Once after teaching a lesson in an adult level ESL class, a student approached me, looked at me quizzically, and asked “What is this ‘let’s see’?”
I didn’t understand what she meant at first and then was embarrassed when I realized I had been using this phrase throughout the lesson: “Let’s see; I’ll pass out the papers; let’s see, why don’t we go over the articles listed on page 56…” “Let’s see” is actually a key phrase in spoken English, indicating consideration of future action. Apparently, it was this phrase more than my actual planned instruction that this student was focusing on during the instruction.
Often the stream of language that is fluent speaking will sound like gibberish, even to a reasonably fluent nonnative speaker of that language; the flow of speech just goes by too quickly, the words too closely connected to separate out. However, there is hope for the ESL student, in the form of listening for key phrases that can help clarify a conversation. Understanding key phrases that signal the opening of a conversation, reaching the main point, a desire to draw the conversation to a close, and so forth clarify the underlying structure of a conversation and can aid in understanding.
There are standard key phrases in English that have specific functions in conversation. The phrases usually have a literal meaning, but as key phrases their more figurative meaning is most important. That is, when the speaker says “Let’s see,” she usually doesn’t want you to look at something with her; she wants you to consider action with her: “Let’s see, I think we should go over the vocabulary first.” These key phrases will help students learn to follow the direction of a conversation. Some of the phrases follow.
Key Phrases to Aid ESL Listening
Opening a conversation
If someone asks “Are you busy?” or “Do you have a minute?” she isn’t so much interested in the listener’s time management skills; rather, these phrases signal a desire to engage in conversation and is recognizing the imposition by asking first if it is convenient for the listener to talk. Conversations often begin with such a phrase.
Reaching a main point
If a student hears “the thing is--” or “what I’m trying to say is--” he will probably hear the main point of the conversation following. These phrases are a signal to now pay close attention after the speaker has led into the conversation with some opening remarks to prepare.
Adding details and asides
It is more common to digress from the main point in conversation than in writing, as new related points and examples come to the speaker during the conversation. These might be signaled with “Oh, by the way--” or “One thing I’d like to add here--” The listener should know that an important supporting point may be coming up.
Introducing an opposing point
Often speakers will also acknowledge opposing viewpoints or difficult related issues to their main point. These opposing or contrary issues will often be prefaced with “There is one thing I should draw your attention to--” or “You should be aware that--”, demonstrating a desire to inform the listener of some potential concern.
Drawing a conversation to a close
All conversations must come to an end eventually. After making his point, the speaker may follow up with some additional pleasantries or discussion before signaling a desire to close the conversation. “Well, it’s getting late,” or “I won’t keep you any longer” are phrases that signal a conversation’s close.
Teaching Listening for Key Phrases
Explicitly teach the key phrases
Explicit instruction is an important starting point for most second language learners, especially for adults. The student who questioned me about “Let’s see--” was apparently not able to infer its meaning from the context, so some explicit instruction of these phrases is needed, by giving out a list and going over their usage and pronunciation, perhaps. While directly teaching the phrases to students, the instructor might also model their use in short bits of conversation.
Listen to conversations and analyze the usage of key phrases
After explicit instruction in phrases, the instructor might choose to play a taped conversation and pick out examples of the phrases taught. Hearing actual examples seems to solidify and validate instruction.
Listen to conversations; identify phrases.
After teaching the phrases and providing examples through bits of instructor and taped conversation, it’s time to introduce a new conversation, having students on their own identify key phrases and why and how they are used.
Discuss places in conversation where key phrases can be added.
Another possibility is to play the conversation again, asking students this time if they can identify places where key phrases should or could be added.
Practice with phrases in short presentations
Finally, students can do short presentations or demonstrations on simple topics such as plans for vacation with using phrase. Each student can take a portion of class time to prepare her five minute presentation for a group of students, and then her peer group can take notes, paying particular attention to key phrases. As students progress with the use of key phrases, they will begin understanding how to use them without planning ahead of time.
Often real-time speech will sound like nonsense, a flow of words.
But by learning how to listen for key phrases, students will begin to identify the structure of a conversation, and with that structure, the conversation’s meaning and purpose. Students will also develop their own conversation skills by learning key phrases, knowing how to signal to a listener the direction of the conversation.
What are some uses you can think of for key phrases?