Abstract

This article explores the potential of the classroom as a venue for authentic, real-life language use, and highlights the importance of unplanned classroom communication. Examples from the lessons of prospective English teachers in Hungary and Turkey indicate that, when given the opportunity, EFL students enjoy using the L2 spontaneously. The classroom observations provide evidence that unplanned interactions can create conditions which give rise to humour and linguistic creativity, both of which feature prominently in language use outside the classroom as well. By raising metalinguistic awareness and promoting fluency, humorous language play facilitates language acquisition as it enables learners to experiment as well as express their own meanings and find their voice in English. Teachers should, therefore, encourage off-task conversations and make good use of students’ humorous repartee and asides. Teacher educators should also encourage prospective teachers to create and exploit opportunities for naturally occurring interaction in their future classes.

Introduction

As soon as learners step outside the classroom, they act as users of English who communicate with other speakers of English from a wide variety of linguacultural backgrounds. Given the global spread of English and the fact that the majority of users do not speak English as their mother tongue, learners are likely to be involved in interactions with other non-native speakers. These situations then bear the hallmarks of English as a lingua franca (ELF), which is ‘any use of English among speakers of different first languages for whom English is the communicative medium of choice, and often the only option’ (Seidlhofer 2011: 7). Since ELF speakers represent various cultures and languages, ELF contexts of use are characterized by diversity and the subsequent unpredictability and variability of communication. Therefore, interactions where English functions as a lingua franca require active engagement in the meaning-making process by the participants.

One of the consequences for ELT is that the focus should shift from the desired product, i.e. language which is correct and appropriate in reference to native-speaker norms, to the actual process of communication. As Seidlhofer (ibid.: 198) puts it: ‘What really matters is that the language should engage learners’ reality and activate the learning process’. In the practice of ELT, such a process-oriented approach entails teaching language as communication (Widdowson 1978), where learners are involved on their own terms and create their own meaning, rather than learning language in preparation for communication with native speakers in predicted future contexts of use. In fact, this focus on the process of communication seems to better reflect how language is acquired:

[i]t is not that you learn something and then you use it; neither is it that you use something and learn it. Instead, it is in using that you learn—they are inseparable. (Larsen-Freeman 2007: 783)

The question this article aims to address is how learning language through language use can be realized in the classroom and, more specifically, how allowing spontaneous interaction in the foreign language enables students to activate both their reality and available linguistic resources for the purpose of creating their own meanings in the L2.

Classroom communication

Most English language lessons are usually pre-planned and progress in a fairly predictable manner, often following the IRF (i.e. teacher initiation–learner response–teacher follow-up) cycle. Sometimes, however, there may be moments that have not been pre-planned and give rise to spontaneous language use. Examples of such ‘less legitimate’ (Waring 2013: 191) language use include off-topic conversations, asides, students’ cheeky repartee, and remarks that teachers do not always appreciate and, at times, even penalize. Interestingly, these instances of communication bear a close resemblance to what learners have to be able to handle when they use English outside the classroom. In such out-of-school situations, discourse is seldom scripted and is usually co-constructed (Gil 2002) by the interlocutors with conversational norms and language emerging as the interaction proceeds. Markee (2005: 212), therefore, makes a valid point by observing that ‘off-task interaction may be closer to learners’ real-life interactional needs than on-task interaction’. When students are allowed to function outside the confines of conventional classroom communication, features of everyday language use, such as humour and language play (Maybin and Swann 2007), may appear which, together with other forms of unplanned language use, require quick decisions and the activation of linguistic and metalinguistic skills.

Ludic language use can ‘broaden the range of permitted interactional patterns within the classroom’ (Cook 2000: 199) and may result in role reversals as reported in Waring’s (ibid.) study investigating L2 classrooms. Such playful talk can also generate rich language use and better learner engagement (Bell 2009), as well as ‘increased metalinguistic awareness’ amongst students (Pomerantz and Bell 2007: 556). Furthermore, research indicates that language play facilitates language learning (Bell ibid.) and improves learners’ proficiency (Schmitz 2002). Allowing students to enter a language arena that is usually considered native-speaker territory is not only challenging but also motivating for the learners. As a consequence, students are usually happy and willing to be involved in playful language use (Bell ibid.). And since play, including games and humour, often features in communication with others in one’s first language, there is no reason why it should not be exploited in language teaching (Cook ibid.).

Research context

The research outlined in this article took place in EFL classrooms in Budapest, Hungary, and Istanbul, Turkey, with students aged between 10 and 17. The present study was part of a larger research project that investigated future teachers’ classroom language use and their views on ELF. One of the reasons for the choice of these two countries was the assumption that since Hungarian and Turkish are both inflectional languages, there might be overlaps regarding the difficulties teacher candidates face when speaking and teaching English.

The data were collected in 2012–2013. The participants, 25 in Turkey and 9 in Hungary, were pre-service English teachers who were undertaking their practicum at the time. It must be noted that whereas recording prospective teachers’ lessons is a compulsory part of Turkish teacher education, participants in the research in Hungary were volunteers. This explains the marked difference between the participant numbers and the need for convenience sampling in Hungary. In the Turkish system, there is an agreement between the university department of foreign language teaching and the practicum schools that allows the anonymous use of students’ utterances. The agreement includes the teacher candidates’ and the schools’ consent for the purposes of research carried out by the university department. In Hungary, the parents’ written consent was also attained prior to the class observations.

The data came from class observations, video-ed lessons, and semi-structured interviews which included stimulated recall of classroom observations. In Turkey, one lesson by each teacher candidate was video-ed by their peers. The prospective teachers felt comfortable during the video-ing because they were already familiar with both the mentor and the learners, as they had observed them and their classes the semester before. In Hungary, two lessons by each prospective teacher were video-ed either by one of us (the authors of this article) or by two PhD students who were involved in the project. In Hungary, too, the participants’ teaching practice was preceded by class observation and by the teacher candidates familiarizing themselves with the school environment. This, and the fact that the observed lessons were not followed by any kind of evaluation, enabled the researchers to create as relaxed and familiar an atmosphere as possible. The video-ings in both countries were followed by a semi-structured interview during which the recordings were replayed and the participants were invited to comment on relevant incidents in the lesson. The interview included questions about norms and correctness, the linguistic and pedagogic challenges prospective teachers faced during their practicum, and the linguistic model they chose for themselves and their students. In the transcribed interviews and the field notes kept by us, emerging themes were identified and categorized. The themes included the topics of the interview questions and additional issues such as the role of coursebooks, adherence to lesson plans, and the constraints teaching and the practicum in particular presented. The thematic analysis was followed by drawing illustrative examples from the data to explain the themes.

One of the more concrete issues emerging during the discussion of the lessons was participants’ handling of spontaneous language use. The next section comprises examples illustrating typical instances of such diversions in the observed classes.

Spontaneous language use in the classroom

The willingness of the students to engage in spontaneous communication with the teacher (Bell op.cit.) was evident in the Turkish data. In Excerpt 1, the students were ready to engage in off-topic conversation, and it was the teacher who kept their talk highly controlled:

Excerpt 1 (T = teacher; Ss = students; S1, etc. = specific student)

T: How have you been since I left you?

Ss: Fine, you?

T: I’m fine thanks. How are the exams going on? Do you have any exams?

Ss: Nice.

T: OK, we can start I think … who are the characters in the story?

Ss: Natalie, Harvey …

T: Anything else, what do you remember?

S1: Natalie is going to marry Branton, but she loves Harvey because he is handsome.

T: How does Branton looks like, look like?

Ss: Stupid, unattractive.

T: What about Natalie?

S2: Branton thinks that she’s very beautiful …

S3: Not a very nice person.

T: Hmm … not a very nice person, morally.

In the excerpt, the students show willingness to communicate, to take the theme further, and to engage in off-topic communication. They asked back when the teacher inquired about their well-being and seemed to be ready to extend the conversation beyond the level of just greetings. They also appeared to have been engaged with the story they had read. The answer by S3 could have provided an opportunity to discuss what the learners really thought of the characters of the story. By not allowing time for unplanned classroom communication and personal involvement, a chance to collectively construct discourse (Gil op.cit.) and allow the students’ voices to be heard was missed.

Instances where students could have been engaged on their own terms occurred in the Hungarian context as well. One such occasion arose when the students had to tell the jokes they had prepared as homework. The following exchanges in Excerpt 2 represent typical feedback by the teacher:

Excerpt 2 (T = teacher; Ss = students)

T: Did you like that?

Ss: [Giggle]

T: OK, thank you.

Although the teacher briefly responded to the students, there were no questions about the reasons for their emotional reaction. The lack of any follow-up here is all the more regrettable since many of the jokes featured national stereotypes and they would have provided an excellent opportunity for the teacher to address issues such as diversity and tolerance. Thus, failure to allow learners to engage in a discussion resulted in the ‘loss of aspects of local knowledge and experiences as topics for classroom talk’ (Cadorath and Harris 1998: 188).

Despite the fact that most of the communication was controlled in both locations, there were some excellent examples of spontaneous humorous moments which bore witness to the fact that students not only enjoy but jump at the opportunities provided by asides in the lessons (Bell op.cit.). In the Hungarian context, even though the IRF cycle was fairly frequent, there was not only pair work with students talking to each other about a particular topic, but also instances of genuine communication between teachers and students. When they had the chance, learners used humour, as in the following repartee in Excerpt 3:

Excerpt 3 (T = teacher; S = student)

T: What do people do when they suffocate?

S: Suffer.

The source of the humorous effect is the deliberate misunderstanding of the function of the teacher’s utterance. In the classroom context, the teacher’s question should have been interpreted as a request to define the word ‘suffocate’. However, rather than providing a definition, the student took the literal meaning of the question and interpreted it as a genuine inquiry requiring a description. In so doing, the student managed to demonstrate both a good grasp of meaning and the ability to reply with a word that is not only formally similar, but alliterates with ‘suffocate’ as well.

Excerpt 4 (T = teacher; S = student)

T: Is he ill? [inquiring about a student who is absent]

S: Yes, he’s got test fever.

In Excerpt 4, the student’s response introduced a new expression that reflected their particular reality but which, most probably, cannot be found in other varieties of English. In Hungarian schools, continuous assessment is carried out on a regular basis in the form of written or oral tests in the lessons. Apart from marking absences at the beginning of a class, teachers often ask students whether they have taken or will take tests, since these tests may affect the students’ performance in subsequent lessons or even lead to absences on a particular day. In the episode above, the noun ‘test’ is used as an adjective, creating the novel compound ‘test fever’, which carries the implication that the student who is absent did not turn up, probably because he or she did not want to do the test.

Being tested appears to be a major concern for students in Turkey, too. In Excerpt 5, the learners are trying to persuade the teacher to postpone a test due to severe weather conditions; in other words, they do not want to come to school and take the test. Below are some of the pleas the students made:

Excerpt 5 (S1, etc. = specific student)

S1: I can carry your tea for a whole day, please!

S2: Snow was a student once, he is taking his revenge.

S3: Snow hates exams.

The students used various strategies in the hope they would be able to soften the teacher’s heart, who, as a result, would postpone the test. S1 applied the ‘one good deed deserves another’ principle. S2 and S3 treated snow as if it was a human being. By using anthropomorphism, the students not only used a literary device successfully, but managed to shift the agent of the request from themselves to forces outside their and the teacher’s control.

Excerpt 6 (Ss = students; S1, etc. = specific student)

S1: I had a dream, I was a king. Waked up, still king ... [trying to boost himself and waiting for approval from his friends]

Ss: [Laughter]

S2: [Smiling] Woke ...

In Excerpt 6, S2 not only displayed metalinguistic awareness and the knowledge of the irregular past tense form of the verb ‘wake’ but, by taking over the teacher’s role and correcting their peer, with a single word they managed to challenge the superior position S1 claimed for themselves.

In Excerpt 7 below, the students are discussing their work on English grammar in relation to language improvement. They show awareness of the use of the target language outside of the class and reflect both on the language and on each other’s responses, as can be seen:

Excerpt 7 (S1, etc. = specific student)

S1: Grammar is necessary, especially for academic writing.

S2: Of course, but while speaking please do not worry about grammar.

S3: See McDonalds says ‘I’m loving it’.

The source of the humour is that while discussing the role of grammar in foreign language learning, S3’s example of not being worried about grammar is the McDonalds slogan; this slogan demonstrates the kind of native-speaker usage that would be considered an error in EFL contexts, but is properly accepted outside the language class.

Discussion

The findings confirm that, when allowed, students show a desire to engage in off-topic conversation and playful talk in the language class (Bell op.cit.). The comments of one of the candidate teachers reflect an awareness of the benefits of spontaneous language use, and of its motivational force in particular:

My mentor said that I should avoid such distractions. But I don’t think that time spent on real communication, real interaction is in any way wasted. It didn’t even occur to me [that these distractions] are wrong because students learn best when there is genuine communication, and I can’t create anything more genuine. There was a need on the part of the students as well, that is, they would have liked to speak in English, many of them were willing to speak in English.

However, the classroom observations of prospective teachers’ lessons in our study indicated that the participants seldom engaged in unplanned language use and, apart from the teacher quoted above, did not really see its advantages. In the interviews, it turned out that both in Hungary and Turkey teacher candidates were also heavily influenced by what their mentors judged as ‘pedagogically appropriate’. In addition, prospective teachers were highly dependent on their lesson plans. In their efforts to cover the planned material they often felt pressed for time, which did not allow them to lose precious minutes to spontaneous classroom communication. As a result, and except for this one participant, off-topic conversations were often marginalized by quickly bringing them to a close.

Interestingly, however, what transpires from the classroom observations is that learners have the capacity for creative language use. The use of English by some students in Budapest and Istanbul thus clearly contradicted Medgyes’s (1992: 343) claim that ‘non-native speakers can never be as creative and original as those whom they have learnt to copy’. The new compound in Excerpt 4, for instance, bears the hallmark of linguistic creativity in that there is indeed something new which entails ‘the creation of new linguistic forms and expressions in ongoing interaction/discourse’ (Pitzl 2012: 37). This and other instances in our data show that ‘creativity is a pervasive feature of more routine uses of language’ (Maybin and Swann op.cit.: 498), not only outside but inside the language classroom as well. When allowed, learners displayed the kind of everyday creativity that characterizes language use in general (Maybin and Swann op.cit.), a good example of which are the new coinages and other novel language forms that digital telecommunication has generated lately.

It must be noted, however, that everyday creativity as normal practice is usually seen in relation to L1 in the literature (Pitzl ibid.). What is remarkable about the language play in our study, therefore, is the fact that students engaged in everyday creativity and came up with novel expressions in the foreign language. In so doing, they demonstrated heightened metalinguistic awareness of what is possible in the target language as well as the ability to express their identity as Hungarian or Turkish learners of English. Students’ creative language play also resulted in humour that challenged the teacher’s authority (Maybin and Swann op.cit.).

Playful, spontaneous language use in the observed lessons often included the combination of creativity and humour. It seems that the blend of humour and play allows students to take risks and function outside the traditional confines of classroom communication. Through causing laughter, humorous language play increases solidarity among the students and, at the same time, decreases the distance between the teacher and the learners. In addition, humour in the form of language play focuses on the linguistic element in a contextually relevant way and is directly related to the learners’ immediate reality. Ludic language use thus creates learner-centred authenticity where learners use the target language in and on their own terms, and communicate very much like they would in situations outside the language class. In addition, by helping students to relax, building in-group rapport and raising students’ motivation and interest, language play benefits learners both socially and psychologically (Schmitz op.cit.; Bell op.cit.).

Implications for teacher education

Given the important role ‘less legitimate’ use plays in language learning, we suggest that teachers should encourage rather than ignore or penalize students’ spontaneous, playful, and often creative language use. In so doing, they have an additional tool that enables them to prepare language learners for the diversity and unpredictability of real-life communication outside the school walls. Furthermore, by fostering creativity, teachers develop a skill which, along with critical thinking, collaboration, motivation, and metacognition, is considered to be vital in the twenty-first century (Lai and Viering 2012). Another reason why such creative efforts should be encouraged by teachers is the dominant use of ELF where, too, different forms of linguistic creativity constitute a pervading feature of communication (Pitzl op.cit.).

In the classroom, warm-up tasks that include topics of interest can serve as an opportunity to involve learners’ own realities and make them use the target language spontaneously. In addition, planning lessons with a less tight schedule may leave time for the unpredictable twists and turns which are bound to happen, and for which teachers should be prepared, regardless of the particular teaching context. Noting creative utterances would also be useful in order for teachers to understand students’ potential to play in and with the target language. Similarly, students’ awareness of unplanned language use can be raised by making them reflect on and think about their own ludic utterances. Among the variety of approaches, task-based language instruction or CLIL could be options, since they create situations in which learners have to engage their knowledge of the world.

Some issues affecting the use of unplanned communication and language play in the classroom, not mentioned in earlier ELT Journal articles (for example Cadorath and Harris op.cit.), came to light during our interviews. In our study, some pedagogic problems were caused by the prospective teachers’ lack of confidence both in pedagogic and linguistic terms. The participants were inexperienced and therefore uncertain whether they would be able to handle unplanned communication, especially when it could lead to the possibility of students misbehaving in the lesson. Teacher candidates were also better prepared for pre-planned classroom language use than naturally occurring interaction. The following extract from an interview with one of the Hungarian participants highlights this problem:

The most difficult thing is to respond spontaneously. So I can ask the question, because obviously I do the asking, but to feed back, to provide closure in English is very difficult.

Teacher education, therefore, should equip future teachers with the linguistic and pedagogic knowledge and skills that enable them to enter and exploit the relatively unchartered territory of spontaneous classroom language use. High levels of language proficiency can help teachers to cope with the linguistic demands of playful talk and develop the confidence necessary to grapple with the unpredictability of going off-task. Handling discipline problems should also be part of teacher education courses together with the discussion of the role of humour and playful language.

Conclusion

In order to prepare learners for the diversity and unpredictability of communication in English in international contexts of use, an approach which entails engaging learners on their own terms both linguistically and schematically is necessary. This can be achieved if English is taught as communication (Widdowson op.cit.), where language learning and language use take place simultaneously (Larsen-Freeman op.cit.). Since the demands of unplanned and off-task classroom language use are very similar to what students experience outside the school walls, it has been suggested that teachers should create opportunities where students are allowed to experiment with English and express their own meanings.

The findings of the study conducted with prospective teachers in Hungary and Turkey indicate that when learners are allowed to use English spontaneously, they often engage in the kind of creativity that characterizes everyday communication outside school. It has been argued that humorous and creative language play is beneficial for language learning as it activates not only learners’ own realities but the linguistic resources and metalinguistic skills available to them. In addition, unplanned and often ludic language use can serve as an important motivational force resulting in students’ active participation and increased interest in classroom communication. The language class should be ready to accommodate the needs of such an interactive and dynamic environment. Discussing the potential of the classroom as a venue promoting learner participation and authenticity should therefore be included in teacher education to ensure that teachers are prepared to exploit the benefits of spontaneous language use and everyday creativity in the classroom.

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Author notes

Éva Illés teaches in the Department of English Applied Linguistics at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary. She holds a PhD in ESOL from the Institute of Education University of London. She has a wide range of experience, including teaching in adult, secondary, and higher education in Hungary and Britain. Her current research areas are pragmatics and translation in language teaching, ELF, and teacher education. Email:illes.eva@btk.elte.hu
Sumru Akcan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Foreign Language Education at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, Turkey. She received her Master’s degree on Teaching English as a Second Language from the University of Cincinnati, USA in 1997. She also received her doctorate degree on Second Language Acquisition and Teaching (SLAT) from the University of Arizona, USA in 2002. She has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in teacher education and foreign language teaching methodology at Boğaziçi University since 2002. Her research mainly focuses on language teacher education and foreign language teaching methodology. Email:sumru.akcan@boun.edu.tr