Get students well versed from the start

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Learning simple poems can set pupils on the right track for speaking a foreign language, says Alison Thomas

"laut lauter lauter lauter lauter lauter leise Leute." (loud, louder, louder... quiet people.) Students start with restraint and gradually build up the volume before tailing off again. The text is so simple, you might think it had been written especially for them. However, it is in fact an authentic poem, one of several by the celebrated Austrian writer Ernst Jandl, which Michaela Gigerl, lektorin at the University of Bristol, uses to develop oral skills.

"Pronunciation, intonation, expression, body language - these are just as important for successful communication as knowledge of vocabulary and grammar," she maintains.

Jandl's work fits her purposes perfectly because it is concrete, visual, concise and easy to follow. She exploits it in a variety of ways, starting with conventional pronunciation practice before proceeding to more expressive activities. Students might speed up or slow down, shout or whisper, adopt a gruff voice or a conciliatory tone. "What so many learners lack is an awareness of how language flows and how to invest it with meaning. This is an engaging way of putting that right with minimum preparation," she says.

To illustrate her approach she cites "kleine auswahl" (Little Assortment), which consists of nothing more than a list of fruits: orangen und bananen und Apfel und birnen und zitronen und pampelmusen... und Sometimes she starts with choral repetition; sometimes she jumbles it all up, using flashcards as a prompt. She then allocates different fruits to different individuals, getting them to convey through facial expression and tone of voice what they think of each one. The person who loves bananas speaks with relish and zest; another who finds grapefruit bitter dwells on the u of pampelmusen, wrinkling his nose in distaste.

Finally, they add to the list or take the poem as a model for their own compositions on a different theme - clothes, for example, perhaps with adjectives to add another dimension.

To hone pronunciation, she turns to the onomatopoeic schtzngrmm, which is particularly good for exercising the German r, often a stumbling block for English native speakers. The poem is powerfully evocative and she reads it aloud before asking her audience what it conjures up for them. " 't-t-t-t t-t-t-t schtzngrmm schtzngrmm tsssssssssssss grrt grrrrrtI' They soon spot that it evokes machine guns, exploding shells and the horror of war," she says. "Then they find out that Schuetzengraben means trench, but Jandl has left out all the vowels. I lead them to this discovery through the connotations of the language."

Another good stimulus for pronunciation practice is "ottos mops" (Otto's Pug), a wonderfully whimsical piece where the poet takes delight in playing with sounds. This is also great fun to perform. As the dog hops away, his master goes through a whole gamut of emotions, from annoyance to anticipation and finally exasperation, when his pet eventually returns and promptly vomits. What better way of livening up lessons and sensitising students to the rhythm of language?

Other poems lend themselves to grammar work, none more so than the amusing "antipoden", which consolidates prepositions and the dative as Jandl moves from his desk - ein blatt, ein tisch, ein boden (a sheet of paper, a table, a floor) -down through the house to the centre of the earth and back up again on the other side of the world - ein boden, ein tisch, ein blatt.

There is always something under every item and, as students reiterate unter diesem, unter diesem over and over, the point is driven home.

Having started with her native tongue, Michaela is now turning her attention to other languages, beginning with French. Jacques Prevert, Jean Cocteau and Guillaume Apollinaire have all caught her eye, and although their poems lack the stark simplicity of Jandl's work, they still offer plenty of potential. In Cocteau's "A croquer ou l'ivre de cuisine", she has found an excellent resource for consolidating the imperative. "Eat your soup! Don't eat so quickly! We don't sing at the table! It covers various different ways of asking someone to do something," she says. "Some of the structures are quite complicated, but depending on the class, I select appropriate lines."

The poem also lends itself to role play, with several students issuing the commands and rebukes while another takes the part of the recalcitrant child. As always, she encourages them to experiment with contrasting styles of delivery.

"Shouting is the obvious one but they could also try asking politely and see if the listener's reaction changes. Or they could sound brusque, or impatient, or cajoling - the possibilities are endless," she says.

Other French poems she favours are Prevert's ever-popular "Dejeuner du matin" and, for older students, his enigmatic "Le message". If you want to know more, she is running a workshop on April 8 at this year's ALL Language World conference at the University of Manchester.

* www.all-languages.org.uk

The works of Ernst Jandl are published by Luchterhand. The text of "schtzngrmm" can be found on www.lyrikline.orgenShowPoem.aspx?authorId=ej00poemId=1230 or you can listen to it on www.randomhouse.dedynamicspecialsjandlarchiv_sound.html

For a video of the author reading "antipoden", see www.randomhouse.dedynamicspecialsjandlmovie_antipoden.html

For an extract from "A croquer ou l'ivre de cuisine"

www.forums.supertoinette.comrecettes_1388.html "Dejeuner du matin" and "Le message" are from Prevert's Paroles published by Gallimard.

ottos mops ottos mops trotzt otto: fort mops fort ottos mops hopst fort otto: soso otto holt koks otto holt obst otto horcht otto: mops mops otto hofft ottos mops klopft otto: komm mops komm ottos mops kommt ottos mops kotzt otto: ogottogott

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