Listening to the English
Kati Somogyi-Tóth, Hungary
Kati Somogyi-Tóth is sort of semi-retired from her university in Hungary where she still teaches part-time. She also trains for Pilgrims, Canterbury. Her interest are teaching very young learners, memory research, classroom observation and post-method pedagogy.
In her delightful book Watching the English, the social anthropologist Kate Fox describes the way she had spent whole afternoons jumping queues to observe her compatriots’ reactions to this deadly sin. When in England, I find myself doing the exact opposite, but with a similar purpose: I deliberately pick the longest queue in any shop to eavesdrop. I listen to what shop-assistants say and unobtrusively key their exact words into my phone – as if I was texting. I collect phrases. I do this for my students at my university in Hungary and for the teachers I train at Pilgrims. I should now like to share with you three such bunches of my collection. I have used them successfully on teacher training courses with a strong language improvement element.
Below is a collection of things shop-assistants typically say. To follow, you will find ideas to exploit this text with teachers of English as a foreign language. The activities can, of course, also be used with general English classes.
You all right there?
Looking for anything in particular?
Can I help? (Just browsing, thanks.)
You’re welcome to browse.
Have a wander.
If there’s anything
Did you find everything okay?
Will that be all?
Is that everything?
Card or cash?
That’ll be 15.45 altogether.
If you could pop your card into the reader there.
Pop your card into the slit, chip facing down.
Pop in your pin.
Enter your pin.
You can remove your card.
OK, there’s your receipt.
Just get your signature here?
Do you need a bag?
Would you like your receipt in your bag?
In the bag or with yourself?
I’ll pop it in your bag.
There you go.
There’s your change.
See you later.
First, get your students guessing. Where might they hear ‘Pop in your pin’? or ‘Do you need a bag?’ Once they have guessed the scene, say a few more of these utterances at exactly the speed a shop-assistant would say them, i.e. really fast. Let the students guess the meaning. ‘Would you like your receipt in your bag?’ and ’Cashback’ are notoriously difficult, but great fun. Also, elicit any phrases they might already know.
Now give students the printed version of the ‘poem’ preferably along with a collection of shopping bags complete with receipts. As this is a teacher training course, let the group be creative together and in groups of three come up with suggestions for how to exploit the text in a general English class. This helps the group gel and sets them off on a path of creativity and sharing. The groups will invariably come up with brilliant ideas, especially when if you can give them some shopping bags. There is an immediate sense of achievement and good spirits!
Get your group to mill around. Three people are shop-assistants, the rest are customers, browsing in the shop. The shop-assistants go round trying to help customers, using the first part of the ‘poem’.
Next, the shop-assistants go to their imaginary tills and the class form three queues to pay. When they have paid, they walk off with bags and receipts in hand. The shop-assistants have to work really hard.
The best thing about this activity is when your group comes back the next day saying they had heard exactly the same things in the shops!
If you run a course in England, there is a good reason for using this activity on the first day: your students get something they can put to immediate use when they go shopping! As well as this, they prefer a down-to-earth approach and relax when they see the course is not all going to be grand theorizing. This activity also lends itself to work on pronunciation and intonation.
At the beginning of the course, probably in the first or second lesson, I draw my group’s attention to the existence of chunks. It is astonishing how few teachers recognise the word chunk! I find it works to introduce the notion right at the outset, and in such a way that it makes sense and what your student learn can be put to immediate use. Below is a collection of intensifiers, followed by an activity we can refer back to throughout the course.
An intensifier is a word that emphasizes another word. They increase the emotional content of a sentence and make a good impression on the listener.Here are a few examples:
thoroughly plastered (=drunk)
And now we can be well chuffed! (= pleased, satisfied)
We use the following words as intensifiers with superlatives: easily - by far, e.g.:
The blue whale is easily the biggest animal in the world.
This car was by far the most expensive.
Right at the outset, probably in the first or second lesson, ask your group about their trip to England and their accommodation. They will probably use the word very fairly frequently. Tell them that you have a little trick up your sleeve: if they learn to use a range of intensifiers instead of very, their English will suddenly appear far more proficient. E.g. instead of I was very lucky they could say extremely lucky, extraordinarily lucky or incredibly lucky.
Put a few intensifiers on the board. Now randomly get your students to guess which would go with, for instance, funny, clever, sorry. Alternatively, set up groups of three and give them about twelve small cards with words to match. Check and let groups share.
Now ask the whole class to talk about the original topic, i.e. their trip and accommodation, but this time using intensifiers.
Throughout the course, I keep coming back to these intensifiers. For instance, I ask my group to run through the list when we discuss our visit to the local elementary school or after their guided tour of Canterbury. My last group gave me a lovely farewell card with four of these chunks in it! Needless to say, I was ‘well chuffed’, to quote the last item on my list.
Another little collection I should like to share with HLT readers is sentences and phrases people use when they complain how tired they are. You don’t have to queue up to hear these in England. It seems to be a national game!
My collection below falls into two parts: complaining, and sympathising.
They are ideal halfway down the course when everybody is flat out, including the trainer.
I’ve been pretty full on these past few weeks.
I’m a bit snowed under.
I’m completely wiped out.
Do you know how much mind-numbing trivia I’m holding in my head?
My mind’s been on overload all day.
I’ve got so many demands on my time.
I’ve got a lot on. It’s wearing me out.
My boss works me into the ground. I’m stretched, horribly stretched.
I’m knackered, completely knackered.
I’m working 24/7. I can’t take the pace.
I’m rushed off my feet.
I’ve got so much on. I’m strung out.
I’m out of my depth.
It’s all so draining, I’m not sleeping properly.
I could do with crashing out. (= I need sleep)
Sometimes I really think of jacking it all in!
Yes, you’re pushing yourself too hard.
You are spreading yourself too thin. (=trying to do too many things at the same time)
Go easy on yourself.
Oh dear, it’s completely stressing you out.
Yes, I see you’re all wound up.
You’ve got your work cut out.
Don’t overdo it. You need a rest.
Well, it’s one hell of a task you’ve got there.
Yes, I see that you’re running round chasing your tail.
You’re always rushed off your feet.
You’ve got a lot on your plate.
You seem hell-bent on running yourself into the ground.
Slow down – or you’ll knacker yourself out!
You’ve got to pace yourself.
You can once again address the teachers’ creativity here: how would they exploit this collection of phrases in their own classrooms, what activities can they think of ? What would the steps be? This can lead to a good discussion.
Ways my classes did this:
- After clarifying language, pair up students : one needs some TLC (= tender loving care) and the other provides it.
- Have a class competition of who is more tired, putting in a lot of drama. This adds an element of excitement and can be noisy.
- Set up a writing activity, where students write up little poems. If they can give it a jazzy beat a la Carolyn Graham, even better.
I use this half-way down the course when everyone is flat out, including the trainer. Pick the right moment, i.e. a low moment. A bit of crying on each other’s shoulders, really overdoing the whining and the consolation is a great way to release stress and to lift spirits.
As for the writing activity, here is a sample:
all strung out,
it’s wearing me out.
Too much on my plate,
rushed off my feet,
I really, really
need a sleep.
I find that the appeal of these collections of chunks and phrases is that they are taken from real life. They are suitable for a range of levels, from intermediate to near-native proficiency. They are also up-to-date, alive on the lips of native speakers. In this day and age of instant gratification, teachers on short training courses in Britain want an immediate boost to their English. My experience is that these activities cater for this need.
Please check the Methodology and Language for Primary Teachers course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Methodology for Teaching Spoken Grammar and English course at Pilgrims website.