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Bringing English to life through literature

We discuss how you can bring your use of English to life through literature.

English blog. Bringing English to life through literature.

Have you ever sat in a classroom, and been told by your enthusiastic teacher to tell your classmates about your hobbies, pets, future dreams or recent holiday? If you’ve spent even a brief period in a language school, the answer is almost certainly yes. While we all enjoy talking about ourselves and our lives, it can at times seem a bit forced and artificial. After many months, it can even drift into being dull and repetitive. And there’s another problem: the difficulty of expressing our thoughts, ideas and memories in a second language.

But hang on a second, there’s another, very different way of practising your English without the need to come up with new ideas, tell other students about your weekend spent sleeping, or repeat to the class what you’ve just been told by your partner, and have already half forgotten. Yes, the answer is literature, and more particularly, the great plays and cinematic landmarks that have done so much to enrich and expand the English language.

This started by chance, with the discovery in an old textbook of a lesson using one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies (speeches to the audience), Macbeth’s reaction to the untimely death of his wife, Lady Macbeth: “To-morrow, and tomorrow, and to-morrow…..”. I and my one-to-one student had been working on reading aloud from pre-prepared texts to develop use of pausing, rising and falling intonation, changes of speed and putting stress on key words. While that had been largely successful, by turning our focus to Macbeth, and watching a selection of videos of that famous passage, these techniques were brought to life.

A further stroke of luck helped me unearth a Youtube clip of renowned British actor, Sir Ian McKellen, talking young actors through the meaning of the soliloquy. He described how the very techniques of pausing, stressing, changing pace and adding emotion to one’s voice are vital to bringing across the meaning contained in Shakespeare’s words. Suddenly, a brilliant, but rather dense and challenging passage was brought to life and the layers of meaning emerged.

But how can students be expected to do the things that world famous actors take years to perfect? The answer is you don’t have to play football like Lionel Messi to be able to enjoy kicking a football and imitating your heroes. In fact, copying is the best place to start. It’s important to have the text in front of you and watch a professional like McKellen at work. You can then mark the pauses, underline in different colours where he speeds up or slows down his delivery. Key words can be highlighted and emotion can be interpreted from voice and face alike. But remember, there’s not one, exact way to do it. Studying several different versions, from different actors and productions will reveal how each actor makes the words their own – how they interpret and communicate meaning. Then it’s up to you to read it aloud and experiment, gradually finding your own voice and expressing your idea of what it means. If you’re really brave, you might even try and record yourself, listening back to analyse your performance. Don’t forget, practice makes perfect!   

English blog. Bringing English to life through literature.

But why finish with Shakespeare? After the gothic mystery and bloodthirstiness of Macbeth, my student and I moved on to the humour of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. We had tremendous fun exploring and performing the brilliant satire and wordplay of Wilde’s comedy. And not only was it highly enjoyable, but it seemed to have a positive effect on her English. By focusing on meaning and how to bring it across, she was able to develop her English “voice”, especially when it came to the rising and falling intonation required when delivering Wilde’s long and intricately structured sentences.

My student was more than six months into her course, which can be a time where there’s a danger of progress levelling out, but in her case actually saw a big growth spurt in her confidence and fluency. While this was largely down to her own hard work and the efforts of her other teachers, she had reached a level of ability and understanding where Shakespeare and Wilde’s language and ideas weren’t too much for her. An important point is that, by having the words in front of her, she could train her voice in a way that her own slightly slower production of sentences wouldn’t normally allow.

It’s important to remind yourself that learning should be fun and that using scripts from plays and films offers a huge range of material, suitable for almost all levels of English. There’s something out there for everyone, from comedy shows to mafia movies and historical plays. It should be fun, challenging and stimulating. And who knows, there could even be a Hollywood contract out there, waiting for the right person to come along!

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