Dr. Jack C Richards is an applied linguist, writer, and teacher trainer. He is the co-author of Speak Now, a four-level speaking course that helps students to communicate with confidence. In this article, he looks at small talk in conversational English.
Small talk refers to communication that primarily serves the purpose of social interaction. Small talk consists of short exchanges that usually begin with a greeting, move to back and forth exchanges on non-controversial topics such as the weekend, the weather, work, school, etc., and then often conclude with a fixed expression such as See you later. Such interactions are at times almost formulaic and often do not result in a real conversation. They serve to create a positive atmosphere and to create a comfort zone between people who might be total strangers. While seemingly a trivial aspect of speaking, small talk plays a very important role in social interaction.
Skills involved in mastering small talk include:
- Acquiring fixed expressions and routines used in small talk
- Using formal or casual speech depending on the situation
- Developing fluency is making small talk around predictable topics
- Using opening and closing strategies
- Using back-channeling
Back-channeling involves the use of expressions such as Really?, Mmm, Is that right?, Yeah, etc., and very commonly short rhetorical questions such as Do you? Are you? Did you?. The use of expressions that show exaggeration such as Way out, Awesome, Fantastic is usually a sign that the two participants are friends, as in the following example:
A. Look at what my dad gave me for my birthday.
A. He got it in Italy.
Echo responses are another type of back-channelling and involve echoing something the speaker said. For example:
A. So where are you from?
A. Chicago. That’s interesting.
Ways of teaching small talk include:
- Modelling and creating: students study examples of small talk exchanges and create similar exchanges on the same topic.
For example a lesson can start by giving students a model of a small-talk exchange, such as the following example from a teacher in Japan, that shows a conversation between two friends in Japan who meet in a shopping mall:
B: Oh hi, how’s it going?
A: Good, good, fine.
B: Are you, er, doing some shopping?
A: Yeah, just a few things really, you know.
A: Yeah, …actually I’ve been looking for a present, for Hiroko, but it’s difficult to.. you know..
B: Yeah, umm, what kind of thing?
A: Oh, something like, umm, a present… something like… it’s her birthday tomorrow actually. [laughs]
A: Yeah, tomorrow. So I’ve looked in Hamaya, like, at the makeup and stuff, but it’s not very exciting.
B: Tomorrow? How about Amu Plaza, they’ve got Tower Records and some kind of new shops.
A: Yeah. OK, great, Tower Records might be good. I might give that a go. I’ve got to go over to the station, anyway. So, anyway, good to see you and thanks for the tip.
B: That’s fine. Say happy birthday to Hiroko from me.
A: OK I will. Bye.
B: Yeah, bye.
This exchange can be used to highlight some of the features of casual language, such as the use of ellipsis (e.g. doing some shopping?), phrases such as you know, idioms (give that a go), and bye as a closing routine. Like many interactions of this kind, the exchange opens with a friendly greeting, moves towards small talk, and then closes with an exchange of greetings. The teacher provides worksheets in which the students identify the different sections of the conversation and the discourse functions and practice writing their own dialogs using the same discourse features. They later enact role-plays to further practice the appropriate sequence in a small talk exchange.
Other activities to practice small talk are:
- Class mingles: each student has one or two topics on a card. The class mingle, students greet, introduce their topic, make small talk for one or two exchanges, close the conversation, and move on to a different student.
- Question sheets: students have a worksheet with 10 different small talk questions. They move around the class and take turns asking and responding to their exchange in small talk format.
Don’t forget to visit this blog on Thursday 16th January to read the second part in this blog series written by Jack C Richards: “Teaching Conversation”.