• Challenges of Teaching and Learning Conversational English


    Confusion-meterCommunicating with native speakers is one of the top goals of foreign language learners.  There are, however, certain challenges in teaching and learning conversational English that are difficult to address in a regular classroom setting.

    Limited Classroom Exposure • even an excellent instructor is just one speaker, with just one individual pronunciation and personal communication style. The Internet, movies, and TV are excellent resources, but they do not provide feedback on comprehension.  In other words, how do learners know if they have understood something correctly?

    Language is Culture Specific • without being a member of a cultural group, it is difficult to understand the attitudes, feelings, beliefs, personal values and subtle gradations of interpersonal relationships in the target culture.  In other words, the learner may understand what native speakers are saying, but may not understand why they behave the way they do. What are people concerned about or afraid of?  What makes them happy?  What is considered “good manners”?  When can you consider yourself a “friend”? Meaningful communication with people from another country, continent or region requires understanding of their cultural peculiarities.

    Authenticity of Instructional Materials • most textbooks and instructional materials are written by professional authors and/or teachers with a heavy focus on Standard English.  Instructional dialogues and videos are staged and scripted and do not represent the variety of patterns of authentic communication.

    Real life, authentic conversations are not prepared ahead of time.  They are spontaneous by nature. How does this spontaneous speech differ from the language of instructional dialogues?

    Here is the comparison:

    Instructional Dialogues Spontaneous Speech
    Complete sentences Short, elliptical sentences and idea units
    Standard grammar Frequent ungrammatical structures
    Formal vocabulary Slang, swearing, social and professional jargon
    Limited and “predictable” vocabulary Wider range of vocabulary choices
    Explicit reference to people, objects Implied knowledge of the subject, acronyms, abbreviations
    Few fillers, if any Frequent fillers
    Distinct turn-taking Interruptions and pauses
    Intonation: wide and frequent pitch movement Intonation: more monotonous
    Enunciation: excessive precision Less precision
    Standard accent Multiple regional and international accents

    With so many distinct differences between the instructional and authentic materials, it is only natural that language learners, who have not been exposed to and trained in features of spontaneous speech, have difficulty communicating with native speakers. If your goal is making friends, living and working or doing business in an English-speaking country, it is essential you use instructional materials based on authentic, spontaneous conversations.