• Difficulties with Spoken English


    Recently, I greeted a German intern working with our company in the lobby of our office building while walking into work. “Good morning,” I said, and he returned. I did not know much about him yet as he had just started. I knew he was from Germany as we had recently been introduced, but I decided to find out more about him. “Where are you coming from,” I asked. He was confused and embarrassed. This is a common question others in the office have often asked meaning Where do you live, or How do you get to work everyday etc. especially since the locale of the office is downtown DC, so not everyone comes from the same place. I realized, however, as soon as it came out of my mouth and by the strained look on his face, that I should have constructed the question differently. “What - I’m not sure what you mean,” he said. “Oh I mean where are you staying, how did you get here,” “Oh,” he said, “I am living with a family in Colombia Heights. I take the bus down 16th street and walk here.” A simple get-to-know-you question had been answered, but with much struggle.

    Perhaps it is the TEFL training that had made me more attune to these difficulties, and I left the conversation feeling I had been inconsiderate. I realized however, that these types of miscommunications must be suffered by many TEOFL students beginning their careers in English speaking nations. My German friend was in no way a poor English speaker, and after I broke down the expression, he was able to respond fluently, issuing the answer I had expected. He was not prepared for common reconstructions (though often inaccurate) of the language for casual conversation.

    Any language learner will begin with the basics. The conversations introduced to the beginner are often based on survival situations, such as asking directions or buying a train ticket. Cheepen and Monaghan call this “transactional conversation.” Some sort of “external goal (ibid.)” is explicitly stated or implied, and both participants’ offerings to the conversation are based around achieving or rescinding that goal. For instance, as stated above, asking for directions. This is a common exercise used by teachers of foreign language, as it not only gives the students a chance to practice fresh vocabulary, but can be applied outside of the classroom, which gives the students confidence.

    But this is only half of the equation for effective communication in society. We will refer back to my experience with the German intern. The type of conversation described in that instance is referred to by Cheepen and Monaghan as the other of two types of conversation, “interactional conversation”. The purpose of the conversation is “internal (ibid.)”as the participants are casually gleaning information from each other about things that are not presently impacting their world, such as my asking where he was coming from, to glean more information about his situation as an intern in DC. “Basic greetings and expressions…can be introduced at the phrasebook level, but pursuing internal goals is a much more skilled activity than most situations involving getting things done. (Cheepen, 4).” This type of conversation can only be learned from experience in the country where language being learned is native and from constant interaction with the people of that country.

    This is why the TOEFL style of teaching has been so successful and remains in high demand. By definition as a language course it accomplishes the first of these two teaching ideals, but it also attacks the second type as well. The TOEFL training stresses that English be the only language spoken in the classroom. This would be a simple task for TEOFL teachers as they often have little to know knowledge of the native language, and are not required to have any. In fact, it probably makes it easier, as long as the teacher establishes this as a rule at the beginning of the course. In addition, the students will benefit from a native English speaker, as they will hear and begin to decipher many common expressions in the safety of the classroom, rather than the embarrassment of a work environment. The TOEFL teachers too will this sort of education. They will have to pick up the native language enough to survive, and will encounter many instances similar to the German intern of my story while they attempt to navigate the working world while gaining a working knowledge of casual conversation. It will serve to be a great skill, if not skin, builder.


    Cheepen, Monaghan. Spoken English: A Practical Guide. pp. 1-4 Printer Publishers,

    London 1990.

    Jessica fitzpatrick