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Concourse 2

Turn taking

turn taking

Turn-taking is an area of conversational analysis in which it may be defined as the study of the ways people take, use, construct and hand over turns in a conversation.  Richards (1992: 68) describes turn-taking this way:

Conversation is a collaborative process.  A speaker does not say everything he or she wants to say in a single utterance.  Conversations progress as a series of “turns”; at any moment, the speaker may become the listener.
(Richards, 1992:68)

It is important to be clear from the outset that turn-taking is not the same as interrupting.  In fact, interruption per se is rare when people are speaking and almost invariably seen as discourteous if not downright rude.  In general, Anglophone speakers do not talk over each other and do not break inappropriately into other people's turns.
Turn taking is also not the same as backchannelling which occurs during a turn with the listener indicating interest, surprise, encouragement and so on.  There is a separate guide to backchannelling linked in the list of related guides at the end, or you can go to it now.
What turn-taking does involve is the awareness of how to signal that a turn is finished, how to show that one wants a turn and, having got it, hold it.



This is an area very heavily influenced by considerations of cultural appropriacy.  What follows is an analysis of turn-taking in some English-speaking (Anglophone) cultures but even within a speech community (which for the English language as a whole is around a third of a billion people) conventions will differ.
The main varieties of English in use as a first language include American English, British English, Indian English, South African English, Canadian English, Australian English, Irish English and New Zealand English.
Other countries, including the Philippines, Jamaica and Nigeria, also have millions of native speakers of English.
If we add in the number of people for whom English is a second language (probably around a billion) using English in certain settings such as for commercial, technical or administrational purposes, the picture becomes even more blurred.  When English is employed as a second language, the surrounding cultural norms concerning turn taking may impose a structure wholly unlike cultures in which English is used as a first language.
An important consideration in this area is the culturally determined toleration of silence.  Richards (op cit.) states, drawing on Wardhaugh, that

A basic rule of conversation is that only one person speaks at a time, and in North American settings participants work to ensure that talk is continuous.  Silence or long pauses are considered awkward and embarrassing, even though in other cultures this is not the case.

The pause length between turns that people will tolerate is closely aligned to cultural issues.  In Anglophone countries, especially North America, pause length is kept as low as possible and the same applies, in general terms, to Greek, Spanish, Russian and many Arabic-speaking cultures.  East Asian cultures, by contrast, tolerate and even expect inter-turn pauses to be considerably longer (Pöhaker, 1998:16).

Coulthard (1985: 55/56) also suggests, drawing on ethnographic research, for example, that:

French children are encouraged to be silent when visitors are present at dinner, Russian children are encouraged to talk.

They also report (op cit.) that Eskimos in Iceland may spend over an hour with neighbours during which there will be no more than half a dozen exchanges and that a typical feature of New York Jewish interaction is overlapping utterances which are intended to show enthusiasm and interest but which may show the exact opposite in other cultures, in which continual enthusiastic feedback may be viewed as a lack of attention and respect.

Another important consideration in this area is the concept of power distance because this is very variable across cultures.  The narrower the power distances between people, the more likely interruption, talking over and maintaining a turn despite interruption will be tolerated.  In cultures with conventionally large power distances handing over a turn may be confined to those in authority and interruption or grabbing a turn may be culturally disparaged.
Singapore, Hong Kong and India where there are millions of speakers of English as a first language (often bilingually) have greater cultural power distances than do countries such as The United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand with concomitant intolerance of interruption by the less powerful participants.
For more, see the guide to learning style and culture and the article on power distance and uncertainty avoidance.



The setting in which the language is being used will also be influential.  In formal situations, such as business meetings, lectures, committee meetings, press conferences, presentations and so on, turn taking may be rigidly controlled by a chair, the presenter or the educator.  In these settings, turn taking will be by invitation and one person will decide who speaks, when, on what topic and for how long.
In these circumstances, turn-taking skills are little needed because the participant has no freedom to deploy them.
Chairing meetings and ensuring that turns are taken equitably is a skill in itself requiring, inter alia:

It is in less formal settings, such as conversations between equals, in small groups or pairs, that turn-taking skills come to the fore.


Turn-taking skills

Can I just say ... ?

Bygate (1987: 39) identifies five skills that speakers need efficiently to manage conversations.  It bears stating the rather obvious that both speakers need the skills if a conversation is to be successful in this regard.  These skills are reciprocal.  The ability to signal that you want a turn includes the ability to recognise such signals in others and signalling the end of your turn involves recognising such signals in others so the list may be reduced from five skills to three:

  1. Recognising the right moment to have a turn and signalling the end of your turn
  2. Knowing how to signal that you want to speak and recognising when others want to speak
  3. Resisting interruption: holding the floor

We could, following Thornbury (2005), add another skill and that is signalling that you are listening but this does not only apply to turn taking, of course.  Backchannelling is a skill that applies during turns, not at the interface between turns.  There is little doubt that some back-channelling utterances can develop into a turn-taking event because the speaker may perceive them as signalling the wish to take a turn but they are not in and of themselves, turn-taking devices.
The guide to backchannelling linked in the list of related guides at the end, has more.

It is by no means the case that native speakers are all equally proficient in these skills.

Recognising the right moment to have a turn and signalling the end of your turn

There are several linguistic and paralinguistic ways in which we recognise that it is appropriate to take a turn in a conversation.  The key in English is recognising completion or, better, potential completion.
This is also known in the literature as a transition-relevance point or TRP (Sachs, Schegloff & Jefferson, 1974).
Taking turns smoothly depends on recognising a suitable TRP.

The current speaker may, and often does, signal the completion of a thought or sentence by taking control not only over who speaks next but what they say.  This is done in three ways:

Selection and constraint
A speaker may select the next person to take a turn, either by naming them or by alluding to them in some way.  For example:
    What do you say, John?
    Well, we have an expert here, don't we?
    What do those who actually live there think?

In this case, the next speaker has often been constrained in terms of the form of his or her turn by what the current speaker says.
It may be the case that the current speaker produces the first item of an adjacency pair such as:
    I'm sorry if I've gone on about it (an apology)
followed by the next speaker's
    That's OK, it's important to you (expressing forgiveness)
A speaker may signal the end of a turn by constraining the form of the next utterance but not selecting a speaker to perform it.  For example,
    Does anyone know what time it goes?
constrains the next utterance to the expression of information or the expression of ignorance.  Who actually speaks has not been selected unless, of course, there are only two participants, in which case, the formulation would be
    Do you know what time it goes?
Tag questions are frequently used in this respect.  For example:
    It's a disgrace, isn't it?
with falling intonation inviting the next turn to be an agreement)
    I thought it was awful, didn't you?
with rising intonation signalling that the next turn will be an expression of opinion one way or the other
Open-ended turn passing
A speaker may do neither of the above and simply signal the fact that his or her turn has finished by falling silent, finishing with falling intonation or shifting gaze.
In this case, it is up to the listeners to self-select who is going to continue the interaction and the direction in which it will go.

Interestingly, these three turn-passing mechanisms come in order of precedence.  If a speaker has selected who is to take the next turn, that is the person who will speak next.  If someone else takes the turn instead, participants will often see it as inappropriate and take steps to repair the interaction with statements such as
    Yes, what do you think, Mary?
If a speaker has constrained the type of utterance that the next turn will be, that is what happens, whoever speaks next.  If there are no constraints and no selection, anyone can speak next and perform any chosen function.

All of this is premised on the ability of listeners to identify potential completion.  How they do this is slightly mysterious but some commonalties are discernible.

Predicted sentence completion
Listeners are often able to predict with fair accuracy how a sentence will finish so for example:
    A: Sorry we are as bit late, the traffic was
B: Awful, yes it always is on Fridays
Assumed sentence completion
Speakers may also select the correct moment to intervene when they identify a place in the previous speaker's utterance where they can insert their own view of the facts.  This is a syntactical skill of recognising when a clause is complete.  This may often occur after subordinating conjunctions because the type of conjunction usually signals the type of subordinate clause which will follow.  For example:
    A: I didn't speak to her because, erm (falling pitch and volume)
    B: she was too busy.  Yes, she often is, isn't she?
(Coulthard (op cit.: 64)) reports that in one study, it was found that 28% of all interruptions occurred after a conjunction.)
However, if the subordinating conjunction is stressed and spoken with a higher pitch, that is a signal that the speaker wishes to maintain the turn as in, e.g.:
    I haven't done that yet because ... (rising pitch and volume)
Speakers may also take over a turn and insert their own subordinating conjunction such as:
    A: I'd met her, actually, erm
    B: before the meeting.
Sometimes, speakers may simply fall silent to signal completion.  If no subsequent speaker starts almost immediately, the speaker may take up the turn again.  In most cases, however, because silence is to be avoided, another speaker will almost always take a turn.
Intonation, pace and pitch
According to Brazil (1997), speakers may signal the end of a turn by:
Slowing down
Speaking more quietly
Lowering the voice pitch
This is not a trivial matter as people who have deliberately altered their voice tone to sound more serious and less strident have discovered.  A classic example, described in some technical detail by Beattie, Cutler and Pearson (1982) is the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher's attempt to sound less shrill and hysterical by lowering her voice tone and pitch.  The result was that she inadvertently sent turn-passing signals to interviewers who, predictably, interrupted her much more often.

Knowing how to signal that you want to speak and recognising when others want to speak

If the previous speaker has selected the next, signalling that you want to speak is, naturally, unnecessary.  However, in other cases, such signals are very important.
Providing that you have correctly identified a potential or actual completion, there are a number of ways of doing this and starting your turn.

Speakers can, at the clear end of someone else's turn, simply start a new direction with expressions such as:
    Well, let me straight away tell you what I think
    I can't agree with much of that because ...

Initiations like these rarely form interruptions and usually come when an end-of-turn signal has been sent.
As we have seen interruptions are often in the form of predicted or assumed sentence completions but they needn't be.  However, they still need to be timed correctly at potential completion points because they otherwise appear rude and discourteous.  They need to be carefully hedged and produced with the correct intonation, usually a fall-rise pattern, if they are not to offend.  For example:
    Before you go on ...
    Could I just say ...
It's important to distinguish between interruptions and interjections.  The former acts as the opening of a new turn, the latter may just be a momentary insertion into someone else's turn and a form of back-channelling.  For example:
    Oh, yes, that's true
interjection, after which the speaker will simply continue
    Now stop right there
interruption, at which point the speaker may hand over the turn or resist the interruption (see below).
Paralinguistic signals
Although culturally variable (and quite possibly perilous to experiment with) such signals include:
    taking a sharp intake of breath
    leaning forward
    raising a finger or hand
    shaking your head
    shaking your hand side to side
    exclamations such as Ha!, Whoa!, Ah, ha!

Resisting interruption: holding the floor

Even when a listener has recognised a potential completion, or Transition Relevance Point, it is possible for a speaker to resist interruption and we can do this in a number of ways:

Intonation, pace and pitch
Slowing down, speaking more quietly and lowering voice pitch are all ways of signalling the end of a turn so
    Speeding up
    Speaking more loudly
    Raising the voice pitch
are all ways of resisting interruption.  Doing the opposite, as Margaret Thatcher discovered, invites rather than resists interruption.
Referring explicitly to the interruption
Speakers may resist interruption by referring to the fact that it has been attempted.  For example:
    If I might just finish
    Let me finish
    No, I want to make this point

    Just a moment, please
etc. all in response to an attempted interruption.
Incompletion markers
It is possible for speakers to insert markers (often subordinating conjunctions) to signal that a thought is incomplete.  Usually, these must be emphasised and produced with a rising rather than falling intonation.  For example:
    I may be wrong but ↗ ...
    The situation will get worse
because ...
This is an unsophisticated approach because, as we saw, such conjunctions may be heard as potential completions and invite interruption through predicted sentence completion.  Syntax may override intonation in this case.
Initial markers
A slightly more sophisticated approach is to place the conjunction at the beginning of the utterance and to use a rising tone on the last element of the clause in, e.g.:
    Because there is such uncertainty ...
    If the situation goes on like this ...

because this makes it more difficult for people to assume or predict the completing thought.
Speakers can signal in advance when a turn will finish by pre-structuring signals such as:
    I need to say two things here ...
    Firstly, ...
    There are two obvious problems

Pre-structuring acts make it much more difficult for interruptions to occur until both (or all three etc.) points have been made.  If you listen to an experienced politician being interviewed, you'll see how effective this technique can be.  Here's an example from Coulthard (op cit.: 64):

Now I think one can see several major areas here ... there's first the question ... now the second big area of course is the question of how you handle incomes and I myself believe that we have to establish in Britain two fundamental principles.  First of all ...
(Denis Healey: Analysis, BBC Radio 4)

The fewer the uses of hesitations and fillers such as erm, well, y'know, like etc. the less vulnerable the speaker is to interruption.
Fluency can be maintained, however, by the use of pre-fabricated fillers spoken quite loudly with rising tones such as:
    Well, let me think for a minute
    My own opinion is ...
    Let me make this clear



Teaching turn-taking skills

There are poor ways to do this:

  1. To ignore the area and assume that these skills will somehow be absorbed or transferred from the learners' first languages(s).
    There are associated problems with this:
    1. Skills like this, especially in terms of the language which is used will only be absorbed if the learners are exposed to and required to notice the language and techniques.
    2. We saw above that turn-taking is an area in which the learners' cultures play a hugely significant role.  Not to teach how turn-taking is accomplished in Anglophone environments is a serious omission for learners who will need to operate in those settings.
  2. To confuse turn-taking with backchannelling.  Although there is undoubtedly some overlap between these two types of discourse marker, they are distinct categories.  Conflating them leads to bewilderment and the inducing of error in the learners' production and ability to handle conversational language.
  3. To teach the language without teaching the purposes for which the language is used.  This generally decays into a kind of phrase-book approach in which learners are given dubiously useful sets of language exponents but are not able to use them appropriately because the setting and purposes have not been made clear.
    1. While it is useful to have a set of language chunks at one's disposal, some of the following are not used for turn-taking per se but to introduce a speaker's turn, re-start a turn or simply indicate interest (i.e., backchannelling).
      Using them inappropriately as turn-grabbers may often be considered rude.  Knowing how to use them appropriately, on the other hand, is a real aid to fluency because they are pre-fabricated and do not need to be constructed from scratch.  There's more on this at the end of this guide under teaching ideas.
    2. Sets of exponents might include, for example:
      1. that reminds me (= I am continuing the same topic and starting my turn)
      2. by the way (= I am indicating a topic change and starting my turn)
      3. well anyway (= I am returning to the topic and re-starting my turn after an interruption)
      4. like I say (= I am repeating what I said before and re-starting my turn after an interruption)
      5. yes, but (= I am indicating a difference of opinion and trying to take a turn)
      6. yes, no I know (= I am indicating agreement with a negative idea and interjecting rather than interrupting)
      7. uh-huh (= I am listening and I don't want a turn)
        (based on Thornbury, op cit.)

Awareness raising

Many learners (and not a few teachers) are unaware how and to what extent cultures differ in this area.  Before we can begin to teach the area, learners need to be convinced that there is something worth learning.
A little cross-cultural awareness-raising is called for.
In mono-cultural settings with all the learners from the same culture, especially if the teacher shares awareness of the culture's norms, this is comparatively straightforward because we only need to tackle the differences between two cultures.
In more diverse settings, the situation is more complex, albeit more interesting as well.
Guessing games are a way of doing this.  For example, a simple questionnaire to discuss in pairs or small groups (putting learners who share cultures into the same groups) can work well.  Like this:

In your culture, can you interrupt? Yes No Sometimes
In a formal business meeting      
When chatting with friends      
Talking to your friend's father      
At a dinner party      
In a school classroom      
When someone is telling a story      
When someone is giving a speech      
When your boss is explaining something      
In a television interview      
When your mother is giving you advice      
When someone is giving you directions      

How you approach this and what the settings are will vary, of course.  One way is to get people to fill in the grid individually and then get them to explain their choices to a friend.  Alternatively, you can discuss the outcomes as a whole class, focusing especially on what prompts a 'sometimes' answer.  For example, it may be OK to interrupt a colleague in a business meeting but not your superior.  It may also be in order to interrupt a classmate but not the teacher.
The next step is to run the same exercise but focus on what is acceptable in an Anglophone environment such as Britain, Australia or the USA.
The answers may well surprise people.


Keeping things distinct

You cannot hope to teach all the subskills and techniques concerned with turn taking in a single lesson or short series of lessons.
You need, therefore, to look at the analysis above and take one area at a time.  A good place to start is with identifying when speakers want to pass a turn and how they signal completion.  They may do this in a number of ways (see the analysis above).
Almost any good coursebook will come with a few dialogues either audio or video recorded and these can be mined for examples of how people signal the ends of turns.
If you don't have this kind of resource, it is not difficult to make a recording of two or more speakers passing the turns in a conversation.  Any recording you make should show examples of

Once people have recognised where to interrupt and take a turn you can go on to suggesting how to take up a turn (sentence completion, new initiation etc.).  It is not possible to do that until you have made the learners aware of when to take a turn, of course.
Once they do know how to recognise the appropriate moment to start their turn, you can get into the phrase-book teaching of terms such as
    That reminds me ...
    Yes, but ...
    I know, awful isn't it?

and so on.
All of these sorts of expressions are useful but only if you know when to deploy them.
For example, using a backchannelling device as a turn grabber will often result in some breakdown in rapport if not communication.
In summary, a teaching programme could usefully be divided into distinct areas such as:

  1. Knowing when:
    1. recognising selection
    2. recognising constraints on turn content and function (adjacency pairs)
    3. recognising open-ended turn passing
  2. Knowing how
    1. predicted sentence completion
    2. assumed sentence completion
    3. initiation
    4. interruption
    5. paralinguistic signals
  3. Holding the floor
    1. intonation and pace
    2. reference to the interruption and its rejection
    3. incompletion markers
    4. initial markers (usually subordinating conjunctions placed at the beginning of a sentence)
    5. pre-structuring

Some ideas

Recognising selection and constraints

For awareness raising of selection and constraints on the function of the next turn:

Choose the 'correct' turn tick or x
1 Peter: What do you think, John? Mary: Great idea!  
    John: What should we do?  
    John: I'm not too sure it'll work   
    John: Where's Fred?  
2 Mary: ... and then we came home to get warm John: I can imagine you needed to  
    Peter: As I was saying ...  
    Jane: Why?  
3 Jane: We couldn't fit the sofa in the car ... Peter: So they called me, of course   
    Mary: I know how you feel  
    John: That reminds me of a time in America  

Step two is to use prompts such as the ones in this little exercise to get learners to produce rather than just recognise the appropriate speaker and the appropriate corresponding function.
That can be done either as a whole-class exercise with the teacher providing the correct falling intonation or pauses or / then in small groups equipped with prompt cards.

Predicting or assuming sentence completion

This can be tackled in a similar way by setting up exercises for learners to recognise the appropriate sentence completion (often with utterances finishing with a conjunction of some kind).  Like this, perhaps:

What's the next turn? tick or x
1 Peter: So we had to stop because, erm, ... Mary: It had got too dark, hadn't it?  
    John: So what did you do?  
    Jane: How awful!  
    Jim: Why?  
2 Mary: We took him to the hospital then, erm, ... Jane: Why?  
    Peter: As I was saying ...  
    John: And was he OK?  
3 Jane: They couldn't give me my money back, of course, ... Peter: So what happened then?  
    Mary: Because you'd worn them, right?  
    John: I had the same problem  

Again, after learners can recognise the correct predicted or assumed sentence completion, they can go on to providing one for prompts either from the teacher or from their classmates.
You'll need to practise the paralinguistic features associated with being prepared to give up your turn to do this successfully before you ask the learners to dive in to an exercise.

Paralinguistic features

These need first to be demonstrated either through a video (TV soap operas are a good source) or via the teacher.  Again, focus is important so that the cultural appropriacy of each feature and how it is performed can be learnt.  You need to focus on the features identified above, i.e.:

but not all at once!
Practising these can be fun and getting learners to act out short dialogues they have written containing three of them at least can be productive and engaging.

Holding the floor

This is a complex skill so needs to be broken down carefully into the five or so techniques analysed in this guide.  It is also a culturally determined issue because many learners, from cultures more polite and deferential than Anglophone nations, may be unaware of the need even to have a technique or two.
As above, teaching in this area can proceed from recognition (by demonstration) to practice (with one learner having to reject interruption, override it or pre-structure a turn to avoid it happening).
Getting learners to prepare and then deliver short presentations is one way and another is the retailing of anecdotes and/or describing something, someone or somewhere they know well while others try to interrupt or spot potential completion points.
It can be engaging and productive but needs careful preparation and planning.
Some training in the use of pre-fabricated fillers is also helpful because, as we saw above, they can be deployed to gain thinking time and resist interruption.  Silence while a speaker thinks is often, in Anglophone societies, interpreted as a turn-passing signal and interruption will naturally follow.


Matching language form to function

Sooner or later, of course, you are going to have to teach the language that people need when taking turns or holding the floor.  As was noted above, ready-made, pre-fabricated chunks of language are great aids to fluency.  Inappropriately used, they are tantamount to worse than useless.
It pays, therefore, to focus on some simple areas of turn taking and introduce, present and practise only the language that applies to the particular function the speaker wants to perform.
Here are a few ideas:


I want to add something or ask something (and then you can go on):

Can I just add that ...?
Can I ask why / what / when / how etc.?
May / Can I ask a question here?
no entry

I want to hold on to my turn (I'll give it up when I have finished):

I need to say two things ...
There are two points here ...
Although it was a nice idea, ...
And what's more ...
Let me make this clear ...

I want to restart my turn after an interruption:

As I was saying ...
Anyway ...
Be that as it may ...
Now, where was I?
give way

I am giving up my turn voluntarily:

Don't you think so?
Go ahead.
Yes, sure.
Is that how you feel?
go back

I am giving back the turn to the last speaker:

Sorry.  What were you saying?
As you were saying, I think.
But you were saying ... 
(Based, slightly loosely, on ideas from Inara Couto)
It is simple to see how grids like that can be turned into awareness-raising, matching exercises and tasks.



Turn-taking skills are not an easy set of skills and techniques to learn so we need to make sure that the setting and topic are familiar to the learners so that they have the cognitive space to focus on the skill they are using, not the language they need to deploy in the interaction.  Maintaining fluency, for example, in an attempt to hold the floor can best be practised in a topic area in which the learner is comfortable operating.
A simple way to do this is to set the practice in a topic area that the learners are familiar with and will have little difficulty speaking to each other about.  Topics might include, therefore, an area which has recently been taught, personal anecdotes, giving opinions about everyday matters and so on.
We are not, for the most part, teaching the language exponents of interrupting and so on.  There is no reliable list of exponents and unwelcome interruption is, in any case, a rare turn-taking technique.  Here we are focused on a skill and on cultural awareness.

Related guides
speaking where you will find more on some of aspects of analysing and teaching the skill
context what it is, where it comes from and face-threatening acts
discourse the in-service index to more guides in this general area
backchannelling to see where the differences lie in related areas of analysis
learning style and culture for more on cultural aspects of language use and links to articles about culture
articles the link to the articles index

Beattie, GW, Cutler, A & Pearson, M, 1982, Why is Mrs Thatcher interrupted so often?, Nature, volume 300, pages 744–747
Brazil, D, 1997, The communicative value of intonation in English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Coulthard, M, 1985, An Introduction to Discourse Analysis, Harlow: Longman
Couto, I, no date, Turn-taking: whose turn is it anyway? available at http://www.luizotaviobarros.com/2012/02/turn-taking.html [accessed July 2017]  There are some other neat ideas there.
Pöhaker, K, 1998, Turn-taking and Gambits in Intercultural Communication, Graz, Austria: Karl-Franzens-Universität
Richards, J C, 1992, The Language Teaching Matrix, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Sachs H, Schegloff E, and Jefferson G, 1974, A Simplest Systematics for the organisation of turn-taking for conversation, Language, Vol. 50, No. 4, Part 1, pp. 696-735
Thornbury, S, 2005, How to teach Speaking, Harlow: Longman