An English-language teacher from Spain writes to ask whether I think the BBC Radio 4 game 'Just a Minute' is a good activity for EFL learners. Is the pressure involved to play well of benefit to students? His gut feeling is yes.
For those who don't know, the game requires a player from one team to speak for a minute on a given topic without any repetition, deviation, or hesitation. If they repeat a word, go off-topic, or hesitate, then they are challenged by a member of the other team.
It is of course impossible to speak for such a length of time without repeating some words. I seem to recall a player being cheekily interrupted for re-using the word the! But even if one plays the game by challenging only content (as opposed to grammatical) words, it is still virtually impossible to satisfy the criteria. This is because there is a tension between the notions of repetition and deviation. If one stays on topic, then the vocabulary is likely to stay within the same semantic field, thus making repetition more likely. Conversely, to use different vocabulary immediately allows challengers to say you are going off-topic. It's the impossible nature of the task that makes it fun, of course.
The notion of hesitation is also hugely subjective. It isn't possible to talk for a minute without pausing for breath. So how long should a pause be before people start judging it as a hesitation? If someone makes a hesitation noise, such as erm ('filled hesitation' or 'voiced hesitation', as some researchers have put it), then there isn't a doubt. But 'silent hesitation' is a problem. The grammatical location of the pause is a factor: inserting a pause between clauses, or between the elements of clause structure, is not as noticeable as inserting one between the elements of a phrase (such as between the and a following noun). The latter are more likely to be judged as hesitations.
I can't talk for a minute without some instances of repetition, deviation, or hesitation, and I don't know anyone who can. Nor do I know anyone who could successfully monitor a minute of monologue to catch all the instances when these things happen. I know that some players of the game get through the minute unchallenged, but that is more a comment on the attention focus of the listeners than on the innovative fluency of the speakers. And of course the whole point is to introduce a challenge that is itself in some way anomalous or funny - as emerges when the MC asks the challenger to explain himself, and the explanation produces a roar of laughter. It would be a disaster if this game were to be played by linguists. The accuracy levels would be greater, but there'd be a distinct absence of laughs.
Is there a point in playing this game with an ELT group? I strongly believe that playing with language is a beneficial teaching strategy, as long as the difficulty of the game suits the language level the learner has reached, and argue thus in my Language Play, as does Guy Cook more expertly in his book Language Play, Language Learning. So as long as players of 'Just a Minute' realize that they are being asked to do something which no native-speaker can do, and treat the game with the amount of disrespect that it deserves, I don't see a problem. It would be interesting to hear from others who may have tried it out.