When I asked, “Has anyone ever tried Saino?”; having tasted this species of wild pig called Peccary in English and native to many of the jungles of South America, I did regain a little respect for my “adventuresome” eating. But what brought the house down was my tale of breakfasts in America’s south with fried pork brains scrambled with eggs along with fried slices of pig testicles, known as “mountain oysters” in states like South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. Mouths dropped open and glazed-over eyes seemed to double in size. Then they started talking.
One of the language aspects of most interest to your English language students will be conversation practice. As a native speaker, you represent the best that English has to offer in pronunciation, grammar usage, idioms and expressions, vocabulary, fluency and communicative ability. You are the ultimate example of English in use. But how can you regularly stimulate your English language students to speak spontaneously without timidity or fear of making mistakes?
The use of controversial questions and topics can help. In class ask something like: “What’s the most unusual or strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?” You can then give the answer for yourself first as an example. When I said the strangest thing I’d ever eaten was toasted or fried ants (called Hormigas Culonas here in Colombia) the students weren’t impressed. In areas of Mexico, insects like Agave worms (used in tequila), shiny, iridescent Humiles beetles, and leaf cutter ants and their eggs, are eaten as a matter of course. “I ate flowers once”, I piped up trying to regain some ground. Still no good. Flor de Calabaza, the bright orange flowers of a pumpkin plant, is passé in the areas around Tepoztlan, south of Mexico City. As a matter of fact, they’re delicious sautéed and wrapped in a hot, blue corn tortilla. Did I mention that I frequently dine on the deadly, fear-inspiring, razor-toothed Piranha? But that’s no big deal here.
It was the students’ turn and each had stories to tell. And tell them they did. “My aunt likes iguana”, one student blurted out. “Have you tried iguana eggs? another asked. “Yes, I have”, I smirked. Stories began to flow. Slowly at first, then faster as memories and emotions mounted. Tales of iguana, turtles, caimans (a species of alligator), donkey meat, reptile eggs, armadillo, a Guinea Pig relative called “Cuy” and Dagger fish emerged enthusiastically – bursting with anecdotes, humor and sometimes a bit of disgust. It not only got them speaking fluently, but was quite informative too. “You can always tell a dagger fisherman”, one Mexican student explained, “because of the strange scars they get from the fish.” I wanted to know more and they obliged. They spoke not only of things they’d tried, but of meats and meals they’d heard of others eating. Opinions of what, where and why added richness, depth and flow to the conversation. In the end I had to halt the session which ran well overtime with no indication of ending anytime soon.
Other topic questions might address places visited or dreamed of, an imagined conversation or date with a famous person, or what students imagine it’s like to do or be any number of occupations, people or things. “If Latin pop singer Alejandro Sanz or actor Brad Pitt called you on the phone, what would you say?” I asked. Giggles erupted from girls around the room, then responses began to trickle out. For the boys’ question it was Mexican singer Thalia, American actresses Pamela Anderson or Julia Roberts. Role plays, interviews, chain stories, social issues, drugs, crime, even proverbs and superstitions all have their place in stimulating the students as speaking activities. Ideas for questions and topics abound. Conversation references can be helpful too. One I use, “Conversation Inspirations for ESL” by Nancy Ellen Zellerman (published by Pro Lingua Associates) has been around for years. Try a controversial conversation question or two in your classes, it’s almost guaranteed to get and keep your students talking.
Oh yeah, I still haven’t tried the “Cow’s Eye soup” in Colombia or the steamy, animal-blood-sprinkled “Yaguarlocro” of Ecuador. But the chicken feet often found in “Sancocho”, Colombia’s national dish, don’t get even the smaller rise out of me anymore. And earlier this year, I sampled a hearty stew of Three-toed Sloth. They’re cute. They’re cuddly. They’re delicious. By the way, what’s the strangest, most unique food that YOU have ever eaten?