Make them Laugh, Make them Speak, and they Will Learn:
Communicative Exercises in the Classroom
Eckhard Rolz, PhD
The greatest joy of learning a foreign language is to communicate in that language. But getting students to speak can be a challenge at times. Even though the commonly accepted communicative approach stresses speaking much more from day one than prior approaches, many students do not volunteer to speak in front of class and some are even reluctant to speak in groups or with a partner. How can we motivate our students to voluntarily speak in a foreign language?
Last spring, I had the opportunity to accompany seven of our students on a month-long study-abroad trip to Heidelberg, Germany. Upon arrival, my students were placed in intensive German courses with students from all over the United States. One of the first complaints I received from several participants was that students from other institutions allegedly spoke better and were more fluently than our students. Consequently, they asked if I could teach a pure conversation course at our university. I made the necessary arrangements and recently finished teaching this course.
My goal for the course was to entice students to speak by giving them “natural” speaking situations. I contemplated what students would be discussing if they were speaking to German young people or host parents. I also wanted to make the class fun and humorous in order to create an open, comfortable environment for speaking without the threat of constant grading or excessive error correction.
I looked for a good textbook for a German conversation class but could not find one I liked; so I decided to design with my own lessons with the help of my children. This might sound strange but I have children who are about the same age as my students and they often have excellent ideas. Conferring with them helped bridge any generational gap that might exist between me and my students.
Because we are older than our students and grew up in a different era, our life experiences are somewhat dissimilar from theirs. Times have changed dramatically and it seems difficult to relate to a modern teenager. Our students grew up with much more technology and exposure to media than we did. Their pop culture also differs greatly from ours. We watched Hooker, Hee Haw, Get Smart, and Hogan’s Heroes. Tom Selleck as Magnum was our celebrity with a mustache. Our students watch The Office, reality shows, MTV, music videos. And their guy with a mustache is Jason Lee in My Name is Earl. Don Adams was our Maxwell Smart whereas Steve Carrell is their Maxwell Smart.
When comparing our experiences with those of young adults today we realize that experiences only overlap to a certain extent. Technology, attitudes, and ideas have changed since we were teenagers. Because teenagers are different from when we were adolescents, we have to adjust our teaching method and approach. What worked for us does not necessarily work for them. This means, we have to keep up with developments, trends, and interests teenagers have.
Students today do not want long boring lectures or grammar explanations. They are used to TV programs like Sesame Street and MTV which are fast paced, colorful, exciting, and divide the material into many three to four minute clips. Though not always easy, it is advantageous for teachers to emulate the short segments and entertaining nature of popular programs.
Entertainment, fun and a good laugh are great motivation tools. When students are laughing, they are paying attention, they are connected, are listening and they are having fun. It is my intention to give my students frequent opportunities to laugh. It also wakes up the sleepy heads and the release of endorphins in the brain makes them happier. A happy student is a good learner so it is advantageous to make and keep students happy. Fun exercises and a variety of scenarios accomplish this task and students are grateful. Is it not the goal to teach the students to use the language to express themselves and to joke in the target language? Since not all students are self-motivated, it is important for the success of a teacher to make lessons as interesting and fun as possible. Humor also helps to alleviate the stress of speaking in a foreign language because everyone is laughing at the topic and not the speaker.
My ultimate goal was to get the group to speak freely about what is on their minds. I searched the internet for communicative games and got countless hits. Many could not be adapted but I found a few good ideas. I also racked my brain for ideas and in the following I will discuss some of the exercises and role plays that worked very well.
I started almost every class period by showing the students an object or explaining a scenario and they had to respond individually as a warm-up. One morning I brought a 15 Euro bill. Obviously, there is no such bill but it is an advertisement for a cell phone company. I told the students that one of them could have this 15 Euros, which they thought was real, if they could give me a good reason why they should get it and not anyone else. I received some funny responses such as “my puppy needs food,” “I would like to visit my grandmother this weekend,” and “I need gas.” On another occasion I printed a Certificate of Appreciation and they had a heated debate over that. Occasionally, I gave scenarios such as “we are all in a hot air balloon and it is dropping fast. Unless we throw one person overboard we will all crash. Tell me why we should not throw you overboard.”
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