Over the years, I’ve heard a number of upper level students complain that despite having a good vocabulary and a strong handle on grammar, a certain amount of translating still goes on in their heads. I don’t think the influence of the first language is ever truly absent, and at times it can actually be beneficial. For example, reading skills attained in the L1 can often be transferred to reading in the L2, and while false cognates can be misleading, students whose first languages share roots and affixes with English stand a better chance of figuring out the meaning of new words. However, keeping a tight grip on the L1 during the study of the L2 isn’t ideal. All ELLs should make it a goal not only to communicate effectively in English, but also to think as much as possible in English. How does a learner make this happen? How can we teachers help?
What practices can we teach that promote thinking in the target language? I’d like to recommend simple mind games that can be made more complex as students progress to the upper levels. Students can do these so-called mind games independently and discreetly – because the games are played silently – outside the classroom. The idea is to promote an internal monologue in English.
1) To-Do List
Encourage students not only to make to-do lists in English, but also to think out an action plan before tackling each errand. “Okay. Today I need to mail a letter and return my library books. I can mail the letter before I go to the library because there’s a mailbox in front it…”
2) Roy G Biv
Teach students the mnemonic for the colors of the rainbow: Roy G Biv = red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. As they ride the bus or walk along the street, they can look for one thing of each color in the proper sequence. The should identify each person or object by name. “Red. I see a red shirt. Orange. That woman has an orange scarf. Yellow…”
3) I Spy
Teach students the opening line to this children’s game: “I spy with my little eye… . ” They should identify an object by name and then try to describe it in as much detail as possible within 15 seconds. “I spy with my little eye a water bottle. It’s plastic. It’s clear. The bottle is still almost full. I wonder how long it will take for that man to drink the whole bottle…”
Students can play this game in a waiting room, on public transportation, or on the streets – almost anywhere. They must try to identify as many categories as possible for the people or objects they see. For instance, they can identify kinds of stores or types of shoes. They can also label groups of people and identify which people belong to which groups. “There are six people in this doctor’s office. Everyone’s waiting. 5 seem patient. 1 looks impatient. The woman can’t sit still. There are 4 women and 2 men. 2 of us are young. The other 4 look middle-aged…”
5) Movie Maker
This game can be played various ways, but it must be played in a public place, such as a subway train or cafe. (1) Casting: Students can think of a favorite movie and consider who they’d cast in each role. They should try to imagine the people around them at the moment playing different characters. “All right. Let’s cast Notting Hill. Who could play Julia Robert’s role? Maybe that woman across from me. She needs longer hair, but she looks like Julia…. ” (2) Script: Students can listen to conversation around them (assuming it’s in English) and create a basic movie plot. “The couple behind mentioned a surprise birthday party. Imagine a birthday party for a friend. It’s a surprise party, but the surprise turns out to be a bad idea…”
These are just some possibilities. Have you ever encouraged something similar?