Conversation Club

What is conversation? Sometimes we refer to it as “chat”. It means any spoken encounter or interaction. It refers to a time when two or more people have the right to talk or listen without having to follow a fixed agenda. In conversation everyone can have something to say and anyone can speak at any time. 

The functions of conversation:  The purpose of conversation to include exchange of information; the creation and maintenance of social relationships such as friendship; the negotiation of status and social roles in carrying out joint actions. Conversation therefore has many functions, but the primary purpose is probably social.

The units of conversation: The basic unit of conversation is an exchange that consist of two moves, an initiating move and a response or called a turn, and a turn can be taken without using words. e.g. by a nod of the head. The move and exchange can be illustrated in the following way:

A Jane. (Solicit)

B Yes? (Give)

A Could I borrow your bike, please? (Request)

B Sure, it’s in the garage.(Give)

A Thanks very much. (Acknowledge)

Conversation is open-ended and has the potential to develop in any way. Unfortunately, many students never have the confidence or opportunity to go beyond simple exchange as Hi!

The main objectives of this course is to introduce exercises which allow students to develop the ability to initiate and sustain conversation.

What do native speakers do in conversation? Conversation is such a natural part of our lives that many people are not conscious of what happens with it. However, conversation follows certain rules which can be described. For example, when we look at normal conversation we notice that:

-          Usually only one person speaks at a time;

-          The speakers change;

-          The length of any contribution varies;

-          There are techniques for allowing the other party or parties to speak;

-          Neither the content nor the amount of what we say is specified in advance.

Conversation analysis seeks to explain how this occurs, and the aim of the sections which follow is to make the readers sensitive to the main issues from a teaching point of view.

The co-operative principle

Normal conversations proceed so smoothly because we co-operate in them. Grice (1975) has described four maxims or principles which develop co-operative behavior. These are:

The maxim of quality

 Make your contribution one that is true. Specifically:

a.      Do not say what you believe to be false.

b.      Do not say anything for which you lack adequate evidence.

The maxim of quantity

Make your contribution just as informative as required and no more.

The maxim of relation

Make your contribution relevant and timely.

The maxim of manner

Avoid obscurity and ambiguity.

Readers will realize that these maxims are often broken and, when this happens, native speakers work harder to get at the underlying meaning, e.g.

A How did you find the play?

B The lighting was good.

By choosing not to be as informative as required, B is probably suggesting the play is not worth commenting on. A lot of the material written for teaching English as a foreign language is deliberately free of such ambiguity. This means that students have problem later in conversational situations where the maxims are not observed.

These maxims may also be observed differently in different cultures, so we need to tell students if they are saying too much or too little without realizing it.

The making of meaning

When we speak we make promises, give advice or praise, issue threats, etc. Some linguists refer to individual moves as speech acts. Each of the followings are examples of speech acts and we can try to allocate a specific function to each example:

-          Turn left at the next street. (Instruction?)

-          Invest in American Life.  (Advice?)

-          Keep off the grass. (Order?)

In conversations the relationship between the speaker and the listener will have an important effect on how the listener understands the particular speech act. For example, the way in which we hear and respond to a statement such as I’ve lost my wallet, may well depend  on whether  we think the person is trying to obtain money under false pretenses or not! There is no room to enter  into a full discussion of discourse analysis, but the following issues are particularly relevant to the teaching of conversation.     

Most speech acts have more than one function, e.g. when we say to a waitress, The music is rather loud,  we are simultaneously reporting that we cannot hear ourselves speak, and also complaining and asking the waitress to do something about it.


The two moves in an exchange are related to each other through  the use of adjacency pairs. Some examples of adjacency pairs are:

1 A Hello!  (Greeting-Greeting)

   B Hi!

2 A Dinner’s ready!  (Call-Answer)

    B Coming.

3 A Is this yours?  (Question-Answer)

   B No.

In some cases we can predict the second part of a pair from the first. A greeting is normally followed by a greeting. A complaint might be followed by an apology or a justification.

 Teachers need to think about ways of developing appropriate second parts to adjacency pairs from the start. Many drills require students to reply to ‘yes’ or ‘no’, plus a repetition of the verb. We therefore get exchanges like:

Are these cakes fresh?

B Yes, they are.

What students do not often get are opportunities to practice other options, such as:

A  Are these cakes fresh?

I bought them this morning. Help yourself.

Students are encouraged to produce isolated sentences containing a target structure, e.g. If I had $10,000 I’d buy a car. Unless we get away from question-answer-question-answer sequences without either stimulus or response, students will always appear to be flat and non-responsive in conversation.

Turn taking

As native speakers we find it relatively easy and natural to know who is to speak, when, and for how long. But this skill is not automatically transferred to a foreign language. Many students have great difficulty in getting into conversation, knowing when to give up their turn to others, and in bringing a conversation to a close. In order for conversation to work smoothly, all participants have to be alert to signals that a speaker is about to finish his or her turn. We need to train students to sense when someone is about to  finish. Falling intonation is often a signal for this.

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