Teaching Conversation to Adult Learners of English with Conversation Analysis and Politeness Pragmatics – Anne-Marie Barraja-Rohan, PhD – Monash University, Australia   4 comments


Anne-Marie Barraja-Rohan, PhD

Paper presented at the 22nd Annual Applied Linguistics Association of Australia (ALAA) Conference, Toowoomba, Australia, October 2 1997.

ABSTRACT This paper discusses an approach to teach spoken English to adult learners of English. First, it explores the theory of conversation drawn from Conversation Analysis and Politeness Pragmatics. Then, it looks at how these two theoretical frameworks are applied in the classroom. Finally, it presents the benefits to students and teachers.The areas of teaching and learning conversational skills require a more in-depth exploration. Indeed, there is a perceived need to inform language educators of the theory of conversation (Barraja-Rohan, 1997) so that appropriate teaching materials can be designed. Creating interactional oriented materials will enable adult learners of English to develop effective conversational and communication skills in the target language.The starting points of this new approach are:1) the interactional aspect of conversation or the “grammar” of conversation,2) the intrinsic link between language and culture, and3) miscommunication.The purpose of this new book is to deconstruct conversation for students and at the same time clarify for teachers what conversation is all about. This book is based on videoed unscripted conversations which truly reflect how people talk in ordinary conversation with its pauses, perturbations and paralinguistic activities. It is designed to introduce learners from lower intermediate to upper intermediate levels to everyday language as it is spoken outside the classroom, and to enable students to socialise in English with native/near native speakers as well as with other foreign students.
INTRODUCTION Findings in conversation analysis and Politeness pragmatics have proved to be very pertinent to second language teaching as both have relevance to the area of learning conversational English. Indeed, the application of both conversation analytic method and principles in politeness pragmatics has been very beneficial in the teaching of conversational skills to both adult learners of English (see Barraja-Rohan 1996, Barraja-Rohan and Pritchard 1995), in contexts where English is a native institutionalised variety, and teachers. This paper aims to expose the theoretical principles of a new approach to teach spoken English. First, conversation is defined in the light of conversation analysis and politeness pragmatics. Then, the paper examines how these theoretical frameworks are applied in the classroom. And finally, the reasons why such an approach is successful in teaching conversational skills are explored.
DEFINING CONVERSATION Conversation is referred in the literature as spoken or conversational interaction (Saville-Troike 1989), exchange or face-to-face interaction (Boxer and Pickering 1995) and talk-in-interaction in the conversation analysis literature (Psathas 1995, Drew and Heritage 1992, etc.). All these terms indicate that conversation is an interactional and dynamic phenomenon whereby participants are involved in verbal and non verbal communication. The interactional and dynamic aspects of conversation have significant implications for language teaching as they presuppose that conversation is not just a linguistic phenomenon. Indeed, conversation is a social activity through which participants accomplish actions and build relationships.Conversation is a complex human activity and this complexity needs to be not only acknowledged but also captured in language teaching. By turning to conversation analysis and politeness pragmatics, we can fathom its mechanisms and delve into its sociocultural dimension. Conversation analysis and politeness pragmatics offer different perspectives on spoken interaction which are complementary in terms of language teaching.Conversation analysis, which only investigates naturally occurring language, provides insight into how conversation is a socially organised activity. Its primary concern is “with the study of the activities or doings of conversationalists and with the means whereby they achieve order and organisation” (Button and Lee, 1987:2). Therefore findings in conversation analysis are relevant to second language teaching in that they reveal the following:

  • Ordinary conversation is the basis of institutional talk.
  • Conversation is orderly: all paralinguistic activities, perturbations, overlaps and pauses have a role to play and are not produced accidentally. For example, laughter can be used to diffuse a tense situation (see Jefferson 1984) or stuttering may preface a dispreferred response.
  • Conversation is structurally organised: participants produce utterances that are organised in sequences. Participants are aware of the underlying structure of conversation as they can determine what is going on and can project future actions. For instance, in the pre-closing participants orient to ending the conversation.
  • The type of actions that participants perform with their utterances and how those utterances are sequentially placed. For example, greeting is an action which is usually immediately followed by another greeting uttered by a different speaker.
  • Context is created by the participants through their actions and utterances so it is “locally produced and transformable at any moment” (Heritage, 1992: 19). Participants design their utterances in relation to the context in which they participate.

Conversation analysis is useful for teachers as it highlights the orderliness of conversation which gives them a structure to teach conversation, and helpful for learners as it unveils the mechanisms through which participants achieve that order.
Politeness pragmatics considers other aspects of conversation that are not usually taken into consideration by conversation analysis. Two of these aspects are social context and social relations, which, even though, are reflected in the conversation according to conversation analysis, need to be made explicit to learners of English.

Communication between participants is guided by a politeness principle which role is “to maintain the social equilibrium and the friendly relations which enable us to assume that our interlocutors are being cooperative in the first place.” (Leech, 1983:82). Hence politeness regulates human intercourse so that exchanges are conducted smoothly without offending any party at talk. How politeness is determined depends on a number of social and psychological factors that can be culture specific. However, I will mainly concentrate on the social factors which are the focus of the course book, and will exclude the notion of face which is far too complex to be tackled in this pedagogical context.

In conversation, participants use politeness strategies and these depend on a number of variables which involve the social context as well as the participants’ beliefs, plan, and intention. As a result, language is shaped by both the participants and social context. This is where politeness pragmatics becomes relevant to second language teaching as it points out what these variables are, how participants assess a situation in terms of which politeness strategies to use and how politeness is mapped onto language. Hence politeness pragmatics reveals how the following factors interplay in spoken interaction:

  • Who the participants are – gender, age,
  • Roles that participants take,
  • Participants’ relationships or social distance,
  • Status or power,
  • Weight of imposition,
  • Setting in which the conversation takes place.

Brown and Levinson (1987) claim that this politeness principle is a universal phenomenon. However, it may be applied in different ways across cultures and what may be considered polite in one culture may not be perceived as such in another culture. Hence, learners need to be made aware of how this politeness principle operates in the Anglo-Saxon culture so that they can reflect on the differences and similarities between their culture and the L2 culture.

APPLICATION OF CONVERSATION ANALYSIS AND POLITENESS PRAGMATICS IN BEYOND TALK It is paramount to use videoed unscripted (and if possible naturally occurring) conversations in the second language classroom so that paralinguistic activity can be captured and analysed, as one of the primary concerns for second language educators is to use real life language. In other words, the conversations need to contain “jeopardy”, which is “face threat, negotiation, implicature and context” as defined by Wajnryb (1997:11).Real life conversations also include indirect complaints which reflect the type of social strategies used by the participants to seek commonalities. Boxer and Pickering (1995) have highlighted the function of indirect complaints in conversation as a communication phatic device. Furthermore, they have demonstrated how this element is often missing in ELT text books or not discussed.As a result of using real life language, we can draw learners’ attention to the different types of conversation, the conversational features found in naturally occurring language and the social strategies used by the interactants which are defined below.Types of conversationCasual conversation and institutional talk. Learners need to recognise when the conversation is conducted with an institutional orientation as the language may be affected. In the introductory unit, learners’ attention is drawn to these two types of conversation. Then, this concept is further reinforced in unit 1, and revised in the following units where learners are routinely asked to categorise the various conversations. From unit 1 onwards, each unit deals with a new conversation.

Stages of conversation

Stages of conversation include opening, centring (where the topics are introduced and developed) and closing. Highlighting the structure of conversation helps learners recognise at what stage they are in any spoken interaction and to predict what is coming next. This concept is first introduced in unit 1, then learners are required to compare the opening and closing of a number of conversations. This comparative activity is designed to make learners aware that openings or closings may differ, and to explore the reasons for the variations by examining the social factors and context.

Adjacency pairs

The rule of adjacency, whereby an utterance is contingent upon the second one like greeting, leave-taking, making an invitation, etc., is useful in language teaching. It enables learners to make predictions and understand what is going on, particularly when the rule has been broken. Adjacency pairs are examined in units 4c and 5, and in relation to preference organisation in units 6 – 9.

Preference organisation

Examining preference organization involves contrasting the turn shapes of preferred response with dispreferred response. This follows on from the concept of adjacency and shows learners how language is shaped by this preference organisation system and how utterances are sequentially placed. It reveals two elements: 1) that participants have a choice in giving their second pair part and what this choice is, and 2) what implications this choice has on the interaction. Preference organisation is dealt with in units 6 – 9.

Acknowledgment tokens and assessments

  1. Acknowledgment tokens. For pedagogical reasons, acknowledgment tokens (yeah, okay, mm, etc.) have been called feedback tokens in Beyond Talk. Their function in spoken interaction is undeniably important as they point to the listener role. An effective communicator is a skilled listener. Thus, the behaviour of a competent listener in English needs to be made explicit to learners.
  2. Assessments. Assessments (good, terrific, that’s great, that’s a shame, etc.) are also a listening device with a difference. They evaluate the prior speaker’s utterance and show sympathy towards the speaker as they have an emotional overtone. Learners need to know how conversationalists reciprocate their feelings and affiliate with one another, as learners too want to lead a social life and establish relationships in the L2 country.

Assessments and acknowledgment tokens are first introduced in unit 2, explored in more depth in unit 3, then revised in units 4a and 9. It is important to point out that these features are also closely related to the use of intonation and so are treated together. The various functions of acknowledgment tokens are also examined in relation to other conversational features such as closing a topic and pre-closing an interaction in units 3 and 8.

Paralinguistic activity

Paralinguistic activity includes intonation, sentence stress, silence, body language. Learners must be made aware of the function of paralinguistic features which can be culture specific. Silence and intonation affect turn-taking, intonation and sentence stress carry meaning, while intonation also reflects the speaker’s feelings, and body language helps to communicate the message. These features are highlighted whenever they play a significant part in any conversation. For instance, silence and body language are dealt with in unit 6, although gaze and head movements are examined in relation to the listener role in unit 2, and intonation and sentence stress in units 1, and 2.


Repairs are strategies used by conversationalists to clarify misunderstandings and correct errors. As such, they need to be highlighted so learners can deal with the situations where the meaning is unclear. Repairs are dealt with in unit

Sociocultural norms

Norms of interaction can be culture specific. Greeting in Australian English is not necessarily the same in other cultures. For instance, in Vietnamese it is considered impolite to ask how someone is because it implies that there is something wrong with the recipient’s health (cf. Model Lesson of unit 1 in the accompanying video, Beyond Talk). This point leads to the importance of highlighting cultural differences and also similarities through cross-cultural discussions which take place once a concept has been examined.


Learners need to understand why participants use a certain form of politeness and what circumstances determine this use. Not only do learners need to decode the language, but to make sense of it, they also need to fathom the participants’ social roles and the context of the interaction. In doing so, learners can have a better appreciation of what is going on in the interaction. For instance, conversations 5, 6 and 7 deal with a request. In conversation 5, the language used in the request is bald on record, whereas in conversation 6, it is softened and even more so in conversation 7. Therefore in the corresponding units, we draw the learners’ attention to the reasons for the upgrading of the language, and unit 5 specifically deals with the degree of politeness.

Social strategies

In any given interaction, participants converse with each other for a purpose, even when they just want to chat. As a result, they use social strategies, which can involve making small talk and indirect complaints. For instance, small talk or indirect complaints can be used as a conversation opener and to build relationships. Learners need to be made aware of these social strategies and why participants have conversations. Beyond Talk provides a framework for learners to discuss the social functions of language as in units 4a, activity A1 and unit 4b, activity A4.

It is important to note that the above conversational features which are illustrated by the videoed conversations, are dealt with in context and in an integrated manner.

BENEFITS OF USING BEYOND TALK Beyond Talk has proved to be very successful with teachers and learners alike. The reasons for this success can be attributed to the use of naturally occurring language, an in-depth exploration of spoken interaction with a strong focus on context, and the methodology.
Benefits to learners The strength of the methodology lies in its iterative structure. A particular conversational feature is first highlighted through eliciting techniques and explanations. Then, it is discussed within a cross-cultural perspective, and practised. Finally, it is reconsidered in the light of the learners’ performance (learners get feedback on their use of particular features).Therefore, the methodology gives learners various opportunities to:1) fully grasp the concepts,2) acquire conversational features, and3) use the language in meaningful ways.In addition, it enables learners to reflect on their own learning. Learners’ participation in discussions and conversations is very high as Beyond Talk deals with topics that are at the core of their lives. Furthermore, Beyond Talk offers a balanced mixture of theory and practice so learners not only examine conversational features through various activities, but also practise them in realistic situations. Lastly, at the end of the course, learners can assess their understanding of all the conversational features through a revision of these features and an evaluation provided in the last unit (cf. unit 9).As a result of exploring the “grammar” of spoken interaction, learners can transfer the knowledge and skills acquired with Beyond Talk outside the classroom. They can recognise the language used by native speakers and make sense of it, as well as feel confident to interact with native speakers. The cross cultural perspective they gain while studying Beyond Talk helps them appreciate their classmates’ cultural baggage which facilitates their interaction with other non native speakers.Learners of various English language levels have made very positive comments in the end-of-course evaluation questionnaire and some of these are as follows:“The study of conversation makes me to believe myself in front of the stranger.”(sic) From Thanh, student of Beyond Talk.“I learned about conversation more than before.” From an anonymous student of Beyond Talk.“I was transported in new different area of English language. I’ve become more practical and efficient in answering on questions and statements.” (sic) From Iliya, student of Beyond Talk.
Benefits to teachers Teaching conversation is an intricate process since conversation is in itself a complex human activity as we have seen above in the section Defining Conversation. Hence, teachers may find teaching conversation a daunting task. This is why Beyond Talk formulates for the teacher what is involved in conversation and needs teaching. In doing so, it provides teachers with a structure, a direction and a methodology for their conversation course. By dealing with all aspects of conversation and providing a variety of conversations, accents and settings, Beyond Talk reduces and even eliminates the need to find additional teaching material, thus saving teachers time to work on their lesson preparation.
Teachers have responded very positively to Beyond Talk, which has been trialed at different institutions, and have made comments such as:“No more boring, stilted audio-taped dialogues about the “holidays”! After many years of ESL teaching, I’ve finally found Australian video material which does more than simply provide speaking/listening practice.”Ilana Rischin, Adult Council of Education.“Beyond Talk provided me with a solid structure from which I could build interesting and interactive conversation lessons. Students became more enthusiastic about initiating conversation out of class and discussing their successes in class.” Virginia Ennals, Western Melbourne Institute of TAFE.

CONCLUSION The value of Beyond Talk lies in its strong interactional focus and its ability to address the sociolinguistic needs of second language learners. Its main aim is to make second language learners of English active and effective participants in the L2 community by developing their conversational and communication skills in English. Indeed, Liddicoat (1997) states in the preface of Beyond Talk that: “this book will provide learners with opportunities to interact in spoken English in meaningful ways which have direct relevance outside the language classroom”.
Beyond Talk is not ethnocentric as it allows for a cross-cultural perspective. Lastly, it owes its theoretical framework to Conversation Analysis and Politeness Pragmatics that enable a thorough exploration of the mechanisms of spoken interaction and its social dimension for the benefit of both learners and teachers.


Barraja-Rohan, A.-M. (1996). Teaching conversation and sociocultural norms with conversation analysis. Paper presented at the ACTA-ATESOL National Conference and the 7th TESOL in Teacher Education Conference, Darwin, Australia, and published electronically.

Barraja-Rohan, A.-M. (1997). Teaching conversation and sociocultural norms with conversation analysis. In A. J. Liddicoat and C. Crozet (eds.) Teaching Language, Teaching Culture, Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, series S, 14: 71-88.

Barraja-Rohan, A.-M. and R. Pritchard. (1995). The teaching of oral skills by applying conversation analysis. Paper presented at the Twentieth Annual Applied Linguistics Association of Australia, Canberra.

Barraja-Rohan, A.-M. and R. Pritchard.  (1997). Beyond Talk. Melbourne: Western Melbourne Institute of TAFE.

Boxer, D. and L. Pickering. (1995). Problems in the presentation of speech acts in ELT materials: the case of complaints. ELT Journal, 49 (1):44-58.

Button, G. and J. R. E. Lee (eds.). (1987). Talk and Social Organisation. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Brown, P. and S Levinson. (1987). Politeness: some universal in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Drew, P. and J. Heritage (eds.). (1992). Talk at Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Drew, P. and J. Heritage. (1992). Analysing talk at work. In P. Drew and J. Heritage (eds) Talk at Work (pp.3-65). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jefferson, G. (1984). On the organisation of laughter in talk about troubles. In J. M. Atkinson and J. Heritage (eds.), Structures of Social Action (pp. 346-369). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.

Leech, G. (1983). Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman.

Psathas, G. (1995). Conversation Analysis, the study of talk-in-interaction. USA: Sage Publications.

Saville-Troike, M. (1989). The ethnography of speaking: an introduction. 2nd edition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ch. 4.

Wajnryb, R. (1997). Making language work in the language classroom. Paper presented at the 1996 VATME Annual Conference, Melbourne, Victoria, and published in the VATME Newsletter, 71/2: 8-16.

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Posted 08/30/2009 by ESLandCAteaching

4 responses to “Teaching Conversation to Adult Learners of English with Conversation Analysis and Politeness Pragmatics – Anne-Marie Barraja-Rohan, PhD – Monash University, Australia

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