A comparative approach to drama-based teaching in two different learning environments: the Law faculty of UPEC in Paris and the City University of New York

Anne-Laure DubracGarret Scally

To Cite this Article

APA : Dubrac, A.-L. & Scally, G. (2015). A comparative approach to drama-based teaching in two different learning environments: the Law faculty of UPEC in Paris and the City University of New York. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e , 2 (1-2). http://p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e.org/?p=1538

Chicago : Dubrac, Anne-Laure, and Garret Scally. “A comparative approach to drama-based teaching in two different learning environments: the Law faculty of UPEC in Paris and the City University of New York.” p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e 2, no. 1-2 (Spring-Fall 2015). http://p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e.org/?p=1538

MLA : Dubrac, Anne-Laure, et al. “A comparative approach to drama-based teaching in two different learning environments: the Law faculty of UPEC in Paris and the City University of New York.” p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e 2.1-2 (2015). http://p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e.org/?p=1538


This article compares the approaches and results of two qualitative studies conducted respectively at the City University of New York in 2010 and at the Law Faculty of UPEC. It aims to describe and analyse how drama (as a social art) can be used to explore how the physicality of communication, with an empasis on gesture and emotion, creates a strong sense of ownership of, and identity within, the target language.


drama, oral comprehension, oral expression, task-based language learning, language and gesture studies

This article is the result of the authors’ encounter in July 2013, at the 8th International IDEA Congress in Paris. We both presented our work on the same day and shared ideas on our respective practice research at the end of the Congress. In doing so, we realized that even though we were working in very different learning contexts, we shared several ideas and reservations about drama-based teaching. As a result, we decided to write an article together hoping that it would help us step back from our work, take some distance from our teaching, and provide us with the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the educational uses of drama. Accordingly, our article aims to present and compare two different approaches and methodologies to drama-based teaching, rather than proposing a fixed set of clear-cut answers to questions of how to use drama in language education.

1. Context and research hypotheses

Our research is based on two assumptions:

Along with increased international travel, globalization has changed people’s understanding and perception of ‘the Other’. In the European Union, for example, governments today encourage their citizens not only to coexist with people from other countries[1], but to interact and collaborate with them on common projects, both during their studies and their professional lives. According to Edgar Morin (2000: 103), being able to understand and interact with others has become all the more important today because even if ‘communication succeeds’ in ways it never did before, thanks to the increasing number of networks (fax, mobile phones, the internet) that make it possible, ‘misunderstanding remains widespread’.

The researcher Jerome Bruner (1998: 42) has highlighted another consequence of the rise of globalisation: ‘Feeling at home in the world, knowing how to place oneself into self-descriptive stories, is surely not made easier by the enormous increase in migration in the modern world’. Along with this, Katherine E. Garrett explains that the challenges of learning a language ‘are a fundamental hurdle for immigrants and refugees … and appear to stop them from making vital connections in their communities’ (2006: 5). Under these conditions, the goal of education should be two-fold: helping learners construct stable identities and offering students strategies that allow them to interact with people from different backgrounds in ways that respect their cultural differences. According to our hypothesis, drama has the potential to help learners achieve these ends, as it enables them to both question their identities and relate more intimately with others. As Bräuer (2002: ix-x) indicates ‘drama […] is not limited to artistic work or pedagogical use, but rather means the interplay between body and language in general that leads to doubts, questions, and insights for learners interacting with the linguistic and cultural identities’ of their interlocutors. Drama engages learners in a continuous and meaningful dialogue between their own culture and one that is yet to be discovered. Fictional characters can also help students construct their identities because, as many researchers (for example Ricoeur and Bruner) have shown, people create their identities in reference to others; they do so either by identifying with them, or by confronting their differences with them.

Our second assumption is that even though gestures are part of social communication, the body is traditionally ignored in Western education. Bräuer (2002: x) refers to Nothing Goes Without Body […], a German publication on the physicality of drama work […], pointing out that the book ‘makes a simple fact visible that has been denied in traditional Western education for much too long. When seen as a phenomenon of the mind alone, learning is stripped of half of its medium and educational potential’. Students in language classrooms are, as a result, expected to learn while remaining passive and motionless (Lapaire, 2005). Drama, on the other hand, demonstrates the importance of body language in communication. It shows that ‘communication is more than the act of ‘talking to someone’’ (Aden, 2010: 91), it is an encounter, and as a result it requires a physical, emotional and intellectual adaptation towards the specific person and situation. Based on these findings, we hypothesized that integrating drama in the teaching environment could help learners both engage more fully with their learning processes and better understand the difficult relationship that exists between the self and the Other. However, even if we shared the same beliefs and educational goals, we used different teaching methods, since we were working in very different environments.

Anne-Laure Dubrac’s work, took place with a group of 28 second-year French law students at UPEC (University Paris-Est Créteil) during the second semester of 2013. Her students formed a homogeneous group in terms of nationality, age, language level, and in their expectations of the class[2]. Additionally, it should be noted that studying a foreign language is compulsory in French universities, so the students were not doing so by choice. The project that Garret Scally will analyse, on the other hand, was completed in 2010 with an intermediate/advanced ESL (English as Second Language) class at Hartley House, a non-profit organization in New York City that is sponsored by the New York City Department of Education. The group, which was composed of nine women, was heterogeneous with regards to age, cultural background, and native language. Members came from various European and Asian countries, and the only characteristics they shared were their gender, and the fact that they were all immigrants living in the US eager to improve their English. Their strong interest in developing their language skills was primarily due to their need to speak English in their everyday life in New York.

To use Bräuer’s typology (2002: xi) concerning drama-based foreign and second-language methodology, Anne-Laure Dubrac’s use of drama as a teaching tool was “process-oriented”, that is to say, it was an “immediate medium for language learning” used to motivate learners and help them gain confidence in their ability to communicate in English. The application of role-play in Dubrac’s teaching was limited by the university’s various place, time, and programmatic constraints. The students, for example, were also assigned reading and writing assignments unrelated to their dramatic performances. Garret Scally’s use of drama, on the other hand, was product-oriented – a final performance was the goal of the project – and therefore the primary reason for language learning though the creative process offered learning opportunities as well.

The first part of our article introduces the theoretical framework on which we based our research. In order to assess our hypothesis, we needed to first consider the necessary conditions for the successful learning of a foreign language through drama.

2. Theoretical framework

According to Henri and Lundgren-Cayrol (2003), learning is an active process requiring the selection, interpretation, and memorisation of data. Humans construct knowledge through experience by interacting with the world around them. Learners modify and enrich their previously acquired knowledge by making new hypotheses about the environment in which they live. Consequently, conceptual thinking develops through experimentation. For Henri and Lundgren-Cayrol (2003), learning is also a social phenomenon; it requires learners to engage in meaningful activities with their peers, which encourages them to contrast their beliefs and knowledge to those of others. Learning thus implies acting on one’s knowledge with the help of other people – ‘co-acting’, to use Puren’s expression (2008). Drama fosters this kind of learning as it enables students to refocus their attention and ‘decentre’ their perspectives from themselves and onto others (Piaget 1962). This ‘decentring’ allows individuals to see things from their characters’ point of view, which in turn allows for a meaningful and culturally significant interaction with the other actors. Learners are asked to develop an empathetic perspective, which is to say, to experience someone else’s vantage point while still consciously remaining themselves (Thirioux & Berthoz 2010). In requiring this perspectival change from actors, drama leads learners to undergo an experience which modifies them as people and gives them an experience different to the inherent expected demeanours of their native language. It is in asking players to leave their comfort zones that drama provides the opportunity for individual growth.

In fact, recent scientific research has confirmed the importance of other people in the learning process. In the 1990s, Professor Rizzolatti discovered a neurological phenomenon: human brains are equipped with a system of emotional and motor resonance whose main function is to allow us to understand and be understood through imitation. Human beings are not meant to learn, act or feel emotions in isolation, but to interact with others using more than just words. This discovery also stresses that imitation is a very powerful mechanism in communication. Human beings are above all imitators since they spend their time reproducing gestures, facial expressions and attitudes they have learned from other people. As the renowned theatrical director Peter Brook reminds us in the introduction to Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia’s book Mirrors in the Brain, theatrical techniques rely on the same systems:

With the discovery of mirror neurons, neuroscience had finally started to understand what has long been common knowledge in the theatre: the actor’s efforts would be in vain if he were not able to surmount all cultural and linguistic barriers and share his bodily sounds and movements with the spectators, who thus actively contribute to the event and become one with the players on the stage. (2008: ix).

Another characteristic of drama is its physical nature: to construct meaning, actors use gestures even more than words. Yet, the physicality of drama does not represent a distinct type of communication where gestures are given the main, or an exaggerated role, as Wagner explains, ‘Gesture is a communication system even more basic to humans than language’ (2002: 11). Indeed, for Wagner, gestures are at the core of any form of communication[3]. It is the first tool newborns use to make sense of the world by, for example, pointing or reaching towards what they want. Consequently, according to Wagner, in the same way children use gestures to construct meaning, learners should use their body to communicate in a foreign language. Macedonia and Knösche (2011), two researchers working for the Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, even go as far as asserting that not only are gestures an essential component of communication, but they are an effective learning tool which enhances memory performance.

Experimental evidence from the last three decades has shown that encoding through enactment compared with audiovisual encoding provides manifold advantages: Verbal information is retrieved in better quantity, it is accessed faster and more accurately and it decays more slowly (Macedonia and Knösche, 2011: 196).

Learning is thereby a complex process which deeply affects both our bodies and minds (Blair 2008; Trocmé-Fabre 1999; Damasio 1994).

Socio-constructivism will thus be used as the main theoretical framework for our study since we consider the cognition/interaction duality to be a fundamental element of learning. As a result, the concepts of co-action and co-culture are central to our analysis. We will also base our practical research on recent developments in neuroscience that highlight the connections between emotions and cognition as well as between physical movement and reason.

3. Language learning through dramatic exploration for aspiring law professional at UPEC

This research aimed to analyse the impact of drama on both the acquisition of spoken English and on identity-construction by law students. Since most second year law students are undecided about their future legal specialization[4], this is a time when they actively question their identities. Moreover, law students have a tendency to underestimate their English abilities and are often very reluctant to express themselves in English, especially at the outset of the university year. For example, I met several students who were very similar to Herman Melville’s character, Bartleby,[5] since the only thing they were willing to say was: “I would prefer not to” speak English. Consequently, to assuage their reluctance, I attempted to create teaching and learning processes which would trigger communication between students and help them experiment with some of the legal roles that they may one day represent.

3.1 Research methodology

My methodology at UPEC consisted of the following steps:

First, students were asked to spend some time at the beginning of each class on improvisational activities. The goal here was to make students comfortable performing and using the English language spontaneously. For example, one of these activities was giving students a set of ten words related to the law. Then the students were asked to form pairs and create a story using only these words. To communicate, they could use body language, different voices and intonations, as well as, for instance, whisper, shout, cry, stammer or sing. They were also encouraged to use the space around them to convey their message. Next, they were allowed to use full sentences to tell the story that they had created with the words. These performances only lasted around one minute due to the short amount of time they were allowed to prepare.

Once students felt more at ease speaking English uninhibitedly, I explained to them the nature of my action-research[6] and the fact that I would be implementing it in class. I then asked students to read a short excerpt from a play and create their own continuation of the scene. Learners were expected to put themselves in their character’s position to understand the character’s feelings and perceptions. However, to find a text that would be culturally, linguistically, and professionally relevant was not an easy task. In looking for such a text, I was guided by Jerome Bruner’s definition of culture (1986: 130): “Culture is continually recreated; it is constantly interpreted and renegotiated by its participants”. I selected an excerpt from the play Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose as I wanted students to understand that culture is not fixed but constantly in flux and is continuously being remade by its members. The play centres around twelve jurors who are deliberating the guilt of a teenager who has been accused of murdering his father. Each juror is expected to give his own opinion and, ultimately, the decision must be unanimous. However, the jurors cannot reach consensus. Most are disinclined to question the group’s early conclusion that the defendant was guilty and should be sentenced to death. Nevertheless, juror number eight does not want to be so hasty in making a decision; he wants to discuss every shred of evidence in detail and recreate certain key events. The play also brings up several questions which are regularly raised by law professionals, such as: how can we be absolutely sure of the guilt or innocence of a man? Is it possible to make a truly fair decision, that is to say, a decision devoid of any personal considerations? My choice of play reflected my understanding that introducing students to various problematic situations would both trigger questions about justice and the law and prepare them to deal with the various cultural misunderstandings they were likely to encounter in the future.

The students were given two weeks to form small groups (of 2 to 4 students[7]) and try to negotiate their own dramatic approaches to the scene[8]. The day of the performance, they videotaped their own interpretations of the excerpt, then, they were asked to reflect on their performances. The goal of this activity was to encourage learners to comment on their linguistic needs during their performances. Once their linguistic needs were identified, the students worked on them by carrying out specific tasks with an emphasis on body language. For instance, they were asked to find gestures that would help them both pronounce certain words better and effectively inhabit the characters they were playing. Because tasks could be completed at home, they were able to work at their own pace and spend extra time – alone or with their performance partners – on whatever tasks they found most helpful (they could, for example, go online to learn the pronunciation of a word or about the precise duties of US jurors). Finally, they were once again asked to perform the excerpt on camera. In order to analyze the performances of the students and assess the extent of their improvement, I compared the two videotaped performances using the following criteria:

  1. a) Their results in terms of accuracy and fluency

The first criterion refers to the students’ linguistic improvements. For Chapelle (2003:125), a task is relevant if it helps learners develop at least one of the three parameters of oral production: fluency, accuracy, or complexity. In order to assess our students, I decided to link fluency and accuracy; because if speaking fluently does not guarantee syntactic quality, conversely, producing grammatically correct but disjointed bursts is not an optimal form of expression either.

The study of linguistic dexterity enables us to assess the accuracy of the students’ productions. In order to track improvements in fluency, we compared the number of words pronounced per minute in the first videotaped performance to those in the second.

  1. b) Their involvement in the task

To assess students’ personal and intellectual involvement, I logged the verbal and non verbal signs displaying investment in their speech: their accentuations and verbal inflections in particular, and their appropriation of pronouns (I, you, us) as well.

The goal of this analysis was to see if students had managed to take some distance from their own identity in order to fully commit themselves to their role.

The research carried out was thus qualitative and exploratory, as it focused on a small group of participants and was concerned with their subjective opinions and feelings of the situation being studied (Dörnyei 2007: 38).

3.2 Results of the action-research: The impact of drama in the students’ learning process

From a linguistic perspective, our analysis of the students’ filmed performances showed that there was indeed improvement in terms of accuracy and fluency between the first and the second filmed sequences. The number of linguistic problems either decreased or remained the same. Also, when the participants saw their performances, they became aware of the many pauses in their speech. This led them to try to find ways to make themselves more easily understood. To do so, the students either modified their speech and/or used their body during the second performance. For example, one of the participants had a lot of difficulty using the expression “6 foot seven” because he was used to refer to the height of people using metres (not feet). In order to help him replace a familiar system by a foreign one, he decided to stand up and raise his hand to show the height of the person he was talking about. In the same way, another participant pointed to the ‘back’ of the room to remember the preposition he was supposed to use to refer to the ‘back of a place’. While several students noted using their gestures enabled them to remember expressions, our analysis led us to conclude that it also helped them better pronounce and stress certain syllables. For instance, during the first performance, a student said “Open your eyes” in a very dull way, stressing all the syllables in the same way, and without looking at his interlocutor. As a result, his partner in the scene reacted as if this request did not concern him. Then, on the day of the second filmed sequence, the student tried to compensate for his unclear original delivery by lowering his hand both to stress the pronunciation of “open” and to convey his anger. He thus tried to create a unified association between sound, function and gesture.

The project confirmed my research hypothesis: Drama may be helpful to support language learning. It can also help students relate to others, by which I mean not only their performance partners, but also the characters they embody. Furthermore, the theories on which I based my work were also confirmed. Learners did rediscover their innate physical resources for communicating with others. Indeed, the results of this research showed that the more fully the students embodied their roles (by using their gaze, their arms, or the space around them), the more dynamic and accurate their speech became and the more they seemed to enjoy performing.

It is also important to mention that all students were actively involved in the project and agreed to be filmed. They also managed to meet the various deadlines I set, and take on several additional responsibilities. In addition to being actors and spectators, they also served as advisers and supporters to their peers. Indeed, during the two rehearsal sessions between the first and the second performance, students actively coached each other on how to better inhabit their character or make themselves understood. Moreover, in a survey conducted at the end of the project[9], most participants said that they had enjoyed the uncommon nature of the learning environment and that, as a result, their interest in the English language increased. Students were happy about the fact that the class allowed them to use the legal vocabulary they knew. Moreover, they indicated that the project gave them the opportunity to discover aspects about the US legal system that they were unacquainted with, and to compare the American legal system to the French. Indeed, to create their own scenes, the participants did some research, especially about the functioning of American courtrooms and about the legal rights of defendants. Finally, the students underlined that changing their perspectives and adopting someone else’s point of view enabled them to reflect on their own desires, fears, and beliefs. For instance, a student said that putting himself in the shoes of an angry and selfish juror helped him overcome his anxieties and feel more at ease speaking in public. According to him, entering the mind of a fictional character enabled him to understand himself better.

4. MULTI (Multicultural Union of Language, Theatre, and Identity) project

This study analysed the use of group devised theatre/play-building in language acquisition. The activities and session concepts for the project were based upon those often used in theatre devising and were geared towards the explicit use of the body in communication including mime and gestural work. The project’s aim was to form a culturally diverse theatre group to create a performance to discuss the issues related to culture, identity, and language. The goal of the project was to create an original theatrical performance through a devising process with English learners with several objectives for the group including: experiencing a new learning environment; improving confidence in the participants’ ability to communicate and express themselves in English; and moments of intercultural learning.

We had fifteen participants over the course of the project, though not all the participants remained in the group for the duration of the project. Two of the participants had to leave because of the conflict in the timing of the sessions with work commitments; two had to return to their home countries. Nine women were in the final group of research subjects with one participant each from China, Taiwan, South Korea, France, and Spain, and four from Japan. There was a wide variety in the ages of the group, ranging from one participant in her early twenties to two participants in their early fifties and a variety of ages in between.

My study[10] used a participatory action research methodology for assessing and evaluating the devised theatre project. Because my methodology is based on practitioner observation and reflection, I created a detailed narrative description of the sessions, reflecting practitioner reaction and planning that took place during the devising process. The narrative is constructed from my practitioner journals, planning sessions, participant responses, interviews with participants and video recordings of the sessions.

4.1 Devising for the Final Performance

In this section, I will talk about the creation of two scenes that we used in the final performance. I will discuss the value of individual activities, and the devising process in language acquisition. The main part of the devising process took place over eight days – four hours on the first four days and six on the following four – plus four more two-hour sessions before the show.

‘Con-Fusion Kitchen’ and ‘Family’ are the titles of two of the scenes in the final show. I will discuss them together as they had the same actors, were created concurrently, and had many links and similarities. We had already worked on a scene that looked at how we can be completely comfortable not speaking (a yoga class) and also a situation where the opposite is true (a diner with a busy waiter reeling off the list of the day’s specials). The reactions of Machiko (Japanese), Xiuxiu (Taiwanese), and Chin-sun (Korean) to the barrage of indecipherable details held great comic appeal. It was also a theme which the participants recognized. The group had mentioned, at various times, their experiences trying to order food in the U.S., and the customs involved in the process; these experiences, for a newcomer to New York, are ones to be faced on a day to day basis.

To begin devising the three participants alternately took the position of someone who wants something, for example, a customer, a vendor, or a supplier and I asked them to try doing it non-verbally following Morgan and Saxton’s suggestion that ‘Not only do expression and gesture help to ‘fill out’ the words we are saying but they often express thoughts and feelings of which we may not be aware’ (2000: 10). As the exercise changed to only miming what the secret item was, the frustration of the participants’ work in role was producing more and more animated results. I then asked the actors to mime specific items – by chance foods – and this became an important moment, especially as the first one given was ‘soup’.

The group were surprised to learn that in Korean the English word is ‘loaned’ with the same meaning, though with a different emphasis in pronunciation.[11] From this moment, we thought that the scene would be a good way of exploring cultural differences through dialogue combined with physicality as Axtmann posits, ‘Cross-cultural exchange … is a sensorial and somatic experience that challenges us in new and exciting ways’ (2002: 38). Also, as we thought that many of scenes we had created for the overall performance would have little dialogue, here was an opportunity to give the piece a different element of language and have faster, sharper dialogue to add texture. The use of food established the basic idea that one of the characters would be a customer in a restaurant, one a waiter, and the other a chef and became ‘Con-Fusion Kitchen’.

Over the course of the session an interaction developed between Chin-sun and Machiko. Chin-sun’s character is trying to explain that she is a vegetarian in Korean. She emphasizes this by miming several animals and Machiko responds by making clear that she understands what Chin-sun means by miming the animal in a slightly different way. They both additionally make the onomatopoeic animal noises used in Korea and Japan respectively. We found that each was different. Co-incidentally, one of Chin-sun’s language aims was to learn onomatopoeic sounds in English and this gave us an ideal opportunity to explore the differences between the languages of Korean, English, Spanish, Mandarin and Japanese when we used onomatopoeic sounds. We used the possible breakdowns in communication, when the common language is only known at an elementary level as the basis for the rest of the work we were to do on the scene. It gave us a chance to explore sounds and gestures that languages have in common. It is also interesting to note that I did not ask the actors, nor did they ask each other, what each was actually saying in their own language. This directorial decision had the effect of moving the focus away from aim of English learning, to what was more of an exploration of intercultural relationships; in looking for rich theatrical material, the initial learning goals of the participants were somewhat affected.

Along with creating the characters, the conflict and ‘tilt’, there were many moments with great potential for language learning, such as the use of repetition when we used English in the scene. Each time something was said, a different emphasis was used. This meant that the participants listened to and practiced the effect of intonation, stress and pronunciation on particular words. Towards the end of creating the scene, pronunciation also provided an interesting development from a conversation about the use of the word ‘shit’ in the scene. When we had shown the scene to the other members of the group Xiuxiu noticed that there was little reaction to its use. On further investigation we discovered that this was because ‘shit’ was understood as ‘ssh’. This was not the only concern. Xiuxiu was worried that the use of the expletive might be offensive to some of the potential audience members. She was especially concerned that some of her piano students – 5 and 6 years olds – who were coming would be shocked. With Machiko and Chin-sun we discussed the importance of knowing how and when to use expletives in another language. We agreed that it was important to identify when a situation was appropriate and with whom it was culturally acceptable. As a solution to both the offensiveness and pronunciation problems, I suggested that Xiuxiu substitute ‘crap’ for ‘shit’, though Xiuxiu eventually made the decision that she felt comfortable using the original word ‘shit’. The discussion about one word of vocabulary involved many aspects of language learning. What it is that is actually being said, who we are saying it to, how it is said, and if it can be understood all factor into what is often an instantaneous decision. Using drama gave the opportunity to think about and rehearse these concerns about language.

As we had done substantial work on ‘Con-Fusion Kitchen’, we started to work on what would become the scene ‘Family’. We started the devising process using an exercise played around the concept of status where participants created a freeze-frame where one partner has a higher status than the other and the participants take turns finding different ways to establish a higher status than the other. I asked the actors to do this in a trio, taking a pause each time a new status was achieved. From the exercise, we discussed the images the group made and discussed possible scenarios inspired by the images. Although some other possibilities were offered, we returned to the theme of family, echoing how throughout the project the group as whole had talked about this theme and how they struggled with being separated from their kin. We used several of the images that were interesting from the ‘status’ exercise as points where the scene could move to. The initial image that the group decided on was of Machiko sitting on the floor, limbs apart and Xiuxiu and Chin-sun pulling on her arms as in a tug-of-war. We discussed this as an effect, talking about the push-and-pull factors that lead people to go to the United States.

The scene was repeatedly singled out by Qiang as the one that meant most to her. Qiang saw in the scenes many elements of her life in the U.S., including the use of English as the language of communication within the immigrant home. The elements of sacrifice and separation that moving to a new country bring to immigrants were also strongly resonant for Qiang and other members of the group. Machiko commented that she felt like a child being fought over and Chin-sun and Xiuxiu were her parents. I asked Machiko who she loved the most, which Machiko re-interpreted as the opening line of the scene. The phrase: ‘Who do I love?’ became central to the piece in marking out different sections of the scene and was the concept around which the dialogue in each section of the scene was developed. There also proved to be an interesting exploration of how a ‘question word’ can radically change meaning. We discussed how replacing ‘who’ with ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’ or ‘when’ affected the meaning of different sections of the scene. As question words are used to ask about times, places, people and other specific qualities, it helped to define those qualities in the scene itself.

We returned to work on ‘Con-Fusion Kitchen’ on the fourth day and having worked on physicality and gestures in ‘Family’ influenced many aspects of ‘Con-Fusion Kitchen’. As the characters of the Chef and the Waitress were engaged in a push-and-pull relationship, I used a game from Boal’s ‘Pushing against each other’ sequence (2002: 60) to find a physical representation of this relationship. In the game the actors are in pairs, facing each other, and they place their hands on each others’ shoulders. They start pushing with all their strength. When one person feels that their ‘adversary’ is weaker, they ease off so as not to win and try to maintain the equilibrium. We used the game directly in the scene and the struggle came to be a comment on the feelings of many immigrants from different countries in a country where they all have to use the language of the dominant culture. We worked on the relationship between the co-workers, trying to symbolize the battle for survival and the, sometimes conflicting, desire to support others in the same situation.

4.2 Discoveries of the project

Regarding improved confidence in the participants’ English speaking skills, during the post-performance discussions and interviews, all of the participants indicated that they felt much more confident in using English in general after the process than at the start of the project. This increased confidence had also been noticed by their families, friends and peers along with their classroom teacher who commented on the participants’ growing ability and confidence to both them and to us. However, when asked for instances which could indicate this, there were only four who gave me specific times. Marie-Claire now felt more confident in discussing problems at work with her employer and had done so on several occasions. Xiuxiu had to retake an exam in English but the second time, about half-way through her preparation, she felt more comfortable in her ability to succeed. Also, the creation of scenes allowed participants to “rehearse” possible situations for real life: Machiko and Chin-sun said ordering food in restaurants was now easier and they were confident in their ability to communicate what they wanted and would receive, though the results were not always the desired ones! All felt that the experience had helped them. Xiuxiu mentioned specifically how she had increased her ability to make sure all the consonants could be heard and was more aware of not only what she was saying, but how.

The collaborative creative process had many benefits for language acquisition. The most notable thing about the project was how all the members of the group felt in regards an improved confidence in their ability to communicate and express themselves in English. There were opportunities not only to practice pronunciation and articulation, but also the exploration of physicality and theatre’s specific focus on communication allows for a better understanding of conveying meaning. The act of creation can be geared to incorporating many different styles of learning and engage different intelligences, incorporating musical, visual and linguistic strengths. With groups from diverse backgrounds, intercultural understanding can be enhanced through dialogue. An important discovery was that not only does the devising process provide ample opportunity for group members to contribute to their own and others’ learning through discussions sparked by the creative process, the actual intercultural negotiation kindled by creative tasks was equally, if not more important for language acquisition.

Another discovery was that the participants had begun to address and stabilise their sense of identity as immigrants in a new world. I found that the participants, by forming informal relationships with other people in a similar position, were able to explore aspects of their changing identity benefitting from their intercultural interaction in the project. As Qiang commented on the project, “We were from different countries and were in a small group so we had more chance to speak and exchange ideas in English”. We found that only after the group had established a stronger bond did we see a shift in emphasis of the project for the participants along with working on themes for the performance that were meaningful to the group members. This change was, specifically, from one of language learning to that of discovering new aspects of different cultures while learning English.

5. Side by side: comparison and contrast

Coming from contrasting approaches that we have already pointed out – ‘process-oriented’ in the case of the Law faculty and the MULTI project being more product-oriented – there are some very similar aspects to the projects. For example, a fundamental characteristic of both projects was the creation of an environment where participants felt comfortable with each other. Friendship, in all forms, whether in terms of support, guidance or critique, was essential for the success of the work. Knowles (1950) posits that most successful adult learning situations were informal and friendly. Kao and O’Neill also favour a ‘playful atmosphere, in which exploration and enjoyment are the primary purposes and the lack of pressure to produce a ‘correct’ speech promotes confidence and fluency’ (1998: 24). In the case of MULTI, to maintain the regular attendance and commitment, this had to be balanced with the need to provide an end product. The goal of a theatre production achieved this but in the later stages of the project, with the pressures of the deadline for the performance mounting, tension and frustration was evident, which may not have been conducive to learning. In respect to the Law faculty project, there were no such negative elements with a sense of purpose being provided by the participants seeing direct improvements in both their linguistic skills and in their area of study.

It is interesting to note that the Law faculty project used a technique using gesture to accompany words in order to aid memorization and pronunciation. This is in contrast to MULTI where the communicative element emanated from the gestures and gestural forms were explored in performance itself. In both contexts students benefitted. In the case of MULTI the participants were able to find what they truly wanted to convey through gesture later arranging actual words around these gestures and emotions and creating a strong sense of ownership of the language. This was also the case in the Law faculty project where the students became more confident in using words through physicalization.

In the two research projects, there are many indications that adult populations learn best when there is a certain amount of freedom in their learning environment. If they are able to explore those things that interest them and are relevant to their lives, the learning process can be a great deal more effective. Also, activities around the concepts of physicality as a way of communicating were integral to the process during both projects and through the use of physicality and gesture, participants found they were able to overcome linguistic barriers and realize the importance of communication with action to give meaning to the words that were being said. As Eva Hoffman expresses ‘the great first lessons of my uprooting were in the enormous importance of language and of culture’, further stating, ‘these entities are not luxuries or even external necessities but the medium in which we live, the stuff of which we are made’ (2000: 48). This again emphasizes the importance of a holistic approach to language and its acquisition. It is not a currency which is to be used to exchange for something else, but part of the human fabric which cannot be given away.


[1] We mean people from countries both within and outside the EU.

[2] Most of the students’s English level was either B1 or B2 in the CEFR (Common European Framework of References for Languages) scale. The students were above all interested in studying topics related to law.

[3] For example, Wagner stresses that gestures, because they are made with the hands, lead to drawing and writing.

[4] According to a survey of students at the beginning of the university year.

[5] Melville, Herman. ([1856] 2010). Bartleby, the scrivener. Hoboken, N.J. : Melville House Pub.

[6] Action-research can be defined as a research method which involves deliberately trying to transform reality (Hugon & Seibel 1988). As noted earlier, in our work, this desire to modify current practices stemmed from our observation that students are often passive and reluctant to take an active role in English classes.

[7] There were 5 groups of 4 students, 2 groups of 3 students and one group of 2 students.

[8] During these two weeks, students were given time to imagine and rehearse their performances. Some were scared about speaking a foreign language in front of a camera, and so learned their speech by heart.

[9] At the semester’s beginning and end, students were asked to fill in a questionnaire in order to better understand their views of the project.

[10] The project was jointly facilitated, directed and planned by Pavla Uppal, Thomas Creery, and Garret Scally as part of the requirements for a Masters degree in Applied Theatre at The City University of New York, November 2009 – May 2010.

[11] The use of “soup” in Korean seems to come from the growing influence of English-speaking countries in the region after 1945


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Biographie of Anne-Laure Dubrac
Biographie of Garret Scally