Speaking in a Second Language

David Nunan, University of Hong Kong

When someone asks, "Do you know another language?"
they generally mean "Can you speak the language?" But what does
it mean to say, "I can speak another language?" To communicate
the most rudimentary idea, you need words, and you need to be able to pronounce
those words in an accent that other speakers of the language can understand.
However, being able to produce isolated words only enables us to communicate
in the most rudimentary fashion using "point and grunt" language
of the "me Tarzan, you Jane" variety. In addition to being able
to pronounce words comprehensibly, we need to put them together in combinations
that enable us to convey the meaning we intend. And to do that, we need
to draw on the grammatical resources of the language. Many utterances can
contain identical words, and yet carry very different meanings. "The
dog bit the man" is different from "The man bit the dog."
"My brother, who is from New York, is visiting me" is different
from "My brother, who is visiting me, is from New York." The words
are the same--it is the relationship between the words, or the grammar,
that is different (Bygate, 1987; Nunan, 1999a).

And yet knowing sounds, words, and grammar is not the whole story. In
order to communicate attitudes and feelings, in order not to offend other
people, in order to know when to speak and when to keep silent, when to
invite others to speak, and what topics are appropriate for which particular
occasion we need conversational skills, cultural knowledge, and inter cultural
sensitivity. All of these aspects of communication should find their way
into the speaking classroom.

In the most general terms, we have two main purposes when we speak. The
first of these is to get something (either goods or services), or to offer
goods or services to others. The second purpose is simply to socialize.
The first purpose results in transactional language, the second in interpersonal
language. Any given interaction will usually consist of both transactional
and interactional language (for example, when the salesperson in a store
says, "Have a nice day").

In any given day, we do lots of different things through language. Here
is a partial list of the things I did today. (From this list, you can probably
tell quite a lot about where I was and what I was doing.)

  • Reconfirmed a flight reservation
  • Socialized with friends who were going away
  • Asked about the checkout time from my hotel
  • Bought a CD
  • Bought a gift for my daughter
  • Called home

This list is a selective and partial one. To recall and list every single
speaking task performed during the course of a day would probably be impossible.
In performing these tasks, I used many different functions--describing things,
asking for clarification, making requests, disagreeing politely, making
suggestions, and expressing preferences, to name just a few.

In developing courses and materials for teaching speaking, it is important
to think about the sorts of things that learners are required to do with
language, and then to create tasks that present this language in meaningful
contexts. Common functions include the following:

  • Identifying and describing people
  • Introducing themselves and others
  • Giving and accepting greetings
  • Giving personal information
  • Expressing degrees of certainty
  • Asking for and offering help
  • Asking where people are from
  • Welcoming someone into a home
  • Offering goods and services
  • Accepting and refusing offers from others
  • Asking for permission
  • Asking about prices
  • Expressing desires
  • Making suggestions
  • Asking for and identifying location of places
  • Giving directions
  • Describing procedures
  • Describing routines and schedules
  • Expressing obligation
  • Ordering food and drink
  • Asking about and describing likes and dislikes
  • Inviting
  • Making excuses
  • Narrating a sequence of past events
  • Making suggestions
  • Voicing objections
  • Saying what people and jobs are like
  • Agreeing and disagreeing
  • Expressing preferences

In order to use these functions, and to communicate ideas and feelings
effectively, learners need to be able to use language creatively. A major
challenge in the language classroom is to move learners from reproductive
to creative language tasks. A reproductive task is one in which the student
reproduces language provided by the teacher, the textbook or the tape. Reproductive
tasks are designed to give students mastery of form, meaning, and function
through exercises in which the learners manipulate and practice the target
language items. In most speaking courses, most of the work that learners
do involves reproductive language work. The following task, while it is
communicative, is also essentially reproductive, because the learners are
practicing asking and answering questions that they have been practicing
through more controlled activities earlier in the lesson such as "What
does Bill like doing?" In contrast with reproductive tasks, creative
tasks are those that require learners to come up with language for which
they have not been specifically cued. In other words, they are asked to
use words, phrases and grammatical structures that they have already learned,
but to put these together in new ways. When undertaking such tasks, learners
are recombining, in novel ways, forms, meanings and functions that which
they mastered (or partially mastered) when working on reproductive tasks.
(For examples of ways in which we can move learners from reproductive to
creative language use, see Nunan, 1999b).

Developing total fluency in a wide range of situations in another language
is an immense undertaking that often overwhelms the learner. Over time,
learners become demoralized, their motivation falls, and this often results
in their leaving the course. This challenge can be addressed by segmenting
the learning process into achievable goals. At the end of each lesson or
unit of work, the student should be able to do something that he or she
could not do before (or could not do as well).


Bygate, M. (1987). Speaking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nunan, D. (1999a). Second language teaching and learning. Boston:
Heinle & Heinle.

Nunan, D. (1999b). Speak out. Singapore: International Thomson