Monday, 24 November 2008

On Just a Minute

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.

8 comments:

ms_well.words said...

My nine-year-old son and his friends play Just a Minute during car journeys (which can be distracting for the driver!), and as they are also in the process of learning how to manipulate the English language I'm sure it would be useful in the EFL context. Whether EFL classes will manage to understand the English sense of humour is a different question…

Clement Freud is a master of the game, mainly because he has a trick of speaking slowly enough that people don't spot his 'pauses' or breaths.

Alex Case said...

I found this game to be okay, but by no means as successful as I would expect from something that has become a TEFL "classic". I now use a variation where the person speaks for one minute (or as long as they can) and the people listening give them points out of 10 with points taken off for excessive pausing etc (but with language like "well", "let me think" etc not counted as pausing because I want to encourage that as better than silence or using equivalent words or noises from their own language)

jacqueline said...

oh....i'm a recent TESOL tutor and i'm 'just looking'.

Nigel Greenwood said...

The "Yes-No" game from the 60s TV show Take Your Pick might be fun too. You had to survive the quizmaster's questioning for a minute without using the words Yes or No (or nodding or shaking your head). It would certainly give you practice in using phrases like "That is correct", "It isn't", etc.

outeast said...

I tried it a few times and found it basically unconstructive - for some students, actively counterproductive. I've not done any rigorous test, so these are purely subjective impressions, but:

a) Non-native speakers (even those with a fairly high level of fluency) tend to hesitate frequently, especially when beginning to express an idea (ie before they've got really into the flow). This means they get tripped up quickly - too quickly, in many cases, to get any meaningful language use out of the exercise.

b) Inevitably, non-native language users have a smaller vocabulary pool to work with; this creates special pressures in the context. Even those with the vocabulary base to avoid repetition are likely to hesitate when searching for less-used vocabulary items.

c) Very many people find speaking under pressure tough anyway; I never once had a class where all the students were willing and able to speak under the treble pressures of speaking publicly, speaking without hesitation, and speaking in the awareness that they could be 'buzzed' at any time. Especially in a foreign language...

I found that the above problems affected even advanced students who were accustomed to presenting and so on in English.

Additionally, even those who can handle the exercise may resent the failures of those who cannot, either because it spoils the game or because they dislike seeing their colleagues/friends/classmates embarassed (in the latter case they may even refuse to challenge, out of sympathy).

Then of course there's the problem of getting across the real spirit of the game, which can be tricky enough in itself!

Focused and constrained speaking exercises are great, of course, but the 'JAM' format is very tough. With students who are confident, outgoing, and very fluent it could be fun - but how many times do you get a whole group like that? And by the time they're that advanced, will they really benefit?

Needless to say, YMMV. And sorry for the long comment...

DC said...

Not a problem. It's great to have such an informative critique.

rip said...

I agree with a lot of what 'outeast' wrote, but I've tried the game a couple of times with my most advanced courses (roughly equivalent to 'A' level). It is advisable to invite volunteers to be on the panel - I wouldn't force anybody, and I always gave them some sample rounds of the original (both in audio and in print, to listen to and read along).
After one or two rounds with the original volunteers, even some students who were too shy at the beginning would join in.
However, it's not a game that works under all circumstances, and there has to be the right mixture of students who quickly get the idea and a feeling for the atmosphere.

Alex Case said...

I've just remembered that an extract of the original radio programme and some language input leading up to the game is included in the book Skills Plus Advanced Listening and Speaking. I've only just remembered because I don't think I've had more than 5 students in the last 5 years who were high enough level and imaginative enough for it...