Negotiating meaning

Mira Canion and I have been talking about what it means to negotiate meaning lately, and how we can make it happen in our classes.

Someone commented that it’s not totally realistic to set up opportunities for negotiation of meaning in our classrooms. The kids know one another, they’re not really out in the world, and there are very few situations in which they need to use Russian to communicate. That’s one of the arguments for telling stories or having me adapt news items or short texts for input: the students forget that they’re in the Russian class because they’re interested in the content.

But as I have been thinking about it, I came upon this site where Bill VanPatten is addressing high school world language teachers at the Michigan World Language Association Conference. The first hour of the video is the linguistics background, and the second hour reviews the research about acquisition. It’s fascinating! I think that he would support what CI teachers are trying to do, focusing on meaning over form. One teacher asks how students will be successful in testing if we don’t teach them through grammar drills, and he basically cuts him off, saying we need to change the tests, because knowing about language doesn’t help anyone acquire language.

I kept waiting for VanPatten to get to the point of sharing how to organize teaching for acquisition, and though that’s the subject of a session not in these videos, I started to have some ideas about how to organize and extend one tiny lesson I’ve taught a few times now. Before I get to the lesson, I want to say that the videos have made me a lot less worried grammar mistakes. I remember that the acquisition of some structures is going to happen on its own time. I can’t speed it up, and drills won’t help it. But if the kids are working for meaning, and if I present them with enough comprehensible input, they’ll keep getting closer to the goal.

The lesson has to do with the Can-Do statement about being able to purchase a ticket or a meal. Mira and I have been talking about how one starts the lesson and extends it. Today I worked through parts of this idea. We started a story, after having discussed where one can buy a ticket (on line, in kiosks, etc). A girl stood up, being the person who wanted to buy a ticket. She went up to a boy who was playing the part of the person at the kiosk/theater/stadium. His role in the beginning was only to announce where he works.

First we reviewed the vocabulary we can use to approach someone to buy a ticket (which was as far as I’d really gone before):
Hello!
Excuse me, Give me/I want to buy/would like to buy/need to buy a ticket.

Then we added:
to a concert.

We talked about the responses she might hear:
For which concert?
For what day?
For what date?

Every time we added something in this scenario, the same pair of kids ran through it again, and now we added some complications: there were no tickets, or there weren’t any for that day or date.

Then we traded people, and changed up the situation to be air or plane tickets, with the people working at the station or airport. Once again, we practiced all the way through. Then the kids practiced a little in pairs. I was trying for a lot of input with a little bit of output.

Someone asked how to tell the buyer that s/he was rude, because a partner had said, “I want,” with no “please.” That was a nice twist. We discussed (in Russian) what the most polite forms are, and when to use them, plus how tone of voice matters. Then we added ordering food at a service counter in a restaurant. We added cost to the whole thing.

What we did in the end was have students in threes imagine that one person was somewhere in Moscow, trying to buy something from the second person. They had typically bungled into the wrong place to buy whatever it was and got sent to the third person (“This is a stadium! We don’t have train tickets. Go to the station!”), where they would now be in the right place but have to negotiate for when/what/cost etc.

The kids really got into it. In one group a guy got all the way to paying for the ticket, and when he heard the price, he said, “Now I don’t want to buy a ticket after all. That’s too expensive.” In another conversation, a student was trying to buy soup, and it turned out that he had to buy a plane ticket to the only place that soup is sold, but there were no tickets to that city to be bought on that day.

I am hopeful that these completely made-up situations work as practice for negotiation of meaning. As I understand it, negotiation of meaning requires that neither party knows what the other party will say and has to react appropriately. We can’t use memorized dialogues for this purpose, and the kids can’t know in advance what their partners are going to say. It’s obviously not realistic that my students can behave as the Russians behind the counter, but at least they might have a way of thinking about what to expect in conversations.

For assessment, I’m thinking that the kids will come up in random sets of three. The first kid will be the buyer, and the second kid will work in a place that doesn’t sell whatever it is. The third kid will be working in a place that has the item, but will offer complications.

This whole thing is going to be replayed when we do our virtual move to Moscow, since the kids will have to write journals about frustrating experiences they have in their first weeks living in Moscow. That way, we’ll be turning it from negotiation to reporting on experiences.

(I hope this makes sense. It’s mostly a way for me to keep track of my lesson.)

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2 responses to “Negotiating meaning

  1. Just an FYI, the Van Patten link doesn’t work. I wanted to check it out when I had a minute but no luck…

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