Many ESL students, particularly international students who are new to the U.S. but may have studied English for years in their home countries, come to college having some academic vocabulary, ability to read their texts, follow lectures, and participate in class discussion with some degree of ease, but they lack conversational English ability to use outside of class.
I noticed this in particular recently when, in greeting a student as he was leaving the student union and carrying a plate of junk food, he explained he did not often eat French fries, as he was now. I responded, “I’m glad to hear that; they’re not good for you.” He looked puzzled. “Good me for me?” I assured him I did not mean him, personally; “you” often means “everyone” in everyday conversational English. This international student was a top student in class but struggled with simple conversations because of his lack of practice with native speakers of English. Many ESL students, both those who have lived in the U. S. as well as international students, share this dilemma, probably because it is more comfortable to read an English text than to try to participate in an actual conversation. However, even ESL students who are not planning to live in an English-speaking country would benefit from learning the vocabulary and structures of conversational English in order to carry on the casual conversations which occur even in academic and business settings. So what vocabulary and grammar should we teach, and how do we teach it to help students with their conversational English?
Terms and Structures of Conversational English
Conversational English, and conversation in general, is personal rather than impersonal.
Therefore, terms related to the speakers’ immediate situations and lives are emphasized. Personal pronouns such as “I” and “you,” for example, are prominent in conversational English while they are not in academic English. In fact, many college instructors go so far as to tell students not to use “I” in a formal paper. While I would not go to this extreme, it does demonstrate the personal/impersonal dichotomy between conversational and academic English.
Conversational English is immediate and context-dependent:
Therefore, terms related to the immediate context are emphasized. For example, it’s typical to begin a conversation with a comment on the weather, or what one of the speakers is wearing, or what one of the speakers is doing—all related to the immediate situation and therefore “natural” for opening a conversation.
Everyday conversations are generally relatively brief. As in the example shown earlier between me and my student outside the student union, a quick discussion about the student’s lunch choice is fine; a more extended discourse on the nature of the American and Japanese diets would be inappropriate because most everyday conversations occur when the speakers are on the midst of some other activity, such as getting lunch between classes, and there is limited time for an in-depth conversation.
Related to brevity, conversational English is based on routines. For example, in running into a friend at the student union, there is a set of unspoken expectations about the conversational “routine” for this situation: “Hey! How’s it going?” “Fine. Getting your lunch? How’s it look today?” “Not so bad, but stay away from the fish. What class do you have next?” “Physics. Sorry, got to go!” Because these speakers are probably in a hurry in passing between classes, there is a specific “routine” that requires little time and thought –a greeting, some comment on the immediate situation, and a farewell. Deviation from the routine may result in confusion or annoyance.
Six Methods for Teaching Conversational English
Students may be unaware of the difference between academic and conversational English. I like to give a few examples drawn from life or literature. A good one I just noted in a novel showed an older family member advising a younger about his affair with a married woman: “Be discrete.” When the younger one asks what that means, his elder translates into conversational English “Don’t get caught.” English is full of examples like these; most utterances have both conversational and more formal or academic forms, such as the multiple ways to say “shut up”: “Quiet, please,” “You have the right to remain silent,” and “Your silence is appreciated.” Briefly discussing these differences demonstrates to students the differences between the academic and conversational.
Students from non-English speaking countries, while they may have studied English for years in classrooms, may have had very little real exposure to English in actual conversational use. Providing them models of this through short TV or YouTube clips showing speakers engaged in everyday English use will begin to close this gap.
Point out the routines the speakers go through: how they greet each other, how they develop the conversation, and then close it.
Real world use:
Many students, particularly ESL students, are very reluctant to venture out into the world beyond the university. Because they are going to need to do this eventually, students should be encouraged in this direction. Send them out to shopping centers, bookstores, or coffeehouses to note how people engage in conversations in an actual real life setting. Have them come back to class ready to discuss new vocabulary or phrases they learned.
Have students practice with each other.
Once students have learned some of the language and structures of conversational English, have them practice with each other in pairs. Hold a class party in which students have to speak to multiple people or groups, just as in a real party.
Practice in real world settings.
In this exercise, all students will have to sign up for one real-world setting, such as a party or a meeting, in which they will have to engage in conversational English. Have them bring back a short report on what happened to share with their classmates. This also provides some accountability for actually doing the exercise.
Assessment does not have to mean a traditional pencil-and-paper test, which would make little sense for assessing conversational English and does not match the way students have been taught, in any case. Some alternate ways to assess are walking around the class while students are talking and noting how much time is spent in English or another language. Then the class can be brought back together so the instructor can discuss common concerns she noted. Students may also hold conversations before the rest of the class or with the instructor as part of assessment. A rubric should be used to note vocabulary and phrases used.
Conversational English is often not seen as important as the academic, perhaps rightly so as it is the academic students most immediately need to succeed at the college level.
Nevertheless, conversational English is an important part of any student’s experience in an English-speaking country and is therefore important to be taught.