time: grammar and conversation. We often think of grammar as the abstract set of rules that enable us to talk about things like time (the different tenses), position (e.g. in, at, on), number and quantity (e.g. some vs any, countable vs uncountable nouns), conditions (e.g. structures with if and unless), making things negative (e.g. not, none, nobody) and so on. And when we think of conversation, we often think of enabling students to talk about their lives, their families, their ambitions, their activities, world issues, how to thank people or apologize, and so on. So, what has grammar got to do with conversation? If we learn enough grammar to express our ideas accurately, isn’t that enough?

When we look at a large corpus of informal conversation, we find that speakers exploit grammar to do a lot more than just talk about time, quantity, conditionality, etc. Speakers use grammar to organize conversation, to engage with one another, to show they are active listeners, to keep the conversation flowing smoothly and to create and maintain the right kinds of relationships, depending on who they are talking to. Some of the ways we use grammar in conversation may not be obvious at first; that’s because conversation happens in real time, ‘online’, so to speak, and it’s quite difficult to reflect and be objective about how we speak – it is much easier to reflect and be objective about what we write. That is why we need good corpora of natural conversation to see exactly how people interact and in what ways grammar serves interaction and makes it successful. When we see how grammar works in conversation, then we understand how important it is to see grammar as an integral part of the teaching of speaking, not as something abstract and separated from what we do in the conversation class.

Let’s look at some examples of how the tenses (present and past) and their different aspects (e.g. simple versus continuous/progressive) are used to create appropriate relationships. A student might come to me as their teacher and say, “I wonder if I can talk to you about my essay”. Another student might say, “I was wondering if I could talk to you about my essay”. They are both grammatically correct but the second student sounds less direct, less in my face, less demanding and imposing. It’s not just a question of being polite; it’s a question of human respect and consideration for the other person. But the only difference is a change in the grammar, from simple present to past continuous/progressive on the verb wonder and the use of could instead of can. Most language learners encounter the past continuous/progressive form at lower-intermediate level, typically in contexts like “I was cycling to school when I saw an old friend of mine”, or “I was living in Berlin and studying at the university at the time”. In other words, we focus on the tense and aspect as a way of speaking about time, rather than as a resource to create a good relationship.

Speakers use the tenses and aspects to create appropriate relationships; in the example above, the purpose was to show respect and a desire not to impose on the other person. However, sometimes, we can be very direct and friendly at the same time, especially to people we are close to, or with whom we have a very informal relationship. In this case, we can use ellipsis, which is a term that describes the non-use of an item or items of grammar which we would normally consider obligatory (especially in formal writing). If you say to a friend who looks a bit worried, “You okay?” instead of “Are you okay?”, this suggests an informal, friendly relationship. Or a teacher might say, “Everyone finished?” after giving students time to do a task, instead of “Has everyone finished?”; that teacher is being friendly and informal towards the students. On the other hand, it may not be appropriate to say to a prospective employer at a job interview, “Want to have a look at my portfolio?” – something along the lines of “Do you want to / Would you like to have a look at my portfolio?” would be a better choice.

Grammar also contributes to how we organize information in conversation. If someone says, “That restaurant we went to last night, it was very unusual”, they are using “two subjects”, that restaurant and it. We would not normally do that in writing (we would just write “That restaurant we went to last night was very unusual”). By saying that restaurant instead of the restaurant, the speaker is saying, “you know the one I mean”, and by repeating the subject with it, the speaker is saying, “this is my topic, this is something new I want to talk about or emphasize in some way”. Exploiting the grammar in this way is very typical of conversation; speakers take care to organize information in ways which make it clear for the listener(s) and easier to process.

So, some choices we make when we use grammar can affect the relationships we have with other people, and what is always important is to create the right relationship for the situation. Other grammatical choices enable us to organize information in ways that help the listener. When we look at a large spoken corpus of everyday language, we can see the grammar hard at work creating successful and efficient conversation. That is why teaching conversation is about much more than teaching the vocabulary students need to talk about different subjects, or the grammar they need to express concepts such as time and place accurately. Grammar plays a very important role in conversation, and grammar and conversation belong together in the classroom and in teaching materials.

Help your learners become aware of common spoken grammar errors with this free classroom poster! 

> Download the conversation common errors poster


On Wednesday 7th March Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten and Helen Sandiford will be exploring this topic further and providing practical examples in a webinar on ‘Integrating grammar and the teaching of conversation’ Make sure to register here!



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