Big Ideas about Small Talk: Teaching Introductory World Languages with an Evolutionary Understanding

Matthew Kelly, Spanish, Independence High School

Final Unit(pdf)   Implementing Teaching Standards(pdf)


Most human speech is small talk. Humans spend the first several years of their lives developing a working proficiency in their native language, and in developed societies undergo years of additional formal instruction in the socially appropriate use of their home language. However, most spoken communication (and, in an increasingly technological world, a large amount of written communication) serves no discernible utilitarian purpose. Most talk is small talk. This is not an accident. Language evolved, first and foremost, to foster human social bonds and delineate social hierarchies. There is nothing small at all about “small talk”: it is the primary reason we speak at all. Effective second language instruction at the high school level will make explicit the importance of everyday informal interaction, apart from utilitarian function, and will create opportunities for students to practice small talk in scenarios, whether real or simulated, that are as naturalistic as possible. Second language instruction that takes into account the origins and purpose of human language will sustain the growing importance of language instruction in the face of technological developments that would, on the surface, seem to erode the relevance of language learning for the typical student.