Thursday, July 5, 2007

Word play

By Dick Tibbets - Macau University, Macau

It's quite possible to use humour in language learning with Chinese students but you have to make sure the students have a key. Nothing is more humiliating for them than to have to have the joke explained.

A lot of UK humour depends on wordplay and for learners who have been taught to view English as a very referential language, this is difficult to grasp but I work on representational language, language that engages the imagination by making sure my everyday interaction with students covers this area.

Here's a humour lesson that uses absurdity of situation rather than wordplay and worked well with an advanced class. I used Monty Python's 'Thomas Hardy begins his new novel, done as a sporting commentary'. (and he's strolling out to his desk now, pen held lightly but firmly in his right hand ... and it's the first word and it's THE, T H E, and over to you Dennis. Dennis: Well he's running true to form, in the past he's had 7 THEs, 2 As ...) from memory but you get the idea.

They listened and read the script and although they've not actually read Hardy they knew of him. They creased - they loved the way it put serious literature down. Then we looked at how the language in this genre works, when present simple is used (not as often as one might think), how the speaker works in real time, the repetition to fill time, the introduction of the expert etc.

Then they took a romantic encounter from any work of English literature they knew and re-wrote it as a sports commentary. I found a lot of attention to detail and a desire to really get it right. Some spent time watching TV sport to try and get a feel for the thing.

Some time I will try Monty Python's 'Tonight I'm going to talk about word association football ..." I'll give the text again but layer it so that they can see how the speaker slips from one collocation to another. Then they can try and do something similar, perhaps by writing sentences and challenging a partner to slip a collocation in.

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