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Keys to Colloquial Communication (Part 1)

Almost everyone I've ever worked with, in a classroom setting, via Zoom, through Skype tutorials, or even in back-and-forth conversations via email, has told me that they struggle to understand spoken English. Some clients who have hired me to edit their research writing are surprised when I point out that their writing is too colloquial for the audience. There are several aspects of spoken English that are important to recognize and develop for your own communication. Practise using these communication keys often! It will make your conversations more interesting and natural.

First, one must realize that spoken and written English are very different modes of communication. Writing is generally more formal than speaking. While correct grammar is critical in most writing (where one must use correct grammatical forms), grammar is allowed to bend in some ways when speaking. Writing uses strict grammar, which is hierarchical with its clauses; however, speaking tends to be more flexible and consists of a string of connected phrases or sentence parts. Consider the differences between texts 1 and 2 below.

1. Since the majority of our driving is in and around the city, we will probably buy an electric car when we finally decide to buy our next car. 2. I think we're probably going to buy an electric car next because, well, we kind of need a new one anyway, and, you know, we probably will get an electric one because we only ever really drive in the city to pick up groceries and drive the kids around.

What other differences are demonstrated in the two sentences above? First, as mentioned above, you'll notice that the first is grammatical, whereas the latter is more of a jumble of ideas. You will also notice the use of colloquial phrases like kind of' and you know, which are ways to soften he conversation and include the listener. They also help to make the conversation smooth. Where we must take some extra time to double check your writing for good grammar, when speaking we sometimes also need to add extra bits of filler information to help our conversation develop and flow, as well as to be engaging. This can make learning English challenging, however. It is easier to learn a grammatical rule and then test ourselves in using it than it is to learn to speak smoothly and get the message across to the listener without sounding like a robot.

Keep in mind that when we read, we pay attention to clause structure. We do this subconsciously or consciously, depending on our level of English ability and/or whether we are reading quickly to get the gist of something or deeply to understand details. In other words, the more time we spend reading, the more we notice. For instance, when we read sentence 1 above, we see the first word 'since' and we automatically understand that we will read a causal type of relationship later in the sentence. In sentence 2, however, we have to keep listening for more and more information until the speaker stops or lulls.

Here's a learning challenge for you:

Find a recording device such as a pocket recorder or even your smart phone. Turn on your TV or go to something like YouTube and find a show that involves conversation between two people. (Good examples would be a conversation between a journalist and a news anchor, a couple of people on a reality show, etc.) Next, record a small bit of conversation (60–90 seconds worth of conversation will suffice.) Now the difficult work: transcribe the conversation onto paper. Now, go through the conversation and underline all the words or parts that are not necessary for the meaning of the conversation to be understood. Try and read it just the way it sounds. Practise sounding like a native speaker! Good luck!

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