Recently, a student and I were doing a review session. We began with vocabulary, then looked at some grammar. Everything was going great, and we were both pleased with the amount of information the student had retained. Eventually, we decided to try a few role plays – and that is when the problems started.
It seemed like there was a mental block preventing the student from thinking clearly. The rehearsed phrases and vocabulary came out garbled and nonsensical. At times it was as if the student couldn’t even remember what their role was or why they were talking. We paused and began to talk about why this might be, and the answers were, I believe, quite interesting.
For a start, why do we communicate? It is because we want something; we have a goal. Let us assume you are disappointed with a product or service, and that you call the company to complain. Your goal is to voice your displeasure, to communicate your message of discontent to the employee you call. And on the other side? The customer service employee, theoretically, has the goal of making turning disgruntled customers into satisfied ones. This might involve secondary goals like identifying the nature of the problem and the actions which the customer might consider a satisfactory conclusion.
‚And what about small talk?‘ I hear you ask. The goals here are not so clear, and that is why many people find small talk to be challenging. With no goal to focus on, many learners tend to panic and proceed to say nothing at all. I therefore suggest making small-talk goals for yourself. They might include:
– Find out three new things about the person
– Learn about the person’s hobby/work/home town
– Ask as many questions as possible about the person’s meal in a restaurant
With a concrete goal in mind, you may find it easier to achieve that most difficult of things, a ‚chat‘ in another language. Remember, it matters less what you say, it matters less how you say it, what matters is that your basic message is understood, that your communication objective is fulfilled.
Get it done, it doesn’t matter how.