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Focus on Interactional Language If You Want Better Conversations in English

Here’s a concern I often hear from English learners: “Kim, I have no trouble expressing myself in my native language, but when I try to speak in English, I don’t know how to get started. I can’t jump in, I feel tongue tied, and the words don’t come, so I decide to stay silent. What can I do?”

If you’re struggling to have a real conversation in English, you might be missing interactional language.

Many English classes focus on transactional language, or predictable, formulaic exchanges between two people to accomplish a specific goal.

On the other hand, interactional language helps you keep the conversation flowing by enabling you to handle a wide range of situations.

Keep in mind that both types of language are important in order to confidently and fluently speak English and connect in conversation with native speakers.

The problem is that many English textbooks and teachers focus too heavily on transactional language without providing insight into the more culturally specific interactional language.

In this video and article, I describe the difference between transactional and interactional language, explain why you need to focus more attention on interactional language, and give you suggestions about the language you should start with.


Transactional Language

Let’s start by defining our terms. Although you don’t need to remember the words “transactional” and “interactional,” they can give you insight into how these types language are different.

Transactional language is the language that you use in order to complete a transaction. A transaction usually involves achieving a simple goal by speaking with another person.

For example,  when you go to a store and you want to buy something, you head to the checkout area, the cashier rings up your purchases, and then you pay with your credit card. In fact, this exchange of money for the items is called a credit card transaction.

Although you can avoid speaking with the cashier entirely, you will probably exchange a few predictable words with him or her. This conversation will follow a consistent formula that you can study in order to have a smooth, short dialogue with the cashier.

This type of transaction is basic and enables you to achieve certain goals. Another example is when you go on a trip and have to check into a hotel. This is a simple transaction between you and the attendant at the front desk.

Similarly, when you go to the airport, you need to know certain language to check in, check your bags, go through security, and board the plane. These are more examples of transactions: specific language you need to achieve specific goals.

The reason you learn transactional language in lower-level English classes is that these conversations follow a formula that you can easily study and learn in order to produce the language in situations when you need it.

Because transactional language helps you survive, or get things done, in situations where you have no choice but to speak English, it is an excellent place to start practicing speaking English.


Interactional Language

But when you progress beyond the beginner and intermediate levels, you need to start focusing on interactional language.

Interactional language is the language that you use in order to interact with other people.

An interaction is a more in-depth, more involved conversation, where the language is less predictable. So you need to learn how to navigate this type of conversation using interactional language.

At times, the other person may say something that you didn’t understand, so you have to respond and tell them that you didn’t understand.

Or you might really like what they said and want to show them approval.

Or you may decide to give them a compliment and then the other person will need to receive the compliment.

Interactional language is language that helps facilitate these conversations, or make them easier.

The conversation skills and communication strategies that I teach are forms of interactional language. The language helps you keep a conversation flowing.

Here are some examples:

(There are many more conversation skills you can gain to strengthen your interactional language. For more ideas, take a look at my Conversation Anatomy workshops.)

Without Interactional Language, You Sound Demanding

What I want you to understand is that as you become a more advanced English learner, you need to focus on gaining more interactional language.

It’s one thing to be able to express your thoughts fluently and confidently by stating your particular opinions, or the things that you want or need.

But if you truly want to sound fluent, interactional language helps smooth the edges of conversations.

When English learners speak fluently but don’t use any of this interactional language, the conversation can actually feel forced and a little robotic.

Culturally speaking, a person that only uses transactional language without interactional language sounds pretty demanding.

It sounds like this person is just trying to tell you what they feel, what they need, what they want.

This kind of conversation doesn’t feel like a true conversation; instead, it feels like someone giving you orders.

To avoid making this impression on native speakers, you need interactional language to help the conversation flow a little bit better.

Interactional language connects ideas like transitions do when you write an essay or an email. You need to use it so that your ideas sound a little bit better.


Your Turn

To improve how you sound when speaking English, I want you to start practicing more interactional language. If you think about it, you probably already have some of this language in your vocabulary and feel comfortable using it.

But to go a little further, think about situations where you feel like you probably just needed “a little something” in order to make the conversation go better.

Once you’ve identified some situations where you know you need interactional language or expressions that can help you smooth the edges and make the conversation flow easier, leave a comment below and share.

To get a sense of the language you need, start with the five most essential conversation skills and move onto the other communication strategies I’ve linked throughout this article.

For more guidance on how to express yourself in conversations in English, be sure to check out my Conversation Anatomy workshops.

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