Make It Real: 7 Foreign Language Speaking Activities That Simulate Real-world Conversation
Do you want your language students to go further than parroting back given words and sentences?
Are you looking for classroom speaking activities that get students to really, truly, actively use their brains?
That shows you care. Something tells me that you’re a wonderful teacher.
And, lucky for you, I have seven such activities in this post.
Before we get to them, I’m going to take a wild guess and talk about the reason why you’re looking for speaking activities in the first place (see if I get it) and why it’s so important to find the right ones.
Why True Speaking Is True Learning
If you’re teaching somebody to ride a bike, it would be patently obvious that you don’t simply let them watch a series of YouTube videos, give a lecture on speed and balance or deliver a heartwarming talk on road safety, right?
These things are good to know, but these learning experiences are only vicarious at best. They exist only at the periphery of riding a bike. To teach somebody how to ride, you have to let them hop on and find their balance. You have to let them sit on a bike and have them reach for the handle bars.
You stand at the back of the student, holding the bike upright. You begin by giving them a little nudge, a push to start them off. You trot along, working with your student as he struggles to keep balance and get enough speed.
As in the history of learning anything, there will be starts and stops, mistakes, adjustments and even nasty falls. But with your guidance and encouragement, those missteps gradually fade away.
This goes for a host of other teaching activities, like teaching somebody how to swim or shoot a free throw. The learners have to actually do it, roll up their sleeves and engage in the target activity—over and over until they get the hang of it. All the attendant mistakes, failures and false starts are a given. That’s called learning.
It would then follow that, in teaching a language, much of what we do in the classroom should involve students opening their mouths and trying out the target language. There is, of course, room for grammar, syntax and proper sentence construction, but what’s more important is for us teachers to give opportunities for students to speak—to feel how the words and phrases roll off their tongues, to actually hear themselves enunciate strings of vocabulary. Along with listening and comprehension activities, speaking activities belong in the priority list of every language teacher.
Talking of speaking activities, the most productive type isn’t one where you say, “Si!” and the whole class repeats after you with a chorus of “Si!” Maybe the listen-and-repeat scheme may work for absolute beginners, but when you really want your students to acquire the language, you need to allow them to really use the language.
Provide meaningful context for the utterance while you’re at it. Let them observe the language as it’s being used: to talk to a friend, to greet a stranger, to ask a question or to buy stuff.
Let your students have at it—with all the mistakes they can muster. You not only allow them to use the language, but you, the teacher, also give your students the clear and unequivocal permission to make mistakes.
Don’t worry that they’ll butcher the language or that they’re not yet ready for the big leagues. You’re there to guide them—just like somebody teaching a little girl to ride her first bike.
The following are seven activities that you may use in class in order to encourage students to open up and speak up. They provide meaningful context to the utterance, making the language come alive.
7 Priceless Foreign Language Speaking Activities for Your Class
1. Sell Me Something
This activity involves a student trying to persuade the class into buying something. They’ll note all the benefits and advantages of the said product and deliver a sales pitch using the target language.
Students choose an object that they would like to sell and bring the actual object to class on the day of the pitch. If that’s not possible, students could instead bring pictures or videos to show the class.
These videos could have subtitles to help with comprehension such as those available from FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
The students should also be dressed for the part, so if a student is selling some oranges in a market setting, he should dress accordingly in order to be more in character. If a student is selling a solid gold airplane, then she should also dress the part.
Each student is given two minutes to pitch the product to the whole class. They’ll relate to the class the distinct features of the product as well as its primary advantages and benefits. This is great for teaching students to be descriptive, confident and persuasive.
This activity is a good vocabulary-building exercise that’s specifically geared to make the adjectives of the target language particularly memorable. Because a student has to describe the product’s physical features, they’ll have to dig into the trove of adjectives available.
Because there’s a visual reference and strong context for the vocabulary, it becomes memory-friendly not only for the student delivering the pitch but also for the classmates looking on and listening in.
So, for example, the word “ripe” becomes much more alive for the students when they see those plump red tomatoes held by one of their classmates.
The activity also lends itself to quick lessons in numbers and units of measurements, because when selling something, prices as well as quantity will often be discussed.
2. I Am History
Students get to pick a favorite historical character and develop a speech as if they were the person. The class will guess who the character is.
Encourage students to pick characters who may not be as famous as Gandhi or Alexander the Great so they could learn something extra along the way. The personalities could be on fields like science, economics or the arts and they would have to do research about him/her. (If the male students would choose to play female historical characters and vice versa, this could elevate the fun and interest level a few notches higher.)
Remind the students that they’ll be dressed in character and can freely bring props for their presentation.
Each student gets two minutes to talk as the character of their choice, dropping plenty of hints as to their identity. They’ll get to mention the character’s credentials, accomplishments, trivia and the anecdotes credited to them.
Because the task is arranged as a first person speech, your students will get plenty of practice in first person sentence construction and grammar. This first person point of view is vital in any target language because it’s what native speakers use to talk about themselves and their experiences.
At the end of the speech, you ask the class who the person standing in front of them is. Brownie points for the student who guessed correctly, as well as the student who gave the speech.
3. News Reporter
Students pick a news event to report on, then act as if they’re an anchor or field reporter telling the news to the class. The activity requires students to don their reporter hats and give a detailed account of an interesting event.
Ask students to pick a news item, a current event or a social issue that they’d like to report on. For example, a student may choose to report on a G7 Meeting, the spate of college dropouts around the country or, for some lighter news, a newborn panda in China. (Make a list on all your students’ topics and make sure there are no duplicates.)
Encourage the class to pick a broad range of news and issues, from politics to entertainment, lifestyle and business.
Each student has from 45 seconds to 2 minutes to deliver the news. They could either be anchors pretending to sit in a studio or field reporters delivering the news from the thick of it.
The activity is set up so that it not only hones the speaking aptitude of students, but also gives them a peek into the storytelling and information-delivering aspect of the language. Reporting the news is essentially like telling a story, and telling a story is one of the most important social functions of a language.
The activity also enriches each student’s practical vocabulary, by introducing them to words that might be new to them but are common phrases and expressions for the specific beat they’re reporting on.
4. Scenes from the Hat
This is a traditional improv game where students draw prepared scenes from a hat or bowl. They’ll have to act the scene or task that’s written on the piece of paper they’ve drawn.
Prepare a list of scenes or tasks that students will have to perform in front of the class. Write them on pieces of paper. Roll the pieces of paper and deposit them in a hat, bowl or any appropriate container.
The scenes, written in the target language, may include classics like: a mother looking for a lost child, a girl 15 minutes after a break up, a groom 1 hour before the wedding, a photographer telling models what to do, a politician campaigning for president, etc.
If you want the students to work in pairs, then prepare scenes that are suitable for duos like: friends fighting over a girl, buyer and seller haggling over the price, etc.
Ask the students to draw their scenes/tasks from the bowl. Depending on the skill level of your students, you can ask them to do the scene impromptu, that is, they perform as soon as they’re done reading what’s written on the paper.
For beginners and intermediate students, it would be better if you give them a day or two to compose their lines or dialogue. Doing it this way, you give ample time for students to wrestle with the language, to research, to practice their lines over and over.
As with other speaking activities in this post, what you witness come presentation day is actually the finished product of significant minutes or hours of speaking practice.
5. Sing Me That Song
Students pick a familiar English song. They’ll translate that song into the target language, then sing it in the translated lyrics. This is an activity where students get speaking practice through music and melody.
Students are given their pick of English songs. Any song will do, from Katy Perry’s “Friday Night” to Tom Jones’s “Delilah.” As homework, they’ll have to translate two stanzas and the chorus of the song and submit to you a copy of the original and translated lyrics so you can check and polish their work.
Come presentation day, the student sings the translated (and corrected) lyrics in front of the class, to the delight of everyone seated.
This activity is actually both a translation exercise as well as a speaking activity. It broadens your class’s vocabulary by engaging them in a translation activity. And beyond that, you have just given them a wonderful opportunity for practice by employing the memory-friendly device of song. Trust me, your wards will find it very difficult to forget the song and the experience many years hence.
6. Hard Questions
Students get to discuss the hard questions in life. “Ketchup or Mustard?” “Who’s cooler, Superman or Batman?” “Jacob or Edward?”
This discussion activity is done as a class and works best when students are actually prepared to express their thoughts. So for a most fruitful discussion, a day or two before this activity, announce to the class that you’ll be resolving a very important issue (e.g. Ketchup or Mustard?).
Make it very clear that you’ll be calling on people to express their opinions on the matter, using the target language of course. Make them realize that they really have a say in the direction and the quality of the discussion. This should get the class worked up.
The other preparation involves you, the teacher. Acquaint yourself with the issue (e.g. Superman or Batman?) List down the strengths and weaknesses of each side. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both? Have these ready so that during the discussion, you can challenge, amplify or extend the arguments provided by the class.
And besides, who wouldn’t want a teacher who speaks Batman?
Student talking time in the beginner phases often serve as comprehension checks. In “Hard Questions,” talking time is used to develop both thinking as well as language skills.
Do the activity as a class and facilitate the discussion by inviting opinions from the members of class. Who’s cooler, Superman or Batman? You can actually spend the whole session with just that question. Anybody can talk and throw in their two cents into the pool of ideas. Ask the class to give their reasons and make their point.
If nobody speaks up at first, give your own opinion on the matter and ask if they agree. Coax, tempt and lure your wards into agreeing or disagreeing with you. Your skill as a facilitator will be very important. Probe and lead, but most of all, be very positive and motivate your students.
7. Things My Grandmother Taught Me
This one’s for advanced learners. Students pick a local proverb to expound on.
Students will be given two to three days to prepare for a two-minute presentation. The presentation should include the following elements:
- A literal and figurative English translation of the proverb.
- A short story or anecdote to illustrate the proverb.
- An insight, advice or prescription that will benefit the class.
The students are free to bring visual aids or props to help them make a point. Bringing pictures or showing video clips can make for an interesting and memorable presentation.
Note: The two minutes given are for speaking time exclusively and wouldn’t include the time it takes to play a video clip.
This activity is unique in that it not only provides room for practice, it provides a peek into the rich cultural wisdom of the target language. A language’s proverbs and sayings reveal the distinct character of a culture, what issues are vital to a people, and what values they hold most dear.
And since sayings and proverbs are purposely written or composed in a catchy manner, every line, every proverb, presented in front of the class would be brimming with highly memorable, highly contextualized vocabulary that will benefit the listening classmates.
With these wonderful speaking opportunities, your students will come out of the course not just knowing a list of grammar rules, but having been immersed in the language like native speakers.