Our two clients were a married couple preparing to visit their daughter in the U.S. for her graduation from university. The daughter’s level in English was high, which made living and studying in the States very easy, but her parents had never had any formal studies in English, and both were concerned this lack of skill could make their trip difficult.
Our students needed only to focus on simple tasks and general situations. We took each part of their life in Latvia (work, family, home, hobbies) and simplified it into descriptions they could remember and repeat with ease:
“I am an accountant. I work at XYZ (company). I have worked there FOR 8 years”
“I am a sales manager. My company sells XYZ. I have worked there FOR 13 years”
“This is our daughter Anna”
“We have a younger son as well, Eriks”
“Our family is from Liepaja, originally.”
“Our family is from Liepaja originally, but we live in Riga”
“Riga is the capital of Latvia”
“We have an apartment in the Centre”
“I like to swim and run”
“We enjoy skiing in winter and swimming in Summer”
“We love to travel”
We gave them many simple phrases they could practice about themselves, and explained the grammar so that they could add more if desired.
The biggest issue we faced, and the area with which they were the most concerned, was “small talk”. They weren’t sure how to start, carry, or end a conversation after explaining the basics of their lives to the people they were sure to meet: Anna’s friends and their parents, Anna’s teachers and professors, as well as her American boyfriend who spoke almost no Latvian at all.
Small talk can be challenging for people, but the key, especially in English, is to control the conversation by asking questions. We reviewed question formation, and how to make these questions specific, without being too personal. First, the structure:
|Qualitative||(more information)||Question Tense (past / present / future)||Subject||Subject verb|
| kind of…
| do / does / did
is / was
are / were
will / would
can / could
have / had
|(what the subject does / is / is doing)|
Simple questions can be answered with a “yes” or “no” by starting with the “Question Tense” column:
“Are you from around here?”
“Is this your son / daughter?”
“Are you enjoying the ceremony?”
“Do you know where the bathroom is?”
“Do you know our daughter Anna?”
Forming qualitative questions gives the person you are speaking to the chance to tell you about themselves by answering more than “yes” or “no”
“Where are you from?”
“What do you do?”
“What is your son / daughter studying?”
“How do you know Anna?”
Balancing these forms by using one, then the other, and allowing the other person to speak is all we need to carry the conversation and get through a case of “small talk”.
A small note: One of the first things these clients did was ask us how to great someone. They found it so strange that Americans always ask, “How are you?”. They wanted to know how to answer this. This is easier than you might think.
In English, simply saying, “Hi”, can seem cold, as though you don’t really want to speak to the other person. This is why we commonly ask this with the question: “How are you?” In general, the rule is that if they are spoken together, then they mean the same as the simple greeting:
Hi = Hi, how are you?
You can answer this question, or just reply to the greeting:
Hi, how are you?
I’m fine / I’m okay / I’m alright / I’m good / I’m great.
We should absolutely answer this question fully (as above) if our name is used, or if we are addressed personally in anyway:
Hi, you must be Anna’s parents, how are you today? = HI, HOW ARE YOU? (I really want to know)
Hi, Anna’s mom, how are you?” = HI, HOW ARE YOU? (I really want to know)
In the end, our students reached a level of comfort with English, and with conversation in English, that allowed them to focus on what was truly important for their trip: their daughter, and her tremendous achievements.