Danny Singh, UK
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Italy and abroad. He also offers stimulating monthly presentations on language related issues at Rome’s biggest international bookshop and is visible on web TV www.inmagicartwebtv.eu with a series of interactive English video lessons. He regularly attends Pilgrims TT summer courses as a Guest Speaker. Website: www.laughnlearn.net
Part 1: Communication let me down - Introduction
Why ask me the question?
I told you so!
Part 2: A lesson in communication - Introduction
Different forms of communication
Communication is an extremely complex subject. As Professor Albert Mehrabian discovered in his research, 55% of face to face communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice and only 7% is words. That makes understanding very difficult, as it is. If we then bring in other factors; that we often say things that we don’t mean, ask questions that we don’t really want the answers to, or interpret things the way we want to understand them, then it becomes even more difficult. I wanted to share a couple of real life examples with you. I was involved in both cases. They may both seem incredible to some of you, but I can assure you, that these kinds of misunderstandings occur between people on a regular day to day basis. These examples might stimulate you to think of some of your own.
Before my website was created, I had to meet and talk to several web designers, get estimates from them and eventually make the important decision of who I was going to ask to create my website.
I usually met them in pubs and coffee bars. In one particular case, we met at a pub. It was 2 June, which is a national holiday, but as both parties, the web designer and myself, regarded this issue as important, we didn’t care if the rest of the city took a day off.
We knew each other, in that she was one of my students, however, we could not be described as friends, hence our relationship was slightly, but not too informal. She looked slightly tense and to break the ice, she posed the following question, “How was your Sunday?” Here is my reply!
Well, it’s funny you should ask. It was amazing! I mean there we were. Six of us! Any one of us could have gone down. At one stage, we were down! Every time a goal was scored, the whole situation changed. You needed a calculator to keep up with it all! It was an incredible ninety minutes of tension and excitement. In the end, after all the final whistles blew, it was poor Betis from Seville who went down! Their fans were crying, you know. So we stayed up! I mean we beat Real Madrid earlier this season, so we didn’t deserve to go down, did we?
You might be surprised to know that my interlocutor looked totally bemused! I imagine that most of you can’t make much sense of my reply. Let me explain! I’ll be brief, I promise!
It was the last day of the Spanish football season and six teams were in danger of being relegated. One of those teams was my favourite team, Getafe, the best team in Madrid! I had just described my emotions and the situation during those ninety minutes.
After the waiter brought a couple of beers, we started talking about the serious stuff; what the website would be able to do and the total cost of the operation. After our interesting discussion, she left and I ordered another beer. While drinking this second pint, my mind wandered back to that ice-breaking moment and I pictured in my mind, that bewildered face sitting in front of me. What was the problem, I thought? She had asked me a question and I had answered it. If she didn’t want the details, she shouldn’t have asked the question.
As I got towards the end of my second pint, the creative side of my brain started working much better and I had a brainwave. She wasn’t interested in my Sunday activities at all. She had just asked the question in order to start the ball rolling. She didn’t care whether or not I had watched Spanish football, much less did she care if either Getafe or Betis were relegated and the horrific consequences.
We were just coming towards the end of a lesson and I could see that one of the students was bursting to ask me a question. This was one of those students who couldn’t stop talking. He talked so much, that many of the other participants assumed he spoke English well. However, trying to make head or tail of what he was saying, was not always an easy task. He usually spoke in circles, beginning a sentence and by the time he had got to the end, you weren’t quite sure what he was asking. Let’s call him Paolo for the purposes of anonymity.
Anyway, the conversation was as follows:
Paolo: So, what do British people think about the Royal Family? I think they don’t like them very much, isn’t that true?
Danny: Well, not exactly! I’d say that a good half of the population respect what they do for the country. Lady Diana was greatly loved by a large proportion of the country. The Queen Mother was highly respected for her lovely smile, in addition to her courage and loyalty to the people during the Second World War. Prince William is also much liked!
Paolo: Yes, but the people don’t generally like them!
Danny: Well, obviously there are some who don’t like them and think they are a waste of money and resources and that the idea of a monarchy is an outdated and archaic system.
Paolo: There you see, exactly as I said. The British people don’t like the Royal Family.
Danny: Yes, but that’s just a certain percentage. Even the Queen is respected, despite her dress sense. My mother met the Queen and found that she was much warmer in reality, than she appears in her official role.
Paolo: OK, so I am right, you agree with me. The British don’t like the Royal Family.
At this point, I realised that continuing the conversation was pointless, it was 10.30pm, I was tired, other students were waiting to walk with me to the metro, so I said my goodbyes and left Paolo with his deep sense of satisfaction.
The two conversations have been quoted more or less word for word as they occurred at the time.
In the first example, it brings up the fact that we often ask questions that we don’t really want answered. A typical everyday one is, How are you? While your closest friends and family will probably be interested in how you’re feeling and in any serious illnesses or emotional worries that you might have, the average person in the street will not. The serious problem in communicating is working out when it’s the former situation and when the latter.
In the second example, although the person in question is the one I always think of, he is not by any means, the only person who communicates in this way. There have been times when couples break up and one partner appears totally shocked, even though the signs were clearly visible, but one partner refuses to see them, having been totally convinced of his/her opinion that everything in the relationship is going well.
Despite the fact that Paolo is an extreme case, I would say that most of us at some point misread or misunderstand a situation, as we are focused on our own opinion, and in that moment, not open to other sources of input and information.
People saying things that they don’t mean also makes understanding more difficult. One that irritates me and is very southern Italian, is the person who insists on calling his/her partner “amore” (love) in continuation! That’s very romantic you might say, however, in several cases that I know of, it has all finished in acrimonious divorce proceedings, three months later. Well, that’s amore!
Not too long ago, I was offered the chance to work at one of Italy’s biggest and most important financial companies, which I shall leave unnamed for obvious reasons. This work was intended to be slightly different from the usual teaching courses, in that instead of a typical 50/60/90 hour course, I was asked to give a one-day workshop. The work had been given to me by a private language school, which asked me to do one topic in the morning and another in the afternoon. The school did in fact give me a list of options to choose from. However, as none were entirely to my liking, I asked the school if I could use one of my own options. They happily agreed, knowing that I was a minefield of ideas. The level of the students was high intermediate and I was told that they needed a mixture of conversation, grammar, vocabulary and all the usual linguistic functions.
Taking into account that the students were aged 30-50 and from all over Italy, I chose my two subjects accordingly. The choice I made for the morning was Communication.
As the work had come through a language school with a very lucrative contract, not that I was receiving much of it (he added), I had certain limits as to what I could do. Those of you who work in state schools are well used to working within limits and to tight programme schedules.
Although I couldn’t spend the whole day doing lots of “laughnlearn” activities, I allowed my students the pleasure of some humorous ice breakers and a few NLP multi-sensorial exercises in the afternoon to stimulate the mind.
After putting the students into groups, I got them to brainstorm a list of as many different forms of communication as they could think of. Surprisingly, they came up with an enormous list, which included the following; body language, intonation, facial gestures, eye movements, words, sounds, tattoos, smiling, laughing, touching, dreaming, music, dance, literature, clothes, written, social networking, Braille, sign language, telepathy, drumming, car signals, road signals and silence.
There were some interesting ones which I hadn’t even thought of myself. Clothes of course, links to the way we dress, which is making a statement about yourself to others. Dreaming was described by one student as his favourite form of communication, as he could communicate with himself, avoiding interference from others. Silence in my opinion, is the most powerful form of communication. No doubt if you try this with your students, you may well discover other forms of communication to add to the already extensive list!
Once they appreciated the fact that communication comes in many forms and was not simply a case of two people talking to each other, as some students unfortunately still believe, I moved on to the next stage.
I asked them to create dialogues based on four very different situations. The situations were as follows:
- You’re in front of an informal coffee bar in the UK. You want to buy a coffee. Create a short and simple dialogue, using the language you need to communicate effectively in this situation.
- You’re on the underground in Rome. You see a foreigner who probably doesn’t speak either English or Italian. You observe that he needs to get off the train at the next stop and that the hotel is just in front of the station. How do you communicate that he needs to get off at the next stop and that his hotel is in front of the station?
- A lady from the upper echelons of society is coming to your house for tea (Don’t ask me why)! She asks for Earl Grey, which unfortunately you don’t have. You need to tell her which teas you do have.
- You need to phone a UK bank and speak to the Manager regarding a very delicate issue. Create the telephone dialogue.
After they had created their dialogues, I asked them to perform each one to the rest of the group.
I made careful notes and then we had a feedback session.
Their performances were of course, great fun!
In the first dialogue, I had deliberately used the word informal, yet a few students still insisted on using formal language, which is the language that comes easier to them. The point here was to understand that in this kind of situation, after all the question forms that you study, I want, I’d like, Can I have?, Could I have?, May I have?, Shall I have?, Let’s have!, Give me! Do you have?, etc, the most common form of communication is direct and involves few question words or prepositions.
Coffee? Yes please! Black or White? White please! Sugar? No thanks! This would be a typical dialogue heard at an informal coffee bar in the UK. If you start forming longwinded questions with endless modal verbs, don’t be surprised if the cashier seems irritated!
The second dialogue was the most interesting to me, as there were few, if any words. The idea here is that you can communicate very effectively without words, if you really want to communicate. Italians especially in the south of Italy wave their hands and arms around a lot when talking normally in Italian, even when talking alone or on a mobile phone, so it was great seeing how the students dealt with this problem of no words. Facial gestures, hand and arm signals, eye movements are most prevalent and if the worst comes to the worst, get out at the next stop and accompany the tourist to the hotel. He’ll be very appreciative and you’ll feel good for helping him, unless you’re already late for an important meeting or appointment.
The third dialogue was the one that students enjoyed the most, as it gave them the chance to use a lot of the formal language that they knew, but rarely have the chance to use, in an exaggerated way. The language here, compared to the first dialogue, changes completely. Remembering the importance of the lady and her status, you must appear apologetic for not having her favourite brand of tea in your home.
I’m sorry, is not good enough. You must be terribly sorry, or awfully sorry, if you want to win her approval. Another important point is the use of the word “do” for emphasis. Do please sit down, rather than simply, please sit down! Do help yourself to more cake! These are expressions which were used far more frequently in the bygone days of Jane Austen and company and can be found in some of the great English literary texts, while, nowadays it is almost a dying language.
Don’t underestimate this lovely form of the English language however! You never know when it could come in useful. At the weekly classical music concerts that I attend in Rome, there is a small group of English ladies who I often meet while there. They started subscribing to these concerts in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when they were young women and their English is the same English they spoke when they left the UK all those years ago. I really have to be on my toes when I’m talking to them, so as not to make a bad impression, but it is such a pleasure to listen to an English that is rare to hear even in the UK itself.
The fourth dialogue was the easiest for them, as it involved the kind of business, economic language that they used in everyday work situations. Telephone English stands out as being extremely indirect compared to a face to face conversation. You wouldn’t say, Are you John? You would say, Is that John? Hello, it’s David! This form is used irrespective of whether or not the call is formal, informal, business or otherwise. In a business call, it is important to identify who you represent. This is Francesco from Apple and I’d like to speak to Antonio from Blackberry. The secretary might respond, I’m afraid he’s in a meeting with Paolo from Orange. That way, we get through some good healthy fruit vocabulary!
After this detailed feedback, the students had a much greater awareness of how much language can change according to a situation. To finish off the subject of communication, I gave them one of my articles to read on the subject, The Language of Communication .
The length of this lesson can vary according to your students and in which direction you wish to take them. However, it took me more or less three hours, including a couple of warm-up exercises and a short coffee break, particularly useful for emphasising that the language used in that context is predominantly, direct and informal, with little time for too many pleasantries.
If as teachers, you wish to use this lesson with your class, remember to adapt it to your own situation, bearing in mind where you are located and the kind of students you have in front of you. The situational dialogues can obviously be changed, but must be different enough to create diverse language patterns and needs.
Please check the English for Teachers course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Creative Communication Skills for Teachers and Teacher Trainers course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary Teachers course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.