Awkward Silences, Embarrassing Moments

I have some really interesting, tender and sad stories in one of my classes at the moment. I can’t share them, obviously, but it does make for some uncomfortable moments, even when talking about something which for many people might be seen as pretty average – talking about family, in this case, proved to be something of a touchy subject.

Now, I’m all up for a touchy subject, when it is something big and juicy and fairly abstract – politics, religion, drugs, sexuality, all those things are fair game to my mind. But big and abstract is one thing, but when it is personal and individual, that changes everything, and it occurred to me that in all my teaching career I have never, not once, taught learners how to avoid communication.

We’ve all been there – those awkward moments when you’ve asked the wrong question to the wrong person and at best there is silence and discomfort, and at worst anger and tears. They happen a lot, sadly.

The aim of the lesson was to ask and answer questions using wh- words (in an Entry 1 / Entry 2 group – so focussing on present simple forms), and I wrote answers to personal questions about my life on post-it notes. For each one I then elicited the relevant question from the students, before then handing each pair another post-it with a different answer on for which they had to write questions. They then passed these to the next pair who error corrected or added their own idea for a question, and passed it round and round and round until it got back to the original pair. A brief class discussion followed, and a little feedback and clarification on some common issues in the questions that had been written.

So far so good. I tend to plunder my personal life quite mercilessly for stories and resources. I think it makes learners’ feel welcome in the class, and opens up an environment where learners feel comfortable sharing their stories in class.

Except that bit is where it got tricky. I got the students to stand up and start to ask some of the questions to each other in a mingle task, and as I was monitoring I noticed a number of awkward and uncomfortable silences in the learners’ interactions. Communication was breaking down not because the learners were linguistically unable to participate, but because they were emotionally unwilling to participate. What were, for me, fairly innocuous questions became questions on matters of deep personal pain and discomfort.

Time to stop.

So we stopped. I elicited some awkward conversations and discussions, and we talked briefly about “safe” topics like the weather. Then I wrote the following on the board.

“I’m sorry, I don’t really want to talk about that.”

I avoided the more natural “I’d rather not talk about that because of the level of the learners. I drilled it, checked the meaning, and then set the learners back on the main task again.

What was really interesting is that once the learners had been exposed to this, treated very much as a lexical chunk, rather than a grammatical structure, two things happened. They started to use it, which was great, but they also then started to move the conversations onto a more comfortable and safer subject. Instead of conversations drying up as they had been, the conversations expanded and the learners started to become more creative with the questions they were asking.

***

It is funny that these little diversionary tactics rarely surface in a language class. Perhaps it’s because we are sensitive to our students’ personal situations, and because of the communicative nature of language teaching, we want to make communication happen in as safe and as comfortable a situation as we can. Either way, being able to divert or close down discussion has the potential to open up a whole world of possibilities for class discussion, because I know the learners now have the means to close it down. It’s only a little phrase, but it might save a learner from some awkward and embarrassing moments in the outside world, and that is no bad thing at all.

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