Analysing Casual Conversation

by Suzanne Eggins & Diana Slade

(Cassell 1997)


Reviewed by Susan Feez


Ten years ago, when Diana Slade and Lloyd Norris first published a groundbreaking set of adult ESL teaching materials, Teaching Casual Conversation, for the National Curriculum Resource Centre in Adelaide, our understanding of English conversation was very limited. Until then requests for conversation classes from ESL or EFL students often left teachers feeling helpless. Existing resources were usually based on written dialogues, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one, which were at best stilted and at worst laughable. Because it was difficult to pin down what conversation actually was and why people did it, designing effective courses in English conversation was largely a hit-and-miss affair. Students however, were desperate to know how to do it. The most effective techniques centred on orchestrating situations in which groups of students were asked to solve a controversial problem or conflict. This at least seemed to provide those learners who entered into the spirit of such activities with conversation practice, even if we were not very clear on how to prepare learners for effective participation in these exchanges, especially those who held back, nor on how to recognise whether the talkative ones were making genuine and useful progress with their conversational skills.

The appearance of Teaching Casual Conversation coincided with a period in which language teachers were beginning to become aware that spoken and written language represented very different kinds of language use. It was a time when Systemic Functional Linguistics was beginning to make an impact on language teaching. Publications such as Michael Halliday's Spoken and Written Language were appearing which described very clearly the uses and, therefore, the cohesive and grammatical features which differentiated these two types of language. Teachers began to realise that they were often teaching tortured forms of written language when they thought they were teaching spoken language. They were discovering how to place samples of language use along a continuum from the 'most spoken' to the 'most written' and how to apply this knowledge to programming. At about that time the traditional dialogues of English-language teaching were starting to look very unhelpful. I can remember in this context finding Teaching Casual Conversation a revelation.

In the intervening ten years many language teachers have been acquiring a technical language which makes it possible for them to talk about language in general, and the differences between spoken and written language in particular, with much greater ease and professionalism. How timely it is then that Diana Slade has teamed up with Suzanne Eggins to take us to a new level of clarity in our understanding of 'the realities of English conversation'.

It was, in fact, Suzanne Eggins who first pointed out in her PhD thesis, Keeping the Conversation Going: A Systemic-Functional Analysis of Conversation Structure in Casual Sustained Talk, the crucial point that, in contrast to more easily recognisable genres which have 'clear, tangible goals' and so are structured to reach an end-point, casual conversation is structured to ensure that it keeps going. Building on their unrivalled expertise, therefore, Suzanne Eggins and Diana Slade have written Analysing Casual Conversation specifically for the wider community of linguists and discourse analysts, while keeping in mind the fact that many language teachers are now equipped with a linguistic literacy which will enable them to exploit much of the material in this book very profitably. It is, for this reason, at once an extremely theoretical yet a very practical book.

Analysing Casual Conversation provides the reader with a comprehensive description of the nature of casual conversation. Through this description the book examines the important, but largely invisible, work conversation achieves in the construction of social relations. The book is the outcome of rigorous scholarship based on a corpus of authentic texts. The account of casual conversation is systematic and detailed and leads the reader into increasingly delicate descriptive categories. The layered and well-signposted organisation of the book, however, makes it possible for the reader to engage with the material at whatever level is useful to their purpose or interest. The reader-friendly construction of the book is one of its most valuable characteristics. Because of this construction the insights contained in the material are made available both for theoretical pursuit within the academy and for more practical application in the classroom.

Analysing Casual Conversation begins with a short introduction which includes a key to assist with reading the very detailed transcriptions. Each of the following chapters is divided into clearly-labelled sections. The headings for these sections are included in the contents page, each with a page number, which makes it easy to use the book as a reference text. The sections headings in each chapter include both an introduction and a conclusion. This makes it possible to skim through the book quite quickly to gain an overview of the claims the authors are making about casual conversation and then home in on areas of particular interest.

For anyone interested in language, Chapter 1 makes fascinating reading. In this chapter the authors distinguish between interactions motivated by our need 'to accomplish quite specific, pragmatic tasks', such as buying and selling, exchanging information and completing practical tasks, and the informal interactions in which 'we talk simply for the sake of talking itself'. It is this informal talk which Eggins and Slade classify as casual conversation. The book is based on a set of wonderful examples of such talk, exchanges which the people involved experienced as ephemeral. When read, they resound with an extremely familiar, often humorous, but not always comfortable echo. This is not just because they were recorded in Australia, but because the relationships they reveal are woven, for better and worse, into the fabric of all our lives. As Suzanne Eggins and Diana Slade point out, we rarely take this kind of talk very seriously, but the project of their book is to reveal that despite 'this tacit agreement not to take casual talk seriously', casual conversation is 'a serious resource for constructing social reality.'

This book sets out to show that casual conversation is all about negotiating solidarity and difference, and the space between. To do this it distinguishes between two kinds of casual talk. The first kind occurs between people who are close to each other and who have a lot in common socially and culturally. Interaction within this group is characterised by a lot of challenge and disagreement. The second kind of talk is between people who are less intimate. When people with less shared intimacy interact, they work instead to construct agreement. Where these people represent culturally significant differences related to, for example, gender, ethnicity and age, then consensus is achieved through passive assumptions about who gets to talk and how.

The second chapter of the book provides an extremely useful overview of the different theoretical perspectives which have contributed to the approach to analysing casual conversation proposed by the authors. Then, from Chapters 3 to 7, they set about analysing casual conversation layer upon layer gradually building up a rich picture of the complexities and subtleties of this language variety.

In Chapter 3 analyses of interpersonal meaning at clause level reveal how different social roles and rights are constructed and negotiated as talk unfolds. In Chapter 4 we are introduced to analyses of the lexical choices which express attitude. These analyses show how evaluative meanings accumulate as interactants construct and negotiate positions of solidarity and difference over the duration of a conversation. An important strategy related to the expression of attitude in casual conversation is humour. In this chapter we are shown how humour is used by speakers both to enter into and to distance themselves from domains in which social tensions exist. Humour eases the tension, but at the same time it disguises the construction and negotiation of power in these domains. In Chapter 5 the authors analyse the kinds of 'moves' interactants make as they take turns in an exchange. This analysis, when combined with the previous analytical tools, reveals how the relative power of the people involved is constructed dynamically in unfolding talk.

Chapters 6 and 7 move away from the shorter more interactive turns which constitute conversational 'chat' exploring instead the extended stretches of talk which occur in conversation as 'chunks'. These chunks tend to be the different types of stories we tell each other during our conversations. Such stories are 'a resource for assessing and confirming affiliations with others'. According to the authors, 'In stories we tell not just what happened, but also how we feel about it. Thus in stories, values, attitudes and ways of seeing the world are created and represented.' In Chapter 7 the complete set of analyses introduced in the preceding chapters is applied to gossip, a special type of interactive story-telling which builds social unity and which also 'exerts social control' by defining 'normative boundaries', or, in other words, by keeping people 'in line'.

Each new layer of analysis is laid over the previous ones to build a comprehensive picture of casual conversation and its important work in building social relations. At the end of their book Suzanne Eggins and Diana Slade identify two contexts in which this understanding will be of use. These are the study of linguistics in general and in ESL/EFL teaching in particular.

The book suggests that the ESL/EFL teaching technique for generating spoken interaction in the classroom through orchestrated problems and conflicts seems to be on the right track. However they challenge us to think a lot more about who gets to speak and in what way in classes made up of learners who differ in gender, age, cultural background and English language skill. More importantly they provide us with the tools to intervene in the development of casual conversation skills in the same way as we have become used to intervening in, say, the development of written language.

In language classrooms we are used to thinking about spoken interaction, and conversation practice in particular, in terms of unstructured fluency practice, but the 'consistent and describable structure' of casual conversation revealed by this book suggests that it is time for us to think about a pedagogy which addresses 'accuracy' at all levels of spoken language, that is in vocabulary choice, clause structure, exchange patterns and text structure. By accuracy I am referring to speech which more closely approximates native-speaker construction rather than the often fluent and comprehensible, but non-native like constructions which all too often become 'stabilised' in the speech of language learners. All second language learners wish to approximate native-like control of spoken language. Without it they are destined to remain in varying degrees of social and interpersonal isolation from the general population of speakers of that language. As the authors point out, 'Without the ability to participate in casual conversations, people from non-English speaking backgrounds are destined to remain excluded from social intimacy with English speakers, and will therefore be denied both the benefits (as well as the risks) of full participation in the cultural life of English-speaking countries.'

All educators concerned with English language, communication and cultural studies will find something of interest in this book. The contribution it makes to cross-cultural understanding by revealing the often hidden purposes of casual conversation in an English-speaking culture is especially significant. The challenge to resource and curriculum developers is to translate this knowledge into classroom materials and methodologies so that they make a difference to the learner's ability to participate in and, if necessary, challenge and subvert the social relations constructed in these everyday, apparently trivial, interactions.

Above all Analysing Casual Conversation demonstrates the value of independent, meticulous and long-term scholarship. This long, hard look at the apparently trivial and fleeting such as chat, humour and gossip, reveals a lot about our culture, our society and our language. It provides a model for a principled and comprehensive analysis of an aspect of language use and it contributes to the body of knowledge from which language educators draw as they engage in the process of curriculum development and renewal. At this point in our history it is also an important exploration of how tensions and debates relating to power, rights and pluralism are negotiated in the personal minutiae of our day-to-day lives.

As a postscript I can't help wondering out loud if the publishers deliberately placed the cover illustration upside down - or is it the right way up? I feel a casual conversation coming on!

Susan Feez, Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong.




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