All the world's a stage

September 26, 1997

Language: TEFL techniques, the Internet, class and jokes have parts to play in learning and development

BRITISH schoolchildren could find it easier to learn foreign languages thanks to research by linguists at Thames Valley University.

Peter Skehan, professor of English language teaching, and colleague Pauline Foster have completed research into how role-playing techniques help people learn English as a foreign language and say these could easily be applied in schools.

Professor Skehan said that children get a raw deal compared with adults who wish to learn English as a foreign language. This is because teaching English as a foreign language is a lucrative industry with immense resources allowing it to adopt the latest techniques generally out of reach of state sector schools.

He said: "Foreigners learning English get a far better deal than our own children trying to learn other languages. Using interactive tasks properly could help improve language learning significantly in this country."

The academics looked at the effects that different types of role-playing tasks had on students learning English as a foreign language. Role-playing tasks are not new, but the TVU team found that varying and planning tasks carefully can improve the learning process.

Professor Skehan said that giving people tasks that involved them in a thought process other than framing and speaking the language led to a loss of fluency and less accuracy but did cause the students to use more adventurous language. For instance, experiments where students pretended to be agony aunts, providing advice in response to "problems", led to them trying to convey more complex ideas in English.

Conversely, the conceptually straightforward task of asking for and giving directions leads to an increase in fluency and accuracy, but involves the students in relatively mundane language.

Professor Skehan said: "Both are useful tasks. It is important for people to be challenged when trying to convey complex ideas, but they must also learn to pronounce and speak the language properly."

By varying the tasks teachers ought to be able to ensure that children have a more rounded language education. They can be challenged to say more than just "O est la gare?", but not frightened off language by too many demanding tasks.

The TVU work could also help keep Britain one step ahead of other English-speaking countries that compete in the English teaching market. Teaching English as a foreign language is one of the top ten British exports, earning an estimated Pounds 5 billion a year.

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