Monday, October 17, 2005

ESL: Anticipation

(Fair warning for the first ESL post: almost all of my useful experience comes from the field; I'm not a big believer in certification unless it allows me to grasp the next rung on the career ladder, otherwise there's no better proof of credentials than having survived on the front line so long)

Japanese people are so shy. It's true.

They have a good grasp of grammar and vocabulary commensurate with their efforts, but there's this dizzying sense of protocol that compels them to defer demonstration of their skills. That in itself is not bad...but it does give teachers a greater challenge.

So, I came up with a lesson that I have often used in first classes with new students. It has mixed results; the most reserved students still think it is far above them or beneath them to speak, but it more or less successful in classes where it should work:

Conversation is often a line of questioning, like this:
1) How are you?
2) How was your day?
3) What did you do this weekend?
4) ...

Obviously, the line of questioning changes depending on the answers, but in any conversation, many questions after the first are already answered before they are asked. "Oh, I'm good, but I've been very busy. The boss wanted me to work overtime this weekend, but I declined and went shopping instead, so now I have to..."

Sometimes it jumps back to previous questions as a narrative forms, but the underlying point is to keep talking and avoid a questionnaire type of back and forth conversation. To students, it is framed like this, "As I am speaking to my friend, I have to think to myself and wonder what questions he wants to ask in response to my answer." Put another way, anticipate the direction of the conversation.

It is built on a simple analogy: the answer to "Do you have the time?" is not simply "yes" but, "Yes, it's ten past," the second question being "Well, what time IS it?" One must answer both the first and second questions at the same time; not doing so comes off as rude. Often, a 1:1 conversation style is impolite and unengaging, and students have trouble grasping that if that connection is not explicitly made. They will not do it for themselves, despite such being true in their native language.

There are, of course, certain things here that may be inaccurate in native-speaking land, but the point remains to get students talking and have them demonstrate to themselves that they are more capable than they otherwise believe.

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