Language Learning and Public Performance: Part II
How do the various kinds of performance discussed here contribute the language-learning/acquisition process?
Lawrence Kuiper, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
 

Because of its blend of structured practice (in the form of rehearsals, for example) and cultural/communicative goals the Performance Day activity serves as a useful benchmark for the progress of our students' competence on several levels. The three levels I address are 1) Performance Day's process-orientation 2) the Performance Day's creation of a communicative context and 3) the motivational factors to which the Performance Day contributes.

Process Orientation

For today's students message and communicative goals are second in importance to the process by which communication is arrived at, or the medium through which it is transmitted. Because of this emphasis in much current technology, students are often more comfortable examining the processes that lead to communication or representation.

French Performance Day highlights the process of creating a successful communication event. Stage performance at Performance Day is one of the rare occasions that students are given to focus on the rigorous process that can be involved in oral presentation. Working through a difficult piece of drama, with focus on intonation, volume, timing, and pronunciation gives

students insights into mechanisms often called to attention overtly, but seldom actually practiced effectively. Learners place these important facets of linguistic strategy into stage performance, with its built-in task orientation. From their performance preparation, they take with thema deeper understanding of how discourse is constructed. A student performing a scene from a play by Molière needs of course to understand the meaning of each line she delivers. Such recognition includes grasping verb inflections and formal registers that may be new or unfamiliar, sometimes obscure syntactic manipulation, and the vocabulary of stage directions.

The preparation of a performance focuses learners on process in a way that few other activities can because the focus is implicit. Rehearsal for a performance is not an artificial imposition by the instructor, but rather a necessary element. Process is also in focus in the silent dialogue between performer and author. With our Molière example, we see that interpretation requires the performer to view the play from the perspective not only of the potential audience, but also from that of the author, in order to intuit the latter's intended message to the former. Preparation for the performance becomes a multi-skill affair: active reading with an eye toward the author's intent, active speech-planning with a focus on oft-ignored yet extremely important paralinguistic features and cooperative language negotiate with fellow learners how they wish to represent the meaning of the play. But negotiation of meaning brings us to the next pedagogical point of interest.

Communicative Context

A staged production creates the cornerstone of task-based communicative teaching, a "need to mean" -- to borrow a phrase from Professor Susan Gass in her paper for the "Focus on Form" panel at the 1997 ACTFL in Nashville. It creates a communicative situation where the communicator must be clear and concise to be understood, thus increasing attention to formal accuracy. Students receive little or no interaction from interlocutors off-stage to know whether they are succeeding in their communication, thus intensifying their attention on preparing meaningful output.

Because the audience at the performance day is largely composed of peers, formal accuracy and successful communication also become a point of pride, one of the most powerful motivational factors.

Motivational Factors

Motivation has been a subject of second language research at least since the studies of Gardner and Lambert (e.g., 1972) who developed the distinction between integrative motivation -- where learners are motivated by the possibility of belonging to a new speech community and thereby developing a deeper understanding of a new culture -- and instrumental motivation where students are motivated by the possibilities of social or economic advancement. Gardner and Lambert argued that integrative motivation produced higher proficiency than did instrumental motivation. Although many studies since these early ones have called into question this finding, it remains by-and-large a useful distinction: the relative success of integratively motivated learners remains a generally reliable guideline.

With this guideline in mind, the Performance day activity creates a very potent version of the integrative motivation. Bringing together students from many classrooms will create a speech community of peers much more clear and present than target cultures for most FL programs, even ones that take students on trips to target language countries. This creation of a target-language speech community may be the greatest pedagogical benefit of the performance day. When students see that the world of the foreign language stretches beyond the boundaries of the classroom into other schools and classrooms, they unconsciously assign more importance to language study. This type of motivation that makes sports programs in schools popular. Perhaps more than the spirit of competition, the underlying reason for sports popularity is the arena for phatic communion they offer -- they are something to which most everyone can relate on some level. Creating such magnitude in foreign language study will positively affect their place in learner mentality.

Besides this integrative motivation that Performance Day creates through its creation of an island of speech community, the activities also reinforce the "real" target culture integrative motivations for those students who already have them, and may help to foster them in students who don't. Quality exposure to target culture material is the surest way to help students cultivate that most acquired of tastes, the taste for learning a foreign culture.

Gardner, R. and Lambert, W. (1972) Attitudes and Motivation in Second Language Learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Lawrence Allen Kuiper, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

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