Making Your Implicit Knowledge Explicit And Specific Features Of Spoken English

Making Your Implicit Knowledge Explicit And Specific Features Of Spoken English

The word revolution has often been used in connection with the arrival of the new theory of language. However, we now need to look beyond how babies acquire the mechanics of a language in order to understand language use. So, it is to language in action that we turn in this unit, and, in particular, the nature of conversational English and written English.


What is spoken English like?


Conversation is the most commonly used kind of English. Most English speakers make use of it every day of their lives and so nearly all learners of English need skills in it. It is therefore important for the teacher of English as a foreign language to understand what is distinctive about conversation. The activity that follows is designed to start you off on the road to gaining this understanding. It is designed to train your ear to listen, not just to what is said, but to how things are said. And indeed, this is the theme of the next two parts of the unit.




Listen to a conversation, or part of one, between people speaking English. It could be a conversation that:


  • you participate in
  • you overhear – while you are travelling, for example
  • you listen to on the radio or television.


The only proviso is that it should be spontaneous rather than scripted. While you are listening, make a note of anything about the language used which might distinguish it from written English – for example, the kind of words used, the kind of grammar and sentence length. (This is just for starters: you’ll have the chance to practice your skills again later in this unit.)




Now read about some of the characteristics of spontaneous, oral English and see for yourself how many of them you found.


Specific features of spoken English


An obvious aspect of conversation is its informal vocabulary. Speakers tend to avoid specialized terms and formal ways of putting things or, if they do use formal terms, will often soften them by hesitating or using or phrases like you know, sort of, I mean. We seem to accept this lack of precision and we even don’t mind when nouns are replaced by words like thingummy jig. So, far from being an area which a learner of English should avoid, it is an area which they should become very familiar with, since this is how many English native speakers talk. We shouldn’t really view these features as mistakes – they are simply part of spoken English.


English speakers do many other things too. They often leave sentences unfinished, they go off the subject or change topic completely, they repeat themselves, they say words they didn’t mean – what we know as ‘slips of the tongue’; they use contractions such as don’t for do not, we’ll for we will.


Written English tends to use sentences like this:


When I arrived at the station to which I had been directed by my friend, I was told by one of the many policemen appearing out of the fog, that Platform 6, from which my train was due to depart, was closed due to unforeseen circumstances.


In conversation we would be more likely to hear something along these lines:


When I got there…my friend told me the way…I literally couldn’t see a thing ’cause of the fog…then I saw millions of policemen…they came out of nowhere…they said I couldn’t go from Platform 6…it was closed for some reason.


You may also have noticed that in conversation what is being talked about is not always made explicit. In the example above, ‘there’ is used instead of the station – presumably because there are contextual clues that allow the speakers to understand this. Other words that we use as substitutes like this are ‘one’, ‘this’, and ‘that’ (as in ‘Isn’t that one over there?’). This lack of explicitness is not usually a problem for the people involved, and if it is they can always ask for clarification. A reader, on the other hand, needs the writer to be more precise and organized about what he is saying. If he uses substitute words, it must be completely clear what they are substitutes for.


Think again about the conversation you listened to in the first activity. Did you hear anything said that was not strictly true like: ‘I’m starving!’ or ‘I nearly died!’?


Make a note of any words or phrases of this sort on a sheet of paper.




These are the opposite of the understatements that the British are so well-known for, and are actually quite common in informal, spoken English. For instance, the story at the station would have been very different if these things had really been true: ‘I literally couldn’t see a thing’, ‘I saw millions of policemen,’ ‘They came out of nowhere’! The technical term for this kind of exaggeration is hyperbole.



We have now found in a small sample a surprising number of common aspects of informal spoken English. Tick the ones in this list that you also came across in the conversation you listened to.


informal lexis (vocabulary)


unfinished sentences


contractions (e.g. ‘we’ll’)

illogical order

softening phrases like ‘sort of’

substitute words like ‘it’, ‘one’

sudden change of topic

slips of the tongue

simple sentences





This list is not comprehensive, and you may well have found other features. For example, terms such as Mmm, ouch!, well or wow may have appeared in your conversation. These are all features which need to be recognized by an English language learner.


Building on your knowledge of spoken English


Later in this unit I will discuss how understanding the basic features of spoken English can help learners and teachers. Now, however, I want you to have a little more practice in identifying them. The next activity includes a conversation that I have transcribed for you, which is designed to help you do this.




During a recent conversation I had about art and many other topics, I asked a painter to tell me about the difference between painting with oils and painting with acrylics. Read through his reply and pick out an example of at least six features of informal spoken English. If you need to, refer back to the list in the previous activity.


Yes, acrylics and oils, er um, well – I prefer working with acrylics myself…Hey, what’s this? Oh, I see…the big difference is that oils take forever to dry and, er, in the case of acrylics they dry very quickly. Is this yours or mine? Ah, you have it white, don’t you? Of course it depends what sort of artist you are because some people actually like to sort of work and rework their paintings and…and…and for that you need something that is slow-drying like…like oils say, but, um, with acrylics I tend…what I tend to do is I paint quite fast – I’m a pretty fast painter – if one can say that! – er, and I like my paintings to dry relatively quickly because I don’t, you know…I…I…what I like is the spontaneity of actually, you know, hitting the cardboard or the canvas with paint and painting very quickly and getting a sort of…instant fresh effect…and…for example…


Me: When you do oils, can you only paint one color at a time?


No, you can work with one more – more than one color at a time, but it can get very messy if you start mixing oils on the canvas and, er, this is what why I favor acrylics because you can actually paint on top of another color. Oh, that’s the phone – oh, Isobel’s getting it. Um, where was I? Are you bored yet? Ha, ha…Yes, if you wish to do so you can actually mix the colors on the canvas but you have to do that very quickly but once it’s done it dries and you can paint over it. I mean you could actually paint, er, and sort of have second thoughts about what you’ve painted and actually correct it by just, you know, painting over it and doing it again, which is something you could never do with, what’s it, oil paintings.




Some of the main features I picked up are as follows. I have included an example of each.


Feature                                                                                 Example

hyperbole                                                                             ‘forever’

substitute words, which are often pronouns                             ‘yours or mine’

hesitation                                                                             ‘er,um’ (thinking time)

phrase to soften formal term                                          ‘sort of..’ (instant fresh effect)

repetition                                                                             ‘acrylic/s, actually, dry’

changing subject                                                                  ‘Is this yours or mine?’

changing the grammatical structure in mid-sentence               ‘I tend … what I tend..’

slip of the tongue                                                               ‘you can work with one more’

unfinished sentence                                                           ‘for example…’

substitution                                                                       ‘what’s it’

simple sentences                                                               nearly all of them


In the next activity, we’ll focus on three of the most important features of spoken English and look at their significance for language learners. These features will be familiar to many British radio listeners. They are: repetition, hesitation and deviation.


In the BBC Radio program called ‘Just a Minute’, panel members are challenged to speak for one minute on a given topic. The challenge is to do this without hesitation, deviation or repetition. If they do any of these things, another panelist presses a buzzer and the speaker loses points and must pass the subject to the challenger. Points are gained for speaking for a full minute without being stopped. It is of course no coincidence that the program picked these particular features of English conversation, because it is very difficult to do without them.


For the purposes of the game, hesitation includes pausing, or saying words like ‘um’. Deviating includes departing from the subject they are given or being illogical in some way. Repetition usually refers to words carrying meaning (known as ‘content’ words), like work, oil, canvas, rather than small ‘grammatical’ words like him, with, from, is. All these features are in our list of common aspects of informal spoken English.




In order to see the point here, imagine you are a ‘Just a Minute’ panelist. Time yourself over one minute and talk about one of the following subjects without hesitation, repetition or deviation. You could either record it and assess your success by listening later, or, if you can play the game with someone else, they can press an imaginary buzzer whenever you break the rules.


Choose one of the following subjects:


  • life underground
  • my dentist
  • English food.




You probably found this rather difficult, and it was probably also rather a strain to listen to. If so, this demonstrates how necessary hesitation, repetition and deviation are to conversation – and we must accept them as part of the grammar of speech.



Utterances and how they sound


You have now seen that speech has its own, significant characteristics. This section gives you a brief introduction to two more features unique to spoken language as opposed to written language: stress and intonation. During it I will give you a number of examples of how words sound. You’ll be able to make more sense of what I am saying if you say the words aloud to yourself as you come across them.


An important point about informal speech that I haven’t mentioned yet is that you can’t always tell where a sentence ends – indeed perhaps we shouldn’t even think in terms of sentences. Sentences are, after all, groups of words delimited by a full stop or equivalent, and we can’t ‘speak’ full stops. For this reason, linguists talk about utterances rather than sentences. By this they mean a stretch of language used by one person; but this isn’t necessarily equivalent to a written sentence.


Stressing parts of words: word stress


Utterances that look the same when written down may vary in sound when spoken. This can occur in several different ways. The speaker may make a particular emphasis. This is called stress. Words in English of more than one syllable always have one syllable that is more strongly stressed than the others. For example, the word midnight carries the main stress on the first syllable: the syllable mid- is said more loudly than -night. The word highest is also stressed on the first syllable, but begin is stressed on the second syllable, as is the word computer. Many other languages don’t have word stress in the same way. In French, even a four-syllable word like absolument carries the same amount of emphasis on each syllable.


The next activity will help you to check that you can identify word stress in English.




Put a line over the stressed syllable in the words below. The first one has been done for you. You will need to print this page or write the words on a sheet of paper.




pigeon, recipe, preserve, fishmonger, coconut, lovingly, tomato, arranging




There are times, however, when English speakers change the place of the main stress for a particular reason. An example of this is when we want to emphasise one thing in contrast to another. If someone suggests meeting their friend at midnight when they meant midday, they might clarify this by stressing -night and -day instead of mid:


This contrastive use of stress is very common in English, but much less so in other languages. In Spanish, for instance, if you wanted to say your birthday was on the twenty-first, (el veintiuno) not the thirty-first, (el treinta y uno) you might not stress veinti any more strongly than uno, whereas in English the stress would go on the words being contrasted, twenty and thirty. So, you can see that this is an important area for learners.


Stressing words: sentence stress


Speakers of English also have a choice about which words to stress within their utterances. This is called sentence stress. We can change the meaning or implication of sentences by stressing different words in them, as the following activity shows.




Say the following sentence four times, stressing the different words. Make a note of what different meanings might be conveyed.


  • Don’t leave that there





You could have suggested something like:


stress on Don’t might suggest that this has been said before

stress on leave implies that it should not be left anywhere

stress on that suggests that it’s an inappropriate thing to leave there

stress on there suggests that you could leave it somewhere else, but not there.




When you listen to English, you will also hear variation in the pitch of the speaker’s voice. For instance, in a flat refusal: ‘no!’, the pitch of your voice might move downwards. If you’re amazed at something you hear, your voice pitch might go up: ‘Really?’ Try saying these before moving on. This movement in pitch is called intonation and is used to indicate feelings as well as influence actual meaning.


The area of stress and intonation is enormous and fascinating, and one which is hard to convey in writing. It also varies widely between different Englishes – American, Australian, Indian, and so on. Clearly any learner of English must develop an awareness of the range of meaning and attitude that stress and intonation can be used to convey, and therefore any teacher of English must also have such an awareness. The small amount of work on it that we have room for here will hardly cover the field, but it will begin to give you an idea.


  1. Try saying sentence ‘a’ (You don’t like haggis, do you?) with the main stress on like, but changing your intonation by making your voice go down on do and up on you.


then the other way round: go up on do and down on you.


What two different meanings can you give?


  1. In sentence (b) the stress is on the first syllable of ‘inside’. What does it imply? How is that meaning conveyed?


(b) It’s not the inside of the house that worries me, it’s the….


  1. Say sentence (c) out loud and note what happens to the pitch of your voice throughout.


(c) When I go on holiday, I always take three novels, a good map, sun cream, medicines, walking shoes, a phrase book, a tourist guide and a photo of my dog.


  1. How might this speaker change the pitch for the words in brackets in sentence (d)?


(d) My daughter’s been given a lovely new pen for school (if she’s allowed to, that is, I know some schools don’t let them use some kinds of pen) – she got it for Christmas from her uncle (he was staying with us recently) and she’s really thrilled with it.




With the stress on like and your voice falling then rising on do you, you might be expressing surprise or horror that the listener actually likes haggis, but if your voice rises then falls on do you, you are confirming that the listener does not like haggis, and perhaps will not serve him any.

This sentence implies that it is the outside of the house that worries the speaker. The stress on in is in contrast with the out of outside.

When English speakers are giving out a list, their voices usually rise at the end of each item, indicating that it is not yet finished. Their voices fall on the last item, indicating the end of the utterance.

The words in brackets would probably be said at a lower pitch than the rest. This change of intonation would differentiate the aside from the main point. Clearly learners need to be able to distinguish the main point a speaker is making from the less important ones, and hearing the intonation pattern helps them do this.


When you have completed this unit you will be able to:


– pick out some features peculiar to spoken English and say why they are important in its grammar

–  detect stress and intonation patterns in speech

–  identify some basic sentence connectors in a written text

–  suggest some more general distinctions between written and spoken English

– explain how understanding the differences between spoken and written English can be helpful to language learners and teachers

–  explain the meaning of some key linguistic terms, including stress, intonation, utterance, cohesive device.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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