Thursday, February 22, 2007

On conversation, turn-taking and culture

By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

Turn taking skills do vary from culture to culture (and from person to person and I'm willing to bet that similar turn taking behaviour is a factor in courtship etc.) as Northern and Southern Brits know well, and indeed Brits and Americans working together know this too (see Deborah Tannen for a simple guide).

But the differences, although important, are not huge. When I found Chinese learners didn't take turns I watched and saw that it seemed to be that on the one hand they didn't want to initiate and on the other hand they didn't respond much because the first speaker hadn't said anything that needed a real response. It was all display language, for the teacher to hear and judge. If an answer was needed it was generally something that all parties knew already so what was the urgency in saying it? These kids I was teaching had 12 - 15 years of learning that English was a language where you said and wrote things that everyone knew, in order to display your knowledge of English.

Some teachers have complained about lunatic language in English Corners in public parks.

"Hello, where do you come from?"

"I'm from USA/Germany/Mars."

"Oh, that is a very beautiful country ...."

Chinese were using English to practice their English, not to engage in communication.

So what to do about it?

It happens because of the way English is taught and it happens particularly in China because of fear of the outside (or fear of those in authority who might not like outside influences). We can alter our way of teaching English but since many teachers in China and elsewhere in Asia have yet to come to terms with communicative methodology and use it effectively i don't think you or I will persuade large numbers to jump yet a further step.

As regards the fears, well that too is well outside our control except for individual contacts.

If you have a free hand in the classroom you can do things.


Get students to talk about things they have never discussed before even in their L1. Davis and Rinvolucri suggest in Ways of Doing finding out how exactly you eat a pizza - where you bite first, how you cut it etc. and ways of eating particular items are ok, don't use too high levels of language and are non-threatening. I often use more personal things and things that people want to tell each other. The story of a personal scar or operation.

Get students to realise that when we speak and write we pass information on many levels as facts and as attitudes. And that the attitudes may be implicit in vocabulary choices not explicitly stated. Connotations and collocations are important but are not adequately taught over here.

Help students to realise the importance of wordplay. you find it in literature and advertising but we use it in everyday communication all the time. Human beings are playful animals and we like play. Teaching English as a tool ignores this and turns it from a language into something resembling COBOL. If they can manipulate English for fun and to add depth and meaning then motivation goes up and up.

1 comment:

Mark Reynolds said...

I think turn-taking is a complex issue. A lot depends on their familiarity with each other, the urgency they feel to speak, even seating or standing arrangement has a lot to do with it.