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Concourse 2

Understanding speaking


What makes speaking difficult?

Many learners of English, when asked, will state that speaking is the hardest skill to master.  It often is, and there are good reasons for this.  Think for a moment about what makes speaking difficult.  There are two sorts of factors at work: productive and social factors.

Productive factors Social factors
context dependent – what we say and how we say it depends on the context (where we are, what we are doing, who we are addressing etc.) innovative – when we speak we often have to extemporise if, e.g., we can't find the right word or need a new concept
unplanned – unlike writing, we usually have very little time to plan what we are going to say (or no time at all) informal – and often expected to be colloquial and idiomatic
transient – no record is kept (usually) of what we say so we can't backtrack very far to amend and adjust rhetorical – speakers are often trying to  inform, persuade or motivate (compare writing which is often used very logically and in an orderly way)
dynamic – speaking is interactional.  What we say depends heavily on what is said to us. inter-personal – we need to respond directly to our audience which may be sceptical, argumentative or downright hostile

In what ways do you think these factors make speaking a difficult skill to master?  When you have a few notes of what your initial reaction for each factor is, click here.

Add all these factors together and we get three major processing pressures:

  1. Time
  2. Preparation level
  3. Topic familiarity

and three main social pressures:

  1. Size of the audience
  2. Familiarity with the audience
  3. Roles of the people involved


Easing the pressure

To help our learners, we need first of all to look at the ways that native speakers deal with all these issues.  Here's how they do it:

Processing pressures Coping strategies
Time Native speakers deal with this pressure in a number of ways:
  1. they take account of what knowledge is shared so are happy to use short cuts.  We can refer to things outside the conversation which are known and we can make extensive reference to the environment.  For example, I'll meet you in the pub ..., You see that car over there ... etc.
  2. they also leave things out when they aren't necessary (Not the blue, the yellow, I wouldn't. etc.).  That's called ellipsis.
  3. they use lots of formulaic expressions such as D'you see?, In one way or another, Whether or not that's true, If you say so etc.  Native speakers deploy these as if they were single words.
Preparation level Native speakers don't plan.  They are happy to string ideas together as they occur using simple connectors like ... and ... and ... or ... and then ... and then ... or ...so... so ... etc.  That's called parataxis.
Speakers will also, more rarely, use what's called hypotaxis (The car over the road, The man I saw in the café etc.  Listeners don't expect to hear well-formed, planned utterances in most cases.
In this case, too, native speakers are happy to resort to colloquial and imprecise language and to simplification.  One of the hallmarks of spoken language is that it is simpler than written language, both grammatically and lexically.
False starts (He was with his friends ... Actually not all of them were his friends but anyway etc.) are common.
Topic familiarity Native speakers are least at ease and least competent when talking about unfamiliar subjects so they tend to avoid them, keep quiet or speak more slowly with lots of fillers such as, Well, let me think, I'm not sure but .. etc.
Social pressures Coping strategies
Audience size If called on to speak to large numbers of people (and 'large' is a relative term), native speakers take opportunities to prepare what they will say carefully or use notes.
Familiarity with the audience When speaking to people we don't know, native speakers often use more formal or neutral language, avoiding slang and colloquialism.  They also say less.
Roles When roles are equal or the speaker is in a superior role, speakers feel free to use all the tactics above to make speaking easier.  When speaking to superiors, preparation is needed and a more formal tone adopted.


Helping the listener

Apart from helping themselves process and produce language under pressure, native speakers also help the listener in a number of ways in the effort to be clear.  These include:

  • substituting one word for another (That image ... er ... photograph over there is ...)
  • repetition (The picture of ...  the picture of the man and the woman ... with the woman in the background ...)
  • reformulation (It's set in a large building ... like a warehouse or a hanger or something ... and there are ...)
  • self-correction (I started to get on the train ... no, I was still on the platform, in fact, and I saw him ...)


Turn taking

In addition to all this, speakers have a repertoire of ways to keep conversation moving along by signalling opportunities to take turns in speaking.  There are five things that speakers have to know about turn taking (from Bygate 1987):

  1. Knowing how to show that you want to speak.  This can involve noises or phrases (Hmm.  Yes, but ...), gestures, intakes of breath and a number of other tactics.
  2. Recognising when to take a turn.  Speakers often signal appropriate moments by assuming eye contact, falling voice volume or stopping and looking.
  3. How to hold one's turn by such techniques as starting with Well there are two things here ... or keeping the intonation up to show you haven't finished.
  4. Recognising other people's desire to take a turn (in other words, noticing the signals in 1., above).
  5. Knowing how to let them have a turn by gesture, look or phrase such as the use of question tags or straightforward questions.

There is a separate guide to turn-taking skills – covering what they are and how to teach them – on this site.


The structure of conversation: IRF sequences

No analysis of speaking would be complete without some discussion of how conversation is structured.  A simple but effective way of analysing this structure is to consider 3 main phases.  The following is based on Tsui 1994:

  1. Initiation.
    There are four ways to start a conversation:
    1. Elicit (ask if).  E.g., Have you eaten?
    2. Request (ask to).  E.g., Can I ask you something?
    3. Direct (tell to).  E.g., Pay attention to this; it's important.
    4. Inform (tell that).  E.g., I noticed you didn't come to the meeting.
  2. Response
    There are three types of response to an initiation.  For example to the Initiation, Can you do me a favour? we can have:
    1. Positive (preferred): Yes, sure, what can I do?
    2. Negative (dispreferred): Sorry, I need to go now.
    3. Temporising (dispreferred): Maybe.  Will it take long?
  3. Follow up
    There are also three sorts.  Following from the three responses above, we can have:
    1. Endorsement (positive).  Great.
    2. Concession (negative outcome).  Oh, I see.
    3. Acknowledgement (negative outcome).  It's OK, I'll get John to help.

So we can have an analysis like this in the three 'moves' in a conversation:

Utterance Move
Where did you buy your shirt? Initiate: elicit
From a company called Homeware. Respond: positive
Thank you. Follow-up: positive outcome

This is nice and simple but there's a problem.  Real people just don't talk like this.  Here's a more natural-sounding conversation.  Can you do the analysis into I R F moves?  Click on the table when you have.

IRF task

Whether you got all that right or not doesn't matter too much now.  What does matter is that you see why this conversation is more natural than the last one.  Click here when you see it.

All the above is teachable but before we see how, take a test to make sure you have understood.
From there, you can go on the guide to teaching speaking.

Bygate, M, 1987, Speaking. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Tsui, A. B. M, 1994, English Conversation. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Other references you may find helpful:
Brown, G. & Yule, G, 1983, Teaching the Spoken Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Bilbrough, N, 2007, Dialogue Activities: Exploring Spoken Interaction in the Language Class, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hughes, R, 2002, Teaching and Researching Speaking, Harlow: Longman
Luoma, S, 2004, Assessing Speaking, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Maley, A. & Duff, A, 1982, Drama Techniques in Language Learning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Porter Ladousse, G, 1987, Role Play, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Rogerson, P. & Gilbert, J.S, 1990, Speaking clearly: pronunciation and listening comprehension for learners of English Student's Book, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press