How Can Foreign Language Skills Can Add Up to Access?


This week students in my Spanish for the Professions course will practice taking phone messages.

This sounds like a simple task, but there are many layers to it:

1- On the most basic level, this is practice in the building blocks of language–the alphabet and the digits 0-9. In our first language, we become fluent in these building blocks through repetition in the pre-school years–singing ABC songs and counting objects.  For adult second language learners, those activities are not appropriate so we too often skip over the building blocks of language altogether.  You’ll notice this when you ask intermediate or advanced students to spell their own names in the target language.  

I train my students to practice spelling and giving numbers one at a time while taking and leaving phone messages.  They cannot use global requests for repetition and instead have to use strategies like asking how to spell something, asking a caller to give a phone number one digit at a time, and repeating things back to callers.  That’s all I’d ask of first-year students when taking a message.

2- Intermediate students have to take a basic message in addition to getting perfectly spelled names and accurate phone numbers & emails.  Taking a basic message actually involves significant higher order thinking skills.  When leaving a message, most people provide much more information than necessary.  The task of the person taking the message is to analyze the content and synthesize the most important details to document before passing it on to the recipient.  

As we make the case for the struggling humanities disciplines, using critical thinking skills to take a message provides a concrete example of how our students can apply the skills they acquire in our courses to the working world.

3- The ability to leave and take accurate messages is about access. While it may seem trivial, this is an essential gatekeeping skill that every professional should master.  Where there is a language barrier, the ability to communicate your linguistic level, take control of a conversation in order to get or leave a message, and then ensure that messages gets passed on to a more fluent speaker who can call back is the difference between access to an organization and passive denial of access to the same organization.

4- Though a gatekeeping skill, this is something VIPs have to do all the time. Surgeons have to call their patients on the phone to let them know the results of biopsies. Can you imagine a higher stakes phone call? CEOs have to close deals over the telephone. Attorneys have to communicate with clients and opposing counsel.  

The ability to give and take phone messages is not just an entry-level task. It is an important skill to develop in both L1 and L2 contexts.

2009 Head ShotDarcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. She is the author of the forthcoming volume from Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.” To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy:
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2 Responses to How Can Foreign Language Skills Can Add Up to Access?

  1. Pingback: Can Your Language Students Take an Accurate Message? | darcylear

  2. Pingback: Is There Room for Languages for Specific Purposes in the Humanities? | darcylear

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