Papers & Essays

Free Talking

Since I started teaching English in Japan in the early 1990's, the single biggest change in English education has been, in my opinion, the emphasis on speaking. The government has placed foreign nationals in language classrooms of most public schools. English conversation schools boomed with business for a time. "Oral Communication" curriculum was established. While these changes have made more English speakers, the social customs of being modest about one's own abilities and a strong taboo against making mistakes in oral language - including the misreading of kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese that have two or more pronunciations) - result in more challenges for the would-be English speaker in Japan.

As an English teacher in this social climate, I have for many years tried to develop and refine a classroom activity that would help students over this hurdle. While my methods are constantly evolving, I have found one activity that, more than any other, benefits would-be English speakers in my classes.

Not English Conversation

Most teachers are required to adhere to a set curriculum or at least cover some text. In order to create an activity that allows for that necessity, and also to keep student interest high, this speaking activity takes about five minutes of class time. While I often use it to start a lesson, I do not think of it as a "warm-up"; in fact, it may be the most important five minutes of the class.

"Free Talking," as I dubbed it, is not a conversation. While the class is divided into pairs, the partners do not take turns speaking as they do in normal conversation. That pattern too often results in a dominant partner, whose English skills are better or who is simply more confident or outgoing, doing more of the talking than the quiet partner. This results in more experience and eventually a higher skill level for the dominant partner.

In Free Talking, each person must take a turn being the "speaker" while the other is the "listener". Each pair decides themselves who will speak first. Only the speaker is to speak; the listener must listen only and not ask questions or make comments during the speaker's turn. The speaker is required to speak continuously without stopping and without interruption from the silently listening partner. In this way the teacher can ensure that every student speaks for at least some minimal time during the class, even if there are more than forty students in the room.


This minimal time is the key to helping students feel successful at the activity. Each session of Free Talking is timed. After checking that each pair has designated a first speaker (by having them raise their hands, etc.), the teacher calls "Start," and the first speakers in all pairs simultaneously begin talking to their partners. At the end of the set time (usually only fifteen or twenty seconds when the activity is first introduced), the second speakers have their turn as the process is repeated.

Speakers are told that they must speak English only and that they must speak continuously. "Don't stop" is the phrase I use. However, when I ask them to measure their own or each other's success, I actually lower the bar significantly. "Did your partner talk for half of the time, or more?" I ask them. "If so, raise your hand." Having their partner make this evaluation makes it more objective (they won't neglect to raise their own hand out of modesty) and also lends an outside authority and thus validity to the evaluation of success. Upwards of ninety percent of the class will be successful when measured in these terms. I praise them vehemently. They have shown themselves that they can speak English. Even the few students who are so inhibited that they cannot make the first utterance are inevitably buoyed along by the rest of the class. Even if they simply repeat a phrase such as "My name is Taro," they are speaking English, and this counts as a success!

The set time is gradually increased until they are talking for a full minute or more each after about fifteen classes. Too much of an increase too quickly presents the danger of reverting to the "I-can't-speak-English" mindset that is to be avoided at all costs.


An integral part of free talking is good listening. I talk about good listening from the fist time I introduce Free Talking in class. First, I model "bad" listening. This entails looking at my watch, checking my nails, making comments under my breath about lunchtime not coming soon enough, and the like, and is greeted with chuckles from the students. Next I introduce good listening: eye contact, nods of understanding, frowns or grins of empathy. I note that even if the listener cannot understand everything that is said (because the speaker's level is too sophisticated for the listener or too low to be comprehensible), "good listening" as a posture can still be achieved. Having a good listener actually makes it easier to talk. Feeling that you have someone's attention, that they are trying to understand what you have to say, gives you more confidence than if the listener is distracted or ignores you, regardless of how fluent or how poor a speaker you are.

After the first speakers have their turn and I stop them, I randomly call on two or three listeners to tell the class in English what their partner said. Hearing what the listener heard is also helpful to the speaker, and it gives the class an idea of what other people talk about during Free Talking. At first it is usually a short comment, like "He lives in Uji," or "She has two dogs." Later I encourage them to make additional comments. Yet even at the beginning when the response might be very short, I am careful to praise their abilities. After all, they have absorbed information in English and are now relaying it, again in English. This is a significant achievement for students who may have spent most of their English education in classrooms where they were not encouraged to speak!


An important aspect of Free Talking is having variety so that the activity is fresh. I try to assign everyone a new partner for each class. Since I have them sit in row, I ask two rows to switch seats or have everyone in a row move up or back one seat. Then their partner is simply the person sitting next to them, and they initiate conversation to establish who will talk first. Students have told me that they talk to people they've never spoken to before, though they were classmates, through Free Talking. Also, speaking in English seems to free them up to say things they normally would not say to each other.

Topics for Free Talking also change, though not every time. Leaving the subject of Free Talking up to the students usually results in indecision and consequently no talking. For this reason, and also to lend Free Talking an additional element of "fun" by making it seem like a game, I create sets of topic cards and print them on colorful paper. The sets contain six to eight unique questions, the first set with easy topics like "Tell me about your family," with subsequent sets including more sophisticated queries like "Tell me about your first love," or "Tell me about your most interesting vacation." Often students will draw a new card, but sometimes they will get a card they have had already. Using the same topic, but with a new partner, allows students to practice talking about that subject.

Real World English

As students practice talking about these subjects, they gain new vocabulary that is uniquely useful to them. As soon as they get their card, many students start checking their dictionaries for words they want to use during their talking turn. As they use these words again and again, they become part of that particular student's working lexicon. Free Talking lets them learn - and immediately use - vocabulary that has personal significance. The topics they talk about are those with real-world applications, the sorts of things we say to introduce ourselves or to make small talk with a seatmate on a long airplane flight. "Imagine yourself talking with a foreigner," I urge them during class.

Is every utterance made during Free Talking perfectly free from errors? Hardly. Do these mistakes get immediately corrected by the teacher? Almost never. Yet students can make themselves understood, and that is the highest purpose of language: communication.


Sarah Ogawa

Sarah Wittenbrink Ogawa first came to Japan in high school as a short-term exchange student. After spending her junior year of college at Doshisha University, she returned to graduate from Smith College in Massachusetts. She moved back to Japan in 1992, where she has worked at a number of schools and in television. She is a faculty member at Doshisha International High School in Kyoto, where she lives with her Japanese husband and their two children. She has done graduate work in both science and the humanities, and holds a Master's Degree from the University of California.
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