This paper explores several important issues of the possible use of spoken texts within the context of the second language English teaching, with the specific reference to Hong Kong conditions. The author argues that while the spoken text may be an apparently less efficient means of developing grammar awareness in students, the concept of spoken grammar may still be beneficial from the perspective of familiarizing the students with the distinction between literary and colloquial language styles. To substantiate this thesis, the author refers to a range of selected works from the professional literature on this issue, which are taken as supporting the paper’s underlying claim.
The ‘Spoken Grammar’ Concept
The notion of the spoken grammar may be used to refer to the corpus of varied grammatical forms that are usually employed in informal and conversational English, as opposed to the more fixed and even “archaic” written one (O’Dwyer, 2006, p.19). Several core features of the spoken grammar are identified by the majority of authors. It is “a world of movement in flux..., continuous, elastic, and indeterminate” (Halliday, 2001, p.186), “fluent, accurate and naturalistic” (McCarthy & Carter, 1995), and “informal, unpredictable, spontaneous” (Bannink, 2002, p.267). Hence, in most general terms, the spoken grammar may be characterized as dynamic and interactionist, as opposed to the static and linear written grammar. Nevertheless, these two concepts may be related to each other, due to the very unity of the language informed by them. Therefore, it is necessary to review the contributions into the interrelationship between spoken and written language.
Spoken and Written Grammar
The correlation between the spoken and written grammar is often viewed as problematic. For instance, Fung & Carter (2007) explore the discourse markers (DMs) concept, demonstrating how the optional and categorically heterogeneous DMs of the similar grammatical class may be either referentially valid (i.e. drawn from the written grammars) or informal. The authors emphasize the DMs “signal links and transitions” (Fung & Carter, 2007, p.415) between various topics and clauses in the spoken language, which may or may not correspond to the written language grammatical structures. This position as to the connection between the spoken and written grammar may be characterized as conversationalist, resting on the assumption of the complementary character of the spoken and written grammars.
On the other hand, Hughes & McCarthy (2002) distinguish between the formal grammar that is based on the codified “paradigms” prescribing “the list of formal choices that realised contrasting meanings within particular sets of words” (2002, p.265), and the discourse grammar that is based on the principle of ad hoc usage of grammatical forms and categories for the purposes of conveying the specific meaning in question. This discursive concept presents a dichotomy between the formalized written grammar and informal and context-sensitive spoken grammar. Hence, this concept is diametrically opposed to the former one.
Finally, Halliday (2001) views the issue under consideration as the specific aspect of the general relationship between literacy and linguistics. In his opinion, the dominance of written grammar, with its “monologic” patterns (Halliday, 2001, p.182), was conditioned by the object-like form of the language inherent in medieval and modern textual modes of information transmission (2001, pp.189-190). As the growth in digital media shifted the focus from the fixed textual forms to the unstable and dynamic word processing modalities, the rigid written grammar started being gradually displaced by the more fluid spoken grammar, which is more appropriate to the new linguistic situation.
Proceeding from the two interpretations offered above, one may infer that the exact relationship between the spoken and written grammar is still inconclusive. Therefore, additional research is needed to finally clarify this issue.
Spoken grammar and Conversationalist Second-Language English Teaching
As noted by Thornbury & Slade (2006), second-language classroom learners tend to avoid colloquial and grammatically incomplete linguistic units in their communication, being rather consistent in the use of “well-formed but essentially unidiomatic language” (2006, p.219). The “formulaic” phrases expressing hesitation, vagueness, and other transitive and connective grammatical relationships were found to be significantly underused by the non-native classroom speakers in comparison with the native ones (Thornbury & Slade, 2006, pp.218-219). While this may increase the second-language classroom learners’ formal grammatical proficiency, an excessive focus on the formal written grammar’s norms might have an adverse impact upon the development of communicational skills, especially in communication with native speakers.
A similar conclusion may be drawn from the results of the study carried out by Fung & Carter (2007). Comparing the transcripts from recorded classroom conversations of, on the one hand, the Hong Kong students (the student corpus) with the pedagogic sub-corpus from the University of Nottingham, the researchers found that the Hong Kong classroom learners generally tend to under-use the DMs performing the interpersonal function, e.g. really, I see, or actually (Fung & Carter, 2007, p.427). The referential and structural DMs (marking the interrelationships between successive verbal activities and the sequential relationships between the linguistic units, respectively) were in contrast actively used by the student corpus, with such DMs as because and but finding most frequent usage (Fung & Carter, 2007, p.430). Proceeding from these data results, the authors conclude that the predominant exposure of ESL classroom learners to written grammar uses may limit their ability to understand and employ the spoken grammar forms.
Therefore, the comparative perspective on the connection between the spoken grammar and ESL instruction at large may lead one to surmise that a tangible gap may exist between the needs of teaching communication-oriented English and the traditional grammatical approaches based upon the exclusive dominance of written language. Thus, it may be necessary to dwell on the possible communication strategies in ESL instruction that may ameliorate this situation.
Communication Strategies and ESL Learning
A communication strategy may be operationally defined as a complex of verbal and nonverbal message transmission means that are designed for the purposes of avoiding or answering the language comprehension problems faced by learners. Following Lazaraton (2004), one may conclude that informal methods play an important role in the development of the ESL proficiency. While Lazaraton focuses on the non-verbal teaching behaviour, it may be possible to shift the focus to the spoken communications that are exemplified by the conversation-oriented learning and teaching strategies.
Thornbury & Slade (2006) present a typology of communication strategies that has already been developed in the 1990s research into this subject. These may be divided into avoidance or reduction strategies (e.g. message abandonment, topic avoidance); achievement or compensatory strategies (e.g. circumlocution or the use of all-purpose words); and stalling or time-gaining strategies (e.g. use of fillers/hesitation devices; Thornbury & Slade, 2006, p.221). While this typology is inevitably limited, it may reflect some of the commonest linguistic turns that are frequently registered in spoken grammar structures. For instance, the stalling strategy may be represented as involving the use of connective DMs that assist the speaker(s) in filling gaps between ‘regular’ linguistic units. In particular, such phrases as well or let me see may be the perfect examples thereof (Thornbury & Slade, 2006, p.221).
On the other hand, Hughes & McCarthy (2002) contrast sentence-based (traditional) and discourse-based (communicative) approaches to teaching of grammatical and lexicological features of English in ESL instruction. The authors believe that while discourse-based approach has its significant benefits (e.g. the promotion of awareness of interpersonal nature of language and grammar or the establishment of connection between appropriateness and learning), it is still characterized by certain drawbacks resulting from its increasingly unstable and “messy” character that ultimately results from its lack of shared metalanguage (Hughes & McCarthy, 2002, p.280). This may be supported by similar findings of Rose and Ng (2002). The authors conclude that the role of deductive approach to ESL learning is beneficial unlike that of the inductive one, in the context of comparing the language performance of two groups of Hong Kong students engaged in learning English linguistic patterns. These findings may mean that the spoken grammar-based communicative strategies may play a rather ambiguous role in ESL learning.
Having reviewed some of the findings presented in the professional literature, one may not reach a conclusion that a spoken grammar, or discourse-oriented, approach to ESL learning is qualitatively superior to the traditional ones. At the same time, it is evident that the excessive focus on written grammar may hamper the students’ ability to understand colloquial and informal English language messages. Hence, the combined approach to this problem may be necessary.
From the author’s own experience in one of the Hong Kong’s universities, the lack of formulaic language proficiency may be defined as one of the most serious problems that the ESL students have to encounter. While the teaching of literary English is an unavoidable prerequisite for understanding this language in general, the insufficient coverage of idiomatic English may have an adverse impact on the development of necessary communicative skills in ESL students. Given the necessity of face-to-face communication with Anglophonic business partners, customers, and guests, etc. in the modern globalized world, this problem should be urgently addressed so as to avoid any further complications in this area.