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First Certificate Speaking: Part 2. Avoiding
"ermmm": Adding coherence to spoken discourse
using discourse markers
by Jonny Frank
- 3

Problems

a) Classification
One major problem when teaching discourse markers is the volume of them. Parrot states that there isn't an agreed classification of this field, "nor is there an exhaustive inventory of them" (Parrot, 2008: 302). There are discourse markers specifically for written discourse, and naturally those suitable for spoken. In addition to this, register must be considered carefully as in certain contexts nevertheless would be deemed too formal.

b) Learner Strategies
As can be seen in appendix A, my learners rely on what Bygate describes as Reduction Strategies (Bygate, 87: 42). This means that rather than "attempt[ing] to compensate for their lack of language by trying to get round it" (Bygate, 87: 42), which would be an Achievement Strategy, they find a "partial solution" to their communicative problem:
Okay, in this picture..erh.. these persons are doing like…I don't remember in….I don't know how to explain it in English….like tirolinas……and this other, well both are doing sports…..

(Class transcripts, Appendix A)
Maria has implemented a reduction strategy instead of an achievement one. Maria wants the exact word for "tirolinas", but instead of using an achievement strategy, she prefers to move on to the next picture – "and this other…" - leaving her utterance unfinished; and inadequate. Coercing learners away from what could be described as "over-monitoring" (Krashen, 81: 19) – seeking the specific word they desire – is quite a challenge.

c) Fillers
Above, Maria represents an atomistic approach to language production: seeking to analyse language on a word level. She is typical of many learners, and this is why the "fillers" we find among discourse marker analysis may become a problem. Discourse markers such as well, I mean and let me see work seamlessly within native-speaker discourse as they drive, pause and steer the speaker (Thornbury, 2005: 66). For a non-native speaker, however, it may be difficult to dismiss the phrases as having no lexical meaning, instead being exponents of a discourse function.

d) Task difficulty
Asking learners to comment without any preparation is demanding. Indeed, "many students speaking in their own native language find" such tasks "appallingly difficult" (Brown & Yule, 83: 35), which is certainly the case with my class context. Asking teenagers to comment on two pictures and to answer a question, whilst being timed, is demanding and can result in them panicking. Many students in my class also find using discourse markers such as however and on one hand…on the other hand peculiarly formal and adult in their L1, let alone in English.

e) Textbook treatment
Given that "hardly any stretch of informal conversation is without markers" (McCarthy, 98: 59) it is seems odd that this "routine aspect of speech" (McCarthy, 98: 60) does not receive more attention in language text-books. The textbook we currently use, Objective First Certificate, deals with part two in a dismissive way, demoting it to a spot the difference-style activity. There are also no exam-type listening tasks for students to assess how other speakers do on this part. Not only is this type of task important for an example, as students will need to able to manage and steer spoken discourse in their lives, whether chatting to friends in English or using them in seminars or work presentations.

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