I recently started teaching a new group. As we’re still at that fun “getting to know you” stage, I decided to bring in some conversation cards to get them talking and find out a bit more about what makes them tick. There’s a question on each card so the students pick one and then try to speak about the topic for as long as they can.
First up, Fritz.
Fritz: Um, my question is “What animals are you afraid of?” I guess I’m afraid of snakes. And sharks.
Ulrich: Yeah, ‘cos there are so many of those in Berlin…
Fritz: And rats. I really hate rats. If I saw a rat, I’d be like a little girl – standing on a chair and screaming.
Franz: Did you know that there are more rats in Berlin than people?
Fritz: (Turns a little pale.)
Franz: Yeah, I think it’s something like three rats to every person.
Hans: Yeah, I read that too.
Me: Heilige Scheiße.
Franz: You don’t really see them though.
Ulrich: Yeah, they’re a bit like cockroaches. For every one that you see, there are like 200 of them hiding close by just waiting to jump out.
Fritz: What’s a cockroach?
Fritz: (Turns paler still.)
Waltraut: My friend has a pet rat. He’s so cute.
Entire class: URGH.
Waltraut: No, really! I stroke him and he nibbles on my fingers…
Me: Right, I think we’ll leave that there. I prefer it when my classes don’t give people nightmares. Gerda, what’s your question?
Gerda: What preparation do you do before you go on a trip?
Me: OK, good. Better.
Gerda: Well, first I make a list of everything that I want to bring on my trip. Then I tick off the things that I already have. If I need something, I either buy it or borrow it from a friend, depending on how expensive it is. Then I buy a guide book. I make a list of all of the things that I would like to see…
Me: That sounds like a very German way to prepare for a trip.
Gerda: I like lists.
To stop myself from wondering if she also laminates the lists, I moved on to the next stage of the lesson – making business small talk – a topic every German student wants to cover. With good reason.
We did a couple of listening exercises of people chatting at corporate events and then I put the students in pairs and asked them to write down two or three compliments they could pay their partner. They scribbled away diligently for around five minutes so I had high hopes for the speaking part of the exercise.
Me: OK, Hans and Ulrich, you’re up.
Hans: I really like working with you. I like the way that you work. I like that you’re always friendly and willing to help other people…
Me: OK, good, but it shouldn’t be just a litany of one-sided compliments. Ulrich?
Ulrich: He’s only been here two weeks. I don’t know him well enough to compliment him.
Me: Erm, he has a nice watch…
Ulrich: I like your watch.
Me: Sigh. Gerda and Fritz – your turn.
Gerda: I would like to give you some compliments. My first compliment is that I like your willpower. My second compliment is that you give good presentations. My third compliment is…
Me: Jesus. Stop. You’re not supposed to just fire a list of compliments at him. When you talk to people in real life, you don’t just read a list at them, do you?
From the confused look she gave me, I suspect that she just might.
Me: It should be a dialogue, like we listened to.
Gerda: But there’s no context.
Me: Make it up! It’s one sentence at the beginning! “Oh, fancy bumping into you at the conference!” “Don’t you love our Christmas parties?” Use your imagination!
Gerda deliberates for a moment or two.
Gerda: I like our Christmas parties. I had fun dancing with you. You’re a very good dancer.
Fritz: Thank you.
Me: You’re supposed to accept the compliment modestly. Anything to say back to her?
Fritz: You are a good dancer too. You’re the second best dancer I danced with tonight.
Me: Oh boy. I think we might need to spend a bit more time on this…