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Telephone: language expert


A lot of people find it difficult to make phone calls in a foreign language – and that's understandable. You can't see the person you are talking to, their voice might be unclear, and you might find it difficult to find the right words.

Multi-word verbs

One thing you can do to improve your telephone skills is to learn some of the multi-word verbs that are commonly used in telephone conversations. Most of them are featured in this module. Hold on means 'wait' – and hang on means 'wait' too. Be careful not to confuse hang on with hang up! Hang up means 'finish the call by breaking the connection' – in other words: 'put the phone down.' 

Another phrasal verb with the same meaning as hang up is ring off.  The opposite of hang up / ring off is ring up – if you ring somebody up, you make a phone call.  And if you pick up the phone, (or pick the phone up) you answer a call when the phone rings.

"Hang on a second..."

If you are talking to a receptionist, secretary or switchboard operator, they may ask you to hang on while they put you throughput through means to connect your call to another telephone. With this verb, the object (you, me, him, her etc.) goes in the middle of the verb: put you through.

But if you can't get through to (contact on the phone) the person you want to talk to, you might be able to leave a message asking them to call you back. Call back means to return a phone call – and if you use an object (you, me, him, her etc.), it goes in the middle of the verb: call you back.

Level of formality

Another thing to think about when talking on the telephone is formality. It's important to use the right level of formality – if you are too formal, people might find it difficult to feel comfortable when they talk to you. On the other hand, if you are too informal, people might think you are rude!

Generally speaking, if you are talking to someone in a business context, you should use could, can, may or would when you make a request: 'Could I speak to Jason Roberts, please?' 'Can I take a message?' 'Would next Wednesday be okay?'. You should also use please and thank you or thanks very much whenever you ask for, or receive, help or information.

a man on the phone

It's important to show politeness by using words like would, could, please, thank you etc. But it's also okay to use some of the features of informal/spoken English - short forms, phrasal verbs and words like okay and bye - in other words - everyday English! So phrases like I'm off to a conference..., no problem, bye! and hang on a moment and I'll put you through are perfectly acceptable, as long as the overall tone of the conversation is polite.

One last tip - it's better to ask for help or clarification when you're having a telephone conversation, than to pretend you understand something that you didn't. It's perfectly acceptable to use phrases like 'Could you repeat that, please?' 'Could you speak a little more slowly, please?' and 'would you mind spelling that for me please?' Using phrases like these will help make sure that you have a successful phone call, and may save you from lots of problems later on. You could always say that the line's very bad today if you can't hear very well. And it's also a good idea to practise words, phrases and vocabulary before you make the call!

Language Expert

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