Making small talk is more than just getting to know someone new. It is an expected part of social behavior. Making small talk isn’t always easy, though, especially for ESL students.
Speakers must meet certain expectations and must talk about appropriate subjects. These subjects are different from one culture to another, so small talk, which may once have come naturally, must now be intentional. These activities will give your students a chance to practice what to say when they’re face to face with someone new and want to get the conversation started.
Try These 5 Small Talk Activities to Get the Conversation Started with Your Students
Talk About the WeatherTalking about the weather is one of the simplest ways to make chitchat or small talk with someone you don’t know very well.
Talking about the weather is one of the simplest ways to make chitchat or small talk with someone you don’t know very well. Depending on the fluency level of your students, they may already be comfortable talking about the weather or they may need a more extensive review before they can jump right in to small talk. Once your students are weather knowledgeable, though, there are several ways to have a conversation about weather. A speaker might ask his companion what they think about the weather and then respond to what that persons says. The speaker might also make their own observations about the weather and then let his companion comment on his thoughts. Put students in pairs to practice both strategies of weather chit chat. Make sure each person has a chance to start a conversation both ways during the activity.
Asking Personal Questions
Asking personal questions is a great way to make chitchat, but the questions should never be too personal. To help your students see the difference, brainstorm a list of personal questions you might ask someone you have just met. As you brainstorm, sort these questions into two columns – mildly personal questions and highly personal questions (those that might make the speaker very emotional). As you brainstorm and sort, help your students see how the highly personal questions might make someone uncomfortable, especially with someone they have just met. Be sure to point out that, to English speakers, politics, age, weight, and income are all highly personal topics and should not be discussed while making chitchat. Encourage your students to use the mildly personal questions to start a conversation with someone new before the next class. Then discuss how the real life small talk went.
Current events are another great topic for casual conversation. Did you hear about…Did you see…What do you think about… are all great ways to introduce current events in a casual conversation. Have your students work with a partner to write 10 questions starting with one of these or another similar phrases that introduce current events into a conversation. Then, combine pairs to make groups of four and have the groups use the questions they wrote to make small talk with their new group members.
Something in Common
Another strategy for small talk and chitchat is to find something in common with a person you have just met. This may be more of a challenge for ESL students because they cannot rely on preplanned questions like they may be able to in other small talk strategies. Still, once students are comfortable talking about their own interests, they may be able to talk about those interests with an English speaker. Start by having students write down between five and ten of their interests. These might be a certain type of music, a hobby, something they collect, something they like to do, any interest that another person might share is good. They should be able to talk about that topic when making small talk with another person, but only if that person is also interested in the topic. To find common ground with someone else, your students can ask questions like these: What do you do in your free time? What kind of music do you like? Did you do anything interesting this weekend? As a class brainstorm a list of other questions your students could ask someone else to learn about their interests and hobbies.
Once you have your questions, position your students in two lines facing one another (think speed dating style) to practice finding common interests. Tell students they will have two minutes to find something in common with the person sitting across from them. After two minutes, you will call time and everyone will shift one seat to their right. (The last person on each row will move to the first seat at the other end.) Give your students two minute intervals to talk to their classmates. Keep timing them until everyone is once again facing their original partner. After the activity, discuss with your class how effective it was. Were your students able to find common interests during their conversations? If possible, invite a native English speaking class to your classroom and repeat the activity with them.
For English speakers, sports is another go to topic for chitchat and small talk. People who choose to talk about sports, though, must have some knowledge of the topic to hold an intelligent conversation. What does your class already know about sports in your area? Can they name the professional teams? Do they know what sports are most popular in your area of the country? Take some time as a class to discuss local sports and regional interests. Is your town a baseball town? A football city? A hockey town? Are the people of your area basketball fans? Is there something else that excites sports fans near you? Once you have all the teams and interests written down, divide your class into groups – one for each sport – to give an informational presentation on the sport and the team. Presentations should include information about the team and the basic rules of the sport. If possible, have groups show a video clip from their sport to give your class a point of reference.
Making small talk in a foreign language can be intimidating, but less so when you have the proper tools for the job.
These activities will give your students the knowledge and experience they need, along with a few handy phrases, to make conversation with anyone off the street. Who knows? They just might find a friend in the bargain!
What activities do you do with your students to practice small talk and chitchat?