This list was suggested to me by Hall Houston, a colleague based in Hong Kong. I think it’s an excellent idea for a list, and having worked on three big book projects for beginner learners (as well as teaching beginners for years) I have some ideas. Of course, these phrases will depend in part on the context and needs of the students as always. Also, I have restricted myself to six which meant hard choices had to be made. Finally, I am assuming that some basic single words will be known (e.g. numbers 1 to 10, hello, goodbye etc). I’ve stuck therefore to basic, essential phrases – the ones students should learn and use from almost the beginning.
1. Nice to meet you /How are you? Two basic “meeting people” phrases, one for people you meet the first time and one for people you know. Good to get the students using this to greet each other and the teacher. They’ll need a response for the latter one too – see 4 below.
2. Sorry, I don’t understand. I only speak a little English. Essential survival English for when they are dealing with someone else who has a higher level of English than they do. This is one of the first things I want to know in a foreign language when I am travelling.
3. Excuse me. Very useful bit of English to get someone’s attention, to get past someone, to apologise…
4. Fine thanks. Great reply phrase. Can be used to answer “How are you”, “How was your weekend” “How’s your family”. Put “I’m” in front of this phrase and you have enough English to brush off annoying salespeople too.
5. Yes please. No thank you. There’s a reason parents call these “the magic words”. Please and thank you are pretty darn common in English and it never hurts to add them. Beginner students often run the risk of sounding “rude” or “sullen” when they are asking for things or responding to offers. So these phrases are very helpful “English for guests”.
6. I don’t know. Apart from the fact that I read that this is the most common three word phrase in English, it has other uses than just admitting ignorance. Very useful to buy time while thinking of an answer (“hmmm… I don’t know…. maybe the chicken?”) or for closing off a conversation. Also, let’s face it, beginner English students will probably be using this one quite a bit in class. And it doesn’t hurt them to hear their teacher say it from time to time either!
I realise that there are probably some omissions from my list, so I throw it open to you. What other phrases would you say beginners need?