“Has anyone — a parent, teacher, or boss — told you to purge the words ‘um’ and ‘uh’ from your conversation? When these words creep into our narrative as we tell a story at home, school, or work, it’s natural to feel that we can do better with our speech fluency. In How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation, hitting shelves Tuesday, University of Sydney linguist Nick Enfield rescues those words (and everyone who uses them) from censure.” B. J. King, NPR
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key
“In so doing, he exposes the fascinating and intricate workings of what he calls the human conversation machine: ‘a set of powerful social and interpretive abilities of individuals in tandem with a set of features of communicative situations — such as the unstoppable passage of time — that puts constraints on how we talk.’
Using cross-cultural data, Enfield shows how rapid is the turn-taking aspect of human conversation. Across 10 languages (from Italy, Namibia, Mexico, Laos, Denmark, Korea, the U.S., the Netherlands, Japan and Papua New Guinea) the rule is clear: Speakers offer an answer to a question posed to them within 207 milliseconds, on average. The range goes from 7 milliseconds in Japanese to close to a half-second in Danish.
Based on speech cues, we anticipate rather than wait for the moment when it’s our turn to speak. We risk losing our turn, or seeming hesitant, if we don’t jump right into the flow. What happens, though, if we’re experiencing some kind of processing delay as we ready ourselves to speak? Perhaps we can’t think of the right term, or we’re struggling to process an unfamiliar word we just heard. After 600 milliseconds, “social attribution” kicks in — that is, the delay becomes a matter of concern for the community of speakers. We may, at this point, utter ‘um’ or ‘uh’ as a signal that we are working toward producing speech.
The evidence shows we also may use these words intentionally as buffers before offering what are called dispreferred responses, or answers our conversation partners may not welcome. Let’s say a friend asks you to an event that don’t wish to attend, and you’re about to decline. If you slightly delay that bad news by starting out with ‘uh’ or ‘um,’ that’s the conversation machine at work.
Enfield’s overall point here is that these tiny words, far from just being ‘noise’ for scholars to ignore, deserve linguistic study. ‘Huh?’ plays a key role, too, because, judging again from cross-cultural research, it is a human linguistic universal. When we ask ‘Huh?’ in conversation, it can be a mark of cooperation rather than confusion a point that Enfield elaborated on via email (Email responses in this post have been edited for length.):
‘It’s true that ‘Huh?’ can be a sign of confusion. On the other hand, ‘Huh?’ does much more than simply signal a problem. The usual effect of ‘Huh?’ is to get the other person to repeat, confirm, or rephrase what they just said. This is only possible in the highly cooperative context of conversation.’
In How We Talk, Enfield aims to set apart our behavior and language from the behavior and communication of all other animals.”
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
Stimulating background knowledge: Brainstorming
Directions: Place students in groups and ask them to think about what they already know about human language. Next, have students look at the pictures in the text and generate ideas or words that may be connected to the article. Regroup as a class and list these ideas on the board. Students can use a brainstorming chart for assistance.
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- We were taught to purge certain words from our conversation.
- Some people are very fluent when speaking.
- Enfield exposes the intricate workings of human conversation.
- Using cross-cultural data, Enfield shows how rapid is the turn-taking aspect of human conversation.
- Based on speech cues, we anticipate when it’s our turn to speak.
- The evidence shows we also may use these words intentionally as buffers.
- “Huh?” in conversation, can be a mark of cooperation rather than confusion.
- Language arguably supports a uniquely human form of social accountability.
- Speakers may sometimes delay bad news by starting out with “uh” or “um,” .
- ‘Huh?’ can also be a sign of confusion.
Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentencestaken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.
“Some 7,000 ___are spoken in the___ today, each a ___system made up of many thousands of sounds, words, ___structures and rules. Infants ___these systems natively, without ___insruction, within the first few years of life. Animals do not have___ in this sense. In linguistics, this has ___the search to define what makes this possible across our___, and only in our species.”
WORD LIST: world, species, formal, languages, grammatical, massive,acquire,motivated, language,
Grammar Focus: Word Recognition
Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.
Language/Linagearguably supposes/supports a uniquely human/humaneform of special/socialaccountability/accountable: with language, we can name/noun or describe a piece of behavior, drawing/draw public attention to it, then characterizing it (as good, bad, not allowed, wrong, great, or what have you)
III. Post Reading Activities
Directions: Have students use the WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.
Who or What is the article about?
Where does the action/event take place?
When does the action/event take place?
Why did the action/event occur?
How did the action/event occur?
Discussion for Comprehension /Writing
Directions: Place students in groups and have them discuss the meanings of the following statements in their own words. Ask students to provide examples. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class.
In his book How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation, Enfield states:
“Based on speech cues, we anticipate rather than wait for the moment when it’s our turn to speak. We risk losing our turn, or seeming hesitant, if we don’t jump right into the flow.”
“When we talk, we agree to be accountable to each other for doing our respective parts in order to achieve a common goal, that of mutual understanding. Saying ‘Huh?’ draws attention to a possible failing in keeping up with that commitment, one which needs to be redressed on the spot, and we respond to it by helping the other, redressing the possible failing, so that we can move on.”
Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about the topic from the reading, two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.