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Exploring Bilingual Classroom Discourse: A Case Study

Sajid Ali
Assistant Professor
Govt.Postgraduate College Samundri, Distt.Faisalabad.

Dr. Asim Mahmood

Associate Professor
GC.University Faisalabad.

The present study analyses the spoken discourse in the bilingual classroom at Govt.
Postgraduate College Samundri Distt. Faisalabad. It evaluates the mechanism of classroom
interaction: the use of questions, initiations, repetitions and expansions. Although, the present
study deals with the classroom interaction, it is believed that the results arrived at must be of
general interest. Audio-recordings of the interaction in five ESL classrooms have been
collected and analysed on quantitative and qualitative basis. The data analysis reveals that the
classroom language is artificial and concocted which may be observed through teacher’s
simple input especially his use of introductory questions that restrain the students’ responses
and his great number of initiations. Such type of discourse is always believed to be artificial
and concocted for specific purpose. Such discourse is always found in stark contrast with
language used in original contexts. Thus in Pakistani ESL classrooms, the students do not
perform adequately the communicative roles in the controlled learning environment. The
present study reveals some positive methods of improving the discourse quality in Pakistani
ESL classrooms so that it may look more authentic, real and genuine.

Keywords: Bilingual education, communicative event, discourse, Govt. P/G College

Samundri, ESL classrooms, English


In Pakistan, English language has earned the status of lingua-franca and is used as co-official
language as well. In 1985, Urdu language was declared as the official language of Pakistan
and since then, Urdu language is also used in Pakistani classrooms for learning English as the
second language under the Grammar-translation method. Pakistan is enriched with diverse
culture and a lot of native languages are spoken and used for communicative purposes.
Punjabi language is the third largest native language spoken in Pakistan and more often,
Pakistani ESL classrooms are also considered as trilingual in the presence of English-Urdu-
Punjabi languages.

It is a common observation in Pakistani ESL classrooms that interaction has always been
restrained to the illocutionary acts of practising, asking, informing, repeating and correcting
students’ mistakes. Furthermore, the teachers choose the topic for lesson-oriented
conversation, and in this way, teacher most of the time dominates in Pakistani ESL
classrooms and speaks frequently during the lesson and controls the whole speech event and
even the turn of the students for speaking is also monitored by teacher. Such interactional
patterns are typical features of the discourse structures in the traditional classroom. In
Pakistan, certainly these patterns impair the students’ ability to use language as
communication as well as interaction.

The present study explores the language input provided by teachers in their classrooms and
illustrates how such input has affected the output of their learners .In particular, it examines
teachers’ and learners’ language : the speech modification, the quantity of speech production,
initiations, repetitions and teacher’s expansions of students’ responses.

Literature Review

Previous researches on the classroom discourse have just focussed upon the NSs’-NSs
discourse. These researches also focussed upon the length of utterances in the teacher’s talk.
Gaies( !997); Mizon ( 1981) ; the treatment of errors were discussed by Chaudron( 1997) ,
Nunan & Lamb ( 1996) and questioning strategies have been explored by Long & Sato (
Gaies (1997) discussed that teachers used the repetitions and expansion strategies for
moulding the students’ utterances in the classroom and also highlighted that speech addressed
to ESL learners was less complex syntactically. Richards (1996) investigated how teachers
modify the language by speaking more slowly using pauses, changing pronunciation,
modifying vocabulary and also modifying discourse.
Chaudron( 1997) tried to identify the types of corrections of students’ errors that exemplify
the artificiality of the language used in the classroom. Long & Sato (1983) explored the form
and function of teachers’ question in the ESL classrooms and in native speaker/non-native
speaker conversation outside the classroom. Long( 1983) found that display questions do not
invite learners to respond at length , not even motivate the students to initiate new topics in
the classroom interaction .

Despite the numerous studies on NS-NS discourse, very little work has been done on NNSs’-
NNSs in ESL environment. Hassan(2006) worked on the bilingual classroom discourse
drawing on the data from Damascus University and explored the NNS-NNS discourse in EFL
context of Egypt.

In Pakistan, very few researchers have attempted to explore the classroom discourse in the
ESL learning. Ahmad, S. (2013) worked upon framing the trilingual discourse drawing the
data from Pakistani higher secondary ESL classes and made it clear that classroom
interaction Pakistani ESL classroom is monitored by teachers and the proceedings of the
classrooms discourse can be divided into different communicative frames. The present study
is pioneering in its nature and aims at exploring the particular patterns of interaction that
make Pakistani ESL classroom discourse artificial and contrived. The present research also
suggests some ways of making the Pakistani ESL classroom discourse less artificial and more

Research Methodology

The data collected for the analysis consisted of audio-recording of five classroom interactions
from Govt. Postgraduate College Samundri, Dist. Faisalabad, Pakistan and the level of
classrooms comprises from higher secondary to graduation level. Data were obtained by
analysing transcripts of these five classroom interactions.

The subject of the study was five NNS teachers of English in English deptt. Govt.
Postgraduate College Samundri, Dist. Faisalabad, Pakistan. The students were all native
speakers of Urdu and Punjabi languages learning general English for academic purposes. The
present study is combination of qualitative and quantitative analyses in nature. On
quantitative level, frequencies of display questions, initiations, repetitions and expansions
were transcribed and on the basis of these analysed frequencies, qualitative interpretation has
been drafted taking into account the real background of Pakistani ESL classroom interaction.

Data Analysis

The present study explores the teachers’ and students’ contribution in understanding the
background that becomes the cause of classroom discourse as less or more communicative
and spontaneous. The display question judge the controlled discourse of teacher, the more
display questions the teachers ask ,the more the teacher controls the discourse and lesser the
students get the chance of speaking. Therefore, not only the quantitative analysis is important
but also the qualitative analysis matters in understanding the nature of discourse. Thus, the
present analysis reveals how teachers try to make the things easy for the learning and
promoting communication in their classrooms; for example, the kind of question they enquire
the modifications they make and the way they carry on their conversations.
There was a strong hint that classroom language is not real. This can be observed through
teachers simplest input in the form of prompting the use of questions, repetitions and
expansions. The teacher’s main objective in using these methods is to make things easy for
the learners’ acquisition and also the use of second language. As a result, such methods make
classroom discourse unreal, concocted and deliberately manipulated for the practising of
language. Moreover, many bilingual listening tasks lack the feature of natural spoken
discourse (Hassan 2000).
Such observations need to be evaluated drawing on the data from the language classrooms. In
this way, both teachers’ and students’ participation in ESL classrooms discourse will be
evaluated through quantitative and qualitative data analyses.

The Use of Display Questions

It is ascertained fact that questions are the basic tools in classroom interaction and perform
different functions. They can be used to elicit information, check understanding and control
behaviour (Nunan & Lamb 1996). The present research reveals that questions
are used to display information and finally control the discourse.

Table1 shows a general pattern in which the teacher manipulates the classroom discourse
through the use of large display questions that is marked with little life-like communication
and student speech time. On the contrary, the referential and reasoning questions help the
students in using the interactional and referential function of language. Table1 shows that
only four reasoning questions are cited in all five lessons explored.

Regarding the use of display questions by a teacher in Higher secondary class , consider the
following example:

T. What is the meaning of anxiety?

S. Uneasiness
T. Uneasiness…..yes
T. So, In the Kitchen, Norma was……….who is Norma?
S. She is the wife of Arthur.
T. Yes. Where is the button unit?
S. In the cabinet.
T. Was she ready to push the button?
S. Yes……
T. ok. start reading the lesson now…

These display questions reveal what students know about Norma, her husband Arthur and
also enable the students to display their knowledge which the teacher is already well aware
of. They are used as comprehension checks to evaluate whether the content of the message
was understood. They are used to evaluate the students’ comprehension of the subject matter
and to draw production of certain patterns. Feedback from the teacher to the students’
response is either an acknowledgement that the answer is acceptable (e.g. by the repetition of
the word uneasiness or by the comment ‘yes’) or an indication that the response requires
further expansion [She (Norma) is helpful].
The general domination pattern is that of teacher asking questions, inviting students to answer
and the students giving answers which were then approved by the teacher showing the pattern
(question-answer-feedback). Throughout his use of display questions, the teacher expects his
students to give answers what he has in mind. The teachers’ questions are closed in type and
allow only for very short answers or specified to the use of limited words and the interaction
is artificial and similar to a blank -filling test. The single word-responses of the student in the
above example are not so much the outcome of students’ limited competence as of the
teacher restraining the discourse. Such display questions ‘put great constraints on NNSs
responses, deny them the opportunity to make a real contribution to the discourse, and make
the teacher sole arbitrator of classroom discourse’ (Hassan 1988:168).

The input provided by the teacher consisted mainly of questions and feedback to the students’
answers and this limited students’ exposure to the second language. This will take to the
limited value for the betterment of syntactical development (Ellis, 1980:311).

Display questions or what Mehan ( 9179) calls ‘ known information questions’ tell that ESL
classroom communication is dealing with what Barnes( 1976) tells the ‘transmission model’
of education in which teacher puts maximum control by giving knowledge to those who do
not know ( i.e. learners).

Such display questions are being used in classroom interactions in spite of the fact that
teaching methods and curricula have changed to a significant degree in recent years. The data
of various questions gathered from five classes for the present study also reveals the certain
control of teachers in classroom discourse.

Table:1. Question types

Types of Class 1 Class 2 Class 3 Class 4 Class 5 Total Average

Display 40 25 19 22 35 141 28.2
Referential 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Reasoning 2 1 0 2 3 8 1.6

The Use of Initiations

It is a fact that teachers speak most of the time in traditional classroom interactions and do
not give proper opportunities for their learners to talk. Table 2 shows how teachers exercise
their control by using a great number of initiations. It shows that that there is clear
demarcation between the greater number of teachers’ initiations and the lesser number of
students’ initiations in the ESL classrooms. Teachers initiate the most of the exchanges by
asking display question as explicit request for information. The figure shows that the leading
role of the teacher in taking the initiative in the ESL classroom discourse is mainly related
with the only fact of being a teacher. The teachers take the initiative most of the time. He
decides who should speak and ask again. Classroom talk is then conducted as ‘dyad’ between
the teacher and the student or when the teacher switches from one student to the next which
becomes ‘a rotating dyad’ (Griffin & Humphrey 1978). It describes that the teacher is a
supreme authority who controls the discourse by monitoring the students to speak when he
opines. In this way, he suspends the equal rights of communication. On the contrary, it also
implies that the students should also have the opportunity to raise questions, take part in the
discourse and ask about the meaning of input provided in the course of interaction. Finally,
the teacher monitors the interaction and the discourse is contrived. Following table 2
discusses the data of the use of initiations in the five classes and the average mean of words
clearly represent the teachers’ dominating control in the classes whereas the students’ seem to
be on the receiving end.

Table 2: Teachers’ and students’ initiations

Initiations Clas Clas Clas Class Class Total Averag

s1 s2 s3 4 5 e
Total number of words by 650 1062 203 644 419 2978 595.6
Total number of words by 319 439 76 128 198 1160 232
Total number of words by 969 1501 279 772 617 4138 827.6
teachers and students
Teacher’s initiations 44 27 13 22 25 131 26.2
Students’ initiations 3 2 1 2 2 10 2

The Use of Repetitions and Expansions

The artificiality of classroom discourse and the leading role of the teacher can also be
observed through teachers’ correction and persistent evaluation and controlling the students’
utterances. Table 3 shows in the ESL classroom, emphasis is kept on the instructional
function of language perceived in the evaluation of students’ responses. Students are
supposed to produce certain patterns upon which the teacher provides his assessment. This
can be observed by the number of repetitions and expansion of students’ utterances as shown
in the Table 3. The following extract also exhibits the same:

T. what is the meaning of property-dealer?

S. One who deals in property business.

T. Yes. Dealer is somebody who deals in Property only or we have another word for it…

S. Property-developer….

T. Yes. Who is property developer?

S. Who develops the property…

T. One who owns the land and develops it as well. What synonym is of own?

S. Has…

T. Yes….. I am looking for the word ‘has’ or ‘possess’

S. Possessive

T. yes.. this word is used as an adjective.

This extract exhibits that repetition has the function of evaluation as well where the teacher
repeats the students’ utterances as a form of evaluation of their responses. The teacher in
Turn 5 confirms the learner’s response by exactly repeating student’s utterance to exhibit
satisfaction of the answer and similarly in Turn 3, the teacher gives richer connotation by
expanding on the student’s utterance. Here, the teacher keeps the student’s response in a more
acceptable form, modifies it and adds further information. Expansion is therefore regarded as
a form of repair strategy for half-hearted responses.

The function of repetition or expansion is to render help in the development of learner’s

utterances. It can also be seen that it is in the third part of initiation-response-feedback (IRF)
where repetitions and expansions occur as observed by Sinclair and Coulthard (1975. This
renders quick feedback from the students whereby students identify their mistakes and benefit
from them and same evaluation pattern can be seen in the following table from data of the
present study:

Type of Evaluations Class1 Class2 Class3 Class4 Class5 Total Average

Total number of words spoken 620 1051 198 675 463 3007 601.40
by teachers
Teachers’ repetitions of students’ 14 02 03 04 07 30 6.00
Teachers’ expansion of students’ 19 05 03 02 09 38 7.60


It becomes quite obvious from the conclusive analysis of the present study that spoken
discourse in ESL classroom is artificial and contrived and not communicative. It is related to
the fact that the ESL teacher in Pakistan controls classroom discourse through the use of
display questions, initiations, repetitions and expansions and as a result, it impedes the natural
use of language requiring much larger variety of linguistic forms than these features. It
becomes a fact that language practice in Pakistan is always teacher-controlled interaction in
which the teacher plays a key role and does not allow his students to participate actively in
the natural communication and it becomes quite difficult for the leaners to use the target
language in the classroom. Needless to say, the ESL classroom is regarded as a place for
delivering knowledge about the target language and the input is limited and thus in such
atmosphere, the communication becomes quite artificial.

In any communicative practice of language learning, the real interaction needs much larger
variety of linguistic forms than display questions, repetitions, and the rectification of learner’s
errors which includes a large variety of interactional patterns and thus the message remains
the basic area of concern in this interaction. In the real and life-like communication, it is
always the speakers who determine the topic of conversation, by using reasoning and
referential questions. Thus, in the whole process, the real focus lies in the content of the
message rather than the form.
The present study also highlights the fact that Pakistani Education system should be re-
designed taking into account of the communicative competence in learning second language
and thus makes it clear that Grammar-translation method which is presently in vogue in
Pakistan, does not fulfil the requirement of better listening and speaking skills in the target
language whereas; the present Grammar translation method only lays emphasis upon the
reading and writing skills.

Therefore, in order to lessen the level of artificiality in ESL classroom discourse in Pakistan
and to enhance real communicative patterns, the interaction in the classroom has to student-
centred. The students should be given a chance to express their feeling and personal
experiences to raise questions and to utter comments on all topics freely and naturally and
their response in the classroom must be considered a big contribution to the classroom
discourse; so that the real potential of the classroom for the second language learning in
Pakistan can be realised.

Note: Special thanks are due to Prof.Sajid Ahmad and Prof. Asaf Amir for helping me in
collecting the audio recordings of different classroom interaction.


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