Last week I was teaching a pre-intermediate class who seemed to get more frustrated than other lower-level learners in my experience that they had so much difficulty expressing themselves in English. To boost their confidence, I thought I’d try out a new methodology (ELU), relying more on paralinguistic features. Here’s how the beginning of the lesson went:
1. I started the lesson in silence. I wrote on the whiteboard, “What did you do last weekend?” and indicated that the students should discuss with their partners. Naturally, they began speaking in English.
2. I waved and flapped my arms to indicate that they should pause their discussions. I wrote “ENGLISH” on the whiteboard, then drew a big red cross through it. The learners immediately realised that I did not want them to communicate in English for this task, but in their own languages.
3. The students re-started their discussions about their weekends in their own languages. They began to realise that they needed to use their faces, voices and bodies a lot more in order to get their messages across, as their partners couldn’t understand a word of each other’s languages.
4. I conducted brief feedback on the task, pointing at learners to indicate that they should share what they’d heard with the rest of the class (in their own languages, of course).
Essentially, this methodology advocates that learners extract as much information as they can from the ‘language ether’, or the atmosphere surrounding the words we use. The words themselves are not important. Learners are encouraged to use their instincts, or ‘L0’ (pronounced “L zero”), to understand what someone else is saying at them, rather than any language. This emulates the natural, unconscious acquisition processes infants use. As infants are clearly quite capable of communicating their feelings and desires without language, language is not, in fact, necessary in the communicative classroom.
The rest of the lesson followed a ‘standard’ structure, focusing on appreciation of the language ether. We proceeded to work on listening skills, first for gist: learners listened to a 1-minute recording of near-silence, then reflected (in their L0s) on what they perceived to be the main message of the recording. They spoke at their partners briefly afterwards; then listened again for detail. For such a task in the ELU method, learners hold their pens at ease and close their eyes while they listen. They allow their pens to mark thoughts freely on their paper while they listen, then discuss the resultant drawings (in their L1s) with their partners afterwards.
The lesson finished with a class discussion. No English was required but plenty of information and opinion was exchanged, through the learners’ own languages and accompanying grimaces and grunts.
- The lesson served as a strong reminder that we can communicate a lot without language.
- The learners felt empowered and really enjoyed themselves.
- One particularly quiet student said a lot more than he usually did.
- It was an easy lesson for me as I didn’t have to actually really teach anything, but could just monitor, observing their attempts to communicate meaning without understanding each other’s language at all. And it was quite entertaining.
I can’t see any! I’m going to use this technique with every class from now on.
I would be interested in writing a longer text (perhaps a coursebook?) based on this new methodological approach, which I’m calling ELU (the English Language is Unnecessary). Please get in touch if you’re interested in collaboration.