Identity and role-plays

28-Jul-2011

I’ve recently stumbled across a number of thought-provoking articles about the ways in which languages impact on the world around us. Guy Deutscher’s fascinating article, Does your language shape how you think? (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html) is an exploration of how different languages lead their native speakers to see the world in different ways. For example, one point of Guy’s that I’ve never considered before is how, in gender-neutral languages such as English, we can say that we spent the evening with a neighbour, with the optional choice of saying whether this neighbour is male or female. In gendered languages such as French, German or Spanish, that choice is automatically decided upon by the grammar of that language, forcing the speaker to instantly identify the gender of their neighbour. I think this is a really interesting concept that demonstrates the wonderful power of languages.

A second article that really appealed to me this week was on Phrasemix.com’s blog: Do you have a different personality when you speak English? (http://t.co/zLp5ZNm). As the article explains, being a speaker of a foreign language can be a daunting and transformative experience. I remember when I was living in France as a student, my lack of confidence in conversational French meant that around new people I was so much shyer and more reserved than I am ‘in English’. It’s strange to think that your whole personality can change just because of the language you are speaking. If I trip over my words in English, or can’t think of the right word in English, I don’t clam up, and it doesn’t change the way I behave; the fear of that happening in my second language has such a negative effect that it completely alters my personality. On the other hand, a French girl who I became friends with was so confident with her spoken English, even though it was understandably imperfect, that she was just as bubbly in English as she was in her native language!

I think a discussion around this subject could be a really good opener, especially for a class who are collectively quiet and quite reluctant to speak; perhaps if they understood how universal this feeling is, they would feel less embarrassed and more comfortable with speaking in front of their peers.

This discussion also offers an easy transition into a role-play based class. Because your knowledge of and confidence in your second language affects how well you produce it, use this discussion of foreign personality changes to allow your students to invent a persona. They can then talk in pairs or groups about these personas, or perform some situational role plays of their own choosing in front of the class. Because they will have chosen their own identities and situations, they won’t suffer from the unfamiliarity that usually causes role-play exercises to fall apart. If you did want to set your own situations to maintain a sense of control, onestopenglish has some great role-play ideas to start you off:

This resource offers some typical situations for role-plays, though they are quite active and informal, giving your students the chance to enjoy speaking English with their classmates: http://www.onestopenglish.com/skills/speaking/lesson-plans/role-play/

Alibis is a really interesting game that combines a need for speaking the language while at the same time keeping the class entertained and intrigued:
http://www.onestopenglish.com/support/minimal-resources/skills/minimal-resources-role-plays-and-discussion/146559.article

This Receipts-based selection of activities would also keep your class entertained because it removes the focus from pure language, and lets them have fun whilst producing English: http://www.onestopenglish.com/support/teaching-tips/imaginative-materials/imaginative-materials-receipts/154865.article

I think the most important thing to remember when using role-plays is to let your students come out of their shells as and when they feel comfortable. And by giving them the opportunity to create their own characters and situations, the chances are that they will enjoy the experience much more, and will speak more English as a result!

Becca

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