UPDATE (19 Dec. 2014): Speaking of Speech is still available: in fact, in a new edition. It’s been expanded, and now there’s a teacher’s guide, but I haven’t gotten a look at it. The original book was a bit Japan-specific, and I suspect it might rub some students the wrong way, but maybe that’s been eliminated from the more recent edition.
In any case, you can see the newer book here.
ORIGINAL POST: Alistair asked what textbooks I’m using in new courses this semester, and I typed out a rather long comment before I realized it would probably be better to put it into a whole post. I didn’t choose the new textbooks, but anyway, for Advanced Sophomore conversation classes it’s a MacMillan book called Inside English and for the Speech/Drama class it’s a book from Japan called Speaking of Speech: Basic Presentation Skills for Beginners. I’m going to share my thoughts, as well as some contextualized explanation of why I’m having those specific thoughts, in the extended section of the post, because I suspect some readers will be interested, and many won’t.
Inside English is, in my opinion, not the worst book I’ve ever seen, but also not the best. The thing I hate about it is the overly-strong focus on thematic content, and a really unsatisfying lack of solid structural/applied-grammar content. The first chapter is about Smiles.
SMILES! I mean, I understand that something so general as that can open up all kinds of doors in regards to how one can operate the class; there are a lot of potential topics available, I suppose. But when I search through the content, I find it all kind of slapped together; here’s some stuff on phrasal verbs, here’s a little on the imperative, and let’s talk about smiles some more; ooh, now let’s listen to Bobby McFerrin! Maybe that would be okay for a truly advanced class, like, an advanced class where students initiate conversation on their own, where they can get into group discussions and actually want to do so.
But just as a lot of students in the lower level classes are “false beginners”, a lot of students in the advanced program are actually “false advanced” students, meaning they’re at best mid-level intermediate. People at that level really do need to be working through patterns, transformations, and so on. So maybe my lack of enthusiasm is situation-specific; in a different program, with a different range of students, I might be enthusiastic. However, I’ve had “advanced” second-semester sophomore classes where they couldn’t even make complete sentences or answer the basic questions that were integral to the first semester of freshman English.
The other book, Speaking of Speech, I’m much more enthusiastic about: as far as working with students who can’t speak much, it’s a fine resource. It’s focused on getting the kids to understand and master the basic skills of speech-making, even when their actual speaking ability is not too advanced. Some might think that this is like putting the horse before the carriage, but in fact, with Korean students, I think that there are a lot of issues at the fundamental level that, were they to be sorted out early on, might be helpful to students later on in their studies.
Let me explain what I mean. A lot of students I encounter in their second (or Nth) year of English study are timid, and appear to have absolutely no idea how to talk to someone in English. I don’t mean the words, necessarily. Some of them actually can express themselves verbally, but the net effect is less human than interacting with a command line in telnet. They don’t meet your eyes, they don’t even look at you; they don’t express any emotion in their tone of voice, there’s no inflection or stress; sometimes you have to guess whether they’re happy, sad, reticent, scared, or bored. A lot of these kids are from smaller places, or at least have not dealt with foreigners before, mind you. Sometimes it’s obvious the kid is suffering from a case of intimidation, as all the stereotypes and ideas of foreigners they’ve ever encountered in the media, in chats with friends, in discussions in school, and so on all kind of get called up in working memory, overloading the poor kid with all kinds of conflicting expectations and anxieties. There’s not much you can do to help someone get over that; sometimes speaking Korean to them for a few minutes helps, and sometimes it makes them even more anxious. People just get over that, or they don’t, and those who don’t usually get nowhere in their English studies. But beyond that, there’s a whole host of cultural differences, so it seems. Plenty of students seem to think it’s normal to avoid eye contact with their professors; plenty more seem to think that standing up and flubbing an assignment (and wasting classtime) instead of explaining that they didn’t prepare for it is a sensible thing to do; plenty of students seem to think that muttering is an acceptable form of enunciation when one is learning another language and unsure about his or her pronunciation… thus rendering words that would be intelligible into auditory mush.
The thing is, learning another language takes guts. It takes guts to try to say things and know that you’re going to mess up at least one or two things in every sentence you’re going to say. It takes guts to look a teacher in the eye when you don’t do it with most of your other professors, and aren’t expected to do so. It takes guts to just open your mouth an hazard an answer in front of all your classmates–even moreso when they’re all from the same major course as you, and you’ll be teased about it for the rest of the day by the putzes who were too cowardly at the time to even try. It’s hard enough for many of us to deliver speeches in our mother tongues, and if you can actually imagine trying to deliver one in a foreign language, you can guess at how hard it would be.
So how would a course in speech and drama help such students? How could it possibly help them?
For one thing, it makes them focus on all kinds of other things that are extraneous to the words they’re saying. There are exercises for eye contact, for using one’s hands to gesture and reinforce concepts—something I’ve noticed a lot of Koreans don’t seem to use when talking to foreigners, for some inexplicable reason, since after all, if someone doesn’t understand “크다”, they still might manage to clue in when you spread your hands apart indicating something is very “big”; for helping students assume a posture that suggests (even if it is sometimes falsely suggestive) confidence and readiness to speak. All of these body language issues not only help others to understand an ESL/EFL speaker, but also help the student himself or herself to actually feel more confident and ready to converse in the target language.
There are other exercises which are also very useful to the language-learner’s toolkit, things like thinking about a speech (or presentation, dialogue, or whatever) as a kind of story. What’s the basic narrative? What’s the structure of what you’re going to say? I certainly can’t follow speeches delivered in Korean, though the translations I’ve read suggests some elements of this are quite universal… except that most people never really explicitly learn it, even in their own language. And many people seem to get by, in their own language, not knowing how to structure discourses.
But in a foreign language, you need to have a hierarchy of ideas you want to communicate to someone—some basic, important ideas, along with some more or less important details. Being able to construct, mentally, a kind of narrative structure in which each of these elements can be woven and connected is a really important skill; even the lowest level language learner could benefit from understanding that what’s most basic isn’t the details that are much harder to communicate effectively, but rather the bigger, more general concepts that one needs to get across. Like many people, I had to learn this the hard way when working among a mainly francophone team at a job I held in Montreal, and I retained the lesson when I arrived in Korea and began studying the language here.
Finally, the last area of the text which will help students is the study of using props and visuals to facilitate speech. It very often doesn’t even occur to students to appeal to nonverbal supports–charts, images, diagrams scrawled onto the board, and so forth when they are making a presentation. But there are some things which are just much easier to express this way, and that are much harder to express purely in spoken language. Students working through this book will, I hope, develop a clearer sense of when and how to use these kinds of aids to prop up their speaking.
Anyway, I know it sounds like I’m selling this book, but there are some really useful things in it, and not just for advanced students. I would have thought that a textbook helping people develop public speaking abilities would be more useful for advanced speakers, but now I think a lot of the skills in this book would be of immense aid to students even early on in their English study. I am teaching this course to one group of pretty-low level engineers and techie-types, and one pretty-advanced group of culture/tourism and alternative-medicine majors.
And one more caveat: the public speaking component of the course is technically only half of the course; the other half, a drama component, is text-less. With the lower-level course, I’m thinking the students will be split into a couple of groups and work their way through a one-act play written for them by me (and I’ll try get a final performance set up for other students to come and see, perhaps in conjunction with another class or two). But for those lower-level students, a lot of the work would involve studying the play early on, to figure out what the storyline is, assign parts, practice pronunciation and the emotions that ought to be expressed in each line, and so on. Blocking would come later on, once the relationship between text-on-the-page and the emotional content and implications of the lines were clearer and students could read through it, each delivering her or his lines with some body language and inflection.
Meanwhile, with the advanced class, I think I’ll break students into groups and assign them to study, transcribe, and rehearse a scene from a famous movie (in English, of course). That is a couple of weeks of work. After that, I’ll have them write their own play and I’ll help them edit it; then we’ll work through the emotional content of the lines, delivery, body language, and so on. Then we can actually try put the play together and see what we get. The other twist is that I am going to ask the advanced drama class if they would like to participate in the Drama Festival that is hosted at Jeonju University annually. Maybe they’ll be interested, and in that case, I’m going to need to get them started on drama first, while the other class is working on speeches first. On one level, I’d prefer them not to want to participate since it would make it much easier for me in terms of class-planning, but on the other hand, it would be a good experience for them and I don’t think it would necessitate that much more planning, so I’ll be offering the advanced kids the choice tomorrow afternoon.
Anyway, thus far I am finding the Speech & Drama course a kind of break from the regular classes. Even though the kids in my morning class (the lower level one) almost universally failed to do their assigned homework from last week, the fact is that it’s new material for me, and it’s requiring me to be on my toes. Which makes it more interesting, even if the classes have the same problems regarding student participation. And, after all, these Freshmen kids have never dealt with me before. It’s funny that most of the class earned itself a -1 on the 3rd day of class, though. The six kids who had done their homework were pretty pleased with themselves.