Metaphorically Speaking: How Does It Feel When You Speak English?

As readers of my blog know, I stress the importance of speaking and listening to English outside of class from the very first day I meet my students.  I find myself spending an increasing portion of the first class on this topic – as many as 90 minutes in a 3-hour class – and am always looking for new ways to help bring this topic to life for my students on Day 1.Here’s what we did this semester. First, I put the students in my intermediate speaking & listening class in small groups and asked them to describe to their classmates how they felt about speaking English.  Are there times when they feel more comfortable speaking English than others? What’s easiest? What’s hardest?

Then I asked them to think of a member of the animal kingdom that represents for them how they feel when they speak English. I invited them to interview each other to find out why they chose that animal as a metaphor for their feelings about speaking English.

This quickly turned into a laughter-filled icebreaker.  I asked students to go to the board in pairs and for each member of the pair to draw a picture of the animal that their partner had chosen.  As it turned out, a lot of students liked to draw and enjoyed demonstrating their artistic skills.  Others had fun walking around the room, scrutinizing the pictures on the board, and trying to guess which animal their classmates had drawn and why.

I then had the students take turns explaining to the class why they had chosen the animals they did.  Some students, not surprisingly, pictured themselves as ants or as chickens, emphasizing how small or foolish they felt when they spoke English.  But, paradoxically, even these students were able to stand up and tell the class memorable stories to illustrate their symbolic animal. One, who chose a chicken, described how embarrassed she felt when she unexpectedly encountered a neighbor in the hallway of her apartment while she was taking out the trash.  She grew flustered and, although it was night time, she greeted him with a whispered, “Good morning!”

Other choices were more iconoclastic.  One student pictured herself as a sloth because she felt that she needed to move very cautiously and slowly – like a sloth – to string together the words she needed to convey her thoughts in English.  Another described himself as a monkey, because he thought of monkeys – and his English-speaking self – as being both smart and silly.

The final student told us he felt like a lion when he spoken English.  He said he felt strong and powerful when he was able to make himself understood in a conversation with an English speaker.   This, of course, provided the perfect set-up for the “Getting Ahead in English Outside of Class” discussion that followed:  what does it take to feel less like an ant and more like a lion when you speak English? And what can you do outside of class to accelerate that transformation?

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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