I didn’t freak out the same way as I did last year when I was going to teach the High-Int Office English class how to welcome visitors and do small talk. This lesson was going to be for the Low-Int Office English course, which my institution runs this semester, and I had been asked again to develop the materials and teach the group. So far, we’ve been having a lovely time. I guess I wasn’t as worried because I have taught people how to do small talk many times since, so it has become easier.
Nonetheless, I wanted to see what real people think about small talk, so I asked my crown on Twitter and an amazingly useful thread developed:
The main take-away for me were the following ideas:
Small Talk means that all the people involved make a deliberate effort to keep the conversation going, for the reason of politeness.
Hence, once they find common ground, they can start chatting about things that are interesting for all of them, which is no longer small talk.
Therefore, Small Talk doesn’t last long.
Why do I think my lesson follows the Task-Based Language-Learning principles?
It was developed with a particular group in mind, working for one institution (a Czech university), and therefore took the local context into account.
There was a clear goal: the students would be able to carry on small talk with a person for several minutes.
The language had not been prescribed and in the various stages feedback was given on errors, conversational strategies, etc.
First, I asked the students to give a short account of situations in which they’d met any foreigners or they themselves visited an institution or a place on business.
Next, I played this video to illustrate what I expected from them. You can’t go wrong with Vicki Hollet and in fact, her course book series Tech Talk was a pleasure to use when I was teaching at the candy factory.
After we briefly discussed some good/bad small talk strategies, I referred the students to a list of questions I’d prepared. These were the most common questions you can ask – mostly from the Twitter thread, my experience and articles I’d read. They included questions such as: Is this your first time in Prague? How was your trip? What’s the weather like where you came from? etc.
To develop fluency, I had the students practise the questions first using the “read – cover – look up” method and I checked they could say some of them by heart.
Then they worked in pairs. I asked them to choose a role. I’d prepared two short role cards with a name (I used an online name-generator for this), country of origin and reason for visiting (two real events at our university).
In the next stage I allowed a lot of time for practising the actual conversations. This was the situation: You (i.e. a real person working for the university) are meeting a foreign visitor (see the role card) at Prague’s main Train Station. Welcome the visitor and carry on small talk for 2 minutes.
We repeated the scenario several times with me giving feedback after each round. This is how the rotation went: Pairs A-B (1st round); Same pairs B-A (swapped roles, 2nd round); Bs move one place clockwise (3rd round); Bs move one place clockwise and swap roles (4th round).
Believe it or not, after the fourth round everyone was happily chatting away sounding really confident and doing great.
This was the end of the first, longer part of the lesson.
The second part focused on welcoming the visitors at your workplace. I introduced it by this short video clip from Love, Actually, which was a great choice because most people had seen the film, understood better and were more eager to give their opinions.
Next, we put together a jumbled dialogue from my faithful copy of Macmillan’s English for Networking: “The receptionists welcomes Mr Ruby”. It’s a little cheesy dialogue but has all the language I needed and really, people do use formulaic language in such situations, so it seems reasonable to practise as such. Then we looked at some useful phrases for welcoming visitors – how to invite them in, deal with their luggage, offer refreshments, inviting them to sit down and telling them another person will join the meeting later.
The final task of the lesson was (now, watch, as I’m really proud of it):
Roleplay a dialogue with a visitor at your workplace. Use the identities from Task 3. Make sure to include the following and in that order:
- Invite your visitor to enter your office.
- Deal with their clothing/luggage.
- Offer them a seat.
- Offer them refreshments.
- Tell them Mr Stanislav Novák will be joining us soon.
- Begin small talk and carry on until your teacher stops you.
Notice the last bullet point? See how it links to the first part of the lesson? Aha!
I told the students to go through all the points in the conversation and then keep small talking until I stopped them and they all did and that is the end of the story!
Let me know what you think – as always, comments are appreciated.