One of the factors that indicate success in ESL classrooms is the proficiency of students in oral communication. Whether the ESL class is for basic, intermediate or advanced learners, the ability of students to articulate simple to complex ideas in English can be verified, assessed, and improved using various ESL techniques. Once students become comfortable using the basic approaches of communicating meaning in English, they can start participating in English conversations, whether through orchestrated scenarios or in real life encounters.
In any linguistic context, the process of conversation involves listening, the mental formulation of meaning and speaking. Each participant in a conversation has to perform all three tasks in order to remain an active and relevant player in the encounter. Because these tasks are by no means easy to perform for most non-native speakers, the experience of successfully participating in a complete session provides much pleasure, excitement and satisfaction among ESL/EFL students. Often, there is some sort of eureka moment when an idea expressed in English is correctly apprehended by the student and when a specific idea students are trying to convey in foreign language is articulated correctly and clearly understood by a native English speaker. Likewise, teachers of English as a second or foreign language whose students have developed conversational skills are adequately affirmed in terms of their profession as well as the learning strategies and techniques that they adopt.
Hindrances that prevent full involvement in conversations
Getting learners to develop conversational skills in English is riddled with challenges, however. The fact is, the various forms of oral discourses–light conversation, role-plays, debates, topic discussions and recitations–are seen with dread and apprehension by many students. This results to a considerable timidity or hesitation among students to proactively articulate their thoughts in English. A number of factors have been identified to cause or reinforce learners’ reluctance to speak in English. These include–
1. The topic is irrelevant or totally foreign to the learner.
2. The learner does not have an opinion or anything to articulate about the subject.
3. The learner does not know how to correctly articulate an idea and is fearful of making mistakes and ridiculed by the class or the conversation partner.
4. The learner is intimidated by the higher level of proficiency exhibited by other learners. The possibility of being compared to more articulate learners results to a nagging reluctance to participate even when the learner has valid ideas about the topic.
5. The learner is conscious about and ashamed of the peculiar accent he or she exhibits when speaking in English.
Getting these common hindrances out of the way is the first major step a competent ESL/EFL educator should take. For learners to develop acceptable proficiencies in oral English communication, any roadblock that prevents an active, meaningful participation in oral discourses should be addressed. Here are some logical, common sense approaches in doing so:
1. ESL/EFL educators should be aware of the socio-cultural contexts they are teaching in. Aligning lesson plans that make use of highly relevant and familiar topics (common Thai dish ingredients or street foods, Korean television series, and unique Bornean wildlife, for examples) will help learners to easily form ideas and opinions that they need to express in English.
2. To facilitate a better learning environment, English teachers should make it a point to get to know their students individually as much as possible. In smaller classes, getting to know students’ hobbies or interests may help yield valuable conversation topics. This may not be possible in much bigger classes, however. One way to circumvent cases wherein students are not able to form meaningful ideas or opinions about a topic is to assign them fixed, pre-fabricated roles or opinions. This way, learners can focus on language production skills instead of forming viewpoints or drawing from their own personal experiences.
3. Creating an open, tolerant, and socially constructive classroom is critical in fostering collaborative learning. At the beginning of the course, the ESL/EFL educator should already have established that mistakes will inevitably occur and that there is no reason to be ashamed of them. The teacher may also opt to give due credit to risk takers even when they commit mistakes. This is an opportunity to correct mistakes and encourage other learners to participate.
4. In some learning scenarios, competition is a strong motivation for success. In others, however, collaborative techniques that wholly benefit the group are better utilized.
5. Exhibiting accents is a normal manifestation in second or foreign language articulation. Educators and linguists differ on how they regard this phenomenon, however. On one hand, the spread of English around the world has transformed it into a global language such that no single ethno-linguistic group can now really claim it as its own. The British and the Aussies have their respective accents. Why would accents that indicate a Japanese or Filipino speaker be viewed as incorrect when the meaning conveyed is apprehensible to any English speaker? After all, linguists believe that language is organic and continually evolving, with different groups assimilating a particular language and imbuing it with their own characteristic nuances and accents. On the other hand, there are educators who maintain that encouraging the use of a neutral English accent is the best course to take in the long run, especially in global communication. Because some English variants and pidgin forms are difficult to comprehend quickly, neutral accents are preferable when significantly distinct socio-linguistic groups are communicating in English. Hence, educators should constructively teach the globally acceptable way of speaking in English without marginalizing the specific English variant characteristic of the locale they are teaching in.
Effective aids to English conversations
Speaking and listening exercises are still, by far, the most effective way of improving conversational skills. However, any hindrance that prevents learners from fully participating in these exercises should immediately be addressed by the ESL/EFL teacher as explained previously. Using conversation cue cards that are used in role playing sessions may also help learners become less apprehensive about participating.
Transitional exercises that teach learners on how to listen and speak about relevant everyday encounters should be an integral part of the course on conversational English. Talking about the weather, buying groceries, meeting a new acquaintance, a job interview and offering to rent an apartment are just some of the scenarios wherein potentially useful English conversation exercises may be initiated.
As these scenarios are familiar, students will more likely participate in communicating their thoughts. Once educators have familiarized and made learners comfortable with speaking and listening exercises, the class may proceed to more complex activities. These include formal debates on different relevant topics. When conducting debates, remember that it is more important for students to focus on how to articulate than to concentrate on how they really feel about a subject.
To help learners develop a neutral English accent, teachers should advise them to 1) observe and imitate the mouth movements of competent English speakers; 2) use the dictionary to learn correct pronunciations; 3) listen to audio books in English; 4) read English books or magazines aloud; and 5) record their English conversations and oral readings to identify common mistakes and have these rectified.
Finally, in addition to classroom activities, ESL/EFL teachers may encourage their students to visit online portals that offer live English conversations to second or foreign language learners. Most of these are paid services but other websites do offer free audio records of different situational dialogues. These audio records can be good practice aids to help students improve their English conversational skills.