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The Language Learning Journal

ISSN: 0957-1736 (Print) 1753-2167 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rllj20

Speaking spontaneously in the modern foreign

languages classroom: Tools for supporting
successful target language conversation

Colin Christie

To cite this article: Colin Christie (2016) Speaking spontaneously in the modern foreign languages
classroom: Tools for supporting successful target language conversation, The Language Learning
Journal, 44:1, 74-89, DOI: 10.1080/09571736.2013.836751

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/09571736.2013.836751

Published online: 11 Oct 2013.

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The Language Learning Journal, 2016
Vol. 44, No. 1, 74–89, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09571736.2013.836751

Speaking spontaneously in the modern foreign languages classroom:

Tools for supporting successful target language conversation
Colin Christie*

Faculty of Education, University of Cumbria, London, UK

This article reports on the findings of a study into the conditions which promote
spontaneous learner talk in the target language in the modern foreign languages (MFL)
classroom. A qualitative case study approach was adopted. French lessons, with school
students aged 11–16 years old, were observed and analysed with the aim of identifying
tools and techniques used by the teacher to foster spontaneous learner talk. A sample of
learners was also interviewed. Thematic data analysis showed that the teachers employ
two tools, referred to as target language management and context management. These
comprise a variety of techniques which encourage spontaneous target language use and
which help learners develop features of more dialogical conversation in their talk. The
skilful teacher can combine these tools to create a ‘target language lifestyle’ where the
target language is the natural means of communication in the classroom. The article
argues that the development of spontaneous talk is an essential aspect of language
learning and that teachers can stimulate originality and creativity in learners’ language
over time by careful planning of their own target language use.

Background and context of the study

The question of target language use in the modern languages classroom is one which has
received extensive treatment, including much in the pages of this journal (Atkinson
1993; Butzkamm 2003; F. Chambers 1991; G. Chambers 1992; Crichton 2009; Foster
1994; Franklin 1990; Macaro 2000). Whilst discussion has often centred around the
ideal amount of classroom target language use, there has not always been clarity on
whose use (teacher or learner) or on which type of use is in question. More recently a con-
sensus has emerged that, firstly, it is learner use of the target language which is key (Macaro
2000); secondly, the support of spontaneous learner talk has been highlighted as one which
is important. Indeed, in the UK, learners’ using language ‘creatively and spontaneously to
express what they want to say’ is cited as a hallmark of outstanding achievement by school
inspectors (Ofsted 2010: 2). The purpose of this article is not specifically to revisit the
broader issue of classroom target language use but to focus on the particular aspect of lear-
ners’ spontaneous target language use.
This article will argue for the inclusion of the development of spontaneous learner talk
in a classroom learning environment which is often exam-focused and typically does not
allow learners to ever reach the level of spontaneous talk. Learners in the UK may only

*Email: c.christie@ioe.ac.uk Colin Christie currently works at the Institute of Education, University
of London, UK.

© 2013 Association for Language Learning

The Language Learning Journal 75

learn a foreign language for three years and this can make it less likely that they have the
opportunity for the potentially rewarding and motivating experience of speaking spon-
taneously. It will also be argued that learners can be taught to speak spontaneously right
from the outset and that this is not exclusively the domain of more advanced learners. Strat-
egies will be highlighted which can make the area of spontaneous talk more accessible to
teachers and learners alike, thereby providing a balance to more content-focused and topic-
based work. It is claimed that this will increase learners’ motivation as they see the immedi-
ate and personal applications of the foreign language.
Learners are often found to be reluctant to use the target language, to lack the ability to say
what they want to say and to avoid risk-taking (Dobson 1998; Mitchell 2003; Ofsted 2008).
High levels of accountability for examination results can lead teachers to promote a more
rehearsed and planned language use, which can foster more complex, accurate production.
Whilst this clearly has an important place, it is also worthwhile to find time to enable learners
to deal with real-time interactions of a more unpredictable nature. This develops areas which
have been highlighted by van Lier (1996) as otherwise potentially absent: expression, con-
tingency, initiative, self-determination and also personal identity (Grenfell 1991). In terms
of Norton’s (2001: 166) notion of investment, spontaneous talk is an investment in the
target language which in turn is an investment in a learner’s own identity. Indeed, spon-
taneous contributions to group talk can create motivational conditions by creating a cohesive
learner group and can generate motivation by ‘enhancing the learners’ L2-related values and
attitudes’ (Guilloteaux and Dörnyei 2008: 59). In short, learners can ‘speak as themselves’
(Legutke and Thomas 1991: 9). In terms of the Common European Framework of Reference
for Languages (Council of Europe 2012), the spoken production strand is currently being
developed in classrooms but the spoken interaction strand can often be neglected.

Spontaneous classroom target language use

Spontaneous language use implies that the learner has at his or her disposal both the avail-
able language and the necessary motivation to communicate using his or her own initiative.
These aspects will be considered in turn in relation to the existing literature, beginning with
the type of language knowledge which is considered to underpin spontaneous language use.
Johnson (1996) emphasises that it is proceduralised knowledge which is important in spon-
taneous conversation. This procedural knowledge (or ‘knowing how’ rather than ‘knowing
what’) is language knowledge which is readily accessible for immediate use. Ellis (1997:
128) notes that it is specifically implicit, automatised knowledge which is key to ‘communica-
tive efficiency.’ It is, however, difficult to isolate the implicit and automatised aspects and they
are more easily combined under the term proceduralised knowledge (Ellis et al. 2009). This is in
contrast to explicit and controlled knowledge, or declarative knowledge (‘knowing what’ rather
than ‘knowing how’) and this parallels Krashen’s (1982) distinction between learning and acqui-
sition. Proceduralised knowledge is brought about by input in which particular language items
occur frequently, are salient and repeatedly practised in ‘real operating conditions’ (Ellis 1997;
Johnson 1996: 122). This proceduralisation allows production with a reduced drain on memory
with the result that output is speeded up (see Klapper 2003: 38–39 for a fuller account). Clearly,
this is crucial for spontaneous performance which occurs in real time and demands quick
responses, especially in the case of humorous banter or informal conversation. In summary,
this view of language learning represents speaking spontaneously as a skill to be developed.
The building blocks of this proceduralised language are lexical items and formulaic
expressions, also known as ‘formulas’ and ‘chunks.’ Skehan (1998) proposes a dual-
mode system of language processing, arguing that language use is actually strongly
76 C. Christie

memory-based, involving repetition rather than creation, based on knowledge of gramma-

tical rules. According to Skehan’s (1998) view, speaking is possible because learners are
able to draw on their exemplar-based system to obtain quick and easy access to the linguis-
tic means needed. From this perspective, native-like fluency is achieved through the storage
in long-term memory and the subsequent use of formulas such as ‘memorised sentence[s]’
and ‘lexicalised sentence stem[s]’ (Pawley and Syder 1983: 205). Learners need to ‘acquire
a solid repertoire of formulaic chunks’ (Ellis 2008: 431–432). It is clear, then, that formulas
and chunks can play a vital role in spontaneous language use.
An issue frequently raised about reliance on procedural knowledge and on chunks is the
limiting effect that this can potentially have on generative and creative language use
(Johnson 1996). This is often linked to a critique of communicative language teaching in
general (Klapper 2003). However, Myles, Mitchell and Hooper (1999) note how formulas
and chunks are the starting point for creative construction in the target language, but that
these chunks and formulas first need to be successfully automatised. Furthermore, there
is no suggestion here that proceduralised knowledge is sufficient in itself for language learn-
ing. There is widespread consensus that declarative knowledge is also crucial (Block 2002;
Gregg 1984; Pachler 2000; Skehan 1998). Indeed, spontaneous language use is but one
aspect of overall language production and might be less suited to the generation of more
complex, extended language as fluency can be prioritised over complexity when the
focus is on swift, pithy communication of the message. Nevertheless, it is argued here
that spontaneous language use is an important skill to develop in learners and can leave
them with a feeling of ‘communicative success’ (Ushioda 1996).
The second prerequisite for spontaneous language use mentioned above is that of
having not just the necessary language but also the necessary motivation to want to com-
municate without being prompted. Van Lier’s (2008: 163) notion of ‘agency’ is a useful
umbrella term for this, incorporating ‘issues such as volition, intentionality, initiative,
intrinsic motivation and autonomy.’ He sets out a scale of increasing agency, with ‘auton-
omous’ and ‘committed’ representing the highest levels of agency. These highest levels
among learners are the most likely to generate spontaneous talk. Such high levels of
agency are desirable not just because they can result in spontaneous talk but also
because they are potentially linked to increased learning for a variety of reasons. The
learner may invest greater energy in the language produced (van Lier 2008) and learners
might benefit more from topics initiated by other learners (Slimani 1989).
Furthermore, collaborative language production in this study is often a hallmark of
spontaneous talk. This can enable learners to practise language interactively with peers
and the teacher and in a range most beneficial to their development, namely within the
zone of proximal development (Ohta 2001; Vygotsky 1978). In addition, the very act of
the learner saying what he or she wants to say and seeking solutions to linguistic difficulties
can focus the learner’s attention on what he or she does not know and improve language
learning (Swain 1995, 2000) as well as help a move from a purely semantic analysis of
the language to a syntactic analysis (Swain 1985).

The research
Data collection and analysis
This research set out as a case study to investigate the features of an approach to language
teaching used in the school in question which was interactive and encouraged learner target
language use. What soon became apparent, however, was that it was the pupils’
The Language Learning Journal 77

contributions which were so unique. The focus of the study thus shifted to an analysis of
this spontaneous talk but also to the conditions which enabled it to take place and the
research questions became more focused: What is the nature of pupils’ spontaneous talk?
How are the conditions created for this spontaneous talk to take place?
The case study school is a co-educational comprehensive school in south London for
students aged 11–19 years old with a reputation as an outstanding school and as teaching
languages in an interactive way and with a focus on teacher and learner target language
talk. The school is a large one, with more than 1500 learners on roll.
Data collection consisted of a combination of classroom observations and interviews,
although in this paper I rely on the classroom observations. Two French classes were
observed, one of learners aged 11-13-years and one of learners aged 14–16 years, with
video recordings being made. The younger class was included in order to examine the
extent to which a class near the beginning of their foreign language learning might be able
to produce some level of spontaneous talk. Three lessons of each class were recorded at
regular intervals over a seven-month period. The class of 11- to 13-year-olds consisted of
31 learners (12 boys and 19 girls) of whom two had special educational needs. The class
of 14- to 16-year-olds was made up of 12 learners (five boys and seven girls), with four lear-
ners having special educational needs. Learners in this latter group were grouped according to
ability across the year group and this was a top set. The teacher of the class of 11- to 13-year-
olds was a native French speaker with one year’s experience and the teacher of the class of 14-
to 16-year-olds was a native English speaker with approximately 15 years’ experience. It was
intended to video-record a third French class, but the class did not give permission for video
recording. Instead, two audio-recorded observations were made of this class of learners aged
15–16 years who were a lower set in terms of ability grouping. This reduced the information
available for identifying individual learners. The group consisted of 19 learners (13 boys and
six girls), of whom eight had special educational needs.
Learners and teachers were fully informed as to the nature of the research and their
consent was obtained. They had the right to withdraw their consent at any time. All data
was stored securely and steps taken to ensure anonymity of data.
The theoretical framework for the study highlights the fact that language can be ana-
lysed from both a cognitive and a sociocultural perspective. The former emphasises the
internal ‘mental processes that explain how L2 (second language) knowledge is represented
and acquired’ (Ellis 2008: 405) whereas in the latter the focus is more on the socially-situ-
ated process of language learning and on socially-distributed cognition rather than on the
learning of individual items of language as products. From a cognitive perspective, the
actual language produced was analysed in terms of accuracy and complexity, as well as
the origin of the language (whether entirely or mainly from pre-learnt chunks, or learner-
generated to some extent). From a sociocultural perspective, the subjects of the talk were
analysed, along with whether the turn was initiated by the learner. Teacher talk was also
coded thematically with respect to both the actual language used and the pedagogical
purpose of the talk, in relation to the literature on scaffolding the learning process.
Lessons were fully transcribed and all learner and teacher turns were coded and ana-
lysed. Initially, transcriptions were focused on highlighting main aspects of the lesson
such as classroom activities and key teacher actions. The aim was not to transcribe word
for word but to pick out key activities and teacher actions. It was during the transcription
process of the first lessons that it quickly became apparent that the distinctive element of
the lesson observation data was the spontaneous use of the target language by pupils and
the way that this was interspersed through the lesson. Indeed, it became clear that the spon-
taneous talk outside of the pedagogical focus was the most fascinating aspect of the lesson.
78 C. Christie

It then became imperative that transcriptions were much more detailed and included all
pupil and teacher language.
The lesson transcripts were analysed line by line using a process of coding whereby
multiple category labels were applied to each pupil or teacher turn in the data (Cohen,
Manion and Morrison 2011: 559). The categories emerged ‘in response to the data’ and
most pieces of text had more than one code ascribed to them. Descriptive codes developed
into analytic codes and these analytical coding categories have a mixed origin. Some
emerged purely during the course of the data analysis and others came from the literature.
The analytic codes were finally grouped and developed into more theoretical and broader
concepts, such as those of target language and context management.
Learner turns were coded for degree of initiation of turn, and for fluency, accuracy and com-
plexity. A three-part scale was used, again for the purpose of clarity. The purpose of the scale is
not to provide a detailed analysis of each turn in each category but rather to provide an overview
of the data as a lead-in to further qualitative analysis. In addition, the subject matter of the
initiations was coded as well as the origin of the learner language and thus the degree of
manipulation of language involved. The utterances were also coded as to how the language
was generated, that is, the extent to which it was self-generated by the learner. This relates
to the extent to which the main part of the turn is a prefabricated chunk. Teacher turns were
coded according to actions, such as praise or correcting and language use was also analysed.
Teacher talk was also coded by turn. Each turn was allocated any combination of 35 codes.
Language coded as controlled teacher language was language which was deemed to follow
a familiar structure, either because it arose in that form two or more times in a lesson, or
because it was a form already familiar to pupils from previous lessons. This latter fact was
established either as a result of knowledge on the part of the researcher from the observation
of lessons in the past and/or by checking with the teacher concerned. Class teachers were inter-
viewed as were learners, the latter either in pairs or in a group setting.
The video-recorded data allowed for clearer identification of learners and contextualisa-
tion of the talk and the teacher’ actions. Whilst this was also possible with the audio-
recorded data, the transcription task was made more difficult and the accuracy of the
data was reduced.

Analysis and discussion

This section sets out the findings of the analysis and these are illustrated using selected
extracts from classroom interactions. Four key themes emerged during the analysis: (1)
the establishing of a classroom climate of target language use; (2) promoting target
language management to provide learners with the items of language; (3) target language
management to motivate learners to speak out in the target language; and (4) context man-
agement to promote and stimulate the subjects for this spontaneous talk. The learner talk
shows, to differing extents, that the spontaneous learner talk is beginning to show
aspects of genuine conversation in the classroom. This will be discussed and suggestions
made as to how this could be developed. Finally, it will be noted that such spontaneous
talk can be used to help learners’ progression through correction and feedback, just as is
the case with more planned topic language.

Establishing a climate of target language use

Observations noted firstly that very little English was used by learners in the classes and that
learners were able to use the target language spontaneously. In the Year 7/8 (ages 11–13)
The Language Learning Journal 79

and Year 10/11 (ages 14–16) top set classes, only 5% and 6% of all spontaneous turns
respectively included English. Given that some of these will be using English to ask
how to say a phrase in the target language, this suggests an acceptance of the target
language as the normal means of communication in the classroom. This is reinforced by
the fact that many learners were willing, and indeed keen, to use the target language
unprompted by the teacher. In the classes observed, spontaneous turns by learners rep-
resented the following percentages of total turns: Year 7/8 (ages 11–13): 12%; Year 10/
11 top set (ages 14–16): 38%; Year 11 lower set (ages 15–16): 9.5%. The much higher
instance of spontaneous talk in the Year 10/11 top set may be due to a number of factors
which will be explored later in this article, but it seems likely that it is also a reflection
of the increased confidence and knowledge present in the group.
There are examples in all the data, most strikingly in the Year 10/11 top set, of learners’
speaking, albeit with inaccuracies, the target language on their own initiative and remaining
in the target language even when English would be a much easier option. The following
extract shows the reaction of a learner, Dan, who is being reprimanded by the teacher as
he complains about his partner’s alleged cheating and gestures during a pair work activity:

1 Dan: Oh, mon *deu. You see. Tu vois ça? Tu vois ça? Elle est mal
2 polie. Trois croix pour Eleanor. Oh mon *deu. *Triche, triche!
3 Je m’en fiche, elle triche. Elle *beaucoup triche.
4 Teacher: Dan! [makes swapping gesture].
5 Dan: Elle triche beaucoup. Elle *n’y a pas polie, elle fait [gestures
6 one finger] à moi.
7 Teacher: Dan! [gives Dan a cross]
8 Dan: Ah non. Mon *deu. Ça, c’est *quoi elle fait!
9 Learner (female) Une croix!
10 Dan: Look, look at the video!

In lines five and eight, Dan continues to argue his case in the target language, despite being
given the serious sanction of a cross on the board. It is only in line ten that he uses some
English in exasperation (and perhaps prompted by the presence of the researcher) but no
more English follows. In line one, he even corrects himself when some English slips out
and translates it back into French!
There appears to be an ethos in the classrooms observed of using the target language
to communicate, by both learners and the teacher. Whilst it will, of course, always be most
natural for learners in a UK school classroom context of a few MFL lessons per week to
slip into their mother tongue, it is suggested here that learners in these classrooms are
developing the habit of speaking in the target language for routine classroom
As highlighted above, an integral part of a learner’s motivation to speak spontaneously
in the target language rests with his or her attitude to using the target language at all. Macaro
(2001) describes three target language positions: ‘virtual,’ ‘maximal’ and ‘optimal.’ These
descriptions seem to relate to location and amount of target language use. In the case of
‘virtual’, it is location, namely to the re-creation of the target language country’s environ-
ment by excluding the mother tongue (L1). In the case of ‘maximal’ and ‘optimal,’ they
relate to the amount of target language used by the teacher. It can be argued that it is
perhaps equally useful to move away from discussion of location and amount to rather
describe a classroom target language position from the viewpoint of developing the lear-
ners’ disposition to use it in the classroom. This study has coined the term ‘target language
lifestyle’ position and suggests this is present in the classrooms observed, with a lifestyle
80 C. Christie

being ‘things that a person or particular group of people usually do’ (Cambridge Advanced
Learner’s Dictionary 2008). This means, in this case, learners speaking the target language
as the usual means of communication in the classroom.
This position, carefully crafted by the teacher, does not, however, mean that English is
totally banned. Its use is encouraged in the case study classrooms when learners wish to ask
for a word or sentence in the target language and also in activities where learners have to
give the target language equivalent of an English word or phrase. In the Year 11 lower set,
there is a higher incidence of English (at 20% of total spontaneous learner turns), due in
large part to a couple of male learners. However, much of this English output consists of
a running commentary on the lesson or spontaneous translation, both of which are instances
of thinking aloud in their first language, or L1 and this is rightly not discouraged by the
teacher. The example below shows learner Nick translating a teacher reprimand on
behalf of his classmate, Alan:

Alan: [makes raspberry noise]

Teacher: Très rigolo. OK, alors. Une fois, c’était assez marrant, cinq fois ce n’est pas marrant.
Nick: Once you’ve done it, it’s funny, five times you do it, it’s not funny.

It can be seen, therefore, that the teacher adapts her reaction to the use of English to the class
and individuals in the class, ignoring it if it represents thinking aloud and is not undermin-
ing the use of the target language for classroom communication.

Target language management: providing the language

The teachers in the study use a variety of techniques to encourage spontaneous talk. The
first group of techniques is concerned with keeping learners using the target language.
This is called in this study ‘target language management.’ The second group of techniques
is termed ‘context management’ and is concerned with the creation of a classroom context
which promotes spontaneous communication.
Firstly, target language management will be considered. Just as the classroom learn-
ing environment has to be regulated using classroom management techniques, so the use
of the target language needs to be carefully overseen. These techniques can be divided
into two types: (a) those used to provide the actual language for learners to use; and (b)
those which maintain the learners’ motivation and stimulate them to speak the target
The most important of the techniques which ensure that learners have the necessary
language is the way the teacher plans her language so that it is in a form which can be
readily reused by learners. This is called ‘teacher interaction language’ (TIL) and
becomes ‘learner interaction language’ (LIL) once reused by the learner. The teachers
use transferable chunks of language which are reusable in the classroom context. This is
known by the researcher due to the careful recording and tracking of use and frequency
of structures in the classroom data. Examples which featured frequently in the study’s
data are as follows: c’est and ce n’est pas [‘it is’ and ‘it isn’t’], pourquoi and parce que
[‘why’ and ‘because’], on va [‘we are going to’] plus the infinitive and, in the Key Stage
4 lessons, more advanced structures using si [‘if’] clauses and relative clauses. A straight-
forward example of how these chunks can be rehearsed by the teacher as TIL to become
LIL, used spontaneously, can be seen in the phrase c’est correct [‘that’s right’]. In a Year
8 lesson, the teacher asks the question, c’est correct ou ce n’est pas correct? The learner
simply has to repeat the appropriate response. In the extract below, Hugo spontaneously
claims to be ‘more fantastic’ than the teacher! The teacher then provokes and, at the
The Language Learning Journal 81

same time, scaffolds use of the phrases c’est correct and/or ce n’est pas correct by asking
the question containing both alternative answers:

Hugo: Je suis plus fantastique que Madame [teacher’s name].

Teacher: Uuuuuhhhhhh! C’est correct ou ce n’est pas correct?
Learners: C’est correct!
Tim: Ce n’est pas correct!
Teacher: Fantastique. Cinq points pour Hugo. Je suis d’accord avec toi.
Rebecca: Ce n’est pas correct!

This exchange shows how very limited language can be used in humorous banter, initially
in a controlled way. In a later lesson, another learner is then able to use the chunk c’est
correct spontaneously, unprompted by the teacher this time, again to humorous effect:

Michelle: Tu as perdu! C’est la vie! Tu as perdu!

Harry: J’ai perdu.
Michelle: Oui, c’est correct!

Over time, then, careful planning, repetition activities, scaffolding and the provoking of key
structures of language by the teacher can lead to this language becoming internalised by
learners such that it then becomes available for spontaneous use. A further aspect of ensur-
ing this language becomes internalised is that it is formally repeated and rehearsed through
interactive repetition activities and that the language is displayed via, for example, Power-
Point slides, wall posters, annotations and text written on the board, so that learners have
textual support whilst internalising the structures.
Finally, in this section on providing learners with the language they require, a key tool is
one which allows learners to ask for language. This goes some way to addressing an objec-
tion made to extensive target language use, that it might cause a build-up of resentment and
frustration in the learner (Klapper 1998) or an alienation of learners and their identity
(Auerbach 1993; Phillipson 1992). The device used by teachers has been called in this
study the ‘linguistic lifebelt,’ a term previously used by Jenkins and Jones (1991) in the
context of a textbook glossary. This is, in these French classes, the set phrase comment
dit-on … en français? As with other phrases, this is used and displayed from the start of
the learners’ language learning experience and is employed, for example, 45 times by
the Year 7/8 teacher across the three lessons. An example of this in use is given below.
A learner, Eleanor, wants to make the point that even if the class did not sing a song
well, they danced to it well!:

1 Eleanor Comment dit-on ‘But we danced well’?

2 Teacher Comment dit-on ‘But’?
3 Learners Mais.
4 Teacher On a …
5 Eleanor Bien.
6 Mike Amy a dit …
7 Susie dansé.
8 Hussain Ce n’est pas une leçon de danse … cinq points!

The teacher uses this as an opportunity to reactivate learners’ knowledge so they can answer
their own question. It also provides an opportunity for a learner to make a witty comment
and a request for points in response in line eight. Clearly, such tools can only take learners
so far in discussion. Whilst some older learners in the interviews noted that they valued the
82 C. Christie

‘informal chat’ in lessons, it is also possible that learners, particularly younger ones, may
feel frustration at not being able to discuss issues as deeply as they may wish.

Stimulating creative language use through the use of chunks

As shown above, learners can communicate effectively with a small amount of language.
The study highlighted three different levels of use of chunks provided by the teacher. At
the simplest level, level one, learners simply recycle chunks in their original taught form
at an appropriate point in the lesson. Examples of such chunks are:

11- to 13-year-olds
Et moi!, Changez les points!, Egalité, C’est/Ce n’est pas juste!, C’est/Ce n’est pas correct/clair!,
Menteuse!, Tricheuse!, Est-ce que je peux avoir dix points?, Oh, je suis désolé, Change(z) le
prof!, Un crédit pour la classe!, Stop! Il y a une erreur, Je ne suis pas d’accord, C’est la vie,
Il triche, Est-ce que je peux parler en anglais?, J’ai gagné, Tu as perdu, Moins vite!
14- to 16-year-olds top set
Il faut enlever cinq points, Parce que c’est le passé, C’est faux/anglais/japonais, Ce n’est pas
nécessaire, Le monde finit!
15- to 16-year-olds lower set
Je ne suis pas d’accord, Est-ce que je peux faire le prof? Changez le prof!, Ça ne marche pas.

As seen earlier, used in a timely way and in context, a chunk in its original taught form can
be invested with personal meaning and emotion, even if it remains unchanged.
The next level of use, level two, is where a learner uses a set chunk as the substantial
part of the utterance, but adapts it slightly through a substitution or an addition. A simple
example of this is quoted earlier where a learner in the Year 10 top set group expands on the
structure ce n’est pas to comment when some learners were swaying to one of the songs: ce
n’est pas une leçon de danse. These constructions may not always be accurate and, indeed,
a learner can struggle to formulate a new construction as below:

Mike: Mais j’ai, je suis toujours, j’ai, est-ce que je peux faire le prof

It is likely that this learner, Mike, wanted to say that he never gets to go first in the teacher
role. Unable to quite formulate this, he finally falls back on a known chunk (est-ce que je
peux …?). Nevertheless, this testing of hypotheses can be a useful record of language devel-
opment and diagnostic tool for the teacher.
The final stage, level three, is where a learner demonstrates agency and risk-taking by
going beyond the basic adaptation of a chunk and is a little more creative with the language
at his or her disposal. In the extract below, the learner Hussain is arguing that the whole
class should have sweets, not just the winning team!:

Hussain Parce que *tous les classes s’adorent, er (.) les bonbons devraient
être pour *tous les classes, ce n’est pas important qui gagne.

There is inaccuracy in the phrase (*tous les classes instead of toute la classe) but there
is use of a conditional tense. It is likely this phrase still builds on classroom chunks like
parce que and ce n’est pas important but the learner has shown an ability to combine
and adapt these for his own purposes. This development is one which can only take
place over time as learners become more confident and have more language at their
The Language Learning Journal 83

Target language management: motivating learners to speak out

The second group of target language management techniques observed in this study has an
affective role and involves the sustaining of learners’ motivation and desire to speak the target
language. The first and major aspect of this is reward. The teachers in the study assiduously
reward target language contributions (often by giving points, or ticks for good conduct)
especially spontaneous ones such as questions and requests for language. Indeed, words of
praise are the most frequently recorded features of the teachers’ language in the study. An
example of how one teacher rewards so instinctively can be seen in the incident below
where a learner has become restless and is reporting to the teacher some English (including
a swear word) he has heard another learner say. This is during an activity where the lesson
objectives are being slowly revealed in French by a learner on the interactive whiteboard
and the teacher stops the revealing at strategic points. The teacher is faced with having to
deal with this (rare and surreptitious!) unsanctioned use of English, the swearing and the
resulting disruption. However, before asking for the learner’s planner in which to record a
sanction, she does not forget to award a point for using French in his reporting of speech:

Teacher: Stop! Mike, tourne-toi, tourne-toi, tourne-toi vite, sinon

… Mike! Susie! Qu’est-ce que tu fais, Mike?
Mike: Elle a dit ‘I don’t give a s***’!
Learners: [gasp].
Teacher: Mike! Sshh! Mike!
Mike: Elle a dit ça, elle a dit ça!
Teacher: [nods to point marker] Un point pour ‘elle a dit’ … Et le

Praise is not only manifested after an utterance has been produced by the award of points or
verbal praise. There are also clear instances of using praise to encourage the learners to con-
tinue in the target language even when they may be tempted to give up. This can take the
form of simple praise or even just echoing the learner’s words in an encouraging tone, for
example with the word oui … . A final technique promoting target language use in terms of
affective strategies is that of ‘talking back’ in the target language if a learner uses English
for routine communication. This strategy is most apparent, and necessary, in the lower set
Year 11 group.

Teacher: … excellent
Ryan: I didn’t even say that
Teacher: Non, Nathan a dit ça …

All this takes place within the framework of an expectation that the target language is
spoken. It is made known through all the above actions and techniques, but also more
explicitly at times such as in rules and the lesson objectives. Additionally, there are
instances in the study’s data of learners’ monitoring each other’s use of English and
reporting this back to the teacher, using for example the phrase ‘[Learner’s name] a
parlé en anglais.’ The teacher may also issue reminders as necessary. There is an
example of a direct, emphatic statement in a Year 8 class, coupled with a loss of

Teacher: Attends, Henry, quoi? Est-ce que? Non! En français! [gestures to points marker to
remove points]. On va enlever cinq points pour Henry. Il a parlé en anglais. Il aurait
dû parler français. Je suis désolée.
84 C. Christie

This contrasts with a more communicative, subtle approach in the Year 11 top set:

Teacher: Ça, c’est vrai mais tu n’avais pas besoin de parler anglais. Alors …

Here the teacher invokes the shared understanding that English is not necessary for routine

Context management
It was noted earlier that there are two types of management involved in creating
the conditions for spontaneous learner talk. The second of these is ‘context management’
and involves the teacher’s creation of a context which is rich enough to stimulate spon-
taneous talk and the creation of space in any given lesson for such talk to take place.
The study shows some recurring subjects which formed the content of the spontaneous
talk. These were talk about another learner, talk prompted either by the class’s team compe-
tition or the competitive nature of the activities and talk about the pedagogical content. The
spontaneous talk about the latter, however, was usually taking a humorous ‘sideways swipe’
at the content, such as a comment on the teacher’s drawings. The sort of talk which emerges
is highly contextualised, often trivial and humorous and its essence translates with difficulty
to non-participants. As such, it has the qualities of ‘chat sequences’ in conversation (Thorn-
bury and Slade 2006: 145) in that it is interactive and unfolds turn by turn. It is argued here,
then, that the subject matter for spontaneous talk in these classrooms is largely focused
around the trivial and has the feel of humorous banter. It appears to be possible because
the teacher has created what can be called a ‘communicative classroom context.’ In the class-
room observations, that context consisted of a team competition and activities with a com-
petitive element as well as an environment in which learners often took on the teacher’s role.
This seemed to provide an interesting enough stimulus to prompt spontaneous talk as lear-
ners sought to score points off of each other (both literally and metaphorically) in a humorous
way and to enter into banter with the teacher, for example pointing out when she made a
mistake, or if she brought up something which could be debated in a humorous way.
This feature of the teacher as someone who can be open to gentle, spontaneous teasing by
learners links with the second aspect of context management, namely that of ‘communicative
space.’ This is where the teacher frees up moments in the lesson to allow the learners’ spon-
taneous talk to take place. As such, the teacher potentially becomes a less authoritative, slightly
more vulnerable figure. The teacher responds to and encourages talk which often takes the
lesson away from the pre-planned pedagogical focus and follows the learners’ agenda
instead. A teacher who responds in this way demonstrates an ability to be responsive and to
view unplanned language and lesson content as a vehicle for second language development,
as well as the more planned, topic language. Indeed, the study shows instances of the skill of
the teacher in using such seemingly insignificant conversation to help learners improve their
accuracy and their knowledge of lexis and structures. However, as such an approach is more
random and opportunistic than the more linear, concentrated focus on set topic language or
grammar topics, it also requires the teacher to take a more ‘long-term view of language learning’
(Pachler, Evans and Lawes 2007: 31) as language development takes place gradually over time.

Taking spontaneous talk further: developing conversation in the MFL classroom

There are clear signs in the data that learners’ spontaneous talk exhibits some aspects of
genuine conversation in the classroom. This is supported by evidence of some of the
The Language Learning Journal 85

defining characteristics of conversation: the talk is interactive, spontaneous in real time,

interpersonal, informal and expressive of wishes, feelings, attitudes and judgements
(Thornbury and Slade 2006). The following interaction shows many of these aspects.
The class is setting up a game where a learner waits outside (monitored by a fellow
learner ‘policeman’) whilst the rest of the class chooses a person to do a secret action.

1 Alex: Rick *tricher!

2 Teacher: Non, er, Louise, c’est le policier? C’est le policier. Alors ça va. Je
3 choisis. [Non, baissez les mains! Baissez les mains!
4 Michelle [Rick va tricher
5 Teacher: OK. L’action. Quelle est l’action? Vite, vite, vite! L’action! OK.
6 Tim: Stop! Il y a une erreur!
7 Teacher: Regardez l’action! [Regardez l’action! Regardez l’action d’Alex!
8 Louise: [Stop! Il y a une erreur!
9 Teacher: Oui. Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?
10 Michelle: Rick a triché
11 Teacher: Rick a triché?
12 Learner: Oui!
13 Teacher: Rick n’as pas ((outside)) Rick, tu as triché?
14 Learners: Oui

What is particularly striking here is the way the learners impact upon the teacher’s actions
through this fast-moving, interactive target language talk. In line 13, the teacher physically
goes outside, at the instigation of pupils, to check if the learner outside, Rick, is cheating (by
looking to see which action the class is choosing for the game). This demonstrates an
instance of how spontaneous talk can result in conversation, giving learners an experience
of communicative success in a real time situation and showing agency in the introduction of
a comment which makes the teacher go outside.
It is suggested here that, like spontaneous talk, the development of conversation is
something to be explicitly encouraged in language learning. Seedhouse (1996: 18)
claims that ‘conversation’ being a ‘non-institutional form of discourse’ cannot take place
within a classroom lesson which is ‘an institutional setting.’ He notes that dialogue will
typically be related to pedagogical aims and that the very ‘institutional purpose’ makes con-
versation impossible and that otherwise, ‘the lesson would … have to cease to be a lesson in
any understood sense of the term’ (1996: 18). Whilst Seedhouse may be correct in a narrow,
sociolinguistic sense, it is interesting that the conversational elements of lessons in the study
occur precisely when the focus moves away from the topic of the lesson and one can argue
that the lesson ceases to be a formal lesson for that moment. Indeed, Donato (2000: 37),
reporting on Todhunter’s and Sandford’s unpublished research on instructional conversa-
tion in the foreign language classroom, concludes that instructional conversations are
located ‘outside the planned lesson and during spontaneous detours that traditionally are
not considered instructional.’ This reinforces the need for the teacher to be open to interrup-
tions and off-topic talk if conversation is to be encouraged. In addition, learners could be
given explicit guidance in developing conversational skills through lexical items which
would assist their conversation, such as delayers (for example alors, bon, ben) and ways
of back-channelling, signalling a turn and holding the floor.

Conversation as assessment for learning

Whilst it is beyond the scope of this article to explore the role that spontaneous classroom
talk can play in the teacher’s corrective feedback to enhance learners’ accuracy, it is
86 C. Christie

nonetheless important to highlight this potential here. Teachers can use talk which is spon-
taneous and conversational for instructional purposes. The term ‘instructional conversa-
tion,’ used by Tharp and Gallimore (1988), is a useful one to illustrate how these two
aspects can work together. Indeed, Tharp and Gallimore (1988: 111) describe the two
notions of instruction and conversation as being a ‘paradox’ and say they ‘appear contrary.’
However, the device of the ‘linguistic lifebelt’ with which learners ask for language can
promote autonomy and skilful, unobtrusive corrective feedback, especially if a focus is
maintained on the message and can move learners on in their attention to accuracy.
Examples in the study’s data show the teacher’s correction of learners’ spontaneous talk
by recasting and also by prompting learners to self-correct via use of mimes and gestures.

This article has argued that spontaneous language use is an important part of learners’ com-
municative competence. Encouraging spontaneous language use can help improve learners’
levels of agency, risk-taking and creativity and can give them a feeling of communicative
success. It enables learners to deal better with unpredictability and is a useful counterpart to
the more planned, linear topic-focused language so often present in GCSE presentations
and discussions.1 It can also develop in learners an ability to engage in the useful skill of
informal conversation in the foreign language. Used skilfully and systematically by the
teacher, the learners’ spontaneous language can promote a focus on producing accurate
language fluently and confidently.
There are, of course, some issues to consider in the development of spontaneous learner
talk. Firstly it may not develop the use of complex utterances so fully since conversational
language is often informal and predicated on the need to convey meaning as succinctly as
possible. Accuracy can also be sacrificed at times if the focus is purely on the efficient com-
munication of a message. A further potential drawback is the fact that the conversational
competence pupils develop is a classroom-based one. There is also the need for the
teacher to ensure that learners always understand and express themselves in the target
language as they need. Linked to the importance of pupils’ being able to express themselves
is the point that some pupils, especially boys, can dominate the interaction (see Howe,
1997). It is almost inevitable in a conversation-oriented environment that some will take
the floor more than others. This need not be a problem in itself as the most interactive
pupils provide input for the others and indeed one learner explicitly made reference to
this point in the interviews. The challenge for the teacher is to manage the conversation
and ensure conversation rights are as distributed as possible and draw in the rest of the
class. A final issue which has not been a focus of this study but which needs consideration
nonetheless is the disposition of the teacher to engage in such interactive teaching and sys-
tematic, interactive use of the target language. Indeed, this is also likely to be more effective
in smaller classes where more learners have the chance to ‘take the floor.’
Spontaneous learner talk can be promoted through the careful use of techniques, which
can be divided into two distinct tools of ‘target language management’ and ‘context man-
agement.’ Firstly, there is the tool of target language management, which aims to ensure that
learners have the target language forms available for their use and that the target language is
embraced by them as the language of communication in the classroom. This may be
achieved through the techniques of careful planning, teaching and scaffolding of language
which is suitable for learner spontaneous use, accompanied by visual support. Assiduous
rewarding and close monitoring of the target language use is also vital. In addition, it is
important that learners have the resources to ask for language they need to avoid frustration
The Language Learning Journal 87

and encourage experimentation with the language. Further techniques include the teacher’s
talking back in the target language if English is used and also judging when English use
should best remain unchallenged.
The second tool is that of context management. Spontaneous talk may be maximised if
the classroom is set up in such a way that the context stimulates and incites learners to make
comments. Examples of such factors in this study were the techniques of a team compe-
tition and competition-based activities as well as the technique of learners acting in the
role of the teacher. An integral part of this classroom context is also the willingness of
the teacher to make the space for, and interact with, spontaneous contributions.
These two tools are ideally combined by the teacher to create a classroom environment
which promotes a ‘target language lifestyle,’ in other words, an environment where the
target language is the natural means of communication for learners and teacher alike and
where learners have the means at their disposal to effect such target language communi-
cation, confidently and spontaneously. The development of this sort of production presents
clear but achievable challenges for the teacher. She will need to value such talk, listening to
learners and collaborating with them so that they have both the language and the freedom to
communicate what they want to say.
In summary, this study suggests that spontaneous talk by learners should be seen as
more than off-topic informal conversation which distracts from the learning of more
formal language but as an invaluable part of developing the language, skills and motivation
to communicate and interact in a foreign language.

1. GCSE is the qualification typically completed at age 16 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In Modern Languages, GCSE assessment currently includes prepared controlled assessment tasks
consisting of for example an interview, a conversation, a picture-based discussion or a presen-
tation followed by a discussion, depending on the examination board.

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