All Fun and Games? The Fun Factory in Foreign Language Education

A giant playground for giant kids?

In an age, where financial wizards, bankers and business persons are called “players” or even “global players”, top manager or market-leading companies “key-players”, and an almost bankrupt company “is suddenly back in the game”, one is inclined to speculate about the origin of these voguish words. The latest coinages are “theatre” to describe the battlefields in Afghanistan, and “decompression time” – just like after a pleasurable dive in some exotic place – to explain the short time soldiers spent between a season (in keeping with the idea of leisure time) in a “theatre” to chill out before returning to their home countries.

What may be the causes of these ever-present and verifiable symptoms? Playing computer games indiscriminately may be one. Excessive game playing in language education and often, as a result of this, a lack of seriousness may be another. But in what way may other educational tools such as computer software, which all too often appears to be still in its beta-stage, with error messages popping up most of the time, generally contribute to fostering a rather lax attitude? In what way does this affect the pliable minds of the young when they grow up with imperfect hard and software? Do these mistakes, errors, flaws, faults or whatever we may chooses to call them, take on a different meaning and we come regard them as natural, unavoidable occurrences? And how does an all too easy-going attitude generally impair our ability to predict, analyse and pre-empt problems? How do games in language teaching mould the characters of learners or students? How does a generation fare when it has grown up with computer games and lots of “gaming experience” in and outside the classroom when they enter the job market?

Developmental and educational games in foreign language education
How effective are they? That would obviously depend on the sort of questions one is prepared to ask. My criteria have not changed over the years:
How much time is spent on playing games? What do I get out of them in terms of quantity and quality? How many contextual phrases and other meaningful, contextual fragments, and synonymous expressions etc. have become part of my active vocabulary? And, if no hand-outs are provided, have I had a chance to copy down those words, phrases or fragments or even entire interesting sentences for future reference to work with at home in my own time instead of relying solely on the elusive spoken word in class?

One of the most useless games in language learning I have ever taken part in was about 25 years ago. What was the point of cutting up a newspaper article, distributing the clippings to the students, making them read out the snippets and having them put the newspaper article in its original sequence? Not one single new word was discussed and not one single definition was given from this difficult and otherwise suitable article from the London Times. And what bearing has this sort of exercise on the acquisition of a foreign language, of what goes on in our minds when we want to increase our vocabulary? I would expect to find this sort of game in an assessment centre to test participants for characteristics like leadership qualities or their ability to fall into line in a hierarchical set-up but not in a language class. Incidentally, none of the participants complained about this novel idea of doing vocabulary work and I am not sure how many were aware of this and preferred to suffer in silence.

Another high-light was when a native speaker of English handed out about 15 idioms, in this case pertaining to one group – duly cut up –, asking the class to match the definitions with the idioms. No hand-outs were given to us and I had to hurry to copy down those three idioms I did not know. What a waste of precious 45 minutes! I almost forgot to mention the fact that students were supposed to discuss their viewpoints among themselves with the “supervisor”, or rather holiday camp animator, exercising utmost restraint all the time. I was under the impression the supervisor was having a good time in abiding by the rules of a theoretical model which, together with peer editing, group discussions and any other forms of error swapping, fosters a kind of “local linguistic inbreeding” and deludes learners into thinking that they are learning Standard English.

In order to give students an opportunity to pass away the time in the class room, text book publishers changed the format of many text books and made them unnecessarily larger, catering for a need learners did not know they had: full-colour editions of text-books with lots of empty space to scribble onto. Although the latter can be fun, too, especially when you are the ambitious type and design your own Rorschach tests. I guess that the print normally used in, for instance pocket-book sized text books, would make them balk at reading altogether, or in other words, it would remind them of „serious work or study”, which seems not the fashionable thing to do and above all, do not hold any promises of “fun”. It is no surprise to see these books with cartoons in adult education and I wonder, how many trees could have been saved in the past 30 years.

One result of “creative” games may be that games help to make anything which is uttered “ingrained”. Yet, little control of “quality input” is exercised due to the nature of games. Evermore games are invented as if the novelty factor were the decisive criterion. One sometimes gets the idea that there is a never-ending competition of inventing ever new games going on among educators while the number of games really useful have long been exhausted. A native-speaker friend of mine who had worked as a teacher of English in Hannover for several years told me that weekend seminars for teachers were held on the North Sea coast for the sole purpose of learning new games for use in the classroom. It must have been great fun for the participants, adult-sized-kids as it were. One has to concede, however, that useful games may have their place in pre-school education.

Only recently, an acquaintance of mine who has no formal teacher’s training told me that he had volunteered to host a discussion group for migrants. The fun-factor was important, he had been given to understand. And the most important thing was to just make the participants talk without talking too much himself, he told me with a smile of resignation. He had been admonished not to interfere in the free flow of ideas exchanged among the participants only to find that his charges conversed in a mutilated, difficult, hard to follow and often incomprehensible Pidgin sort of German. As a result, he sat there all the while, reluctantly nodding in agreement the gibberish emitted from eager, yet incompetent mouths. They did not know otherwise.

No wonder that he threw in the towel out of frustration after about four weeks. It was simply beyond him why it was perfectly acceptable to subject learners to bad language, to bad model-sentences, to bad snatches of speech, to bad pronunciation, to bad collocation, to very bad grammar and to an extremely poor vocabulary and style. In fact, so bad, no parents would subject their children to it, if there native-tongue were concerned. And he concluded that, up to a certain level, one would probably find this in almost any classroom you might care to visit. I hasten to add that “bad” is used here, of course, in a sense of “a strain on the interlocutors, hard to follow, difficult or even impossible to understand.”

As we have seen, playing games and other modern methods can be fun for the learner and be the source of great hilarity to the critical observer. It would be remiss of me not to mention one incident when native-speaker text book authors wanted to have some fun too. On a work-sheet containing idioms and colloquial expressions to be imparted to eager students, wanting to learn idiomatic or natural English, it said with great pedagogic conviction: “You may sound odd if you use them”. Printed by the publisher, mind you, not a hand-written note by some disillusioned teacher. Not a word of criticism was heard at such balderdash. I, however, presumed to disagree, suggesting that it was not a very encouraging remark to put on worksheets to be distributed to students of English, especially not since the copy was taken from a text book published in England.

You would expect this sort of comment in support material for Basic Global English, which is, according to its inventor Dr. Joachim Grzega, not suitable for communication with native speakers of English. Generally, learners think that UK and US English is taught here in Germany throughout and many pupils and students would be very disappointed to learn if “Basic Global English” and its somewhat older relation “Globish” were introduced on the sly through the back door.

“Use your own words”, said in a minatory voice, as if it were an offence to use newly acquired vocabulary is another rule straight from “The Book”. Using ones` own words must be more fun, I concluded, because of the implicit “seriousness” (equals absence of fun) inherent in building up a large diction. By implication this rather arrogant instruction means: don’t take the trouble to employ those words you might have just learned, if I had not prevented it, that is, do not enlarge your vocabulary, do not increase your power of thinking.” It is common knowledge that every single word is a tool to do your thinking with, the more tools you have at your disposal the more powerful your thinking will become. Conversely, reducing and limiting one’s vocabulary would be a retrograde evolutionary step.

The following example is about a foreigner who made other peoples` words his own and who did seem to get a certain degree of fun out of it. When I was about 14 years old, I met one of the so-called “guest-workers”. He was Italian and must have been about 40 years old. Apart from his open-minded relations with Germans, which was very unusual at the time, I was struck by his excellent German. He spoke with great precision, had a large vocabulary, impeccable grammar (hold your horses, I know what you are thinking) – that is, qualities contributing to clarity. In the course of our talk, he pulled a notepad and pen out of his pocket and asked me about the meaning and spelling of a word I had just used. He then wrote the word into his notepad with great precision and care. Oddly enough, it did seem like “fun” to him and I asked him, what else he did to improve his excellent German. “It’s great fun listening to the radio. I like reading newspapers as well, not the tabloids, though”, he told me with great conviction.

As to the taboo word grammar, I once met a German who was a very fluent, a fast talker with a large vocabulary. All the while he was churning out his words, he seemed to have great fun. But not those interlocutors of his who took an interest in what he was saying and did not just nod him off in the right places without understanding much. My complaint may not be politically correct but listening to him was a terrible strain because he made so many grammatical mistakes that they were actually an obstacle to comprehending what he was trying to say. According to the doctrines of the modern pedagogy, he must have been a one-off because “The book” says that with time and practice, mistakes will disappear. With him, they had become ingrained – a fact that is frequently overlooked. Now I dare ask a bold question: if you say something grammatical wrong over and over again, how can it ever become right?

To most questions posed at the outset of this post, I can offer no answers. And those I offer, tentative as they may be, probably fall short of general approval. The moderate use of games in the classroom can be useful, especially as a break from long hours of learning. However, in most cases games are time-consuming and yield little measurable results. As to the problem of how a game-playing “culture” may affect society on a wider scale in terms of its brainpower and economic performance, ex-chancellor Kohl put the dilemma very succinctly about fifteen years ago:
“Germany is a huge amusement park”.
One is inclined to add now: operated by professional teenagers.

About this posting

This posting is part of a series dedicated to topics dealing with various aspects of the English language which usually get short shrift on the internet and in other publications. It is, in a wider sense, concerned with the English language crumbling into incomprehensibility at alarming speed and how society is influenced by it. How do schools and universities react and in what way is literature affected by all this? Furthermore, how do people working in education and linguistics cope with this avalanche of “Local English neologisms”?

What often sounds like modern Pidgin English can generally be put down to neo-pidginicity. It is an artificially accelerated and manipulated process – or rather linguistic genetic engineering – of attempting to oversimplify Standard English, the result of which is in all cases some sort of Neo Pidgin English or Simplified-Simple-Speak. Four major fields of contact contribute to the gradual encroachment on Standard English: Basic Global English, as advocated by Dr. Joachim Grzega, machine translations of any kind, unedited documents and publications – frequently of international validity – being passed off as standard English but in fact written by non-native speakers of English, the acceptance of “Local English” and non-native speakers of English teaching their version of “Local English”. The result of the English “produced” in all these areas of contact is often, at best, a barely elevated Pidgin English.

And to compound matters, Globish appears to become a composite haphazard mixture of all about 180 Local Englishes and may for that very reason not be as easy as some people think once it has evolved into a sub-language of Standard English.

Finally, it would be interesting to see the first book written in Basic Global English, Dr. Joachim Grzega`s novel and daring invention and see in which section bookshops will display such a work of art.

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