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Telephone English

We were recently practicing telephone English in a class at ACE. It’s funny because a lot of teachers
and probably students sometimes say “Oh, do we really need to study telephone English?” and “These
days we don’t use the phone for calling so much so is it really necessary?” Probably there is some
truth in both of those comments but I am a bit old fashioned about it and it still remains one of my
favourite lessons. I guess having worked in an airline call centre back in Australia we were strictly
drilled on how to deal with customers over the phone so I am trying to pass those things on to English
learners here. Also, as a foreigner living in a country where English is not the main language I can’t
count how many times I have had to use the phone in Japanese for various services and getting things
done. Even when I went back to Australia recently, I noticed that the telephone was still important for
getting things done quickly. Sure, you can text or email a restaurant for reservations but they’ll take
much longer to get back to you than if you call them directly. Speaking to someone over the phone still
remains the most efficient way. Another example was when my mother misplaced her bank card. By making
a phone call I was able to put a stop on the card relatively quickly and make an appointment for her to get
a new card. Although it takes some time to get through to an actual human, once you do, it is very useful
and reassuring. Those things can be done without speaking to someone of course but often you feel more
secure with an actual human. Call centres are clearly making use of technology such as automated
telephone banking
and automated guidance over the phone so they can free up their staff for more
profitable interactions with customers. Fair enough, and if that saves us time too, I am all for it.

Anyway, during the telephone lesson I was teaching recently, one of the tasks was to talk about your
experience talking on the phone in general. One particular student’s experience stood out. It was back
in 2001. September 11th. Actually on the day of that world changing incident. A student’s father was
travelling to New York on that very day and was up in the air still, approaching New York, when the attacks
began. Meanwhile, back in Japan, the student (who was just a little boy back then) and his mother saw the
news and tried frantically to get in touch with the father over the phone. Of course, all the lines were
after that fateful event and they were not able to get through to him or anyone. In fact, the lines
were so busy that they were not able to know of his safety or whereabouts for well over a month. Even
email was not working at that time. Eventually, someone contacted them from the American side and
gave them vital information about the father. Frustratingly, neither the mother nor the little boy could
understand English well enough to be able to know what was going on. The boys school English teacher
was able to help out and after much angst they were relieved to hear that everything was alright and
that the father would be able to get in touch with them soon enough. I found it a nice story. The little
boy, who with his mother, couldn’t find out about Dad in New York, but now, who was doing well with
using English on the phone and somehow making up for that feeling of helplessness back in 2001.

How about you? Do you think calling on the telephone is becoming extinct?

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