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“A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books.”
―Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), American poet
Why is it important to make time for conversations inside the English classroom? Can our students create comfortable conversations in English outside the classroom? What is holding us back from creating more compelling conversations in our lives?
Many Americans, it seems to me, have forgotten how to hold good, deep conversations, or even a friendly chat on the phone. Perhaps this lack of real communication lessens their daily joy. I treasure moments spent sharing experiences, collecting news, and exchanging ideas. I make a point of knowing my neighbors, allowing casual greetings to become long conversations, and making time to explore the feelings and perceptions of loved ones in depth. These natural conversations provide advice, information and encouragement; they also provide insights, sighs, and smiles.
What’s holding us back?
However, daily life is often hectic. Many may feel they simply don’t have the time for long lunches and civilized conversations. Yet accepting this notion cheats us and denies us responsibility for our own choices. We can choose to watch television programs, play computer games, or listen to the radio rather than talk to relatives and friends. It’s a choice.
The internet, a modern wonder, remains a fast, convenient way to find ideas, explore possibilities, and connect with friends. Many also find surfing the internet easier – and more satisfying – than having actual conversations. This trend seems widespread among English language learners; some international students remain hesitant to start a conversation with the people next to them.
Conversational challenges for English language learners
Of course, international college students and other people learning English as a second, third, or fourth language face even more barriers to a satisfying conversation in English. First and foremost, English remains a confusing, difficult, and strange language. Accents often differ. Pronunciation can feel like a deep mystery. As the old British cliché goes, “we read Manchester and say London.” Many students fear not being understood, and underestimate their ability to connect with fellow human beings in English.
Remember our cities and universities have a very wide range of accents. Americans and British pronunciations may differ for ‘vitamin’ and ‘schedule’, but people can usually understand. Meaning matters most, and many people will make a sincere effort to understand us. Still, it’s easy to feel uncomfortable when speaking in this new tongue. And even if meaning matters most, how do we start a real conversation worth having?
Furthermore, how do we keep friendly conversations going? What questions do we ask? How can we share our experiences more clearly? Which vocabulary words are needed? How do we show agreement – or disagreement – in a lively, yet polite way?
Moving from questions to conversations
Asking questions – like those above – remains essential. The more we ask, the more we know, and the more we share.
Good conversations often spark joy in our daily lives and can become cherished memories. Though getting started may seem intimidating, practice still makes progress. Simply making time and reaching out goes a long way!
Unfortunately, speaking and conversational skills seldom receive enough attention or time in most ESL and EFL classes. Some educational systems focus more on learning grammar and preparing for high stakes, standardized exams. (Several international university students have told me they only started studying for the TOEFL or IELTS exams!) Large class sizes add another barrier to English language learners practicing conversation skills. It takes considerable time to explicitly teach conversational skills and some classrooms can get noisy with many students talking at the same time.
Creating Compelling Conversations in ESL Classes
The Compelling Conversations series comes out of an advanced conversation class that I taught at Santa Monica Community College years ago. Many students will adult immigrants and some were international students. Everyone – even if they had studied English for five, eight, or even a dozen years – wanted to improve their conversational skills in English. So the conversation class lessons were designed to maximize the amount of student speaking and minimize the amount of teacher talk.
We focused on learning by doing, sharing experiences, and making some good mistakes. We mostly worked in small groups and pairs, and I would circle around the class taking notes. After 15 minutes or so, I would lead a brief class discussion and review some “good mistakes” that I heard in pronunciation or grammar. We also shared different life experiences in a friendly, tolerant atmosphere. We also often laughed and encouraged each other.
The Compelling Conversations Series
The Compelling Conversations series reflects that same approach. Each chapter explores a promising conversation topic, with questions that range from the simple and direct to less direct and more abstract. The written questions allow the reader to practice exchanging experiences and ideas in a natural style – in English – with a safety net. Some questions are conversation starters, some seek clarification, and some encourage reflection. However, none provide standardized scripts to blindly memorize. (So-called ‘drill and kill’ scripts can be quite effective, especially for lower levels, but these materials, designed for English speaking skills and conversation classes, allow us to create our own conversations on a focused topic in a causal, relaxed manner.
Additionally, these conversation materials make it easier for teachers and tutors to add conversations to their English classes. Teachers and students can also add questions, skip questions, and move on to related topics as desired. Helping English students to express their ideas, learn more about classmates, and expand their working English vocabulary remain the most important goals. Naturally, some conversations and topics will continue beyond the classroom. Therefore, questions and expressions can easily be recycled.
How can we make more time for students to practice conversations in our English classrooms? How can we make more time in our lives for better conversations? When was the last time you had a truly compelling conversation?