Today’s post is about getting started with taking phone messages in a foreign or second language.
In an introductory language course, students can get practice with the building blocks of language (the alphabet and numbers) while also developing some fundamental communicative strategies.
The alphabet and numbers often get short shrift in language courses. And the typical L1 activities to build fluency in letters and numbers are designed for pre-schoolers–cute songs and basic counting games. However, adult L2 learners can deploy similar repetitive practice in introductory language courses by asking, “how do you spell that?” regularly (when studying new vocabulary, talking to new people whose names they don’t know, etc.) and by regularly taking phone messages.
At the end of each week or at the end of each unit of study, I read a simple phone message to students. In first-year classes, they just have to get an accurate name and phone number so that a more fluent speaker can call back. In second-year courses, students can take simple messages.
The key strategies students need to effectively take a basic message include being able to take control of the conversation and ask for information “one letter at a time” or “one digit at a time,” repeating the information back and asking if it’s correct, and know how to say, “someone will return your call.”
Eventually, small groups of students can work together with one leaving the message and the others taking the message.
With all of that in place, here is what first- and second-year students struggle with: the alphabet.
Even as students develop fluency in speaking, reading, writing, and communication strategies, they don’t get much repetitive practice with the alphabet like they did when acquiring their L1s. Despite regular practice with strategically taking phone messages, Spanish students a few weeks into a first-year course write “h” when the letter “g” is said (the letter “g” in Spanish pronounced like English “hay”). Students have to train themselves to mentally compare the Spanish pronunciation of “g” to the Spanish pronunciation of “h” (“hache”), which they don’t tend mistake for a different letter. Or they must develop the strategy of repeating it back to the person so that when they say, “hache,” the speaker will correct them. Similarly, vowels bewitch learners of Spanish because the Spanish “e” and “i” sound exactly like English “a” and “e”–so chaos can ensue when conducting a simple exchange along the lines of “how do you spell that?”
This is a testament to the need for a lot of opportunities to practice spelling in the target language. All the strategies in the world ultimately won’t overcome a lack of knowledge of the basic building blocks of a language. Additionally, students should develop mechanisms to check themselves, such as jotting down all the vowels: a-e-i-o-u and saying them to themselves to review which is which (in the case of Spanish).
Teachers too often skip over the most basic information–like letters and numbers–which is a lost opportunity to both build a foundation in the target language and frame the experience within a professional development context.
Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in job search documents, interview preparation, and academic documents. She is the author of the forthcoming volume from Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.” For help customizing your job application documents andnavigating your career transition, contact Darcy: email@example.com