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Anyone for Tennis?

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I compared tennis and English language learning in my first ever IATEFL talk about dogme teaching in the Business English classroom. And in the last week the analogy resurfaced. I had an email from an ex-student thanking me for comparing English language learning with tennis and how it helped him to understand what he was trying to achieve and how to go about it. I also spoke with a very nervous, but high-powered and motivated business woman this week, who thought the money she had paid would ensure her improvement, and told her much the same thing.

This is the analogy – I say this to every student at the start of their stay with us:

You can’t buy English – it isn’t for sale. It is a skill not a commodity and it cannot belong to you. But you can use it and control it through focussed attention and much practice – and even then it can slip away if you don’t nurture and feed it.

Learning a language is the same as developing a skill – like playing the piano or tennis. It doesn’t happen by itself. All the best players practise endlessly – they don’t only practise when there is a competition coming up. Let’s have a look at learning a language and learning to play tennis.

What do you need to play tennis? Tennis balls, a racquet, a net, a court and someone else.
What do you need to speak English? Vocabulary, grammar, reasonable pronunciation, a context and someone else.

We could play something with just the tennis balls – we could throw them or kick them or hit them with our hands. But it isn’t really tennis. Same in English – you can use just vocabulary to communicate, up to a point. “Tea?” , “Thanks,” “Sugar?” , “One”, “Milk?”, “A little.”

What you need to guide the tennis ball, to make it go where you want it to go and do what you want it to do and finally play actual tennis, is the racquet.
What you need to make the vocabulary do things like make a question, make a negative, give an indication of time and finally make complete comprehensible sentences, is grammar.

You need to get the ball over the net so your partner can hit it back. If the ball doesn’t go over the net, the game stalls. It doesn’t stop, but it needs to start again.
Your English needs to be pronounced clearly enough for your partner to understand what you are saying so s/he can respond. If s/he doesn’t understand, you need to say it again, or say it differently.

To keep the tennis game under control, you need a space – a court.
To keep a conversation more or less focussed you need a context.

And finally to play at all, you need a partner;
and to communicate you need an interlocuter.

If you want to learn or improve or gain more control over the skill, it helps if the partner/interlocuter is a little better than you. You will learn more tennis from playing with Rafa Nadal than you will playing with me – but you will learn more English with me.

Start playing. Just hit the ball with your racquet. It doesn’t matter if it hits the net; it doesn’t matter if it goes out of the court; it doesn’t matter if I cannot return it, or you miss it. Just pick up another ball and hit it – carry on playing. The more you do it, the easier it’ll get. I’ll show you some stuff – how to hold the racquet, how to place the ball, how to get it over the net, where to find extra balls and how to keep it in play.

Start talking. Just choose some vocabulary and put it together. It doesn’t matter if it’s wrong; or it doesn’t quite work; or you can’t find the word. I’ll show you some stuff – how to make a question, how to talk about when and who and all those things between “yes” and “no” that need special constructions. I’ll show you how to say it so others can understand and how to keep on talking through the difficult bits.

It really doesn’t have to be perfect to be successful. The best tennis players in the world make mistakes, lose games and even championships. But they keep playing. They don’t give up at the first point lost. That’s not what playing tennis means.

You don’t have to be perfect – what you need is enough skill to be able to take on the challenge and stand up in front of people and speak in English – either as part of a team in a meeting environment, or as a singles player giving a Presentation or handling a video conference. In short, you want to be a more successful, more effective communicator.

Let’s play! I’ll serve…..


4 responses »

  1. This is great, Candy!!

    Is it for sale?? 😉

    I’m totally for discussions on language, learning, and language learning with my students. I’m not too much into what is labelled as ‘learner training’ because I don’t see too much of the learner as an individual, as a person, in this ‘training’; and I much prefer ‘conversation’ than training. So, when you give that bit of coaching before the game starts, and using a well-crafted analogy, then that’s likely to be effective.

    • Hiya Willy! Long time no “see”!

      It is not for sale – it is a gift. You may use it as much as you like. I find it really useful because every student understands how important trining is for any sporting acitvity and once thye realise that learning a langauge is the same sort of thing, they buy into the “training” much more readily.

      You coming to IATEFL?


  2. Very nice analogy. I’ll nick it.
    Definitely won’t be at IATEFL. Would sooner fake my own death.

    • Hi Steve

      I’m not surprised! IATEFL is most definitely not your bag!

      You are welcome to the tennis thingo – have used it for years…..


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