New English speakers, especially those that learn ESL for the workplace, can embarrass themselves easily by using informal language at the wrong times.
With professional pushing for bosses to be more “personal” to make employees perform better, the lines are fuzzier and fuzzier of when to ask, “What’s up?” and when to ask, “How are you?” Use these situational activities for your business ESL students to make it clear how informal to be.
Teach Your Students How to Use Informal Language at Work Freely
Listen and Mimic
Teach students how to read a situation by listening first to the other dialogue of their colleagues and then mimicking it. If colleagues are using informal English, they should too! When we do not know, it is always best to imitate. Every successful business person learns this skill early on, whether the new workplace skill is ESL or navigating administrative support. This situational dialogue game teaches them to respond with mimicking questions to elicit style from colleagues.
- Create 5-10 questions that are commonly asked in work room situations. For example, “How was your weekend?” Write them on dialogue cards or papers.
- Give 3 examples of how to turn those questions into questions. “What did you do?” “Where did you go?” “Did you have a good weekend?”
- Put three responses on the other side of the card, both formal and informal. For example, if the response to the mimicked question is “Good,” they should respond with a brief positive response. This is a cue that it was just a formal question to be polite. If the colleague responds, “Ok, but my mom is sick so we were in the hospital all day Saturday,” they should mimic a response of personal information about their family.
- Discuss the differences between responses and how to read when to be personal and informal and when to give minimal information.
Read Non Verbal Cues
ESL students need to be amateur anthropologists in the workplace and observe behaviors to understand language. Give them an activity to pay attention in their workplace one day and journal about behaviors of colleagues. If they are not working yet, have them go to an English-speaking office for a half hour and record everything they see. Give a series of starter questions: “What are people wearing?” “What do they do on their breaks?” “Do people eat together?” Then, on the next day of class, discuss as a group and compare which offices are more formal.
The Lunch Break
Teach how typically, a lunch break is a break and people want to be less formal and more personal, but only to a certain point. This is tricky for non-native speakers because Americans and British are much less personal than other cultures in general and keep boundaries fairly high. If ESL employees are too formal and different, however, they will not fit into the work culture. Have students prepare answers to these three “informal” topics:
- Aspects of kids’ education or sports activities are always acceptable go to topics.
- Have one or two hobbies that are interesting to talk about, like hiking and work out routines.
- Talk about pop culture, like TV shows, recent movies, sports, and music.
Reading a Room
It can be particularly challenging to meet a new client or new colleagues at a different office. Teach them these basics about how to read a room, and then have them practice by writing out scenes on different cards and how formal they think the meeting will be.
- Look at the conversational set up. Are there only chairs, or chairs and a table? Tables are more formal.
- Feel the mood. Are there a lot of windows, and, if so, what is the vista? An office with a lot of windows in a natural landscape is probably more laid back than a closed box with fluorescent lights. Also, what kind of art is on the walls?
- Pay attention to clothes. What are people wearing at the meeting? Business attire is a sure sign to be formal, but be semi formal if they are wearing jeans and casual clothes.
A card might read: Cubicle setting with one window facing a residential street, round table with plush desk chairs, two women in skirts and casual tops and one man in khaki slacks and a button down shirt.
Follow the Laughter
Create an activity where they pay attention to 1) how often, 2) where, and 3) when people laugh in the office. This is a great indicator of how formal an environment is. If people are having fun, the workplace is probably less formal, and those are the situations as well in which the ESL worker wants to be less formal. If people are not laughing out loud, advise them to stifle their chuckles or find a quiet laugh on the internet or via a text when they can and stick to formal language. Have students record, in one work day, every time they hear someone laugh, where they were doing so, and what they were doing when doing so. Then have students compare their notes at the next class and discuss.
Knowing when to use formal and informal language is subtle in English, especially in the ever growing informal business world.
Situational activities like these will provide students a chance to pay closer attention to their environments and clarify how to read those tricky cultural cues!
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