Spoken language

Author: Martin Bygate


This article first explains the lack of specific attention to speaking, and the reasons for its study. It then outlines the main aims of an applied linguistic course in the topic. These are the major defining features of speech; the pedagogical options for teaching speech; the impact of oral tasks; issues in the testing of speaking; and the nature of the oral language curriculum. The article identifies key aims and objectives, outlines relevant teaching procedures, and ways of obtaining formative and summative assessment.

Table of contents

Introduction: spoken language

Curiously the study of speaking in its own right has been a relatively recent addition to the range of linguistics and applied linguistics specialisms. This is in spite of the popular assumption that knowing or learning a language centrally involves being able to ‘speak’ it, or the common claims that language pedagogy and linguistics prioritise the study and teaching of the vernacular. For most of the 20th century, speech was seen by linguists as only partially accessible to study: through phonetics and phonology; by studying idealised underlying competences, on the assumption that speech was transient and subject to the contingent influences of processing limitations of little linguistic interest; and thirdly through dialectology. Somewhat in parallel, although the approaches to language teaching developed since the Reform movement in the late 19th century have consistently made claims about the centrality of speech within their pedagogies, in fact speech was mainly of interest either because the oral medium is peculiarly appropriate to encouraging the unmediated and rapid processing of form-meaning pairings in a second language, along with conditions likely to favour memorisation, notably opportunities for immediate feedback and frequent repetition; or else because one purpose for learning a second language that couldn’t be ignored was to manage basic face-to-face service encounters while in the foreign country. However, perhaps because only towards the last quarter of the 20th century the particular patterns of speech and the nature of on-line processing became technically amenable to study, the actual forms of language studied and taught orally in second language classrooms were largely based on artefacts of the written language (such as sentence patterns, and scripted dialogues). Hence in spite of the fact that language teaching and linguistics have long claimed to place oral language at the centre of its curricula, speech has been largely seen as similar to writing, but for the fact that it is processed orally.

Differences between spoken and written language

Research provides three main justifications for the study of speaking in its own right. Firstly, discourse- and corpus-based approaches to language study have identified a number of oral genres and sub-genres which are characterised by patterns of discourse and lexico-grammatical features which are quite distinct from those of written discourse. Secondly developmental research shows that both first and second language abilities are commonly quite distinct in individual speakers: it is quite frequent for second language users to differ significantly in their oral and written use of the lexico-grammar of a second language, and similar differences are not uncommon in first language development. Thirdly there is abundant evidence of significant socio-psychological differences between the processing of speech and writing which underlie these differences in genre and ability. While these processing conditions clearly impact on the shape and nature of language use, in addition they suggest significant implications for the impact of speech and writing as media for learning. These research-based justifications for the study of speaking are complemented by growing concerns about the role of oral language in the construction and development of community relations, both within the UK, and internationally. In addition, with speech significant within the UK national curriculum both as target and medium of learning, it is important for language professionals to be aware of the nature of speaking. Finally, the current English as Lingua Franca movement for example, argues that the target dialect forms should be a function of the identities and language backgrounds of the interlocutors. Clearly the impact of this movement on speech may differ considerably from that on written language.

Teaching the spoken language

An applied linguistic programme needs to deal with a number of key issues: real world problems arising from within the domain of study; informing underlying theories; potentially relevant empirical evidence; the design, implementation and findings of relevant research; issues of intervention in terms of planning, design, implementation and evaluation. In the case of the study of speaking, this involves a number of subtopics. Firstly, in line with the above, the understanding of speech is informed by an awareness of three major defining features: generic discourse patterns and associated lexico-grammatical characteristics; knowledge of studies of spoken ability compared with written ability, including understanding of characteristics of speech such as fluency/disfluency features; and knowledge about the individual and social psychology of speech processing.

Within an applied linguistic or teacher education programme, the study of speech also needs to develop an understanding of pedagogical options in promoting oral abilities. This implies developing in students a critical awareness of the range of approaches for the teaching of speaking, from the more controlled, teacher-centred approaches that are available, to the more unscripted, exploratory approaches that are being developed, in which the teacher’s role is more that of setting challenges, facilitating work, monitoring progress, and providing formative and where necessary summative feedback.

A particularly important focus concerns the impact of oral tasks in channelling students towards various aspects of spoken language and their use, notably: distinct discourse patterns; distinct sets of lexico-grammatical features; distinct interaction patterns; different modes of processing, encouraging students to concentrate as needed on the fluency, accuracy or complexity of their speech.

Study of the testing of speech highlights more precisely the kinds of oral competencies that educational programmes aim to develop, how they are defined, and the design of procedures to evaluate them. This provides a background for studying the classroom use of tasks within and across lesson cycles, and the study of different options for the teacher to provide feedback on students.

A final theme concerns the nature and shape of the oral language curriculum within the context both of first and second language classrooms. Overall then the syllabus moves from theoretical, descriptive issues concerning the language, psychology and sociology of speech, through research into task design and test design, to the implementation of activities and the design of programmes.

Programme implementation

In teaching this area, the focus is on a small number of key objectives, principally to develop a critical understanding: of theories of speech and speech processing; of empirical studies into the nature of speech and speech processing; of the principles underlying the design of relevant pedagogical materials and tests; of empirical studies into the functioning of pedagogical materials and tests; of principles underlying - and empirical studies into - the use of tasks within educational contexts; and principles underlying the provision of oral language work within classroom contexts. These objectives are currently best achieved through a combination of relevant learning activities: critical reading and discussion of theoretical, descriptive and empirical studies; lecture input; tasks – both in and out of class – to structure the exploration of oral data and of relevant categories of analysis through the study of audio and video recordings and of transcript data; tasks to engage exploration of oral teaching and testing materials through their implementation, as well as through the recording, analysis and evaluation of participant data; and hands-on surveys of a range of sample course books, and the study of illustrative syllabuses and curricula, to understand and evaluate current assumptions about the role of speaking within the curriculum, along with current approaches to implementing those assumptions.

Formative assessment is generally effectively based on a combination of in-class feedback during discussion phases occurring around lectures; lecturer’s monitoring of on-task analysis activities; post-task reporting and discussion; in-class oral reports and discussion of specific readings. Summative assessment usually takes the form of an assignment, involving the student in addressing issues in one or more of the following: the design, implementation or development of materials, syllabus design and evaluation, and the assessment of oral language skills. Assessment also typically requires an argued position on the alternative options in the selected aspect of the field for a pedagogical context of the student’s choice.



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