By Eve Ross, Beijing Institute of Machinery
I was a Linguistics major at university, meaning I needed fluency in two languages besides English. When I was a freshman, I was very aware that I was getting no practice in French outside the classroom, so for my sophomore year, I moved to a special dormitory where students learning languages room with others learning the same language, with one native speaker for each 5 learners.
Although all the learners had the same L1 (first language, English), we promised (with no particular reward or punishment in the balance) to speak French at all times in the dorm, and to cook and eat dinner together four nights a week to give us time together to practice.
It was very difficult to communicate for about a month, but then something clicked and our (mine and my roommates') oral French level skyrocketed. When I went to Paris for an internship after graduation, I was able to blend in immediately--people knew I was a foreigner but they couldn't tell that I was American (Parisians have sharp ears for picking out American accents), and that made me very proud.
I agree that when you're a freshman who can barely put sentences together, it's nearly impossible to maintain conversation in the L2 outside of planned classroom activities. But my oral English students here are sophomores.
Last year I had juniors and seniors as well. All of them could hold relaxed, fairly normal, but somewhat limited conversations from day one. Their level of English is the same or higher than my level of French was as a freshman. All the English majors are already dormmates. If I could do an L2 dorm program, so can they. But when I told them of my experience in the French-speaking dorm, they said they had already tried speaking English in the dorm, and it only lasted about a day.
"Chinese is easier," they all said with a giggle, and those who don't care as much about learning English were dragging those who do care off the L2 bandwagon, so to speak. It boils down to motivation.
Obviously, there's nothing I can do to enforce their speaking English outside of class. It's something students have to choose to do on their own if it's going to work. And, as Jennifer and others have said, we can only work with the time and resources we've been given. So my response is to enforce the English-only rule in my classroom, both in the few minutes before the start of class and during the break between the 2 consecutive hours of class. This isn't much, but I hope it helps students realize that they can use English for real-life communication, as well as contrived role plays and formal debates.
Also, when my students set their goals for this semester, they were free to choose whatever methods of improving their oral English they wanted. Some promised to memorize more vocabulary words from the dictionary, because they need to prepare for TEM4. Shall we say, less effective? However, I was very pleased to see that some of them also promised to speak English with their friends. When students that I know are friends all put this as their goal, that gave me some hope that it might actually happen. And who knows how long it may last? Hope springs eternal.