This research project describes challenges and potentials of teaching foreign languages online with Zoom and how performative practices (PP), selected from a handbook the author compiled for online language teaching, might overcome these by heightening oral proficiency and performative confidence online. The paper relates Dragan Miladinović’s eight principles for performative language teaching to the online environment and details PP for a German IV course at university level. The course syllabus is scaffolded with increasingly more complex PP; data is collected with voice recordings to measure learner’s improvement of oral proficiency (fluency/pronunciation) and with questionnaires to gage increased learners’ confidence in oral production.
The project is made possible by the Innovative teaching initiative award the author received along with Catherine Nock, Syracuse University: Using performance-based methods to reinforce oral skills. A holistic methodology based on neuroscientific research (2020).
Since COVID-19, language instructors (LI) and learners (L) in online learning environments like Zoom get literally spotlighted, but only two-dimensionally: in a tiny box with more or less good lighting. Performative competence thus, defined as “bundle of competencies an individual has to understand in the enactment of all social interaction, to initiate and conduct social interactions as well as to reflect on one’s role therein” (Hallet 2015, quoted in Miladinović 2019: 9, translation Mona Eikel-Pohen) has become even more relevant since the COVID-induced switch to online pedagogy. An observation of my synchronous online German beginners class attests to that: L, asked to identify the underlying emotion other L chosen from a list for reading out a dialogue, were often unable to name what seemed clear to the performers. The two-dimensionality of the screen did absorb but not radiate back the nonverbal communication. Though the L tried to perform well, they appeared monotonous, flat, unauthentic, boring.
Non-verbal communication is prevalent in human communication, but in online courses, large parts of it is reduced by the two-dimensionality of the screen. LIs therefore need to educate themselves and their L how to establish a communicative, trustworthy synchronous classrooms culture (so L willingly open their cameras in Zoom) and show how online learning offers different dimensions than the physical classroom, like chat-functions for tongue-tied and introvert L, 1‑minute-breakout-rooms for each L to mentally prepare a complex answer, or uplifting music on their return from the breakout-rooms.
Language courses hold such an immense potential for combining linguistic and cultural competence with PP that aspiring LI now receive research-based training in PP (Mages 2020: 24). Dragan Miladinović describes eight principles for performative foreign language teaching (Miladinovic 2019: 17–20) that also apply online: (1) PP are no panacea but post-methodically embrace various approaches and focus on holistic methods (cf. Sambanis 2013:118f.). They do not replace but combine methods and promote project/product oriented learning. Many PP, e.g. circle exercises, can be adopted for online learning (Ls put a number before their names), and Zoom spotlighting delivers the stage. (2) PP are based on real-life contents and meaningful interactions while granting a safe space for rehearsing real-life scenarios, e.g. in online breakout groups or when L practice pronunciation on mute or, out loud choric. (3) PP aim at an awareness for the interplay of intellectual, aesthetic, and physical components of communication in any environment, e.g. in tableaus and especially through reflections built into syllabi, lesson plans, and daily Google exit tickets. (4+5) Input-based and output-oriented, PP allow L to learn in a lighthearted way, e.g. if online L create an additional course member through the improvisation activity Yes, and, and in relation to that fictional course member, avatars for themselves, so they can choose to do PP as either themselves or their avatar throughout a course. (6) PP demand both perceptive (reading, listening) and productive language skills (speaking, writing), and working online, when aligning Zoom with Google documents, covers those four skills in each daily lesson almost better than in the classroom. (7) As integral part of the learning experience, PP, when scaffolded to promote L’ confidence, further competencies like presenting in front of groups (Eikel-Pohen 2017:27), responding to other L’ contributions, or learning to accept failure as chance for learning and growth (Alana 2020). To date, most LI and L are still online learning beginners, and PP can help foster this new culture with its more playful formats. (8) PP reach beyond goal measurement and standardization through holistic and aesthetic approaches. L experience that online learning holds non-measurable Eureka moments that anchor new knowledge in the long-term memory (Howard 2014: 661; Sambanis & Walter 2019:34). As online learning requires different competencies (focus, tech knowledge), PP unite LI and L in an new environment and thus might support building dynamic learning communities.
The syllabus I present includes weekly PP, scaffolded around a German IV course (LINK). The PP selected stem from a corpus gathered and adopted for Zoom, tested in German I and III in the Fall 2020 online and revised for German IV for spring 2021 online. The PP were collected in a the Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Braunschweig Keith Johnstone improvisation course, but also from Lacy Alana’s workshop (Alana 2020), and the AIN Open Spaces (AIN Oct-Dec 2020). The handbook was self-published in the first week of January 2021 to serve as an open resource for language LI teaching at the A1 to B2 level (CERF) around the globe, and has 440 views as of January 14, 2021 (LINK).
The syllabus will be applied to a German IV (B2) and two Spanish IV courses (B2) in spring 2021. L’ voice recordings will be collected at the course outset to accumulate data on oral language production (speaking fluency, pronunciation), and questionnaires gage L oral language production confidence.
The syllabus features 14 main PP: in week 1+2, L develop one fictional “course character” based on L’ Yes, and contributions; in week 2, each L develops a character in relation to that course character from week 1, their avatar. In week 3, the textbook suggests a roleplay. L can act it out from their personal or their avatar’s perspective. This allows them to compare what stepping into a role and playing with it feels like. Weeks 4 and 5 use the same PP Who what where: L are given a setting in week 4 but develop a collaborative one in week 5 and compare the different effects for playing scenes in them. Week 6 features the topic body awareness through the PP Alien translator: L communicate in Zoom with muted microphones to explore nonverbal communication, while their partner L interpret the body language. Week 12 uses the same PP, but unmuted, so L pay attention to both body and target language. In week 7, focusing urban life, L develop a virtual city and perform scenes in it. In week 8, L read a novel excerpt, build tableaus and perform from the characters’ point of view. In week 9, themed around nutrition and mental health, L use the basic activity Yes, and to reinforce basic practices, as the PP get more complex. Performing idioms as charades in week 10 is a common PP in language pedagogy. The last four course weeks hold the most complex PP. L apply what they reflected about and learned from the PP to making an advertisement for a service company they develop (week 11), hold an American discussion (L repeat previous L’ arguments), and conduct final poster sessions.
Reflections take place in time slots allotted to the 14 lessons including PP, exit tickets, and evaluations.
L who took German III in fall 2020 were introduced to warm-up PP, roleplays, character creations, and charades, and foreseeably embrace the PP included in German IV as more engaging activities compared other online classes (as students shared in anonymous course evaluations). Their performative competence to consciously use body language with the target language, awareness for tone and volume, and professional online appearance should increase. Some introvert or L new to PP might need more time to take to the interactive, holistic PP or those requiring Zoom spotlighting. I surmise the course atmosphere forms a community providing L room to experiment and explore safely. L’ fluency and pronunciation should progress gradually, and reflective discussions about the personal growth and learning impact, especially of oral language skills through PP use, might make a positive difference to online language learning.
As I already use PP in German I and III courses and because one session at the course’s end brings all L from my courses together, it would be possible to hold a “best of session” where L perform for other L. However, such sessions only succeed with L’ willing agreement. I will let L decide. If successful results transpire from course feedback, exit tickets, in-class reflections, voice recordings, and questionnaires, workshops for LI broadening the use of PP online can be offered at our institution, and a paper or a conference presentation interpreting the comparable data between Spanish IV and German IV can ensue.
AIN (Applied Improvisation Network) http://www.appliedimprovisation.network/open-space-offers/ [October to December 2020]
Alana, Lacy (2020): Facilitating interactive and engaged learning spaces in a virtual world. For trainers, teachers, facilitators, meeting leaders, and anyone who wants to level up their virtual skills https://yesandbrain.com/onlinetrainings/innovativevirtuallearning [May 2020]
Common European Framework of References for Languages (CERF), Council of Europe https://www.coe.int/en/web/common-european-framework-reference-languages
Eikel-Pohen (2017): Presenting as Performance: Painless Practices for Presentations in Foreign Languages, in: Scenario Vol. 2017, Iss. 1, S. 17–32.
Eikel-Pohen, Mona (2021): Zoomprov. Improvisation exercises for language learning in online classes with Zoom or similar tech for beginning and intermediate learners and beyond, https://issuu.com/home/published/zoomprov_2020_updated_december_2020.docx [04.01.2021]
Howard, Pierce J. (2014). The owner’s manual for the brain. The ultimate guide to peak mental performance at all ages. 4th edition. New York: William Morrow.
Mages, Wendy K. (2020): Educational Drama and Theatre Pedagogy: An Integral Part of Training English-as-a-Foreign-Language Teachers, in: Scenario, Vol. XIV, Iss. 1, 2020, 12–25.
Miladinović, Dragan (2019): Prinzipien eines performativen Fremdsprachenunterrichts. Eine Bestandsaufnahme, in: Lernbewegungen inszenieren: Performative Zugänge in der Sprach‑, Literatur- und Kulturdidaktik. Festschrift für Manfred Schewe zum 65. Geburtstag. Tübingen: Narr Francke: 2019.
Sambanis, Michaela, Walter, Maik (2019): In Motion. Theaterimpulse zum Sprachenlernen. Von neuesten Befunden der Neurowissenschaft zu konkreten Unterrichtsimpulsen. Berlin: Cornelsen.
Sambanis, Michaela (2013): Fremdsprachenunterricht und Neurowissenschaften. Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto: 2013.
Die führende Publikation für das komplexe Fachgebiet Theaterpädagogik. Diese Zeitschrift arbeitet seit fast 20 Jahren an der Qualitätssicherung des Faches und gilt als Leitpublikation eines sich in Expansion befindlichen Tätigkeitsfeldes.