Last month, we looked at spoken production (simply producing words). This month, we’re looking at spoken interaction (speaking/conversing with other people). Spoken interaction basically refers to any communicative act in which two or more people are exchanging information. It can take many forms: a casual chat, a formal discussion, a debate, an argument, an interview or a negotiation.

In spoken interaction there is no clear structure. Just think back to the last conversation you had. How did it go? Smoothly? Badly? Basically, the speakers in an interaction construct the conversation together. They listen, respond, put forward ideas and work together to communicate. A number of factors can determine how well the conversation goes: your motivation, who you’re speaking to, where you are and the time of day, your physical and mental state at the time of speaking, and how the other speaker feels. On top of that, paralinguistic elements such as body language, voice pitch and tone of voice can also affect the conversation.

There are several interesting features of spoken interaction. These include hesitation, silences, over-lapping (when both speakers talk at the same time), repetition, mumbling, nonstandard English and even errors. The use of conversational fillers is also common. These include words and expressions such as “er / erm / like / I mean” and “you know”, which don’t really mean anything, but which are designed to fill space, or allow the speaker to hold the floor while they think about what they’re going to say. Finally, in spoken interaction, very few people speak in grammatically-correct and complete sentences. Just look at this example from a transcript of a native-speaker conversation:

Harrison: So, the other day, I was, erm, walking, walking down the street.

Brooke: Oh, yeah?

Harrison: I mean, I was cycling, cycling and there’s two people and they’re, they’re, like, looking at me…

Brooke: Looking?

Harrison: Yeah, and, like, I, I try to…

During the interaction, the speakers are using both receptive and productive skills – they’re listening and speaking at the same time. The key skill is listening – your ability to understand what is being said. This doesn’t mean understanding every word. In fact, in many cases, people won’t be speaking very clearly at all. So, the most important thing is to capture the meaning of what the other person is trying to say. In order to do this, you need to know all about the keys to English pronunciation (see previous articles in this series), particularly all about connected speech and word and sentence stress. The most important thing to remember is that English is a stress-timed language and that only the key words are stressed (usually the nouns and verbs). Most of the other words are not pronounced so clearly. So, you need to be able to listen out for these, and then to try to use this information to work out what the speaker is trying to say.

When it comes to participating in the conversation, you can actually get by with very little. In conversation, we use a lot of fixed expressions. Some are designed to show that you are following things, “Yeah, right. / Of course. / I know. / Tell me about it! / You’re joking?”

Others are used as a way of encouraging or supporting the speaker, or as a way of showing sympathy, “I know what you mean. / You can say that again. / Really? / I know the feeling. / Why was that? / Who said that?”

Participating in spoken interaction is never easy, especially when it involves native speakers. The key is to just try to keep up and follow the conversation as best you can. Then, when you feel comfortable, you can use one of the fixed expressions, or even contribute with a story or comment. Be bold, be brave and, above all, be quick!

Have fun! And good luck!

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