I often start my first English class of the year with a video clip from a movie, set in Sarajevo during the war there in the 1990s. In the clip, a group of young men are playing billiards in the basement of one of their homes. They are chatting about the war in their native language, Serbo-Croatian, when one of them suddenly says, “Let’s speak in English. I need to practice before I go to work.” Actually, this is a cheesy way to change from using subtitles to using English for the rest of the movie. (American audiences don’t usually like movies with subtitles.) The young man works in a hotel, and needs English to speak to the guests. Due to his English skills, he ends up getting a job as an interpreter for a U.S. reporter, for much more money than he makes at the hotel, and becomes a key character in the movie.
This scene could be used as an example of how speaking English can lead to a higher paying job. However, this is not the reason I use the video clip. I use the video clip to demonstrate to my Japanese students that in a mono-cultural and monolingual nation, such as Japan, very often the only way to practice and improve your English is to do so with each other. And, as my class is primarily based on pair and group work, this also prepares the students a bit for what they will experience over the semester.
I then give a lecture comparing studying a language to playing a sport. In the lecture, I explain that there are rules and a rulebook (grammar), a coach (the teacher) and a playing field or court (the classroom). As their coach, it is my job to teach them the rules, advise them, and guide their play, but I also explain that it is their job to get out on the field and hone their skills (practice and improve their English, with each other). I emphasize that in a sport, a coach can demonstrate a swing or a hit or a move (grammar, vocabulary, usage), but it is the players themselves that must practice these skills in order to sharpen their techniques, improve coordination, and build their muscles (develop fluency).
In addition, because there is often reticence to practice English among Japanese students outside the classroom, I remind them again that it’s just like practicing a sport. I ask them, if they can play basketball or volleyball together, and improve their sports skills, why can’t they “play” English together as well, to improve their language skills. I also explain that practice in class is simply not enough to master a language. Just as they must practice a sport on days other than those that they meet with the coach, if they expect to improve their sport, they must also practice language outside of class, if they expect to improve their English. And in Japan, that mostly means practicing with their friends or family.
Some students feel it is not productive to practice language with other students, other Japanese, and feel that the only good way to practice is to speak with native speakers of a language. In such cases, I find some students who like tennis or soccer and ask them if they have ever played tennis at Wimbledon or in the World Cup. They are usually confused by this, but always reply no. I then ask if they ever play those sports with their friends, and whether or not they learn anything or improve their skills when playing those sports with their friends. The answer is always yes. I then explain, that it is often not very productive to play sports with professionals if you are not ready, and that again, studying a language is very much like playing a sport, and that you can better learn many things and improve your skills by playing with someone at your own level. Students can and do learn from each other, and do improve their skills by practicing together. Research shows this.
Finally, students often feel embarrassed about practicing/using English with each other, and some even feel it damages their cultural identity. I point out to them that tennis is not Japanese culture, nor is soccer, but that Japanese play and enjoy those sports together. I then ask them why “playing” a foreign language is any different.
So everyone, if you really want to improve your language skills, please “play” English together in the classroom and outside of it as well, like the young man in the video. And while you are at it, have some fun! Who knows where it could lead...
Note: This article is about studying English, but my point is true for studying any foreign language.