Turning Students into English Ranconteurs

May 2011

‘Personality’ is a word we use to describe famous people and this is partly because celebrities often have a repertoire of interesting stories to tell. They can hone this persona into a fine art because they get interviewed so much that they have heard almost every question that can be asked. When someone asks them something for the hundredth time, they can act surprised and say ‘Ah, that’s a good question. Well, let me tell you a story. . .’ and then go off into raconteur mode; milking each line for all its worth, with the audience lapping it up.

Orson Welles — the classic
larger-than-life personality

People develop exciting personalities by living varied and individualistic lives. By the time we are in our early twenties, our personalities are basically fully-formed. Our teenage years are when we are striving to find ourselves; identifying who we want to be in the world and which groups we want to be a part of. As teenagers, we suddenly become social beings and much of the time is spent trying to fit into to certain groups. But by the age of about 23 this process is largely complete. We know who we are and we are usually quite comfortable with the fact because we have chosen that path ourselves. It is at this point where we know ourselves to such an extent and have seen and reacted to pretty much everything the world can throw at us, and that makes us who we are for the rest of our lives.

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward,
some are strong at the broken places.”
~ Ernest Hemingway

All of which is all fine, in our first language. But we also need to develop personality in our second language — which is not necessarily the same as our L1 personality. With your L2 you have the flexibility to assume a new you — a mask, an alter ego, and a new code which suits your adult aspirations. There is nothing wrong with this at all. It is not fake. It is simply a life choice which for most Asian people also means choosing a new name to lend congruence (as all proper nouns need translating). Lots of people have a different persona in the own dialect than they have in more formal registers of language. Being able to do this means you are a multi-faceted communicator who can connect with people of all different backgrounds.

Little Dragon
Li Xiao Long aka Bruce Lee – another polymathic performer with Asian-Western dual identity.

A good way to encourage students to adopt new personas is to act out a celebrity chat show in class.

1. Ask the students to write down the name of one famous person whom they would like to go to dinner with. The person can be dead or alive, but he/she must be internationally known. Many students will not know the English pronunciation and spelling of the name, so circulate to help.

2. Now ask the students to compose five questions that they would like to ask that person. They cannot write things like ‘How old are you?’. The questions must be a bit deeper than that.

3. When they have completed their questions, tell the students to swap papers with the person next to them.

4. Then have each pair come up to the front and perform their interviews. Stress that they must take on the personality of their celebrity which means answering in the first person and the interviewer must act like Oprah or some other professional presenter and that includes introducing and welcoming them on to the show, and acknowledging the presence of the audience.

5. Debrief each pair after the performances and address any significant errors.

6. Have the other students reiterate what each celebrity has said using reported speech. Not only is that what real journalists use, but it also increases student talk time and keeps people on their toes actively listening to the content of the interview.

7. When all the pairs have completed their interviews, you can opt to play the old hot air balloon debate whereby you list everyone’s celebrities on the board and put them in a hypothetical situation where they are all going to be killed if several are not removed from the descending basket. Organise a meeting to list reasons for and against each person and decide who gets thrown out.

8. Next, explain that one thing celebrities do when they get interviewed by a magazine or on TV is give the interviewer a list of questions that they would like to be asked. Nobody wants to have to talk about their problems, affairs, financial or career crises in public.

9. With this in mind, the students now have to write down five questions that they themselves would like to be asked if they were being formally interviewed for a magazine.

10. Repeat as before.

This type of exercise has obvious practical applications in life. Have you ever met someone for the first time and asked them what they do for a living and they’ve replied with some quick spiel filled with technicalities, blue-chip jargon and inter-departmental titles, and you’ve turned around and said ‘Oh right, I see.’ and then thought to yourself, ‘I still don’t know what they do...’ This is just an all-too-common example of bad communication that we encounter in regular situations.

Business people, especially in sales, have to meet new people all the time. They need to present themselves and their company often at the start of a meeting, and give good, clear and concise answers to the same old questions that get asked. This is rather like presenting a business card — a verbal business card with an attractive message that is consistent every time. To practise this skill try this activity in class.

1. Explain the concept outlined above and elicit the following information with this question: What kind of facts should be included in your company spiel?

  • How long the company has been in existence?
  • Who started it? [if it’s an SME — small-to-medium-sized enterprise]
  • What the company does / trades in / produces
  • How it has grown since inception / company achievements
  • Who its main clients / target customers are
  • What its philosophy / mission is
  • What the company’s history in the city your are in is

2. Give the students at least five minutes to write some notes about their own companies. It doesn’t matter if they all work for the same firm. The presentations will be different and they can also describe their old company or their partner’s company if they wish to.

3. Have the students present their descriptions to each in other in pairs and then come to the front and present to the class.

4. Debrief and address any significant errors.

5. Have the other students reiterate what each student said using reported speech.

We all know how important story-telling is in general communication, but it is even more important for students to be building and developing their own English language personalities to encompass a range of opinions and anecdotes related to topics of conversation. We can ingrain this by practising the questions over and over with students, starting with the most basic and repeatedly testing them on the quality of their responses. That’s how you pass tests like the IELTS: by demonstrating that you have an attractive and extensive L2 personality.

“I am not teaching you anything. I just help you to explore yourself.” ~ Bruce Lee

Diamonds in the rough
Teaching is like cutting a diamond to reveal
new facets and let the trapped light shine.