Teaching Talk (and Mind-Reading) with Conversation Analysis

Teaching Talk (and Mind-Reading) with Conversation Analysis

By: Christine Winskowski

Take a look at this brief conversation excerpt:[1]

A. So, do you think you’re going to get the job?

B. I might, but what’s it to you?

A. Nothing much really. It’s not something I’d want to do.

[1] Kindly contributed by Curtis Kelly.

Can you tell what is going on here? Do you get any impression about who these people might be? Are they male or female (or can you tell?)? What is their relationship?

Person A asks a fairly ordinary question, seemingly wanting an opinion. B answers, then says, “What’s it to you?” This is a formulaic idiom. How would you express it in standard English? And what is the effect? That is, what does B intend to convey to A? Can you identify it?

Then A says, “Nothing much really.” What does he (or she) mean by that? And when he (or she) says it is “not something I’d want to do,” what is this speaker’s purpose?

What might B say next? Can you think of more than one possible response?

If you are like me, you might have had to read this excerpt a few times to figure out what was being said. Why is it so difficult? Could your students answer those questions?

The problem is that we have no context for this exchange. We don’t know who these people are to each other, or their relationship history; we don’t know the significance of A’s question to B, or B’s idiomatic question to A; and we don’t know why B and A respond as they do. This exchange looks like authentic, spontaneous talk as it normally appears. I was able to make some reasonable guesses about the speakers’ intentions, but standard conversation textbooks would not be very helpful to L2 students trying to interpret it.

Many speaking textbooks, and sometimes four-skills textbooks, offer scripted conversations for some social settings—introductions, shopping, the doctor’s office, the classroom, restaurants—followed by a familiar array of listening, vocabulary, grammar, and comprehension tasks. There are also a number of increasingly sophisticated resources that offer well-designed classroom activities for speaking, though these tend to be for activating and practicing basic speaking fluency rather than learning to do conversation itself (see this, this, and this).[2] Students may still encounter a gap between the skills these textbooks help to build and ordinary, free-flowing conversational exchange.

What’s in that gap? The last fifty years of conversation analysis (or CA) has produced a substantial body of knowledge about conversation: high-frequency collocations; ritual exchanges (like polite expressions or apologies); utterance functions; structural elements, like patterns in turn-taking, openings and closings; presuppositions, implications and inferences (pragmatics); what makes utterances cohere and how people manage topics; sociolinguistic expectations and obligations; and more. Researchers now use the findings of CA to study language learners’ development of “interactional competence,” and a few are applying findings from conversation analysis in the ESL/EFL classroom (Salaberry & Kunitz, 2019).

When we operate in our home languages, we don’t need to analyze conversations to understand them. Here is the point: We can already recognize enough to attribute emotions, thoughts, dispositions, goals, intentions, and other mental states to people. This is a necessary, ordinary social skill, called “theory of mind” or “mind-reading” (see Malle & Hodges 2005, for an introduction to this topic). Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman calls this a superpower of the social brain! (See his TED talk here.

[2] Though out of print, a rare exception may be found in Ron Martinez’ Conversation Lessons (2009, Cengage).

But language learners in the flow of authentic (foreign) conversations need to understand more than ordinary textbooks to get their superpowers operative. They need to make use of emotional expressiveness, the timing of utterances, the role of silence, politeness norms, and many other elements. Without some direct learning of conversation structures, mechanisms, patterns, strategies, and expectations, it will take learners a long time to automatically recognize cues and perform effectively in conversational exchanges.

I propose we start introducing these findings from CA in speaking or communication classes, and teach our students to do CA for themselves. It takes some practice because we are not used to metatalk (talk about talk). For example, it may feel strange to focus on what a person is accomplishing by saying this or that (i.e., what the conversational function is). But it’s not rocket science; it just takes a little getting used to.

Conversation analysis for the speaking/conversation class

If you have ever analyzed conversation, you know it’s a heady experience to tease out all the unspoken-but-active elements of meaning. CA is a kind of meta-discoursal superpower, making visible the implicit background understandings in meaning that are usually processed outside our full awareness.

Many students are conditioned to think that all they need to understand conversation is vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, etc. But they also need to recognize implicit transactional and topical aspects of talk in the conversational machinery—that is, What are utterances accomplishing in the conversational transaction? Agreement? The introduction of doubt? Avoidance of something? How do people manage a topic—How do they introduce it, or show the intention to take it in particular direction, or signal that they want to linger on, avoid, or close the topic? These things will reveal not only the person’s conversational skills, but also the operation of relationship dynamics, situational dynamics, and sociocultural forces (like speaker status and social setting). They are important for engaging in real conversation. So, they need to be shown to students, too.

Students will get it. Once they have some familiarity working with authentic conversation, and see how it is put together, they will begin to recognize how to manage their conversation. They will recognize your approach as the “real deal” (i.e., the real tools) for learning how to talk in the target language. Also, adding CA to a speaking syllabus provides brain-friendly learning, since it helps learners to build their predictive processing of the target language. (See the Oct. 2020 issue of Think Tank on Predictive Processing.)

An excellent resource can be found in Wong and Waring’s Conversation Analysis and Second Language Pedagogy: A Guide for ESL/EFL Teachers (2021).[3] This book offers a compendium of findings from CA. For example, did you know there are rules in English for taking turns? If you jump in to talk too soon, you might be interrupting. If you wait too long, you may never get a turn. Have you ever noticed that utterances often come in pairs or sometimes threes (called adjacency pairs, or clusters)? “A: I think it’s time we got a new car.” “B: Mm, the old one has a few years left in it.” Or, “A: Excuse me; I’m looking for pliers.” “B: That would be on Aisle 12.” “A: Appreciate it.[4] People’s utterances can be described according to what is accomplished in the talk, or by their function (speech acts or speech functions, such as disagreements, apologies, complaints, and numerous others). Sometimes speech acts/functions have pretty standard wording (“I’m so sorry!”); other times they may fit only a specific situation between specific speakers. Wong and Waring also discuss social expectations (or “preferences”) for responses, e.g., to invitations (either “Yes,” or “No” plus an acceptable reason); how to repair misunderstandings; how people start a new topic, show they are ready to change or end a topic; and a variety of other conversation elements. Each conversation element is illustrated with natural conversation, and each chapter has numerous teaching suggestions. An approach like this offers a syntax of talk, rather than grammar, as a foundation for the speaking course.

[3] Discourse Analysis in the Language Classroom: Vol. 1, Spoken Language by H. Riggenbach (1999) and English Conversation by Amy Tsui (1994) are also alternatives, though a little less user-friendly for the teacher.

[4] Try this exercise: Listen to some conversation or some video dialogue. See if you can mentally track the clusters of 2-part or 3-part (occasionally 4-part) exchanges. Sometimes, one adjacency pair is embedded in another adjacency pair. Most conversation is composed of these chunks. You can confirm this for yourself.

"CA is kind of like a meta-discoursal superpower, making visible the full dimensions of meaning that are usually processed outside our full awareness."
Christine Winskowski
TT Author

Further, there is a way to add value to the study of conversation and promote fluency in listening and speaking. Just as we turn to extensive reading and extensive writing to reinforce “regular” language learning, extensive video viewing (with captions) will reinforce learning about conversation. Suitable video series for high-beginner or intermediate students might include family comedies/drama with appropriate language, easy to understand storylines, and plenty of ordinary conversational exchanges.[5] And all the spoken language and its elements will be explicitly linked to the arc of the story, which aids understanding and memory for language.

[5] See the article in the January 2021 Think Tank, “The Power of Extensive Video Viewing.

How to Use CA

There are a few key activities you can do with your speaking class. First, of course, study some conversation elements (e.g. from Wong & Waring or elsewhere), like how to shift the topic to something unexpected, using “Oh, say – ” or “Did I tell you – ?” or “I meant to say – ”. Introduce examples and study them closely with the students, then organize some spoken practice. Hunt for more examples in the video dialogues that the students have watched. Study the timing, people’s facial expressions and demeanor, tone of voice, and other contextual clues. Have students practice imitating them. How can you tell if the topic shift is spontaneous or planned (or if the speaker is pretending to be spontaneous)?

Another activity is simply to explore selections of the video dialogues where something interesting is happening in the story, and do some in-depth analysis with the class. Choose a brief stretch of conversation and help students identify and understand what is happening, using the four focuses below. These focuses are less formal than those found in CA research, but they are suitable for students’ study and analysis:

1)      Structures (e.g., adjacency pairs, turn-taking) and functions (or acts) in each utterance or group of utterances;

2)     Speakers’ roles and relationships, individual speech habits and characteristics, and dispositions;

3)     Social or institutional settings and their constraints (households, city streets, medical offices, businesses, etc.); and

4)     Cultural forces operating (norms, beliefs, values, customs, etc.)

Here are two short dialogues to illustrate what can be noticed:

1. This is part of a phone conversation between Wendy and Mark, who are colleagues and friends. Wendy calls Mark,[6] and after they say hello, this comes next:

[6] From a data set collected for my Master’s thesis in psychology.

What is being accomplished in each turn of this conversational opening? 1) Wendy invites Mark to talk about what he’s doing. 2) He claims he’s doing “nothing” (i.e., “nothing special” or “ordinary stuff”). Then Mark tells what he/they are actually doing (“cleaning up after dinner”). Next, Mark invites Wendy to start a topic, because after all, she is the one who called him, and callers customarily state the reason for calling at some time in the conversation. 3) Now she says “nothing much.” She does go on to mention a cold, and since this is a topic from yesterday, 4) Mark politely asks about it, fulfilling a social expectation that he should express interest or concern.

Most of the structures and functions are easy to name or describe. Yet why do people get on the phone and say they have no news? Isn’t that odd? Actually, it’s very common. Sociolinguists call “nothing” a minimizer, that is, it minimizes the significance of “what is going on right now,” or it gives the other person a chance to raise a topic. It is also a kind of ritual de-escalation to any potential alarm or concern. (But here is something interesting: If we could see more of this conversation, we would learn that Wendy actually has a serious topic she brings up later. It seems she is not ready to do so until a little small talk has passed and she can frame it (or present it) in her own way. When she says, “Nothin’ much,” she is giving herself time to figure out how to introduce the real topic, which she does later in a careful and deliberate way.[7] See? Metadiscoursal superpower!)

2. Another illustration comes from a video series designed for language teaching, Connect with English.[8] In this scene, Alberto, a San Francisco architect, has recently met Rebecca, who comes from Boston. He takes her sightseeing, then brings her to his parents’ Mexican restaurant, the Mendoza Restaurant. Alberto introduces Rebecca to his parents, who welcome her, and then the two sit down and enjoy their meal.

[7] Of course, we cannot claim to know Wendy’s actual thoughts, but we can deduce some of her intention.

[8] From Connect with English, Episode 15, Annenberg CPS, WGBH, Boston (1997). This is a rather dated series (no cellphones, for example), but quite serviceable.

Utterance functions include these: 1) Rebecca compliments the food; 2) Ramon approaches; Alberto greets him and introduces him to Rebecca; 3) Ramon gives a ritual (formulaic and polite) greeting; 4) Rebecca gives a ritual response; 5) Alberto invites him to join them; 6) Ramon accepts; 7) Alberto identifies Ramon’s role in the restaurant for Rebecca, then expresses his view of it; 8) Ramon expresses his view of it too.

In no special order, here are some points about the relationship dynamics and sociocultural context: Alberto has an eye for pretty ladies and he is quite taken with Rebecca. She, in turn, appreciates Alberto’s kindness; he helped her with some difficulty in her travels to San Francisco in a prior episode. The Mendoza family is from Mexico and they are close. Alberto (the younger brother) is casual in his speech (“Hi there” and “pull up a seat”), but he did not take Rebecca to a nightclub (as many other Americans might). Instead, he brought her to meet his family, a respectful gesture more characteristic of a somewhat traditional culture. Ramon is in a family role as well as an institutional role (the restaurant’s host and manager). Business etiquette, and perhaps Hispanic courtliness, show in his formal, but gracious, greeting (“It’s a pleasure to meet you”). Rebecca, from working-class roots in Boston, is equally polite, but less formal. Finally, we see a note of tension between the brothers—Alberto’s phrase, “dutiful son,” is a collocation that often connotes disapproval and may seem dismissive of Ramon’s work in the restaurant. Ramon’s response, also a collocation, may reflect some resentment that he shoulders the restaurant’s work while his brother pursues his own career.

A little bit of transcribed conversation goes a long way! Though I am familiar with this video story, even I was surprised at how much there is to notice in this short excerpt. Imagine repeating this kind of analysis on dozens of dialogue samples from your video source. Students would be learning how to analyze the dialogue themselves (or in small groups) and identifying structures, functions, and expressions of meaning associated with particular kinds of relationships, social situations, and the flow of events. They would more easily understand and remember expressions like “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” “Pull up a seat,” and “Someone has to do it,” from this video excerpt than from a list in a textbook.

Occasions for discussing cultural contrasts in talk abound. For example, when Rebecca (above) goes job-hunting, a prospective employer says, “Now, tell me why I should I hire you?” Would this utterance occur in students’ home cultures? If not, why not? and what would be said? Looking at the cultures underlying language will help build mental flexibility as students process what they observe.


With enough practice, it is possible to ask students, What might speakers, or the video characters, reasonably be thinking in that situation? What might we reasonably assume to be the person’s internal dialogue? For example, in Excerpt 1 above, when Mark answers the phone and realizes it’s Wendy, he could have been thinking, “Oh, we just talked yesterday; I wonder why she’s calling.” (Not because of her cold, as I noted above.) Where Wendy says “Nothin’ much” is going on, I argued that she was looking for an opportunity to bring up her difficult topic. In Excerpt 2, if Rebecca noticed the brothers’ implied criticisms of each other, she might have wondered, “Are they just kidding around or are they kind of mad at each other?” These are all examples of mind-reading, and we all do it routinely to make sense of conversation.

If students study the elements of conversation and the extensive input from video dialogue, it will gradually help them to recognize predictable social and cultural expectations, norms, and reasoning operating for users in a foreign language. Part of this is recognizing how people will see a given scenario, or what people will think about this person or that event. This builds learners’ predictive processing of authentic conversation.

This may prove a liberating experience for students in discussions, because they can give their honest reactions and pose real questions as the class dissects utterances. “Why is the character doing that? She seems so foolish.” “That is very strong, too strong. In my language, it would be aggressive to say that.” “In my country, a woman can say that, but for a man it would be strange.”[9] Here the role of the instructor is to serve as a sociocultural “informant” (like an anthropological guide). Instructors will need to be fast on their conversational feet!

[9] It is an interesting question whether all conversation can be translated comfortably, with all implicit and explicit meaning, to another language. Might some conversations sound false or odd in translation? I have sometime found that movies dubbed into English have parts that simply do not sound natural, but sound “foreign.” Is it poor dubbing? Or is it a spoken element that is unexpected in the viewer’s culture? Having students try this mind-reading exercise might be an illuminating activity.

Conversation analysis is a brain-friendly approach for learning conversation skills

By now, you have probably guessed why this is a brain-friendly activity to incorporate in your class. You might be thinking, “Hm, according to the author, using CA in the speaking class promotes students’ awareness of conversational elements and sociocultural background understandings. And that allows them to form more accurate recognition of, and predictions about, what people mean and think when they talk.” If so, raise your hand! You win!

Analyzing conversation in depth with CA allows students to slowly accumulate recognition of and insights on complex patterns in talk, normative spoken expressions, relationship dynamics, and sociocultural conventions. As students’ study, observe, and discuss spoken expression in the target language, then follow up with practice (dramatic readings, acting out a video scene, rewriting the scene with a new ending, improvised conversations, etc.), they will be constructing a recognizable social reality in the foreign language/culture for themselves.


  • Malle, B. F., & Hodges, S. D. (Eds.). (2005). Other minds: How humans bridge the gap between self and others. The Guildford Press.

  • Salaberry, R. & Kunitz, S. (Eds.). (2019). Teaching and testing L2 interactional competence: Bridging theory and practice. Routledge.

  • Wong, J. & Waring, H. Z. (2021). Conversation analysis and second language pedagogy, 2nd Ed. Routledge.

Christine Winskowski, retired professor from Iwate Prefectural University, now consults, edits, and writes in Hawaii. On occasion, she has told students she reads their minds.

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