Learning languages is a multi-faceted process. Nowadays they would probably call it holistic. Or 360. Or something.
But what I mean is that there are many different channels you can use to absorb the language which then enable you to reproduce it when the situation requires.
There is the bread and butter of vocabulary learning which you simply have to integrate into your daily routine. There is grammar and syntax to think of – this is best taught and then practised until trial and error gets you to a place where you can slip clause A into hole B with confidence. Then there is form and function to mull over – when is it appropriate to use what tone and what style of formality. Then of course there is pronunciation to consider – making sure you are understood.
Naturally these different facets are variously served by blends of active and passive learning.
Through the passive consumption of audio content (as it is now so-called), language students can absorb all these different facets through listening and comprehension exercises. These exercises, if structured correctly to include active task-based learning, are a great way to consolidate and strengthen the base layer of knowledge of the target language.
However, I actually want to propose a method which turns this on its head a little bit and make a case for an active learning task which I have found particularly useful in the past. This is the production of a short radio drama through a short workshop (a little like this one). This was an especially stimulating exercise for me because it combined so many of cultural passions – sound, music, drama and speech. When you can harness a student’s interests to language learning, you often find it to be the most dynamic and productive of learning periods.
Let me set the scene a little bit.
In our particular case we were given the outline of a situation ripe with conflict – an awkward dinner party conversation between a father and his teenage daughter where the overly defensive mother is also present and trying to mediate between the two firebrands of her family.
We had to put together a 5-10 minute sketch in the target language which would work as a piece of radio drama. The facilitator gave us a box of goodies with which to create whichever sound effects we would need to create to accompany the awkward conversation. We were to create the piece together, rehearse, and then record it for reference.
Firstly, between the 3 of us, we thought how the conversation might pan out between the father and daughter. We decided that the daughter was going to tell her father over dinner that she was pregnant by her boyfriend (of whom her father was not keen at all). There was to be some skirting around the subject by the daughter, some awkward silences, some tension-raising screeches of glasses and scuffs of chairs on the floor and then finally an explosion of rage from the father which we wanted to cut off just as the detonator went off (for effect).
We then noted this down in rough form in the form of a rough script, allocating one character’s voice to each of us and we imagined what we might say in that character’s position.
Where we could we tried to write the script in the target language but mostly we wrote in our native tongue and then translated afterwards. This seemed to work well.
Interspersed between the lines of dialogue we were instructed to use sounds to replace the ‘unsaid’ where the answer to a question might not be a directly verbalised response but instead the shifting of a glass, a nervous cough, or the scrape of a chair.
We then rehearsed and, from the practice session, we were able to edit the sections which didn’t work. On top of this we improved and honed the translations to make them more realistic.
We then completed another practice run-through and, when everyone was happy with their sections, we recorded it.
The great advantage of this particular task was that it made us think about all of the different facets – accurate (and realistic vocabulary), correct grammatical construction, hitting the right tone and pronouncing effectively so that, when the recording was played back we didn’t all cringe in embarrassment. (OK, well we did a bit because it is always like that when you hear your own voice!). With the fun that comes with the introduction of sound effects to enrich the piece, the task becomes refreshing as well as constructive.
Things to remember for the set-up of the task:
- Keep the scenario simple + number of characters to a minimum
- Have a bag a of props for sound effects
- Make sure there is a step to discuss the translation process collectively
- Map out clearly what is expected
- Have a couple of examples to play to the students first