Have you ever wondered how people learned to have conversations? Why don’t we all speak at the same time? Why do we speak at the same time when we argue?! With a language disappearing every two weeks and new words springing up almost daily, it’s more important than ever to understand where language comes from. In this article, language expert and Little History author David Crystal investigates how we learned to converse.
Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language, a work that explores language’s myriad intricacies and quirks. Crystal observes the basic rules of daily conversation and the need for children to acquire these skills as they grow up.
Have you ever thought about how you learned to have a conversation? Chances are, it simply comes naturally to you, as David Crystal suggests in Chapter 7 of A Little Book of Language. We know how to speak to another person for a period of time, ‘but it wasn’t always that way’, Crystal points out. ‘We had to learn how to do it. We had to learn the rules’.
What sort of rules are there in holding a conversation? The most basic one, Crystal writes, is taking turns: ‘I speak and then you do and then I do and then you do. We don’t speak at the same time. In an argument, we do sometimes hear a lot of people speaking at once. But once things settle down, everyone takes turns again.
This is especially important if there are several people taking part in a conversation. Imagine: you’re in the street talking to three other people about the latest James Bond film. Everyone has got something to say about it. If it’s going to be a successful conversation, then all four of you need to get the chance to have your say. If that happens, everyone’s happy’.
Think that’s obvious? It’s worth considering that turn-taking doesn’t come naturally to us—we have to be taught how it’s practised. Take the case of babies, as Crystal explains: ‘They hear their mother talking … they coo or babble … the mother responds … they coo or babble again … the mother responds again. Listen – speak – listen – speak – listen. That’s the basis of any conversation’.
Another feature of conversation that we have to learn from a young age—if we want to be somewhat socially functional when we grow up—is how to read between the lines. Crystal raises an example of someone who wants another person to shut the door: in addition to the more direct ‘Would you close the door, please?’, he or she could also say,
‘It’s getting cold in here.’
‘Gosh, there’s a draught.’
What’s the point of being roundabout like this, though?
‘By being indirect, and letting me know their feelings, they’re leaving it up to me whether I shut the door or not. It’s their way of being polite. And if I’m being sensitive to their feelings, I will, indeed, go and shut the door.
Children have to learn about all this too. And it takes a while. I remember once, in primary school, a teacher said to a child (of about seven), ‘James, there’s a piece of chalk on the floor’. James looked down, saw the chalk, and said ‘Yes miss, I can see it’ – and left it there. That wasn’t the answer the teacher expected! ‘Well, pick it up, then!!’ she exploded. James soon learned to read between the lines.’