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Discourse for teaching purposes
by
Dimitrios Thanasoulas
- 3

Let us compare the following two examples of conversations. In the first dialogue, which is taken from a coursebook on colloquial English and part of which is given below, the scene is set in a French confectioner's shop in New Oxford Street. The second dialogue is natural.

Dialogue 1

Shop-girl (approaching): Are you being attended to, ladies?
Mrs Brooke: No, not yet. Show me some Easter eggs, please.
Shop-girl (pointing to a display of Easter eggs on the counter): In chocolate or marzipan? How do you like these?
Mrs Brooke (to her companion): They are too large, aren't they? (She looks round). Why, here are some at sixpence; they will do splendidly.
Shop-girl: Shall I mix in some of these plover's eggs?
Mrs Brooke: Oh, how beautifully speckled they are! They look perfectly real, don't they? Are they filled with cream?
Shop-girl: No, madam, they are solid chocolate. Anything else, please?
Mrs Brooke: What does such an Easter-hare come to?
Shop-girl: That one is two and nine.
Mrs Brooke: What do they contain?
Shop-girl: Oh, they are empty, you know. They have to be filled first. I can fill them for you with pralines or mixed chocolates or fondants, as you desire.

Dialogue 2

Customer: Do you have any chocolate eggs?
Assistant: Yes. One?
Customer: Two, please.
Assistant: 20p, please.
Customer: Thank you.
Assistant: Thank you. 'Bye.
(from Taborn, 1983: 207-208)

A "typical discourse"

Anyone can imagine a typical dialogue at the doctor's and compare it to the one given below:

D: What's the problem?
P: …it's a week of sore throat
D: hm
P: which turned into a cold
D: A cold you mean what? Stuffy nose?
P: Stuffy nose, Yeah. Not a chest cold.
D: And a cough? Any fever?
P: Not that I know of
D: How about your ears?
P: I haven't got any problems
D: How do you feel?
P: Tired. I couldn't sleep
D: Because of the cough
(adapted from Bonvillain, 2000: 373)

Natural dialogues contain not only certain features of spoken language, such as elliptical structures, but also more distinct social roles of the participants. Here, the doctor is very particular about details necessary to diagnose the patient, while the latter is describing the symptoms to get more help. Such functions are neglected in coursebook materials.

Full replies in discourse

Another tendency exhibited by EFL coursebooks is the overuse of full replies beginning with "yes" or "no," or "yes, I do" or "no, I don't."

Betty: Good morning. Do you sell oranges?
Assistant: Yes, we do.
Peter: Do you sell ice-cream, too?
Assistant: No, I'm sorry, we don't.
(from Taborn, 1983: 211)

This form is very widely used by foreign learners, and is also very common in textbooks. However, it is highly unlikely that one will ever come across such forms in native speakers' everyday language.

Listening to each other in discourse

In textbook conversations, it is assumed that people actually listen to each other when they talk, and that questions are immediately answered and requests attended to. The following natural dialogue gives the lie to this assumption:

Father: Are you going out this evening?
Lucy: Where did I put my green skirt?
Ben: Pass the salt, Lucy.
Mother: She can never find that skirt.
Lucy: I think I put it in the wash.
Father: There you are (passing the salt).
(Crystal, 1995: 112)

In real life, people talk to each other simultaneously, interrupt each other, continue others' phrases and give multiple answers to one and the same question (Crystal, 1995: 110)

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