I want to break free

The early morning train, kept afloat by cheery beats and the cool morning breeze. It wouldn’t take more than a lack of either of these to put the majority of us poor grimacing passengers to sleep.

So how do students do it? Learning a language is a mentally fatiguing undertaking, and most adult learners have the conventional time-consuming responsibilities: dropping kids at school; grocery shopping; family time; etc. I remember myself a few years back taking a piddly one and a half hours of German classes a week as a beginner, and even that had my head spinning at the end.

So how could a teacher really wake me up and motivate me, right here, right now, in this state? A break in the routine. But not just a ticket controller and the familiar “Bonjour… Merci” exchange, I’m talking something really out of the ordinary.

I remember one day on this very train, I had a funny little man sit in front of me and strike up an unsolicited conversation about my smartphone. Big deal, many of you would say. But in Paris, conversing with strangers is not the social norm. Although Parisians might like meeting new people or socialising, they prefer doing so on their terms. So this, for me, was a serious break in my everyday schema. In the subsequent French conversation, I paid very close attention to the words I was using – their conjugation, pronunciation, far more so than normal despite my fatigued state.

If only such a unique, yet ironically banal, situation occurred every day, I’m sure my French progress would be greatly accelerated. It was precisely this forceful push out of the schema, or the familiar, that prompted my heightened attention to form and quality. In language schools, activities like gap-fills or reading articles; the typical classroom schema, do not have this effect. As much as students may insist on such activities being included in a course plan, it will not take them out of this complacent comfort zone.

So what could break these classroom familiarities? Well, remove the classroom of course. Sitting in that room, it can be hard to really surprise a student. Take them out of that comfort zone and a world of new and exciting schema opens up right in front of you.

  • Go over to a tree and tell students they are to organise a project to have it uprooted and transplanted back to the forest, considering a limited budget and heavy environmentalist pressure. Form a project team and present the proposal to the teacher for rubber-stamping.
  • Go to the local chip shop and tell students to work out their business model using staff numbers and menu prices, interviewing the staff for more detail. Work in teams to create a change-proposal to improve profitability.
  • Tell students they’ll be planning a wedding. Go to the local hotel for room hire and accommodation quotes. Go to the local deli for food possibilities. Find an appropriate sound system in the local electronics shop. Give a report to the other groups, choose a winner. Write up invites for homework.

Even if the group is in their native country, if you ask students to speak English during the activity you will certainly break any existing schemata. I won’t deny the existence of advantages in the classroom model, but I question the weight of its importance in the language learning syllabus. Take your students outside, try doing something really different, take note of students’ reactions, and you might find the results surprising.


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