TEACHING TELEPHONING: Getting Through

 

I am a native English teacher living in France. I teach English to working adults. Sometimes I have to call them on the telephone at their workplaces to arrange or change appointments for classes. I have a good level of French but that doesn't stop me from feeling anxious whenever I have to make a phone call. Most people, I would say, however proficient they may be in a second language, feel pre-call tension or anxiety. There may be different reasons for this. A learner's lack of confidence in his or her language ability may be a major affective cause of stress or anxiety but not necessarily the only one. This article will focus on one other cause that I have identified through my own experience. There may be other causes and the subject should, on the whole, prove an interesting one for further investigation.

Focusing on my own experience, one of the things that makes telephoning sometimes unnerving for me is the getting through stage. Even a simple call to someone I know can create tension, but that tension soon disappears as soon as I have the person I want to speak to on the other end of the line. I believe that my anxiety is caused by the unpredictability of the getting through stage. Even though I know that I may be put through to the wrong person and that I know I could probably handle the situation if it arose, it's always off-putting when it happens. Mobile phones (if you're privileged to have the number) have made contacting people easier, but a lot of companies and institutions still require you to go through the switchboard to contact individual employees. Even direct lines are not exempt from surprises; calls can be transferred automatically if they are not answered within a certain time limit or simply answered by somebody else. When you pick up the phone to call somebody, you never know who will answer. At best the person you want to speak to will answer the phone and begin by stating his or her name; at worst the getting through stage will be a minefield of false starts, misunderstandings and other communication problems.

Learners who are at intermediate level and above should be able to handle all kinds of situations on the telephone but the lower-level learners, who rely on a list of phrases they have learnt and practised in the classroom, may find themselves quickly out of depth. The danger is that awkward situations on the telephone can easily undermine their confidence, which, when it comes to using the telephone, may already be only too fragile.

Despite this, I don't feel that the subject is given enough attention or dealt with convincingly in language materials today. Learners practise telephone situations with wrong numbers, absent or occupied people and busy lines but usually practised separately in highly controlled activities and under conditions which hardly reflect the reality. The role plays seem to lack that vital ingredient which makes getting through what it is - the unexpected, the occurring of any one of a number of possible situations without warning which oblige us to draw on all our linguistic resources and react quickly and decisively. With a little more imagination, we can develop activities which make telephoning in the classroom more challenging and realistic.

Traditionally a telephone role play involves two students, but usually more than two people are involved in the getting through stage of a telephone call. This would imply that a telephone role play to practise the getting through stage should be a group role play. However, a telephone role play designed for a group immediately demands caution. Telephone role plays are usually carried out by giving the learners explicit instructions. A group role play may, in practice, turn out to be too complicated. For an activity to be feasible and at the same time realistic, it would need to develop naturally, allowing the learners to focus on their message and not having their mental resources taxed by a series of complicated instructions.

In the next section I would like to explain to you the rationale for a group activity I have developed for use in the classroom which attempts to adhere to the principles mentioned above. It is an activity for a group of four learners. One will be the caller. The other three will play the role of employees in the company. One will be the switchboard and the other two employees in particular departments to whom we shall give names. One shall be Miss Johnson and the other Mr Roberts. The caller sits with his or her back to the others. The three employees sit in a circle facing each other. It is important that they see each other because of the way the role play will be carried out. The caller will begin and ask to speak to Miss Johnson or Mr Roberts. The switchboard will take the call and put the caller through. However, regardless of what the switchboard says, the call will go to the person that the switchboard points to. This means that the switchboard may say that the caller is being put through to Miss Johnson but if the switchboard points to Mr Roberts then it is, in fact, Mr Roberts who receives the call. The learners in the group (apart from the caller) will see what is happening, as it is happening, and should understand the situation quite readily. Alternatively, the switchboard may simply say that the line is busy. The caller will then have to decide whether to ring back or ask to speak to somebody else. If the call goes through to Mr Roberts by mistake then he can either put the caller through to Miss Johnson himself or reconnect the caller with the switchboard, not forgetting to point to the person that he wants the call to go to. The switchboard will not always make the mistake of putting the caller through to the wrong person but it's a possibility and it allows for otherwise complicated situations to develop naturally. The learners receive no prior instructions as to how they must deal with the calls. They decide for themselves but for this activity to work and to be beneficial to the learners, they must be aware of the options available to them in their roles and of the language required to deal with these options. I have included a short list of expressions at the end that, among others, I think the learners should be familiar with to carry out this type of activity successfully.

You may also find that this activity is not sufficient in itself. It may be useful to combine this activity with another telephone activity so that the caller has a purpose other than just getting through. For example, Miss Johnson or Mr Roberts could work in the sales department and the caller could call for any number of reasons relating to sales matters for example requesting a catalogue, asking for a quotation etc. The call would then involve an exchange of information or a dictation in the form of taking down an address or order. In another variation, the caller would be required to ask for someone who is not present among the employees. One of the employees (specified in advance, maybe a secretary or personal assistant) would then have to take a message. The individual activities should not be too long to allow the learners to rotate through the different roles.

This activity presents, in my opinion, clear advantages over the traditional role in giving the learners realistic practice in the getting through stage of a telephone call. However, there may be certain disadvantages too. It will certainly take more time to set up and explain. It may, in practice, not appeal to all learners and it may prove to be chaotic to organise for large classes. In principle however, once the learners are familiar with how the activity works, they should be able to work it through for themselves without teacher supervision. As for the advantages it offers the learners in terms of real life practice, I'm convinced that the learners become better prepared for the getting through stage of making a call. They are able to anticipate problems and therefore deal with them better. Furthermore, just as in real life, the caller is never sure that the person he wants to speak to will be the one who answers the phone. They appreciate the need to check who is on the end of the line before launching themselves into stating the purpose of their call. They use the expression "Is that (Mr Roberts) ?" more readily, which is something that I have rarely seen practised in telephone role plays, and which I believe is a very common expression and certainly a useful one to know. I certainly use it a lot.

CALLER

I'd like to speak to ( )

Is that ( )?

This is ( )

I'm sorry, I think there's been a mistake

I did ask to speak to ( )

I wanted to speak to ( ) and I was connected with someone else by mistake

I'll call back later

SWITCHBOARD

One moment, I'll connect you/ put you through

The line's busy. Will you hold?

I'm afraid there's no answer

RECEIVER

Who's calling please?

Speaking

I'm sorry, you were put through to me by mistake

I'll reconnect you with the switchboard

I'll put you through