The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 9 – Functions and Spoken Discourse

Among the four language systems – Lexis, Grammar, Pronunciation, and Discourse, Discourse is often the one that is most neglected on the CELTA.  Some tutors might do an input session on functional language a la the functional syllabuses on the 1970s, but that is inevitably presented as formulaic lexis and nothing more.

Yet, spoken discourse governs the things we say and how appropriate they are in different circumstances. It explores how we assign significance to utterances and make sense of conversations. Without the study of discourse, lexis, grammar and pronunciation would remain stagnant concepts for it is through discourse that the other language systems interact with each other in a dynamic and fluid manner to create meaning.

Perhaps because it is so fluid and dynamic, many teachers and teacher trainers fear it, and do not know where to start teaching it.

On my CELTA, I give my trainees a taster of what discourse is all about and since Güven has kindly referred to me in his blogpost about this input session, I felt inclined to give the details of the session.

The day’s session started with a roleplay.

Trainees were put into their TP groups, with 5 in each group.

5 different rolecards were given to each of them.

The scenario: You are 5 old friends who have known each other for more than 10 years. You meet once every year to catch up. Each of you have a different quirk/idiosyncrasy.

 

The 5 characters in brief :

a)         1 has relationship problems with their partner and loves to complain and moan about it.

b)        1 is extremely touchy feely and likes to give the impression of being kind and supportive and likes playing the comforter.

c)         1 is a doer. He/She is solution-oriented, and likes offering suggestions and advice.

d)        1 has a very short attention span, gets bored easily and likes changing the topic.

e)         1 likes to criticize but does so with tact. He/ She always sees the negative side of everything and hates wimps.

The roleplay takes a good 10-15 minutes or so, and while monitoring, the trainer transcribes sentences she hears containing semi-fixed and fixed expressions that relate to particular discourse functions.

Relating to role (a), you would find expressions like

‘You won’t believe what xxx did!’;

‘I’m don’t know what to do’;

‘That reminds me, xxx is always + -ing’

.

Relating to role (b), you would find expressions like

Don’t worry’;

‘That’s such a pity’;

‘I’m so sorry to hear that’;

‘It’s not the end of the world’;

‘Things are going to get better’

.

Relating to role (c), you would find expressions like

Why don’t you + -ing?’;

‘How about + -ing?’;

‘You could + bare infinitive’;

‘You really should + bare infinitive’

.

Relating to role (d), you would find expressions like

‘By the way,…’;

‘Anyway,…’;

‘Come to think of it,….’;

‘Now that you mention it,…’

.

Relating to role (e), you would find expressions like

‘With all due respect,…’;

‘I don’t mean to be mean/harsh, but…’;

‘If you don’t mind me saying, …’;

‘To be honest,…’;

‘I see where you are coming from but…’

.

You might also find:

Hedging and softening devices like

It’s sort of…’;

‘It’s  just….’;

‘It’s not that…’

 

Semi-fixed expressions to focus and emphasize, like

The thing is…’;

‘At the end of the day, …’;

‘What this means is…

.

And typical expressions for opening and closing a conversation, such as

‘Hi, how are you?’;

‘How have things been?’;

‘How is it going?’;

‘Long time no see!’

‘I’ve got to go’;

‘I really have to make a move’;

‘It’s been nice catching up with you’;

‘See you around’

.

After the roleplay, trainees are made to guess what each of their team members’ quirks might be, and the trainer then boards the phrases she has transcribed on to the board.

The trainees then have to discuss and decide if the phrases are fixed or semi-fixed, and if they are semi-fixed, which part is changeable. They also have to say which character they think uttered the phrase and what function it serves.

As trainees do this, the group often comes to a natural realization that although some phrases like ‘Why don’t you + -ing?’ can be assigned the function of ‘suggestion’ or ‘advice’ quite easily, some phrases or discourse markers could have more than one purpose.

Take the discourse marker ‘Well,….’ for example.

  • It could serve as  a signpost saying ‘I disagree and I’m now going to tell you why politely.’
  • It could serve as  conversation changer, not dissimilar to ‘Anyway,’ or ‘By the way,’.
  • It could also signal the start of a long answer to a question, e.g. ‘Well, since I was a child, I blah blah blah….’

The lesson to be learnt here (aside from the fact that perhaps John Searle had wasted his life trying to categorise all utterances into functions) is that some linguistic formulae serve certain functions and could/should be taught with the relevant functions. However, interaction is dynamic and meaning is often co-constructed and negotiated through the conversation process.

Context and co-text could thus be a much bigger clue to the meaning of the utterance than any prescribed function, and we as teachers should not get carried away with teaching the functions of an utterance out of context.

Following this debrief to the roleplay, the following questions were put up on the interactive white board for students to think about.

1.  What do you say when someone says, ‘How do you do?’

What about ‘How are you?

.

2.  Look at the following dialogue. Who do you think Rachel is? What does Michael mean?

Rachel:          The phone is ringing.

Michael:        I’m in the bath

(Adapted from Prof. Henry Widdowsen)

.

3.  What do the following utterances really mean?

             Are you busy?

            It’s stuffy in here, isn’t it?

            That curry smells really good.

            I totally forgot to bring my pen.

            Will you be passing the supermarket on your way home?

            I can’t reach the top shelf.

(Adapted from Vicky Hollett’s blog)

.

4.  What is Sue trying to achieve here?

Brian has just burnt his dinner.

Sue (laughs): You’re such a great cook.

.

What is Sarah trying to do here?

Justin accidentally mentions Richard’s ex-wife in a conversation with Richard and Sarah. Sarah quickly changes the topic.

Sarah: What do you think of the coffee here?

.

5.  Maria starts a presentation with ‘Now, I will start.’ And ends it with ‘Okay, I finish.’ What could you tell her?

.

6.  The Germans and the Americans were having a business meeting. The Americans made a proposal and the Germans said, ‘The problem with that is…’  The Americans misunderstood their intentions.

What do you think happened?

(Adapted from research by Dr. Sabrina Mallon-Gerland)

.

7.  Discourse researcher called the discourse styles of Latin America, Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc ‘Rugby’, while those from Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan were called ‘Bowling’. Why do you think this is so?

.

8.  How do we know when it’s our turn to speak? What do you do to hold the floor? How do you signal to someone that you’ve finished talking?

.

9.  What happened here?

Kelly and Jun Sook are partners. Kelly has just returned home from work.

Kelly: You won’t believe what happened to me today!

Jun Sook stares at her and doesn’t say a word.

Kelly: Fine, if you’re not interested, then I’m not going to tell you!

Jun Sook: Huh?

10.  How do you normally interrupt a conversation? What do you say?

 

I will leave you with these ten questions as food for thought and look forward to your comments.

The discussion will follow on in the next blogpost.

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Author: chiasuanchong

I am a freelance communications trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. With 13 years of experience training students from all over the world to communicate better in English (and in particular, Business English), I am also a professional blogger, materials writer and intercultural trainer.

8 thoughts on “The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 9 – Functions and Spoken Discourse”

  1. Oh I love where this is going, Chia. Love it, love it.
    I’ve got another one similar to your number 9 above. “You should have been with us last night”. (With stress on the ‘us’)

    1. Thanks, Vicky. I hope you didn’t mind me adapting some of your examples. I also recommended your blog to my Celta trainees. A must read for anyone interested in discourse and pragmatics…and in teaching English, really.
      xxxC

  2. Very good presentation. The questions 4 – 5 – 6 – 9 -10 are cases where negotiations of meanings occur and language on spot is required: Functions of changing discourse away from actual context, functions of directing meaning, of grasping feedback and expressing. Your ideas are very useful to plan talks in natural ways of conversation.

    1. Thanks for taking time to comment, Luisa.
      I think as a language teacher, the best thing one can do is create opportunities where negotiation of meaning could occur.
      After all, it is through interaction that languages are learnt.

      C

      1. I thank you for your attention. Online teaching should take into account the unpredictable discourse we can realize in a context. Exchanges are good ways
        to make discourse live. The challenge is to jump the gap in a conversation not planned before.

  3. Chia this blogging about your CELTA course has been fantastic. So sorry not to have been more involved with commenting properly but just wanted to say I have finally found the time to read them and loving them all. As Anthony says how on earth do you find time when teaching as well ? You are amazing ! Reminding me of so many things I need to refresh on – discourse for one. All the blog posts are sooooo useful for anyone embarking on teacher training. Gives such a good insight into what it may be like. Thank you.

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