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What Is "Conversation" and How Can You Teach It?

Every English teacher who comes to Japan will, at some point, find themselves having to teach a “conversation” class. To many, the word “conversation” simply means “chatting,” but for those who are serious about doing a professional job, the reality is far more complicated.

What is a “conversation”?

My dictionary defines “conversation” as “an informal exchange of ideas using spoken language.” A Wikipedia article on the subject notes three key features of conversations:

1. They are interactive in that contributions are response reactions to what has previously been said.

2. They are spontaneous because they are (at least to some extent) unpredictable.

3. They follow certain rules of etiquette.

Of course, this definition refers to conversations that take place between proficient speakers of a language. From the point of view of EFL teachers, it may be more useful to think of this as a final goal, with a range of different stages on the way to reaching it. For example, two students reading a scripted dialogue together would not meet the criteria of the definition above, but it might still constitute “conversation practice” if the students were focussing on a specific element such as pronunciation or non-verbal communication that will help them later. In other words, having authentic conversations is not the only way (or even the best way) to develop conversation skills.

In my experience, the problem in most conversation classes is that too many teachers attempt to teach students how to run when they are still struggling to walk. Since the advent of CLT back in the 1980s, most textbooks have included “discussion” exercises designed to promote communication, usually via conversations between learners. In many (if not most) cases, however, the books simply assume that the students will know enough language to complete the task. With Japanese students, this is rarely the case.

One theory that I often hear from foreign teachers in Japan is that “Japanese students know the language; they just need opportunities to practice it.” I think this has now become a kind of “received wisdom” among educators, and it has caused (and continues to cause) a great deal of harm to English education at the tertiary level. While it is true that students have, for example, studied the present perfect tense, that is a very different thing from saying that all they need now is a chance to practice it. In my experience, most students have only learned how isolated sentences can be “transliterated” (not the same thing as “translated”) into Japanese, and very few are aware of the ways in which this tense is generally used in English. If you approach a conversation class thinking that the students just need a couple of strategies and lots of opportunities for practice, you are not going to get very far.

Even when students do “know” the necessary language, they will not be able to engage in conversations of the type described by the Wikipedia definition until they know it so well that they can recognise and produce it automatically. If you are using all of your brain’s available processing power simply to understand what you are being asked and / or formulate your response, you will not have anything left over to focus on the higher-order skills required to conduct a natural conversation in real time.

After the basic language required for a conversation on a particular topic has been taught, the students need to practice it extensively so that they can produce the questions and answers they need without having to think. When they have reached that point, they will be ready to start directing their attention to what might be called “conversation skills.” This extended practice is something that I think tends to be rushed in many conversation classes. Trying to teach conversation skills to learners who don’t have sufficient command of the necessary language is like trying to teach acting skills to actors who don’t know their lines.

What are “conversation skills”?

So what are these “conversation skills” that we are trying to teach? What distinguishes a natural-sounding exchange from an interview-style Q & A? This is where the teaching of conversation gets complicated. Many of the elements of conversation, including things such as turn-taking, the role of silence, and the norms of non-verbal communication differ among cultures, so these will need to be addressed in a conversation class.

At a slightly lower level of proficiency, it is also possible to teach specific “strategies” that can help students make the step from Q&A to something that begins to resemble a real conversational exchange. (Note, however, that mastery of the Q&A stage is a prerequisite for learning how to have conversations.) In my own classes, I teach my students points like these:

1. Use short answers.

Many students are taught to answer every question with a full sentence because the teacher wants to be sure that they know the grammar. This is a habit that obviously needs to be addressed in a conversation class. For example, my answer to “What’s your name?” would be “David,” not “My name is David.”

2. Add information.

Giving more than you were asked for by adding extra information to your answer can make an exchange sound more natural. For example, if someone asks where you are from, you might say the name of the town or city and then explain where it is or say how long you have lived there.

3. Answer & ask

After you answer a question, you can “keep the conversation moving” by asking another one back. This may be the same question (“How about you?”) or it may be something new.

4. Repeat what the other person says

People often repeat questions when they want to be sure that they have understood correctly. This is tricky in English, because you have to change the pronouns and possibly the verb(s) as well. For example, if the question is “Where are you from?” the repetition must be “Where am I from?” This is actually a really good exercise to do with your students. Another common strategy is to repeat the last part of the other person’s utterance before adding your own comment.

A: Where are you from?
B: Osaka.
A: Osaka? Which part?

As with all things in language learning, the key to sounding natural is using these strategies in a balanced way. Nobody would suggest that you should answer every question with a full sentence, but if you answer every question with a single word, you will just sound rude. In the same way, adding information when you give an answer is great, but if you do it too much, you might begin to sound like an encyclopaedia. And although asking questions back to your interlocutor is definitely a good strategy, you will not make many friends if you simply parrot “And you?” every time you answer a question.

There is a real danger when teaching strategies like this of oversimplifying things that are actually quite complex. One common example of this is the teaching of “fillers,” such as “Mmm,” “Well…,” and “Let me see.” Although they are linguistically simple, the usage of these phrases is actually very complicated. You cannot just stick “Mmm” or “Well” into a sentence at any point when you need time to think, or you will sound extremely unnatural. I have met many students who have clearly been taught to do this, and it is painful to listen to them. I have noticed a similar thing with learners of Japanese who clumsily try to use e-to-ne and ano when they speak the language in the mistaken belief that it makes them sound more “natural.”

Of course, I am not arguing that we should not raise students’ awareness of these devices, but the simplistic teaching of “conversation strategies” in conversation classes can result in the fossilisation of bad habits that the students never manage to get rid of. I know one Japanese person who is a highly proficient speaker of English, but to whom I cannot speak for more than 30 seconds at a time because someone obviously once taught him to say “Uh-huh” and “Ah-ha” as he listens. Unfortunately, he says it in all the wrong places, which is incredibly annoying and off-putting. If you think I am exaggerating, ask a friend to talk to you for a few seconds, say “Ah-ha” randomly as he or she speaks, and watch his or her reaction. Again, this is something that is linguistically simple but pragmatically complex: a very dangerous combination!

If you can get students to the point where they are able to recognise and produce the language they need more or less automatically, you will be able to listen to their exchanges and give them feedback on ways of developing their conversation skills. If the students do not have the necessary fluency, another way of introducing the higher-order skills is by getting them to script conversations between themselves and a partner. Writing it out will give them time to think not only about the language, but also about the “conversation” aspect of their dialogue. When the exchange is written down, teachers can offer suggestions as to how it can be made more natural.

The question “What is conversation?” is actually a very complicated one to which there is no simple answer. If you are teaching a conversation class, however, it will be necessary for you to have a clear vision of what it means for you in that particular class, and also of what exactly you are expecting your students to be able to do. If they have a low level of English, it may be necessary to focus on simple (and even scripted) Q&A style dialogues. Although these are not really “conversations,” they can be used as stepping stones to help students get nearer to the final goal. Remember also that your students will need far more time than you (and probably they) think they do before they become comfortable enough using the language to focus on higher-level skills. Trying to leap straight into “conversations” without first constructing a solid language base will be very frustrating for the teacher, and very demotivating for the students.
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