By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville
– Hi there! How are you? Teaching anything new this semester?
– No, huh uh. Mostly conversation courses. But I like them.
– Using a good textbook?
– Yeah. It’s full of good exercises. But you know what? I’m thinkin’ it really needs another chapter.
– Yeah? On what?
– Well, on the language that people use as, well, “time fillers” when they’re in the lunch room, at the bus stop, in the elevator, or wherever.
– I know what you mean. Small talk.
– Yes, exactly.
– Yeah. You may be right. Well, good luck in those classes.
– You too. Bye!
How often is small talk a part of life in the classroom? Perhaps not often enough.
The majority of the curricula I’ve followed, and most of the textbooks I’ve used in conversation classes, haven’t focused much on small talk, as such. Yes, there have been units on greetings, the weather, and family – typical topics for short, casual conversations. Students have learned how to thank someone, how to apologize to people, how to ask for directions, and even how to inquire about someone’s plans for the weekend. Yet these “how-to matters” tend to be presented as separate topics, often in different units. They are not usually treated together, under a heading like “small talk.”
How often is small talk a part of life outside the classroom? Daily.
Students must be able to cope with everyday small talk; they must be able to produce appropriate small talk.
Considering the frequency of its occurrence in daily conversations as well as its very real influence on how we are viewed as interlocutors, small talk could well deserve a regular place in ESL classrooms, classrooms which attend to communicative competence.
If we take account of its impact on reducing learners’ nervousness about spontaneous communication in L2, we also realize that “mastering” the art of small talk can lower students’ apprehension of speaking, which is crucial to their success.
Because people generally think that the language of small talk is “simple language,” and because small talk conversations can’t be considered demanding in terms of their length (lasting only a few minutes ordinarily), it’s crucial that language learners feel they can “handle” small talk.
Students shouldn’t have to say to themselves (as I have done!): I’ve been studying English for a few years but I still feel uncomfortable holding short and simple conversations.
But how can we teach small talk?
Certainly not in “topic isolation mode.” Typical small talk “talking points” can be integrated. We mix small talk with more serious conversation in real life; something similar can be done in the classroom. Brief, casual conversations about the weather, complaints, health, appearance, family, apologies, compliments, plans, etc. should be held regularly, and can, with a little coaxing, involve most or all of our students over time. Such conversations make great warm-up activities.
Sample Small Talk Warm-Up Activity
Keep a stock of cards with phrases like “Great party!”, “It was nice seeing you again”, “Let’s have lunch some time”, “You look busy”, or ‘‘I haven’t seen you for a while,” etc. Ask students, as they come in to class, to take one and then to mingle among classmates, initiating small talk with the phrase provided.
We can also incorporate activities that promote rapid, spontaneous responses also helps. After all, small talk may be brief, but it is fast-paced!
Sample Activity for Eliciting Short, Fast-Paced Responses.
Also using cards with phrases or sentences representing a variety of topics, such as “Is this the only kind of dessert you have?”, “May I interest you in our new model of PC?”, “I’ve had a headache all week.”, “Where have you been all day?”, and “You OK?”, we can involve students in a kind of group task. Students, in turn, draw a card and read out its phrase or sentence to another student in the group. This should, on each occasion, prompt a brief conversation between the students (one lasting not more than 30 seconds or so). We can sound a bell, clap our hands, or indicate in some other way, that a small talk conversation in progress should end and that a new one should begin.
I’ve found that material for lessons on small talk can often be gathered from everyday conversations I’ve heard or from those my students have heard. If you start paying attention to such conversations, you may well get the impression, as I have, that the variety of small talk questions and answers is astonishing.
Need to run. Take care!