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Aug 04, 2017 Author: sharekcentre
Working with emergent language at beginners level

What is emergent language and why is it important to language teachers?

One way of answering is that emergent language is the language that comes out of casual communication in the classroom, the word that a learner may have heard (or misheard) but is still waiting for the right encouragement to be uttered, or even the gap in a phrase that’s waiting to be filled.

As a matter of fact, we, as teachers, are too often worried about “teaching the Unit”, “doing the exercise”, and “practicing the structure” to the extent that we can forget about the fuzzy nature of language, the complexity of its paths and the unpredictability with which some language items are maintained in the process of language acquisition while others seem to be forgotten, only to resurface some time later and then return to the background and so on.

By forgetting these aspects of language learning, we are actually trying to swim against the current, and, worst of all, we’re expecting our learners to do that together with us. This is the reason why it’s important to recognise that there is a linguistic space, between that part of memory where we store information for long term retrieval and “working” memory, where words and grammar are stored for use, but not consolidated yet, where we can have an idea of the direction in which the “river” of each learner flows.

But while most theorists nowadays recognise that language acquisition is also a subconscious process that results from informal, natural communication, in which emotions and even the biographical memory of the individual play a fundamental part, how can we create in the classroom the same conditions that would occur in casual, relaxed conversation?

As Scott Thornbury recently commented in his blog, “language emerges in second language learning situations, especially when learners are engaged in communicative interaction. The learner talks; others respond. It is the scaffolding and recasting, along with the subsequent review, of these learner-initiated episodes that drives acquisition.”

As teachers, what we can do, is to create the right context for the learners where they can engage in the communicative interaction, supported by the teacher providing vocabulary or other forms of support, from simple encouragement to the recasting of a phrase.

One activity that I find very successful to this purpose can be found in the book by Ken Wilson entitled “Drama and improvisation”. The name of the activity is “T-shirts”.

The preparation is not overly complicated:

  • The teacher cuts a t-shirt for each learner and one for himself out of a big sheet of paper.
  • To offer a model to start with, he/she needs to draw on the t-shirt something that is related to aspects of his life.
  • Then he will ask the learners to ask questions about the drawings.
  • After having finished all the questions related to the teacher’s t-shirt, the learners will be invited to draw on their own t-shirts pictures of things that are meaningful to them.
  • After that they will be encouraged to ask questions about their classmates’ drawings.

The teacher’s role is fundamental in that he or she has to guide the conversation with the aid of the drawings, paying attention to recast the students’ utterances with the correct grammar and pronunciation. The teacher can also provide the vocabulary when required, but keeping in mind that the main aim is to have the students talk about themselves with the language they know.

This activity works extremely well even at beginners level, where very simple questions can be asked, like: “why” followed by the name of the thing depicted in the drawing or even by simply pointing at it, and merely asking “why”.

The teacher will then “recast” the question correctly in the target language “why the books?”

The learner repeats the question in correct form, then the teacher will provide an answer. For example: “because I read many books for my work”.

This activity has many aspects that make it great for working with emergent language:

  • Firstly, it offers the possibility of a very high level of personalisation, allowing the learners to talk about themselves and the things that are important to them.
  • The drawings constitute a reliable base for the learners to clearly identify what they want to talk about.
  • The activity can be easily adapted to different levels by moving from the concrete to the abstract, using the drawings as a starting point.

Last but not least, I think that this activity offers the learners the opportunity to use some vocabulary items that absolutely are relevant to them but that might not be present in the coursebook, giving teachers and learners alike, the chance of catching a glimpse of the richness of the world that everyone holds within himself or herself, moving beyond the dry and quite prescriptive patterns of traditional language courses.

After all, shouldn’t language be a social device used to get in touch with each other?



*My description of the activity T-Shirts is actually an adaptation from Ken Wilson, “Drama and improvisations”, 2008: Oxford University Press, p. 29.

*The quote from Scott Thornbury is taken from the post “E is for Emergence” (Last accessed 03/08/2017)


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