Researchers target natural speech
The Guardian (London)
October 27, 2004
Luke Layfield

A new approach for the study of English as a foreign language
To help foreign students achieve a more natural command of English, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in Britain has published a booklet that provides a grammatical description of the language based on spoken language patterns. Professor Ronald Carter of the University of Nottingham said many textbooks for foreign students tend to be based on written English and contain formal, unrealistic dialogues.   The Guardian (London) (10/27)

The development of a new 'language' to describe the way we talk could help overseas students develop a more natural command of English, according to the team behind it.

The new approach to looking at speech - "the grammar of talk" - was published by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority this week to help improve the teaching of "speaking and listening" English.

The booklet provides a new grammatical description of spoken English, based on patterns observed from more than 5 million words of real conversations compiled by researchers at the universities of Nottingham and Cambridge.

The aim is to use the new description of speech in the classroom to help students gain a better understanding of spoken English, so they can learn to communicate more effectively.

Ronald Carter, of the University of Nottingham, whose work provided the foundation for the project, said the development of a "grammar of talk" was necessary because spoken language was often very different to written language.

"Our models of grammar are determined by what we know about written language, but spoken language can actually be very different. In an informal context, such as talking to a friend one-on-one, our use of language will inevitably be more informal and less like written language," he said.

Professor Carter said the purpose of developing a way of describing spoken language was to recognise that language operates within a context, and to help students identify how best to use language in different contexts. "Language has a fitness of purpose depending on the circumstances, and by reflecting on that we can learn to become better communicators." 

He explained this way of looking at language could be extended to teaching foreign students, to help them gain a more flexible command of the language.

"The problems with judging how to use language are the same for students of English as a foreign language. A lot of the textbooks for foreign students of English tend to be based purely on written language, and even a lot of the dialogues are very formal and unrealistic.

"By using the 'grammar of talk' to reflect on when language should be used in a formal way, and when it should be informal, foreign language students can learn to use English in a much more natural way."

He added this would be especially beneficial for anyone coming to live and work in Britain, as an understanding of "every day English" is often a difficult cultural barrier.

Sue Horner, lead consultant for English at the QCA, agreed the project had the potential for wider application. "It can be hard for foreign language students, who learn to speak English as they write English, to understand and use the language in an informal way. We think that these concepts developed for understanding the characteristics of speech can be applied to teaching English as a foreign language with some success."


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