Thursday, July 28, 2016

THE EMBODIMENT OF AMERICAN ENGLISH: Increasing Fluency Through Physical Activities

written by Ruth Schowalter, aka Hallelujah Truth
BE POWERFUL WITH YOUR BODY LANGUAGE. The first team presentation assignment was to  develop a short PowerPoint Presentation to persuade/convince their audience of the power of body language. This team's audience was the professional international business person.
Our nonverbals govern how other people think and feel about us.  
Amy Cuddy, Harvard Social Psychologist

Physicality is basic
PhilPorter, co-founder InterPlay

“Shake one hand. Shake the other hand. Shake your foot. Shake your other foot. Shake what you have been sitting on….”

With these instructions from InterPlay’s warm up activity, I begin each Advanced Oral Communications class with business professionals from Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, and Colombia. As they shake out their bodies facing one another standing in a circle freed from the confines of their desks, I observe the stress disappearing from their faces and smiles appearing.

“I’m not used to moving,” one participant from Korea told me. “I’ve been sitting at a desk for seven years.” Ranging in age from their mid-twenties to forty-something, these newly arrived internationals experiment with “embodying English” using the improvisational activities from InterPlay to enhance their language skills before starting a two-year MBA at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School this fall.
PLAYING WITH EXPANDING THEIR VERBAL AND PHYSICAL RANGE. Here's the international group of professional business participants exuberantly displaying the high-end range of enthusiasm at the conclusion of four weeks of intensive English language instruction. Surrounding me in the center, they are graciously sporting t-shirts from the Georgia Tech Language Institute, my place of employment.
With more than 20 years of teaching experience at the Georgia Tech Language Institute, I know that advanced-level language students like these business professionals require a new and radical approach to speaking English if they are going to gain the kind of proficiency that enables them to compete for speaking opportunities in-and-out-of class and successfully communicate what they want. 

I aim for students to not only understand how English rhythm and intonation is different from their respective languages but also to produce that English musicality when they speak. That goal is not easily achieved. Why?

The first obstacle involves classroom protocol. I confront traditional expectations of the roles teacher and students typically play. It is assumed that my job is to be the “sage on the stage” instructing while the students are “beings in a cage” ensconced in desks learning. Instead, my first act in the classroom is to liberate students from their seats and to engage them in being “sages” who energetically manage their communications through physical actions and in relationship with other participants. My role is that of a “coach,” setting up exercises, delivering instructions, and championing my language students’ experimentation with “embodied” musical English communication.
MATCHING FOCUS WITH GESTURES.  In this exercise, students practice "embodying" English by walking around the room reading a speech out loud while using their hands to emphasize key words and modulating the pitch of their voices.
Another challenge is to invite students to “behave” in ways incongruent with their cultural norms. “I experienced shame,” one Japanese professional wrote in his daily reflection after the first class. My goal is to offer choices and strategies for successful communications and not to coerce students into uncomfortable behaviors. Responding in writing to their daily reflections and orally to the shared “noticings” or observations with partners in class, I offer rationales behind the activities and acceptance of however they wish to respond to my directions.
INTERRUPTING THE EXPERT. In this energizing activity, the three listeners are charged with the responsibility of interrupting the speaker with questions as frequently as they can. The speaker, in turn, responds graciously, learning how to manage the disruption in the flow of his speech. Experiencing both the challenge of breaking into someone else's talk and  the discomfort of being interrupted really stretches participants English language coping skills.
Gradually, through incremental steps, as trust is established, I observe more than subtle transformations in students. By the end of our 36 hours together, many students, like the Japanese one mentioned before, have enthusiastically embraced the invitation to “play” around with movement, to take risks, and to make mistakes.
RISK TAKING VOLUNTEER. Standing up and improvising in another language is filled with risk taking and mistake making. Volunteering to do that in front of others takes courage. Here one student at the end of the class accepts the challenge of speaking on "two sides" of an issue, changing his opinion as his classmates clap their hands.
Still another hurdle that makes it difficult for internationals to embody and display the musicality of English is how their languages differ in rhythm and intonation. English is a time-based language and their languages--Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish--are syllable-based languages. A syllable-based language stresses every syllable, establishing an even rhythmic pattern of “beats” across a sentence. Therefore, these speakers tend to stress each word with equal time and force across a sentence. The production of these “strong beats” makes it difficult for the native speaker’s ear to hear the “message” and sometimes conveys a strong emotion that was not intended. 
PHYSICALLY EXPERIENCING ENGLISH. Students clap in groups on the strongest beat in each phrase or thought group to use their bodies to express the superlative pitch, length, and volume.
Physicality, or the “embodiment” of English, offers students a concrete way to experience this significant difference in rhythm or musicality between English and their languages. Bobbing their heads with a slight nod or extending their hands out at waist level serves in part as ways to produce strong beats (words that carry the message). In contrast, the omission of movement assists in the manufacture of weak beats (words that while serving a grammatical function are not needed to be heard clearly for the communication to succeed).

Obviously, communicating successfully in another language requires more than just an intellectual or brainy understanding of it. To learn a language is to learn a culture, I often tell my students. I ask them, “How is that accomplished?”

I offer my answer to this question, explaining my brand of language instruction that I have cultivated using the improvisational system of InterPlay:

Speakers must “athleticize” or embody this new language, this American English.  I encourage them to step into the American culture with a physicality, suggesting that they create an American personality, a new way of behaving, that can be accessed as needed. How else can they succeed in manufacturing syllables with increased length, a higher pitch, and louder volume to produce a strong beat? And coordinate that production of syllables with the opposite qualities that are shorter in time, lower in pitch, and softer in volume?

Language learners’ bodies are significant resources for English language production. Standing up and leaving the confines of a desk, allow students to walk around the room, to connect socially with other language learners, stand with a partner or in a group to talk, use a hand or both hands to emphasize words, or make facial expressions to communicate emotions.
FACIAL EXPRESSIONS CHANGE WHEN SPEAKING ENGLISH. To speak another language is to alter the way you appear. When I witness students (like the one here) playing around with expanding their expressive skills, changing the way they smile or raise a brow in excitement or use broader hand movements, I am moved with awe.
Our bodies are wonderful instruments that allow us to inhabit and play with the language. Amy Cuddy says in her 2012 TED talk, “Your Body Shapes Who You Are” that “Our bodies change our minds, and our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes.” Powerful stuff!

On the last day of the Advanced Oral Communications course, I asked students to reflect on their four-week experience of “embodying” English. Using improvisational forms from InterPlay, they did “short tellings” and “moved” with a variety of different partners.  The concluding activity invited them to summarize their experiences in three words. Here are a few of their three word summaries:




New Start

As a certified InterPlay leader, I know that everyone can do InterPlay but that not everyone is an InterPlayer. During this intensive four-week program, the majority of students embraced the challenge of gaining American English fluency and embodying it through improvisational activities.

However, there were the students who struggled with this kinesthetic language instruction methodology because it did not suit their learning styles or personalities. I tried to be clear about my acceptance of their choices and to direct them to experimenting with expanding their range verbally and physically as much as they were willing.

Now, I know for certain and have evidence that while everyone can embody American English not everyone wants to be an embodied American English speaker. This realization is a good thing to know.

It takes a village to develop a methodology.  I am fortunate to have numerous people impact how I instruct American English fluency. First, I want to thank Linda Grant for her instructional book, Well Said: Pronunciation for Clear Communication. As a Georgia Tech LanguageInstitute Instructor, I used her book numerous times in our highest level oral skills class. Her exercises challenged my own physicality when speaking English and transformed the way I understand my mother tongue. Huge thanks to Lesly Fredman, who assisted me in developing an Improv ESL course for the advanced level oral skills class the GT LI and being a guest lecturer at different times while instructed this course. More recently, I owe my deepest gratitude to InterPlay co-founders, Phil Porter and Cynthia Winton-Henry, for the improvisational system of InterPlay which fosters authenticity through movement, story-telling, voice, and shape and stillness. InterPlay forms and tools allow me to instruct American English language fluency with grace, ease, and joy. I can now offer my students improvisational practices to develop and embody the strategies for communicating in English effectively while respecting their choices as to how much they want to physically engage and playfully communicate. My instructional mission? To assist internationals in becoming empowered embodied confident communicators in English while having fun.

One student’s three-word summary of our time together was this response (I love how he modified the rules!):

The class
And felt
And became