You’ve probably experienced it, if you’ve studied a second language: sitting in Russian class, for example, for weeks, perhaps months, and then meeting an actual Russian-speaking person and realizing you can’t say anything to her.
This is one of the largest complaints of traditional language instruction, and in all fairness, there are a number of culprits: the small amount of time devoted to language learning being one. But another concern is the means of instruction and the curriculum. If students spend large amounts of time conjugating verbs, they won’t be able to string two words together for a conversation. Even if they focus on vocabulary, but learn words in lists, students still won’t be able to string two words together. But if second language students learn language as a set of useful, everyday phrases — How are you? I’m fine. It’s really hot today — they can begin to string two words together. Students are in language class for a limited amount of time, often as little as three hours a week, and this time should be spent on language they can use.
Phrases for Conversation
The following phrases have been found to be among the most common in English, in The Grammar of Written and Spoken English, by Biber and his colleagues (1999).
These phrases are useful in that they can be used to start a sentence or even an entire conversation; the student, having memorized the first part, need only fill in the second part. As a student of Russian, for example, I made ample usage of the phrase “Ya doomayo shto—“ (“I think that—“), thereby signaling to the other participants in the conversation that I had a point to make and allowing me time to put that thought together. Many of the following phrases can be used in a similar manner. And they all can be used again and again, on a number of topics, explaining their commonality in the language:
To demonstrate a lack of understanding or lack of agreement on a topic:
I don’t think—
I don’t know—
For storytelling or recounting a conversation:
I went to the—
And I said—
For commands or requests
Have a look at—
Can I have a—
Complete Sentence Responses
In response to a point made by another speaker, keeping the listener involved in the conversation
That’s a good idea.
I don’t like it.
Even a significant portion of academic prose is comprised of “ready-made” formulaic expressions—readers of this genre expect a certain kind of language, and in using it, the writer demonstrates his membership is this community. Teaching students this language therefore helps them enter the academic writing community. Below are some of the formulaic phrases used in academic writing and their functions.
With the following, the writer introduces a topic or an example.
In the case of—
The nature of the—
As a result of —
In addition to the—
With the following phrase, the author compares an example or point with one previously mentioned.
In the same way—
At the same time-- (This seems like a phrase to show comparison, but it is most often used for contrast: “I really like dogs…at the same time, I like cats as well…”)
In the first place—
Methods for Teaching
The prevalence of formulaic phrases in conversation and writing suggests how key these phrases are to fluency; it may be close to impossible to be fluent without these short chunks of memorized language.
Learning these phrases, however does not come “naturally”—even native speakers sometimes joke about calling up the wrong formulaic phrases in conversation, such as “You, too” to a waiter’s “Have a good meal.” So while they exist on the automatic level, phrases do need to be consciously learned. Engaging in consciousness-raising and practice provides the processing that students need to learn these phrases to become more fluent in their second language.
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