Vol. 3. No. 3 R-4 September 1998
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Conversation Lessons: The Natural Language of Conversation

Ron Martínez (1997)
Hove England: Language Teaching Publications
Pp. 128
ISBN 1-899396-65-9 (paper)
US $15.95
Cassette: ISBN 1-899396-70-5; US $13.95

This book and cassette are like a breath of fresh air in the field of conversation texts. It is the first book I have seen that tackles idiomatic expressions which are currently used, extensively, in context, without being slangy, presenting them of course, but also enabling students to appropriate them.

Students love idioms. They love using them, but too often use them in the wrong context. The emphasis here is on the right idiom in the right place at the right time with the right person. The aim is to help students become proficient in using everyday conversational idioms. The idioms are introduced in lively dialogues, with each lesson devoted to practising about ten or twelve idioms. Ron Martínez has adopted what he calls a lexical approach, but it is also a functional approach, as the idioms chosen have a unity of meaning: being polite, being negative, complimenting, and so forth.

This is supposed to be an intermediate level course but it could be used profitably at an advanced level as well, as some exercises are fairly difficult, requiring an already quite developed sense of the language.

The book starts with an original questionnaire containing unusual language awareness questions, providing a lively first contact, and bringing attention to conversational taboos and the social usage of language. It is then divided into 30 lessons, each with a different topic. There is a wide variety of subjects, far greater than in most books of this kind. There are enough subjects to be used whenever needed, and the lessons do not have to be done in the order in which they appear in the book. For people who want to work on their own outside a teaching context, there is an answer key.

Each lesson starts with a dialogue on tape, followed by a number of exercises to practise the idioms, also varied in nature and format and adapted to the idioms or structures practised. The exercises rely heavily on pair work which is as it should be. How else to practise conversation? Many exercises also rely on the drill form, which has all but disappeared from language teaching (although drills have their use, especially in the acquisition of structures and idioms). The role-play exercises are extremely varied. Some topics for discussion are introduced through simple fill-in-the-blanks exercises aimed at using the right idiom. As there is a unity [-1-] of meaning across all of the exercises in a lesson, idioms should sink in.

This is no mere catalogue of idioms as they are used in context; the differentiation between subtle shades of meaning and register between idioms is part of the work. This is essential as it teaches learners something they seem to ignore: you cannot use just any expression you fancy in any type of situation, and there are degrees of propriety which have to be observed.

The recordings are lively, fast-paced, as natural as acted dialogues can get, with a variety of voices. The tape is essential, as it indicates the right intonation, crucial in using idioms since it conveys an important part of the meaning. If possible, the tape should be used at least in part in a language laboratory in order to work on pronunciation, intonation, and emphasis. The author suggests that we be creative with his material, and I think the cassette could sometimes be used for listening comprehension, making lists of the idioms. If they are discovered by the learners themselves, they stand a greater chance of being remembered. It is a shame the drills are not on tape, but they could also be done profitably in the laboratory if one could get a native speaker to record the prompts.

The dialogues and exercises are often humourous and a bit provocative at times, which is good for catching the learners' attention. There is an effort at making people react with controversial prompts and ideas which are certain to enliven class exchanges.

A minor weak point can be found in the illustrations. The large pictures at the beginning of each lesson, mostly scenes from old films in black and white, represent hopelessly old-fashioned scenes and costumes, and they are rarely made use of as part of the learning process. Also, the people represented are all white, the only person of colour looking rather ridiculous. In a book primarily meant for ESL students in the United States (the cultural references are mostly American), this is a bit shocking. Women tend to be represented in groups with men who are often in a dominant position. Images are important. As much thought should have been given to them as to the rest of the book.

Still, Conversation Lessons fulfills its promise: it sounds natural, it is student-centred, creative and fun. I am looking forward to trying it with my own students next year.

Nicole Décuré
Université Toulouse 3, France

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