[Jerry Talandis Jr. & Bruno Vannieu with Stephen Richmond & Jean-Luc Azra. Kyoto: Alma Publishing, 2015. pp. 128. ¥2,500. ISBN: 978-4-905343-12-7.]
Conversations in Class, Third Edition is a bilingual topic-based English conversation textbook suitable for low-intermediate Japanese university students. The textbook’s approach features a strong focus on raising students’ pragmatic awareness about language typical in everyday English conversations they may encounter in their university lives in Japan or abroad. Conversations in Class offers abundant opportunity for deliberate practice of the colloquial language presented with an attendant focus on form.
Communication in Class begins with a Getting Started unit that introduces the textbook’s main features to students and also presents what are termed The Three Golden Rules. These rules are in fact three general pragmatic tips for students based on an interpretation of differences between typical Japanese and English communication styles. The rules and their (bilingual) explanations are accompanied by helpful manga-style illustrations and photographs of young people in conversation. While the Golden Rules might lack the nuance of a close cross-cultural reading of Japanese vs. English-speaking pragmatics, they nevertheless offer low-intermediate Japanese students a helpful heuristic for thinking about what they need to do with English when they use it in peer conversations, and how this might differ from the ways they communicate with friends or new acquaintances in Japanese.
The main part of the book consists of eight topic-based units, with four interspersed review units. At the end of the book, there is also a reference appendix that indexes lists of conversation strategies that are introduced at various points in the textbook units. There is also a set of Guided Role-play Character Cards included in the appendix that can be used to spice up speaking activities by allowing students to try on and perform different identities amidst the textbook’s frequent conversation practice opportunities.
The textbook is supplemented by material available from a well-designed multimedia companion website which has a student section and a teacher section. The student section offers a variety of resources related to the book. Vocabulary for each unit is organized in sets via Quizlet, the popular study app. Students can study these bilingual sets and play a variety of learning games via the website or through the Quizlet app on their smartphones. My first year students have had no trouble using their phones to access the vocabulary and audio recordings via the website, and several students downloaded the Quizlet app and have used that as their main tool for reviewing new words and phrases that come up in each unit. The teacher side of the multimedia support website provides easy access to the same vocabulary sets and textbook audio along with additional resources such as a comprehensive teachers’ manual, a variety of supplementary worksheets, and even a sample university class syllabus.
Consistent with Nation and Newton’s (2009) four strands the book and companion website provide students with “meaning-focused input,” ample opportunities for “meaning-focused output,” as well as “learning through deliberate attention to language items and language features,” and the development of “fluent use of known language items and features over the four skills” (pp. 1-2). The individual units of Conversations in Class focus on topics typical to conversation textbooks: daily life, one’s hometown, travel, free time, etc. Conversational forms are introduced graphically in digestible chunks, and students are quickly given multiple chances to practice these, either through substitution dialogues, peer interviews, or the construction of their own personalized dialogues. This last type of productive activity is a strength of the textbook. By giving students the space to practice and apply what they have been learning within certain constraints (e.g., “Be sure to include the following items:” p. 40) the book simultaneously affords teachers valuable opportunities to offer corrective and interpretive feedback to students. For slightly higher-level students, dialogue construction can be combined with a basic form of conversation analysis (e.g., identifying various of the communication strategies in the dialogues they produce), thus serving to further develop pragmatic awareness and critical thinking skills. This sort of activity is consistent with a multiliteracies approach (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009) that emphasizes awareness-raising and critical thinking about the link between discourse and communicative (i.e., discursive) practice in everyday settings. One limitation of Conversations in Class in terms of pragmatics awareness is that most of the conversational interactions presented, practiced and analyzed are between college-aged peers. However, as an introductory university textbook that allows students to build up their confidence and English conversational competences, this text succeeds at what it sets out to do: help “low-intermediate Japanese university students have successful conversations in English” (see back cover).
Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2009). “Multiliteracies”: New literacies, new learning. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 4(3), 164–195. doi.org/10.1080/15544800903076044
Nation, I. S. P., & Newton, J. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL listening and speaking. New York, NY: Routledge.