C2 interactions: formal language and linguistic politeness

As you know, in a C2 exam interaction you are expected to be able to:

  • have a good command of idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms with an awareness of connotative levels of meaning.
  • convey finer shades of meaning precisely by using, with reasonable accuracy, a wide range of modification devices.
  • backtrack and restructure around a difficulty so smoothly the interlocutor is hardly aware of it.
  • understand any interlocutor, even on abstract and complex topics of a specialist nature beyond your own field, given an opportunity to adjust to a less familiar accent.
  • converse comfortably and appropriately, unhampered by any linguistic limitations in conducting a full social and personal life.
  • advise on or talk about sensitive issues without awkwardness, understanding colloquial references and dealing diplomatically with disagreement and criticism.
  • hold your own in formal discussions of complex issues, putting an articulate and persuasive argument, at no disadvantage to other speakers.
  • advise on/handle complex, delicate or contentious issues, provided you have the necessary specialised knowledge.
  • deal with hostile questioning confidently, hold on to your turn to speak and diplomatically rebut counter-arguments.
  • keep up your side of the dialogue extremely well, structuring the talk and interacting authoritatively with effortless fluency as interviewer or interviewee, at no disadvantage to other speakers.

(Source: COMMON EUROPEAN FRAMEWORK OF REFERENCE FOR LANGUAGES: LEARNING, TEACHING, ASSESSMENT- Companion Volume)

These examples taken from political satire Yes, Minister can provide you with some (very) formal language you may use in your interactions.

The whole premise of the show is based on power plays and dynamics: the Minister is supposed to be the most powerful person in the room, as he holds political power; and yet, he finds it really hard to beat Sir Humphrey, the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Administrative Affairs (effectively, the head of the Civil Service). Sir Humphrey is supposed to be working under whoever happens to be the Minister at the time, but his is a tenured post: he is able to keep his position regardless of the party in Government. And in fact his main goal tends to be to talk Ministers into doing whatever he wants them to do. More often than not, then, the actual measures put in place tend to be Sir Humphrey’s ideas rather than the Minister’s original plans. Finally, there is also Bernard, the Minister’s private secretary, a much quieter person.

In the scenes below, the two speakers have opposing interests: the Minister wants to reduce the number of civil servants to cut down on expenses, while Sir Humphrey strenuously objects to that idea. As you will see, the Minister, as the person in a position of superiority, starts using more straightforward language (goes to the point), while Sir Humphrey resorts to politeness formulae and to his mastery of the language to baffle and confuse the Minister.

(Click on the CC icon to activate the subtitles in English)

Click here to open the video in a new tab

Please pay attention to the examples of formal language used in the clip:

  • Quite so (used to show agreement or understanding)
  • Use of I shall/we shall/I should (instead of the more common ‘I will’/’we will’ simply to express future or ‘I would’ to express condition)
  • With respect,
  • I will do my utmost to oblige
  • Making a suggestion: If you were to take that report… you might find… (instead of ‘If you took…’, or a bold ‘take that report!’)
  • by and large/in general terms (=in general)
  • not to put too fine a point on it 
  • Suppose you were/weren’t…

Other interesting expressions:

Even within this extremely formal context, the Minister still uses question tags and fillers (you know) to emphasise his points. This contributes to the conversation being more interactive, not one monologue after another. [Please note that Humphrey does not use them, as he is addressing his superior, but in a conversation between peers, or from a top-down position as here, question tags can help you interact with other speakers. ]

However, the tables are turned when the Minister later decides to play Sir Humphrey at his own game, by answering questions in Humphrey’s own roundabout way.

(Click on the CC icon to activate the subtitles in English)

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*Notice the pun between ‘draft’ and ‘draughts’ (homophones: same pronunciations, different spelling and meaning)

Please also note the use of a passive sentence to minimise the impact of the accusation Humphrey is making: instead of going bald on record and say ‘ you are hiding the content of the report from me’, he opts for indirectness: ‘affairs are being conducted in a way, which …’.

In this clip from Staged (2020), you can find another example of the expression ‘in the fullness of time‘ being used in context. In the clip, American actor Samuel L. Jackson and Scottish actor David Tennant play versions of themselves, trying to solve a professional conflict via video call while under lockdown. As you will notice, the register here is not exactly formal, but quite the opposite.

Click here to open the video in a new tab

  • Click here for some examples of expressions to use in a C2 individual production or interaction. 
  • Click here for some examples of persuasive language in interactions.

Using persuasive language in interactions

Typically, in exam situations where you have to interact, you will be asked to negotiate: your partner and you will have different (maybe opposing) interests, and you will have to find some common ground, reach an agreement…And one of the strategies you can use to reach that agreement is persuasion– trying to convince your partner that your option is the best one. This is some functional language you can use to persuade your partner(s):

  • Are you saying…? 
  • I’m sure you’ll agree…/I’m sure you’ll recognize…
  • Wouldn’t you say…? 
  • Are you saying that…?
  • It is undeniably the case that …
  • I’m just wondering if …
  • Can I just interrupt you here for a moment (if I may)? [only if you can’t get a word in edgewise]
  • Can I just ask…?
  • Can I just say something here? 
  • Can I point you towards…? 
  • Use question tags/right? 
  • Could we all agree that…/Could we both agree that…

You can find below some examples of persuasive language in negotiations taken from TV shows:

House M.D. ‘Control’: 

Dr. Alison Cameron feels her male colleagues and boss do not take her professional opinions seriously enough, so she has to resort to linguistic resources to try and delude them into thinking that her ideas are actually theirs.

 

Twenty Twelve:

Two senior members of the committee organising the London 2012 Olympics meet two secretaries from Clarence House (The Prince of Wales’s household) to look at ways of linking the 2012 Olympics with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations (the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne). They have to negotiate and reach an agreement that both parties may find satisfactory and that suits their needs.

Watch the video with subtitles in English here

  • I’m going to have to stop you there…
  • I see where you’re going with this
  • Shall I tell you what we’re hoping to achieve here? (Shall I tell you what my main aim is?)
  • Could we all agree that…/Could we both agree that…

*Siobhan (the blonde woman in the blue dress) is not the ideal role model for an interaction: she uses way too many fillers (and too informal for her role, actually-she probably wants to sound young and trendy, but she overdoes it): cool, totally, sure, here’s the thing…Besides, she is not very good at listening (which is something you should also do when interacting- listen to what your partner says and respond to that) or at using turn-taking strategies (she keeps interrupting, and as a result she is frequently interrupted or refused the right to speak in return).

You may also like:

Improve your pronunciation through songs

The summer holidays are coming, and this is an ideal time to keep practising your English without much effort, just by listening to songs in English. In the video below you can find a short description of four phonological features of English (characteristics of English pronunciation) which are present in all geographical varieties/accents of English. If you know about them, you can incorporate them into your own way of speaking English:

  1. Aspiration /h/, /p/, /t/, /k/
  2. Weak forms of grammatical words (to, of, for, from…)
  3. ‘S’+ consonant at the beginning of words (in Spain)
  4. coalescence (want you, need you)

But rather than pronounce those sounds myself, I thought it would be much better if you could listen to well-known songs where these traits/characteristics are present. The examples chosen to illustrate the pronunciation features include songs by Ed Sheeran, Lewis Capaldi, Sia, Adele, Lady Gaga, The Beatles and Queen, among others.

Watch the video below for an explanation of the four traits. All along the video, you will be presented with links to fragments taken from songs. You can either scan the QR codes which will be appearing in the video, or click on the links at the end of this post:

Click here to open the video in a new tab

You can watch the video with subtitles. Click on the CC/subtitles icon if they don’t start automatically. You can also skip parts of the video, by clicking on the video chapter that interests you the most (click on the timestamp-the red line as you watch the video, or, if you watch the video on YouTube, open the description below the video and click on the timestamp of the topic of your choice).

You can find a summary of some of the songs mentioned in the video in this infographic (click on the image to open it on a new tab and activate the interactive elements):

Exercise: Read the lyrics to ‘The Scientist’ by Coldplay and try to identify the pronunciation features present in the blue sounds/chunks of speech.  Then listen to the song to check if your guesses were correct. Could you notice the way the singer pronounces those sounds?

Exercise (Click/tap on the screenshot to download the pdf file):

 

You can check your answers here:

Click here to open the form in a new tab

Key to answers

Good examples of pronunciation:

1. Aspiration

2. Weak forms

3. Initial S 

4. coalescence

Resources:

More about these resources here

  • More resources on pronunciation can be found here.

Finally, you can find all the songs mentioned in this playlist:

Have a great summer holiday, and listen to lots of songs in English! 

Listening: What is Zoombombing and how to prevent it

Listen to the extract and for each question choose the most suitable answer (a, b or c):

Listening: the impact of COVID-19 on book publishers

Listen to an interview with an executive of a well-known publishing house, where he discusses the impact of bookshop closures on the publishing business.

Before you listen, think about what your answers to these questions would be, off the top of your head:

  • Do publishers rely heavily on physical shops for their book sales, or is the online market more substantial?
  • What book genres are selling well at the moment?
  • Are new books scheduled to be launched in the near future?
  • Is there going to be a new crop of writers emerging from lockdown?

[Your predictions may not be right. However, they can help you spot the right information when it comes up during the interview- you may become more alert to specific data or key words if you are waiting for them to appear to check whether your prediction was right or wrong].

Now, listen to the interview.  Take notes to answer the questions above. You can listen to the extract twice.

You can read the transcript here

Environmental issues-Escape Game

For the unit on the environment, and given the current circumstances of enforced remote learning, I thought of linking the activities by means of an escape game. I don’t really know what to call it exactly, as the premise of the game does not involve actually ‘escaping a room’, but rather, unlocking a message. I’m sharing it here in case it may be useful to anybody.

Click on the screenshot to visit the site

I know there are other more visually-attractive options, such as the templates Genially offers. However, I decided to use good old Google sites instead for the sake of clarity, but mainly because it would allow students to do the activities at different points in time, even on different days. It would also allow them to do some of the activities (not necessarily all of them), and still be able to self-check their answers through Google Forms, in case they didn’t feel like playing the full game. They would be missing out on the final message, but as Hitchcock used to say, that is probably the MacGuffin.

In any case, I tried to incorporate at least one activity which could be self-checking: there are a couple of reading comprehension activities, two listening comprehension exercises, and some vocabulary activities. Production/Mediation activities are being carried out on our online classes, and written work is submitted as usual through Google Classroom.

Google Forms allow you to use data validation when asking for short text answers, that is: if you need students to fill in a given word/sequence of letters/numbers…it won’t let students go on unless they submit the right word/number. That is ideal for these kinds of games. Click on this link to find out how to do that, together with some other links to generate games (double crosswords, cryptograms, Stranger Things-type messages…). Additionally, Google Forms are an excellent way to give feedback

The premise of the game involves street artist Banksy. As it happens, only a few days after I had designed the activities he hit the headlines yet again because of his latest artwork while in lockdown.

Thanks @carolinasaeber for the idea of the fully digital escape game.

 

Speaking- Environmental concerns and ‘the new normal’

You can find below some speaking activities to discuss environmental issues. One of them is aimed at discussing the extent to which environmental awareness still has a place in the context of the pandemic. How are governments (and citizens) going to juggle the measures taken to curb the impact of climate change and those needed to stop the spread of the virus?

Click on any of the screenshots to download the activity sheets: