To most second language learners, getting on with spoken and written sentences is a struggle.  Using  a  language we learn outside of our own home  has its quirks. We are caught up between what we are taught at school and what we learn on our own through exposure to friends, social media, music, and real life events.

Part of the struggle of a language student is the pressure on him to use his target language according to the books. The books are deemed correct all the time. These books contain so-called “speaking and writing models”.  In the Philippines it has been a tradition in English teaching to use model sentences.  These sentences are tirelessly drilled , the implication being one can’t go wrong with these sentences.  Its’ well and good while it’s done in the classroom,  but it’s put to test when used in real life situations.

The all-essential English sentence to Filipinos is “Hello, how are you/how do you do?”  Filipino students learn this first before all other common English expressions. This works like a magic spell because it automatically starts a conversation with anyone at home with English. Up until, and–as long as– the conversation keeps to the spiel (in the book), conversation goes well.  But, and this is what actually happens  in real conversation, things and thoughts go free-floating, so interlocutors just go with the flow by supplying sentences where somebody drifts off and leaves them hanging. You’re not having a consistently solid conversation about anything in particular, in short. That’s the beauty of a real conversation. And that’s where, a second language learner who may have entirely depended on books for speaking corpus, may come up  short.  He would endeavour to push the conversation as close as possible to the textbook spiel so that he would be able to carry it along.

James: I think the movie wasn’t as good as the book.

John:   I think so too. The book is far more adventurous, I guess. 

James: You’re right . It’s what they say in the film review. 

John: Who wrote it? What else did he say?

James: Uhm…    

James is cued on which things to cover  in this conversation. We sense that he has a fairly good idea what he’s dealing with, until the oddball question comes.  We can’t rule out questions such as this 

because they just come unannounced. Certain types of people, movie geeks for example, can ask mind-blowing questions. And real-life  conversations are full of this. 

How do you carry on?  

The situation above doesn’t require a  geeky answer, of course. Although if you use a language textbook  it would suggest that you have to name the author and talk about what he says in his film review.  A language textbook, since it  is made to teach, cannot allow this conversation  to stop,  something a real-life conversation doesn’t require.   Now to someone who is more attuned to real-life situations, he need not have a corpus of two thousand  English words to carry on with this conversation.  He can truthfully say,

  1. I’m sorry, I forgot who it was
  2. I skipped the author’s name, I was in  a hurry
  3. It  sounds familiar, but I’m  afraid I lost it

 On not knowing what the author said, James can say it in equal number without  having to sound  uninterested. 

  1. More or less  he sort or underplayed the movie
  2. He found the visual effects superb, if I remember it right
  3. I’m not exactly sure, but his tone is unflattering     

Saying these sentences in response to a question you can’t answer “correctly” doesn’t ruin the conversation.   Nor does it signal a pause. An interlocutor who understands  his role as such would conversely see the conversation going somewhere. By admitting to not knowing some details about the conversation piece, you subtly prod the other party to think on your behalf. And that can lead to more talk.  What words and expressions in James’s sentences do this?  More or less, sort of, if I remember it right, not exactly sure.

Filipinos have a penchant for  big words and deep vocabulary, thanks to grandstanding politicians. But these words have so little use in everyday conversation, much less in getting things across fair and square. Filling your vocabulary sack with easy words  such as what I mean to say is, the point is, all good, all clear, I believe I know that, I don’t think so, just my thoughts exactly, that’s incorrect, I agree with you, that’s correct, keeps  the conversation  alive.  An animated conversation is the right one.