Language skills learned at table can take you far

By Chris Northover

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Much approval ensued from my column where I criticised watching TV, playing, and doing everything else but talking while eating dinner - instead of sitting up at the table and conversing with each other.

Let's face it, men are not the best at conversation. Even the name of this column is an ironically intended dig at the reputation of we men who so often talk in grunts.

In the column, I praised the language skills of days gone by. Those sparkling conversations and delightful turns of phrase that are no longer heard. We love having people around our table talking about whatever takes their fancy, and making us laugh.

But it is not only men - women, too, have lost something in their speech. However, women seem to have better conversation skills - possibly honed by the need to eviscerate other little girls in the school yard, or developed to protect themselves from said evisceration. I am not holding myself out as an acme of sparkling conversation - my own level is about as dull as dishwater.

I don't "do" small talk - I just can't.

Ask me a technical question about alternative energy or Middle East politics and you might just stay awake until I have finished answering. But in a room full of strangers ... well, that is difficult for me.

I have interviewed many job applicants in my career, and it is not hard to tell which ones have got the language skills necessary for the professional world. And it is not always those from wealthy families who make it.

A qualified young person who can look you in the eye and confidently put their case using good language skills will get my vote every time.

But help is at hand. Self-help.

When I met my beloved wife, I was living with my two sons in a little old house on a hill ... piles of washed and dried clothes dumped on the couch waiting to be folded and sorted, and eating our evening meal off trays in our "snug", because it was warmer than the rest of the house, and the TV was there. As the days warmed up towards summer, we began to eat around the table once a week - and actually talk to each other. This increased to two, three or four evenings until, by popular demand, it became every night.

At that time, my wife was a professional language teacher, so my sons painlessly learned to hold a real conversation.

How to segue from "boring" adult topics to one that was of more interest to a teenage mind? Certainly progress started with gambits such as "Princess Diana is pregnant ... that reminds me - Richard Hadlee has injured his shoulder and might not be able to play in the test against the Windies" (which wouldn't have gotten far as a conversation in any case as the poor boy had the misfortune to be born into a "sports-free zone").

But after a month or so, real conversations grew up around the table, smoothly, often humorously, transitioning from one subject to another. Real skills developed - it takes talent to segue the conversation smoothly from fishing quotas to the All Whites in three moves.

My sports freak achieved his doctorate last month and I would like to think that some good learning was achieved around our dinner table.

So I challenge you to give your family some language skills around your table. Skills that will give them huge advantages in life. You might even get to know each other.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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