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Spontaneous Conversations

A Window into Language Learners’ Autonomy

by Dominique Brillanceau
It is break time. My beginning students of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) are milling around in the hallway, and I overhear them talking, in English. They are finding out where the closest coffee shop is, continuing a conversation that began in class, or perhaps comparing work schedules or family duties. I am amazed at their ease with the language. The fluency and the effectiveness of their communication differ from the language they use when engaged in a teacher-assigned task. Free from the artificiality of the classroom task, they display the kind of communicative competence we as instructors hope they will achieve. Sociolinguist Dell Hymes (1972) first coined the phrase and concept “communicative competence.” Grammatical competence is not sufficient to communicate effectively: the ability to use language appropriately, both receptively and productively, in real situations, creates that competence (Sinor, 2002). During the breaks between classes, my students display communicative competence.

Observing this communicative competence outside of the classroom led me to ask several questions regarding their interactions within the classroom. Do the types of interaction I observe outside the classroom ever occur in the classroom? If so, when? What do students talk about outside of class? How do these instances of communicative competence contribute to learning? Do they foster learners’ identity development in their new culture? I found the answers to these questions through systematic analysis of the videos taken in our Lab School classes. A closer look at one particular example will illustrate the richness of students’ language as well as the role these conversations play in the development of identity in English. I also address here the implications that spontaneous conversations might have for the classroom.

The Lab School

Established in the fall of 2001, NCSALL’s Adult ESOL lab site (called the Lab School) is a partnership between Portland State University (PSU) and Portland Community College (PCC). ESOL classes are taught by ESOL faculty from PCC, using PCC’s curriculum. Upon entrance into the program, our students are tested and placed into one of the program’s four levels, which range from low-beginning to high-intermediate as defined by the National Reporting System (NRS) in correlation with Student Performance Levels (SPLs; see box in "The Lab School" for more details on the program's class levels). Our student population is diverse: they range in age from 17 to 77 years, with an average of 32 years. We have had students from 30 different linguistic backgrounds. They come from varied educational backgrounds: about half have high school diplomas in their countries of origin, the other half have either a few years of education or graduate degrees.

The two Lab School classrooms are each equipped with six ceiling cameras that videotape the classes; the students have agreed to participate in the research and are aware that recording is taking place. Four of the cameras are fixed and two move. Each of the two moving cameras follows one of two students wearing microphones. The microphone assignment is rotated each class session to capture each student at least twice in a 10-week term. The teacher also wears a microphone. To date, we have videotaped more than 3,200 hours of classroom interactions of all four levels of classes.

Data for This Study

The data I used for this study came from a larger longitudinal study of one low-level learner from Mexico (Juan) and his language-related episodes (Brillanceau, forthcoming). I originally chose Juan because he stood out as an inquisitive and resourceful student and he only had had six years of education in his home country. The study I report on here emerged as I began to observe off-task conversations taking place. In these conversations students were bringing the outside world with them into the classroom, using a quality of language reminiscent of the break-time conversations I have witnessed throughout my career. Using the video database querying function, I found each class time in which Juan was wearing a microphone, as well as each class in which he sat next to someone wearing the microphone. The data collection began in the winter of 2003, when Juan was in the high-beginning level class, and spans six consecutive terms at the same level. For the original study, I was able to view and transcribe about 40 hours of class time during which Juan and other students were engaged in various tasks by themselves, in pairs, or as a class. Of these, about 13 hours were of pair interactions. Of Juan’s 16 partners in this data, only four were also Spanish speakers, and they seldom used Spanish together. Of about 13 hours of transcribed pair interaction, I was able to isolate 15 spontaneous conversations. This might seem to be only a few incidences for this time frame, but it is important to remember that the students’ level of English is low and such conversations demand a certain fluency and confidence. See a transcript of a conversation.

Characteristics of Spontaneous Conversations

Spontaneous conversation stands out in the classroom as dialogue that is initiated and controlled by a pair of students. Such interactions usually happen between students during pair work directed by the teacher, whether highly or loosely structured. It may also happen outside of a teacher-led activity, when the partners are finished and waiting for others to be done, or between activities. In a highly structured activity, in which both the language structure and the theme are assigned by the teacher and students work either from a teacher handout or a classroom text, a spontaneous conversation looks like a real conversation. The students no longer use the handout or the book; the rhythm of the exchange is not stilted or monotonous, but has a native-like fluency. As one would expect, spontaneous conversations also occur in loosely structured activities, with students ending up off topic. For a researcher, spontaneous conversations conducted during loosely structured activities are more difficult to identify.

conversation between two students

The transcript shows an example of a spontaneous conversation between Juan and Abby, a young Chinese woman. This took place at the end of a three-hour class, after they had finished discussing the books they had been reading. As indicated in line 1 of the transcript, the teacher then tells them the next step: to record what they read in their reading logs.

The spontaneous discussion is easily identified here: it is obviously not related to recording their reading, as assigned by the teacher. From lines 5 to 51, the topic and the conversation initiated by Juan are about work. From lines 52 to 56 there is a brief shift in topic, with Abby expressing her concern about the relationship between low English skills and not being able to find another job. Juan’s questions are well-constructed and Abby’s short answers have a quality like those of a native speaker. They ride through a few misunderstandings but persist in the topic, culminating with line 57 where Abby starts questioning Juan about his work situation, which is an indication that the topic matters to her as well.

Implications for Learning

Spontaneous conversations serve two learning purposes. Students continue to acquire language skills, particularly as a result of negotiating meaning; and they help the learner acquire an identity in the new language. This identity emerges as learners master the different vocabularies that reflect their multiple roles as adults. Throughout the interaction, Abby and Juan often repeat what the other person says, either to confirm what as heard or as a request for clarification. These strategies help them to negotiate meaning, which in turn promotes learning (Long, 1996). For example, Juan uses the phrase “slowed down” in line 34, a colloquial expression not taught in the classroom. By bringing it from the outside world, and explaining it to Abby in the context he probably learned it from, he teaches her a new term. This adds to her vocabulary. She verifies its meaning by applying it to her own work context: after Juan defines “slowed down” for her as “not too much customers” (line 38), Abby shows her understanding by saying that there are too many waitress (line 39). As the conversation continues, Juan asks the same question twice, the second time in a slightly different way (lines 48 and 51), because Abby didn’t respond the first time he asked. Juan’s self-correction shows the versatility of his language; while Abby doesn’t respond directly to his question, he has exposed her to two different ways of asking the same question. This is an example of comprehensible input, which, suggests linguist Stephen Krashen (1985), contributes to learning.

Motivation and investment are necessary for language learning to take place and for the learner to acquire an identity in the culture of the new language (Norton, 2000). Students are motivated to talk about what matters to them most: work, health, and education, including the difficulty or challenges of learning a new language. Other topics often include family background, and cultural information, and transportation. Motivation and investment were present in the 15 incidents I observed for this study, the latter manifest through the students’ level of engagement. Juan initiates the conversation and the two speakers continue communicating even though they have to negotiate meanings. Abby shows her engagement when she asks him about his situation. Their interaction allows them to express their identities as workers, healthy community members, and lifelong learners in a safe environment. The topic of work as discussed by Juan and Abby brings up their economic concern as immigrants. Juan is able to engage Abby because they share the same concern. Her response to whether she has other work brings in yet another concern, that of her English skills, which she perceives as a barrier to getting more work.  Juan’s nodding and laughing seem to enable her to feel connected with him and, in turn, ask him about his situation.

Implications for Teaching

As teachers, we need to be aware that spontaneous conversations occur and that the kind of learning they promote is valuable and complements our teaching. Students use English to discuss concerns that may or may not be part of the curriculum. Spontaneous conversations create additional opportunities for negotiation of meaning, which is thought to facilitate learning. The recurrence of themes used by the students suggests that they are important to them. We need to create an environment that will allow spontaneous conversations to happen. The use of pair work in the classroom facilitates communication among peers. Pair activities should be set up to minimize the teacher’s involvement: without the teacher‘s presence students are pushed to negotiate more; if the teacher is present, students tend to model the activity and not challenge themselves any further. Teachers need to allow time for the task to be done but also for learner-directed conversation to take place; learners need to create their own space for learning. 

Students in this study have many different first languages; I cannot say whether spontaneous conversations also occur in English in classes where students share the same language of origin. Managing pair work so that spontaneous conversations can occur might be a greater challenge in that situation, since students might be tempted to share their real-life concerns in their native language. 

If, as teachers, we model communication to promote and maintain community, students will follow and use English in a similar manner. Being aware that spontaneous conversations happen gives us an opportunity to eavesdrop on our learners’ linguistic needs, which is helpful in planning subsequent classes.


Brillanceau, D. (forthcoming). “Language-related episodes in a natural classroom setting: a low level ESL learner speaks for himself.”

Hymes, D. (1972). On Communicative Competence. Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press.

Krashen, S.(1985). The Input Hypothesis:  Issues and Implications. London:  Longman

Long, M. (1996). “The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition.” In W. C. Ritchie & T. K. Bhatia (eds.) Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (pp. 413–468). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity and Educational Change. Essex, UK: Pearson Education Limited.

Sinor, M. (2002). “From communicative competence to language awareness: An outline of language teaching principles.” Crossing Boundaries 1(3), 116-125

About the Author

Dominique Brillanceau has taught adult immigrants and refugees in the Portland area since 1986. For the past four years, she has been a teacher and a researcher at the NCSALL Lab School. Her research interests are literacy, second language acquisition, and immigrant identity.