Lost for words

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Dave Padfield looks at how students can be encouraged to think round problems with everyday speech.

How many times have we had conversations with people who are very passive in their oral delivery and whose speech is only partially effective as a means of transmitting information? Doesn't it leave us feeling, in linguistic terms, short-changed?

How do we impart information verbally? And which techniques do we use when we are the recipients of other people's utterances? There is no doubt that communication of a very basic kind may be achieved with a well-chosen grunt or gesture - the like of which must have been commonplace before the advent of real language. However, effective communication at a more sophisticated level demands a more considered approach on the part of the giver and that of the recipient - breadth of structure and vocabulary, speed of thought, skilful manipulation of the language and the ability to deal with the unexpected. Verbal communication involves more than words; meaningful facial expressions, the effective use of the eyes, the gestures made by hands and arms - all have their role to play if we are to get our message across. It is not always easy to project vitalityjoysadness into our speech - people do not launch themselves into a lyrical delivery of Shakespearian quality when they place their order for a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea - but there are many different ways of practising expressive communication.

Teachers need to realise the importance of training students to manipulate language to cope with such occasional difficulties as forgetting the right word. They need strategies for dealing with such obstacles. I involve my students in vocabulary games in which we describe peopleplacesobjects to communicate who or what we have in mind. This helps students to think independently and "on the hoof". One student taking her GCSE French oral exam was faced with a role-play during which she had to explain that the brakes of her car did not work. Not being able to remember "les freins" she produced an excellent sentence along the lines of...

"J'ai un probl me - ma voiture ne s'arrete pas." (I've got a problem - my car won't stop.) Another student had to pretend that she wanted to buy a mirror. Whereas many students were floored by this and simply ground to a halt, this particular girl put her hand meaningfully in front of her face and said:

"Je cherche quelque chose - je voudrais me voir." ("I'm looking for something - I want to see myself.") These were both good examples of effective transmission of informtion.

It is difficult to enthuse about a language in a void. It is essential to introduce the cultural context of the country and give students a mental picture of the environment in which the language is spoken. A visit to the country in question is desirable but not always possible. It is all the more important, therefore, to familiarise students with details of past and present civilisation, daily life, cultural, gastronomic and sporting strengths and so on. Students can then relate to something tangible. Fortunately, current A-level syllabuses do this; we should, however, look for opportunities to communicate this cultural identity at every possible moment.

We also need to think about speed of speech. Once abroad, students will be faced with rapid delivery from foreign nationals. We do advanced learners a great disservice by continuing to address them at the unnaturally slow pace appropriate to beginners. They should be encouraged to cope with reasonable language at realistic speed and must be encouraged to think in the target language and respond, without undue delay, to questions asked. Thinking quickly is vital if students are going to become competent communicators in a foreign tongue.

Beyond this, students need to be familiarised with the "grunts and groans" and "non-language" vocabulary of a language. French has, of course, a wealth of supplementary terms which figure in everyday speech: bon ben (well...) dis donc! (fancy that!) and many others, often accompanied by particular gestures. Students need to recognise some slang words, too. I'm not suggesting that we encourage our students to converse in slang - it often sounds unreal or pretentious when a foreigner does this. But anyone engaged in conversation with an average French national will soon be lost without a basic knowledge of "alternative" vocabulary, such as le fric, (cash) la bouffe (grub) and le boulot (work).

We must make sure students are aware that a language is a dramatic, living being which moves, evolves and has character and personality all of its own. They must be confident that, with devoted and enthusiastic application of the language they are learning, they can open doors which were previously closed to them and scale peaks which were once beyond their reach. The satisfaction - personal and potentially professional - will be well worth the effort.

Dave Padfield is a teacherlecturer in Plymouth and an A-level oral examiner in French. His recent publications include "La parole aux Francais" and "Micro dans la rue".E-mail at davepad@hotmail.com

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