Recently, I had an encounter with a teacher of English. She said, “most students don’t speak English naturally. Is it because we don’t teach them the language the way we should teach it? Is it because we focus more on written English?”
It is true that we focus more on written English. Another important reason is that many English textbooks prescribed in India have dialogues and conversations that do not reflect the English used in real life. As a result, we do not make the learners aware of the features of spoken grammar.
What is spoken grammar? We don’t speak the way we write. When we are engaged in a conversation with someone, we violate many grammatical rules that are used in written English. In other words, we do not speak English like a book. If we speak English the way write, our speech will be quite unnatural. The spoken form of communication has certain characteristics: short and incomplete sentences, monosyllabic words, change of word order in questions, pauses, repetition, fillers, ellipsis, contractions, etc as in the dialogues from the movie Titanic below:
Jack: Rose! You’re so stupid. Why did you do that, huh? You’re so stupid. Why did you do that? Why?
Rose: You jump, I jump, right?
Rose: Oh God! I couldn’t go. I couldn’t go, Jack.
Rose: It’s getting quiet.
Jack: It’s just gonna take ‘em a few minutes to get the boats organised. I don’t know about you but I intend to ….
We can get the differences of spoken and written English grammar in the corpora such as
British National Corpus, American National
Corpus and Cambridge International Corpus. Analysis of spoken data in the corpora reveals that spoken grammar has many different unique features such as ellipsis, heads (left-dislocation), tails (right-dislocation), fillers, backchannels, phrasal chunks. Here are some examples:
Did you have your lunch? (no ellipsis)
Had your lunch? (ellipsis)
My class teacher, she is a nice person. (with head)
My class teacher is a nice person. (no head)
My friend is a police officer, the one from Pune. (with tail).
My friend from Pune is a police officer. (no tail)
Fillers: hmm, um, er,..
Backchannels: oh, yeah, I see, ...
Phrasal chunks: sort of, kind of, stuff like that, I mean, a little bit …
If teachers of English teach the language based on spoken grammar, English language learners will learn to speak the language naturally. For this to happen, the focus should change.
Not learning features of spoken grammar can impede students’ ability to speak English fluently and appropriately - Mumford (2009)
Dr Albert P’ Rayan is an ELT Resource Person and Professor of English.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org