Every language learner needs practice, and once the rigors of a degree or diploma course are over, many seek less formal ways of using what they have learned.
A great method, and one which is becoming globally popular, is to take part in an ‘English Corner’, a regular and informal gathering of native and non-native English speakers. With no exams or grammar points, these relaxed occasions encourage fluency and confidence, focusing on how much is spoken, in contrast to the classroom, where we normally accentuate how well the language is being used. From Santiago to Shanghai, English Corners are providing opportunities for practice and friendship, and I’d like to share some ideas for running a successful one.
Help Learners Practise English with English Corner
Why Run an English Corner?
If you’re a foreign teacher, you'll probably find that the local English-speaking community either already has an English Corner (EC), or that they’d love to take part in one. A colleague of mine compared an EC to an artificial coral reef; it’s been created from nothing, but still flourishes naturally, for everyone’s benefit. Very often, an EC will rely on a small core of dedicated people who show up every week and may take some part in advertising the event or deciding how it might be run. Such local partners are invaluable; identify them quickly and be open with your enthusiasm for these pleasant, informal gatherings.
One of the most common threads in ECs around the world is the sharing of language-learning tips and tricks. Those with more experience tend to nudge others towards listening to the BBC or VOA on the radio, and to watching certain YouTube channels or movies. Book titles are shared, or the books themselves borrowed. Friendships are quickly formed, giving the group a less artificial feel.
Perhaps the most important reason to help an EC to operate is that it spreads the use and practice of the ‘global language’ between real, live people in a relatively natural setting. I’ve found there are certain subject areas – both controversial and otherwise - which appear to be easier to discuss in a shared, second language. For some people, English is the language of openness and development, of globalization and internationalism. An opportunity to freely use English may have far-reaching and beneficial implications.
How Is It Done?
The beauty of an English Corner is that it may not need any organization at all; people might just want to gather and speak together. In such a free-form environment, it’s worth reminding everyone that, contrary to what they may believe, speaking with the foreigners is not the only way to practice; other learners can provide perfectly valuable language practice. This helps take the foreigner our of the center of events, and you should be wary of the temptation to ‘hold court’ and dominate the event - even if the others would welcome just this.
Practice works best when it is scheduled and routine, so fix perhaps one or two times each week when the EC will meet. There could be a topic for each meeting, or this could be left open. Topics could be elicited from the group’s members, or offered based on the overall language level of the group. Consider these rough guidelines:
Low Level: Food and drink; Travel and vacation spots; Family and friends; TV and movies
Medium level: Music, theater and the arts; education; development; shopping; technology
Higher level: Globalization and international culture; social issues; controversies and conspiracies; the news of the day
Rather than a topic, the EC could be centered on a language game such as the Balloon Debate or Find Someone Who, but try to avoid games which require a lot of setup (and therefore place the foreigner at the center of things) or which will need a lot of monitoring or correction. Avoid the need for complex grammar; this is not a class, remember, but a relaxed gathering or like-minded people.
One way I’ve always found to be effective, particularly if the EC is held indoors, is to attach a sheet with a topic and possible ‘starter questions’ on the wall in each corner of the room. The ‘students’ then rotate through the four topics, hopefully encountering new people at each station, and proceeding through a variety of vocabulary and content.
More organized EC activities could include:
- Ask the members to watch the news (preferably in English) and come prepared to discuss it. Be aware of those who might prepare a lengthy speech!
- Ask someone to present to the group in the style of a ‘Show and Tell’, describing a vacation, or hobby, which will interest the others. For more advanced groups, one member could give a short presentation detailing a news event or controversy (concussions in the NFL; the spread of extremism; fracking etc) and then chair a discussion among the others.
- The group could have an assigned book (fiction or non-fiction), a chapter of which is discussed each week.
- Some members could be tasked specifically with encouraging the quieter people to speak up by asking questions and generally helping out. A ‘mentor’ scheme might be too formal, but it could usefully pair the newbies with a compassionate ‘old hand’.
What Resources Will I Need?
Potentially, none at all. Signs or question sheets are a possibility, but such formalization is far from necessary. You’ll need an appropriate space – public parks, squares and pavillions serve well, but a classroom or lecture theater seems to send the wrong message. You may need some advertising to attract people to the EC, and consider setting up a FaceBook page to connect with members. Finally, depending on where you are working, you may need the permission of local authorities to gather in numbers.
What Problems Might I Face?
Be aware of those people who show up to informal events like these simply to hold forth and dominate; this will be tricky, but a quiet word in their ear should be enough to remind them of the importance of sharing conversational space. I’ve been giving them the same advice as I give to new teachers: don’t speak for longer than twenty seconds without asking q questions which requires a thoughtful answer.
You will also encounter shy or silent people, who should be made to feel welcome and given partners of a similar age or background. Some people will show up to English Corner and still speak their first language; this isn’t a class, so admonishment seems inappropriate, but you could remind them that they can speak their first language anywhere, and that this is a somewhat special event in which it’s best if everyone takes part.
In any free-form event, controversies and disagreements will arise. Personally, I love a good debate, but you should judge carefully whether you allow a discussion on religion or politics to become the centerpiece of the EC. People often become unusually uninhibited when speaking a second language, and this can be a double-edged sword. In any event, your status as the foreigner (or the most capable speaker) should give you sufficient authority to gently move the topic away from a tricky area. If in doubt, consider trying, “You know, this isn’t the floor of the Senate/Parliament/Duma… Keep it light!”
English Corners are a terrific way for people to meet, exchange their ideas and practice a common language.
By helping to organize one, but then standing back and allowing it to happen without your continuous involvement, a self-sustaining group can begin to flourish, for the benefit of everyone who chooses to take part.