Changing conversational dynamics | Sunday Observer

Changing conversational dynamics

In most government schools the conversation class has long been the stepchild in the programs of English teaching. New recruits to the teaching profession avoid the conversation class because most of them are unable to converse in English. However, students invariably request such an activity. Sometimes, a conversation class is hastily and haphazardly organized and assigned to the most unwilling member of the staff. Despite the colossal expenditure incurred in teacher training, the conversation class does not come off. The teacher assigned to do the job looks for easy methods such as, self-introductions and greetings. As a result, even those in GCE A/L classes simply cannot converse spontaneously.

Many reasons have been advanced for this dismal failure to bridge the gap to the progress from classroom exercises to real communication. It is more important to suggest remedies rather than placing the blame on politicians who have messed up the education from time to time. Recent studies of Language acquisition have revealed that hypothesis testing or what we call trial and error method is an essential part of the Language learning process. Accordingly, opportunities should be provided to students to use their knowledge of English in creative ways. They should be encouraged to speak what they know without fear.

The textbooks given freely to students have not caught up with this new trend. Until the dull and drab textbooks are done away with, teachers would have to innovate methods to motivate students to use the Language in speech. Well-known educationist, Julia Dobson collected ideas and practices adopted by English teachers and came up with many suggestions to improve the aspect of spoken English. She toured in Asia, Africa and South America to find better ways of teaching conversational English.


According to Dobson, students enjoy participating in debates. However, we have to change the traditional debate format. We need not have a “pro” side or “con” side because our purpose is not to improve students’ debating skills but to augment conversational skills. If students are allowed to come out with their true feelings over a topic, they are bound to speak fluently. The teacher can introduce a topic and ask the students to express their views. Obviously, there will be two sides, for and against a particular topic. The teacher should give sufficient time for them to come prepared. They should be allowed to speak from notes but they should not be permitted to read their presentations.

After both sides have given their presentations, team leaders will sum up their views. Those who are not taking part in the debate can question the speakers. The teacher should not be a judge to determine which team fared better than the other. The whole exercise is to get the students to speak freely. Even if they make mistakes, they can be corrected later.

If you walk into any bookshop, you will find many books on Spoken English. These books contain imaginary dialogues created by authors. Some of the dialogues may be interesting to read, but they lack some of the characteristics of real conversation. People who converse have no preconceived ideas. Their conversation will meander from one topic to another. Real conversation has a kind of dynamism which no writer can create or imitate. Some students’ knowledge of English may be imperfect. Even if they come out with sentence fragments, they should be encouraged to speak freely.


The use of humour in the form of jokes, puns and riddles is useful for conversation. However, some students may understand the meaning of the words, but would not laugh. I skip some of the foreign cartoon strips reproduced in local newspapers because the jokes are alien to our way of thinking. Similarly, foreigners may not laugh at some of our jokes. Teachers should remember that humour does not travel well from one culture to another. If you can find humorous stories which can be understood easily, they would make students laugh. A local school teacher who was asked to conduct a conversational class approached a professor to get some speech patterns. The professor told him that to teach real communication he does not have to drill a phrase or sentence several times.

It appears, there is no royal road to real conversation. Some students want to read and write English, they have no interest in conversation. Most of the students attending international schools are good at conversational English. Sometimes, they converse with their parents and grandparents in English. This position does not prevail in government schools where English conversation takes a back seat.

Mental gymnastics

Learning English should not be a matter of classroom mental gymnastics. English, like any other language, is a means of communication. If you cannot communicate your ideas in writing and speech, you have not learnt that particular Language. Those who concentrate only on written English would repent later when they find themselves to be at a loss for words when it comes to oral communication.

In some countries there are English speaking clubs or conversation groups. A few decades ago there was such an English Speaking Club in Colombo. Most of the clubs or groups are conducted by people who are fluent in English. They are also interested in people. You can continue a lively conversation with such people. A person who is no longer among the living knew the names of all the participants who attended his English Speaking Club. He always had a friendly and informal tone. At times, however, he was firm when it was necessary to control the group. Most students learn English because they believe it will benefit them in their future activities. They see English as a means to earn more money and fulfil certain educational requirements. However, their motivation would wane when they come across the complexities of pronunciation, syntax and vocabulary. The primary responsibility of the teacher is to revive that motivation. Educationist Earl Stevick has pointed out that there are four major classroom sources of motivation. In brief, they are the joy of discovery, the satisfaction of control, the joy of remembrance and the elation of use. In fact, motivation is what makes the students want to converse in English.

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