September 8th, 2006
To motivate students to think about the nature of language and language acquisition, the following activity is great fun. It requires a lot of patience and careful management. The activity is to communicate only through clapping in order to move a student to a particular position in the room.
I ask one game student to leave the room so that he cannot hear the class instructions. He will be invited back to a very strange environment, and that he shouldn’t be embarrassed or worried about the activity, but just do what he thought we wanted him to do.
Once he leaves the room, I tell the students that they may not talk under any circumstances from now on. They should not discuss with one another the activity until I say they can. I will bring the volunteer back into the room, and they are to make him move to the front of the room standing exactly where I am now (move to some unlikely position first). They can do this only by clapping. They can use body language if they must, but can’t use pointing, but or try to mouth words to the subject. I then ask one student to go and get the subject and bring him into the room.
The likely result is disaster! Allow the disaster to run for a while and then stop the class. Ask the subject to leave. Ask a couple of students to to review what happened, allow students one minute to discuss with one another strategies. In one minute, stop the discussion, and get the subject back in.
Repeat this a few times. It may result in total disaster, but more likely they will eventually settle on a hot/cold strategy whereby the clapping intensifies as the subject moves to the room.
A New Subject
If possible, then ask another teacher to come to the room – this may need to be setup ahead of time. The class should by this point be quite coordinated in their efforts, and hopefully the teacher will move to the correct position.
I would first ask the original subject to be hot-seated and get the students to ask him what he was thinking, what he was trying to do. In the first instance, nobody had any common form of communication. Likely, the newcomer had no idea of what to do, and with no clarity of message. Once a strategy became adopted by the community, communication of that strategy could be expressed to the newcomer, who could then act as required.
There is a discourse between the class and the newcomer, but it requires the group to understand completely what they’re trying to do. Hopefully if it’s setup correctly the class strategy should never have been discussed by the whole class. The strategy will have diffused through the group and adopted by it without any authority telling them what to do. This is how language worked in the past. How does it differ now? How is it the same?
We hooked into pre-existing cultural understanding; we played a game of hot/cold with the subjects which we are all familiar with. When trying to communicate we use symbols and ideas that are culturally recognisable because it facilitates the communication. What would have happened if someone who had never played hot/cold had been the subject? What about an alien? Would the activity have worked as well or not?
I have asked students to evaluate this activity, reflecting upon the nature of communication and language, with surprising results. It motivates thought, as well as being a highly entertaining lesson!