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Teaching speaking for interactional versus transactional purposes


Submitted by Jun Clifford M. Mape, Philippines

What are some of the issues involved in teaching  speaking for interactional versus transactional purposes?

Professor Richards Responds:

Small talk and conversation are examples of interactional talk, which refers to communication that primarily serves the purpose of social interaction  Small talk consists of short exchanges that usually begin with a greeting, move to back-and-forth exchanges on non-controversial topics, such as the weekend, the weather, work, school, etc. and then often conclude with a fixed expression, such as See you later. Such interactions are at times almost formulaic and often do not result in a real conversation. They serve to create a positive atmosphere and to create a comfort zone between people who might be total strangers. Topics that are appropriate in small talk may differ across cultures, since topics that are considered private in some cultures (e.g. marital status or religion) can be considered as appropriate topics for small talk in other cultures. While seemingly a trivial aspect of speaking, small talk plays a very important role in social interaction. Learners who cannot manage small talk often find they come away from social encounters feeling awkward, or that they did not make a good impression, and, consequently, may avoid situations where small talk is required.

Skills involved in mastering small talk include:

  •  Acquiring fixed expressions and routines used in small talk.
  •  Using formal or casual speech depending on the situation.
  •  Developing fluency in making small talk around predictable topics.
  •  Using opening and closing strategies.
  •  Using back-channelling. 
Back-channelling involves the use of expressions such as really, mm, Is that right?, yeah, etc., nodding of the head, and, very commonly, short rhetorical questions, such as Do you? Are you? or Did you? Such actions and expressions reflect the role of an active, interested and supportive listener.

One of the most important aspects of conversation is managing the flow of conversation around topics. Whereas topics are only lightly touched on in small talk, as we noted above, conversation involves a joint interaction around topics and the introduction of new topics that are linked through each speaker’s contributions. The skills involved include:

  • Initiating a topic in casual and formal conversation.
  • Selecting vocabulary appropriate to the topic.
  • Giving appropriate feedback responses.
  • Providing relevant evaluative comments through back-channelling.
  • Taking turns at appropriate points in the conversation.
  • Asking for clarification and repetition.
  • Using discourse strategies for repairing misunderstanding.
  • Using discourse strategies to open and close conversations.
  • Using appropriate intonation and stress patterns to express meaning 
Learners need a wide range of topics at their disposal in order to manage the flow of conversation, and managing interaction and developing topic fluency is a priority in speaking classes. Initially, learners may depend on familiar topics to get by. However, they also need practice in introducing new topics into conversation to move beyond this stage.

Agenda management and turn-taking are also important features of small talk and conversation. The former refers to the participant’s right to choose the topic and the way the topics are developed, and to choose how long the conversation should continue. This includes strategies for opening, developing and closing conversations, and for introducing and changing topics. This process is often jointly managed by the participants, depending on the social relationship between them (e.g. teacher– student, friend–friend, employed–employee). Turn-taking involves providing opportunities for another person to take a turn in speaking and recognizing when another speaker is seeking to take a turn.

Another important communication skill is the ability to use English to accomplish different kinds of transactions. A transaction is an interaction that focuses on getting something done, rather than maintaining social interaction. (In communicative language teaching, transactions are generally referred to as functions, and include such areas as requests, orders, offers, suggestions, etc.) A transaction may consist of a sequence of different functions. Two different kinds of transactions are often distinguished. One type refers to transactions that occur in situations where the focus is on giving and receiving information, and where the participants focus primarily on what is said or achieved (e.g. asking someone for directions or bargaining at a garage sale). The second type refers to transactions that involve obtaining goods or services, such as checking into a hotel or ordering food in a restaurant. Talk in these situations is often information- focused, is associated with specific activities and often occurs in specific situations. The following are examples of communication of this kind:

  •   Ordering food in a restaurant.
  •   Ordering a taxi.
  •   Checking into a hotel.
  •   Changing money at a bank.
  •   Getting a haircut.
  •   Buying something in a store.
  •   Borrowing a book from the library.

Transactional activities can be thought of as consisting of a sequence of individual moves or functions which, together, constitute a ‘script’. For example, when people order food in a restaurant, they usually look at the menu, ask any necessary questions and then tell the waitperson what they want. The waitperson may ask additional questions and then repeat their order to check. When people check into a hotel, the transaction usually starts with a greeting, the clerk enquires if the person has a reservation, the client confirms and provides his or her name and so on.

In using language in this way, the goal is to carry out a task. Communicating information is the central focus, and making oneself understood, unlike small talk or conversation, where social interaction is often as important as what the participants actually say. In addition, the language used in carrying out transactions is often predictable, contains many fixed expressions and routines, and, as we noted in the earlier example, and may contain elliptical or short forms instead of fully-formed sentences ,since transactions can often be performed using key words and communication strategies, but not necessarily employing grammatically appropriate language. Communication strategies are tactics learners use to compensate for limitations in their linguistic skills and that enable them to clarify their intentions, despite limitations in grammar, vocabulary or discourse skills.

The skills involved in using English for transactions thus include:

  • Selecting vocabulary related to particular transactions and functions.
  • Using fixed expressions and routines.
  • Expressing functions.
  • Using scripts for specific transactions and situations.
  •  Asking and answering questions.
  • Clarifying meanings and intentions.
  • Confirming and repeating information.
  • Using communication strategies.