Telephone Conversations: Practicing In The Classroom

naple_grande1.jpg“Here you are?”
“Are you Joe?”
“No. Who are you?”
“Katie. I want to talk to Joe.”
“Joe here.”
“I’m Katie.”
“What do you want?”

“Let’s go. Agreed. Bye.”

What’s hard about telephone conversations?
First of all, anyone who has tried to speak a foreign language can confirm that it is harder to be totally reliant on only what you hear – body langauge give us so many clues. At the very least, if I’m talking to someone in person, they can see from my fact that I’m lost or something hasn’t registered. There are visual clues to say “I’m done, you can go ahead now,” and often you just can’t hear as well on the phone as you can in real life either.

How can you duplicate these conditions in class?
Well, aside from having your students call each other on their mobile phones (which might not be a bad idea, actually), you can have them sit back to back so they can’t see each other at all.

Next, there is the vocabulary. Idiomatic? Unusual? To be honest, I don’t know what the proper term for it is, but there are definitely ways rather different from the equivalent in English to hold a telephone conversation. Some of the examples from my above conversation are direct translations of phrases people in Bosnia would use in a phone conversation in their language.

None of the conversation above is grammatically wrong, but we wouldn’t use that language on the phone. And much of it is of the “so ingrained that if it’s not in the book you might not think to mention it” variety: “This is her/she” and not “Katie here”, and “How can I help you?” or “What’s up?” or “What are you calling about?” and not “What do you want?” While a non-native speaker is perhaps less likely to need to answer his own phone in English, if he calls someone and is expecting to hear “Who are you?” and hears “Can I tell him who’s calling?” it will be that much more of a challenge to have a successful conversation.

In a class, I might write out the literal version like I’ve done here and try to elicit the correct vocabulary and phrases. Or, I might type up a conversation, cut it up, have students put it in order and then practice it, each time turning over a few more of the lines and using their memory. It can be useful for kinaesthetic learners to have something to move, but also is just much more practical than trying to write numbers next to mixed up phrases in a book.