Please hold...The Telephone is a modern conversational tool that offers vast opportunities but also presents formidable challenges to the language learner. Not only are limitations imposed by great distances overcome but time also takes on a different meaning. One can speak in a conversational tone to another person thousands of miles away in a different time zone (on a different day?) and be understood immediately. Questions can be answered and agreements reached instantly. This two-way communication has only been possible for less than a century. The sophistication of the modern global economy relies not only on an instantaneous mode of communication but on a uniform language. That language is English.

The recent proliferation of the cellular telephone has only increased the importance of the telephone as a communicative tool. Having immediate personal access to another person is much more likely if that person carries a cell phone.

Telephone callers in immediate crisis rely on emergency responders trained to understand and direct urgent incoming calls quickly. Those emergency management personnel have multi-lingual skills and can take appropriate action to answer distress calls. It is not the purpose of this website to address life-and-death situations.

In business, often the first person with whom a potential English-speaking client makes contact is the person who answers the initial telephone inquiry. The telephone operator or receptionist is able to answer questions or connect the English speaker to the appropriate person. An English-proficient operator is also able to put the caller at ease and display a communicative competence that reflects the company's ability to serve the English speaker's needs. First impressions are very important and in the event that the first call is unsuccessful, the likelihood of a second call being made to the same number is much greater if the caller expects to be understood. Even if the telephone operator isn't fluent in English, an effective attempt to communicate in English can establish a bond that may encourage a second call. There is always the potential for personal feelings to be expressed on the telephone that could never occur with written text.

Speaking Skills vs. Reading Skills

One of the most difficult tasks for a language learner to accomplish is to understand what is said as opposed to what has been written. Each speaker has a unique way of talking. Accents, volume and speed all affect the speaker's clarity. Colloquialisms also influence comprehension. In order to communicate meaningfully, the language learner must adapt to each speaker's manner of speech. Conversations have a sense of immediacy that is not present in written communication. In addition to the listener understanding what is being said as it is spoken, that information must be processed and an appropriate response uttered at once.

There is an added dimension of difficulty when one is speaking on the telephone. During the phone conversation neither party can see the other's facial expressions or body movements. Non-verbal cues are not visible and the interlocutors must rely on each other's voices to carry the message. This near-total reliance on the speech act increases its importance in telephone communications. It is worth noting that it is possible today to communicate orally with an added video component. This technology is becoming more widely used everyday. Even though we still rely on verbal skills for most long-distance telephone communications, rapid advances in technology mean that we may all soon be seeing as well as speaking to, the other party. For more on the listening skill, click here.

The purpose of the business telephone call is an important aspect of the conversation. The ease with which phone conversations can be held today makes it possible to have frequent casual conversations by phone. Rarely however, do business telephone calls consist of idle chit chat. There is a purpose for the business call and the effectiveness and efficiency of both parties to the call are measured by how well that purpose is communicated.

Beyond requiring listening competence, an effective telephone conversationalist must display a competence in dealing with:

Role-playing is a necessary approach to introducing language learners to the unique demands of telephone use in a TEFL environment. While role-playing is in many ways an inferior pedagogy to authentic telephone conversations, its use in a TEFL classroom can be a springboard to further, more sophisticated telephone conversations.

In addition to in-class role playing, there are opportunities for the instructor to incorporate real-life practice into the instruction. These opportunities include making use of toll-free automated calling systems used by airline companies, travel agencies and hotels around the world. These systems commonly use English and are ways for the language learner to hone his or her listening skills. It is not the intention of this website to encourage frivolous use of the telephone or tying up valuable phone lines and personnel with English language practice. Listening to recorded messages and working with their prompts are integral to becoming familiar with telephone practices though and do not require human interaction.

Being able to listen and respond competently on the telephone is a language skill that requires special attention and for some reason is often neglected.

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Last Updated: November 10, 2016