A ‘feast of languages’ in Birmingham

I’ve decided to call my presentation at IATEFL a ‘feast of languages’ not because I wanted to refer to the diversity of languages spoken by the delegates at the conference; neither because I wanted to allude to the diversity of ‘languages’ and voices in Shakespeare’s works but because I wanted to call my audience’s attention to the ways in which we sometimes approach Shakespeare with language learners.

The phrase ‘a great feast of languages’ comes from Love’s Labour’s Lost and, in isolation, it may sound as if Shakespeare is celebrating diversity and multilingualism. I think this illustrates very well the danger of taking bits and pieces of a text without looking at how they are inserted in the context of the work. In the play, there are two very pedantic and verbose characters called Don Armado and Holofernes, the schoolmaster, who are mocked by Moth, Armado’s page, and the country clown, Costard, for their linguistic ‘perversion’ and their meaningless use of discourse. They say that Armado and Holofernes  ‘have been to a great feast of languages and stol’n the scraps’ and that they ‘have long liv’d on the alms-basket of words’, which means that they pick words indiscriminately, without thinking about their meaning, just to sound learned and show off their supposedly superior linguistic knowledge.

The point I wanted to emphasize with the audience is that we should find ways of teaching Shakespeare to language learners that go beyond just picking words and phrases or teaching students a couple of Shakespearean idioms.  I believe that you need to help learners look at Shakespeare’s language in a more meaningful way. In order to do that, I suggest teachers choose a particular play and them select an extract of that play they want to explore with their students. Once you have chosen the passage, there are a couple of things you can do to analyse it in more depth:

  • Ask your students to read the text before coming to the classroom and ask them to work on the vocabulary at home, preferably using  the Shakespeare’s Glossary to help them with the meaning of less common words. Once you have taken the vocabulary issue out of the way, students will feel more confident to start thinking about the meaning of the lines.
  • In class, give your students the opportunity to watch the same scene being performed. This can come from a YouTube video as there is plenty of material available, from commercial films to clips of live theatre performances uploaded by the theatre companies.
  • Design pre-listening tasks and listening tasks to go with it. No need to be fancy here: these can be the same kinds of tasks that you would design for any listening activity.
  • Design some post-listening activities that make students revisit the passage and close read it. This may sound a bit old-fashioned, but in my opinion close reading is still be best way to work with a text

Close reading is a literary criticism technique used by both structuralist and post-structuralist critics to analyse the text. It is up to you to decide in which direction you want your students to go. I personally favour an approach that combines an analysis of the form and figurative language that is illuminated by a theoretically informed reading of the text. This may sound a little bit ‘too advanced’ for some language learners but in fact it is just a way to help students think about the nuances and implications of what is going on in the play. You may find out that some theoretical approaches work best with some particular genres. For example, I mainly use the new historicist approach with the history plays and feminist criticism/gender studies theory to analyse the comedies. Particular plays might also better lend themselves to particular readings, such psychoanalyst criticism with Hamlet or post-colonial criticism with The Tempest.  However, this is not carved in stone; you can use any approach to look at any of the plays.

My presentation was kindly sponsored by Macmillan since I am writing a couple of lesson plans and materials, as well as articles, for onestopenglish on teaching Shakespeare to EAP students. A video should be available soon.