Social Bookending : Scripting conversation start and end points for better flow

A row of old books. Image from freeimages.com

Tim Burton tells us that every story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or was it Jean-Luc Godard – or even Aristotle? Anyway, whoever – and whenever – it was, they had a pretty solid, if obvious, point.

Language enthusiasts face a very particular struggle, and one very close to my heart. It’s that compulsion to run before we can walk. This is not necessarily a completely negative trait. For one thing, it demonstrates our high ambitions and commitment to the subject. But in a one-to-one session when you just want to focus on your favourite topics, it can leave you being middle-heavy – all filling and no bread, in sandwich terms.

For instance, my brain is usually so focused on the material I wanted to cover in conversation (music, language, politics) that I am regularly caught on the hop when switching into intro and outro – or social niceties – mode. The winding up and the winding down of conversation are things I just assume will happen of their own accord. But they rarely do.

First confession: that’s chiefly because I spend so little time on them as a learner.

For me, at least, the reason is simple: learning chitchat is just not as interesting as the meaty, topical stuff. It’s the reason I’m always so tempted to leap three or four chapters in when I start a new language book. We all want to be rootin’, tootin’, high-falutin’ fluent speakers, and so we grab at the highest branches.

That’s totally understandable.

Social bookends: real-life framing

That said, it’s impossible to ignore that social dimension. Sudden starts and full-stops just don’t happen very often in real-life conversation. We don’t meet friends for coffee and immediately launch into a diatribe on the state of things, before disappearing to our next appointment.

Just as we bookend our coffee shop gossip with social glue, our language lessons should also reflect this real-life framing. After all, we hope eventually to communicate with other humans using the foreign language. Part of everyday communication is all that built-in, rote-learnt social interaction – the script of interaction. Effective language lessons must teach us to operate fully within these social scripts, as well as equip us with the vocab and grammar knowhow to decline verbs and rattle off sophisticated arguments. In other words, to operate as living, breathing, social entities within the language environment.

Now, it sometimes feels like talking openly about difficulties and failings is anathema in our online learning communities. It tends so often to be about the biggest, the brightest, the best. So another confession:

I really struggle with the language of social interaction.

Motivating myself to spend time learning various ways of saying hello, how are you doing, goodbye, is not my favourite thing. Smalltalk, even in English, does not happen for me without a lot of coaxing. But after countless lessons fumbling and floundering at the start and the finish, I realised how inescapable it all is.

Curating social scripts

I needed a way in to fix this. A means to make it more appealing. So, as a remedy, I appealed to my inner collector. This is the side of my personality that revels in curating lists of vocabulary and learning arcane grammatical exceptions from two-inch thick tomes. Obsessive, geekish list-writer Rich to the rescue!

I scoured dialogues in textbook dialogues. I mind-mapped the phrases I use in my native language and sought translations of them using resources like Tatoeba. I used subtitles to mine intro and outro phrases from TV and film (although it’s shocking how often phone conversations end abruptly on screen, as opposed to real life!).

There are myriad places to find social glue. When you do, note them all down in one place. (I probably don’t need to add that I use Evernote to store mine.)

A list of social niceties in Icelandic

Learning to ‘do’ social language (my working document for Icelandic)

It’s not just about ‘bye’ and ‘see you’. It’s about the extra stuff like ‘take care!’, ‘keep well’, ‘have a nice weekend’, ‘say hello to X’, ‘enjoy your evening’. It’s all the padding that makes start and end transitions a bit friendlier, a bit less abrupt, a bit more natural.

You may well ask why I still need to work from a list. Well, this stuff just doesn’t happen naturally for me at all. Some people are natural social butterflies. I just get lost in the detail sometimes – even in my own language!

When the time comes, I pop my list up, and have before me lots of ready-made one-liners I can use to ease in or wind things down nicely. And, eventually (hopefully!), these interjections become second nature.

Right under your nose

Yes, this might seem like pretty obvious advice. But aren’t the most obvious things the easiest to overlook? Having a bank of starters and finishers at your fingertips can make lessons so much brighter and less uncomfortable, particularly if you use 100% target language with your teacher.

Students, start your own crib notes to start and finish your lessons smoothly. And teachers, help your students to level up in these skills. Banish that social awkwardness by learning your lines like the linguistic actor you are training to become.

Soon you’ll be running like a well-oiled social machine!

Richard West-Soley

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