I recently took a three week intensive Korean course at a university in Seoul. As part of the class, I had to make two presentations in Korean: a five minute presentation in which I introduced and described a Korean person I had met, and a fifteen minute presentation on some aspect of Korea that I had researched. Both presentations counted towards my overall speaking grade on the course. The English course that I teach each semester also asks students to make two assessed presentations of 3 and 5 minutes, so in this post I want to explore my own foreign language presenting experience and the insights into teaching that I gained from it.
What use are presentations?
The impression that I get from my students is that while they don’t look forward to or enjoy presentations, they do see them as a useful and valid task for assessing and improving their English. My view as a teacher is that presentation skills (in any language) are generally pretty important in life, but that as a language learning tool they may be of less use to my students, who I see as needing much more practice in the extemporaneous speaking department. As a student, I was less than thrilled to see them on the syllabus because a) I was terrified and b) presentations seem to require an inordinate amount of work on a course where the workload was already fairly high. However, I certainly gained several things from my presenting experience.
Firstly, one of the things that I don’t pay a great deal of attention to when teaching presentations is the need to use an appropriate register. Teaching time is short; English register is relatively elusive. In Korean, things are a little clearer: presentations are given using the highest deferential verb endings, and so it is much easier to move your your speech to a very formal register. This was the one piece of advice we were given pre-presentation, and the presentation was the first time I have ever needed to use that register in a serious way, which was excellent practice.
For the longer presentation, I actually tried to give a proper research presentation, so I created a quick survey comparing Korean and non-Korean beliefs about non-Koreans’ lives in Korea and tried to analyse the results. This was a really useful experience because I could foresee a point in the future where I might have to do this for real. This might be something to think about for my own teaching, where the presentation tasks are much less “real-life” – although how I could make them more so remains a bit of a mystery at present. One reason for making things as realistic as possible is that I felt like I retained phrases like “qualitative analysis”, “objective viewpoint” and “on the other hand” fairly well without having to work very hard on memorizing them specifically.
Planning and preparing
It seems fairly well documented in research into TBLT that pre-task planning time often leads to gains in accuracy, complexity and fluency during the task. This is something that I generally try to leverage during classroom activities, though usually in the form of thinking rather than planning time. Both presentations during the course required me to write and submit a script for correction (no mean feat for a fifteen minute presentation!), and it struck me that this is essentially planning time for an oral task taken to the extreme.
Planning in this way has both advantages and disadvantages. Writing a script definitely increases the complexity of my sentences as well as giving me the chance to think about what “feels” more Korean, rather than just saying the first thing that comes to mind to get my point across. It also gave a useful space for experimenting with and incorporating some of the structures that we had come across that were more suitable for formal contexts. All good so far then, but all of the above then introduce the very real possibility of planning a speech that is much more complex than you’re really capable of memorising or delivering with any fluency. The other surprising aspect that struck me was that having written a script, there suddenly occurred a very pressing need to stick to the bloody thing! This generally doesn’t happen to me when presenting in English, where I’m quite happy to dive away from what I had prepared, but in Korean led to the creation of note cards so detailed that they may as well have been a script. I’m honestly not sure how this affected my overall presentation, but it leaves me pondering things for my own teaching.
I tend to go back and forward between recommending scripting and not scripting for my students. Half of me thinks that creating a presentation from speaking with just notes to guide to gives you a better chance of natural delivery and remembering what to say. On the other hand, I feel like writing a script might benefit clarity and complexity. In the future I’m tempted to outline both approaches and let students decide as to a large extent I think it’s going to depend on what makes you feel more confident as a presenter and what you want out of the presentation.
I referred to confidence (or lack of it) above, and this is just one of a whole range of affective factors involved in presenting. Of my first language presenting experiences, I’d say, to paraphrase a quote of dubious origin, that I prefer having presented to presenting, but in a second language the face-threatening pitfalls are more numerous: memory blanks, worrying about extemporizing and the lack of strategies to talk your way out of problems being the worst of these. Interestingly, the prospect of making grammatical mistakes is among the least of my worries. In other words, it’s the lack of control of potentially embarrassing situations that bothers me, rather than any linguistic deficiency.
Another interesting affective factor was the strange sense of security that using a more formal register of Korean gave me. I have two theories as to why this might be so. Firstly, it may be seeking the approval of the audience (well, the teacher at least): I know I am getting roughly the right register if I am adding the right verb endings, and at the very least I am seen to be making an effort to respect the sociocultural values of the classroom and the target language. Again, I have some control over how I present myself, which makes me feel better. The second theory is that formality breeds distance; we are more polite with strangers than we are with friends, and I wonder if it is the distancing aspect of using a formal register that helps me to feel kind of detached and professional. I certainly find myself channelling every suited and booted, clicker wielding speaker I’ve ever seen give a straight-laced and uptight speech in Korean when giving my presentation.
Again, it might be helpful at this point to try to bring this back to my classroom, and how I can help students feel more confident. Clearly, if I feel the pressure of register given my limited contact with Korean, my L1 Korean students are likely to feel it all the more. Incidentally, I have had students ask me on more than one occasion how to use the equivalent of Korean high speech in English. I tend to fudge an answer, but the simple thing to do here when teaching presentation skills might be to point out that English has no solidly defined higher register, and that presentations are often given in a much more colloquial style anyway. It could be worth looking at general tendencies such as pronouncing every word (“going to”, not “gonna”), and also key phrases with politeness embedded (“Please take a look at…”).
Nonetheless, from my presenting experience, the best way to tackle teaching register might simply be through a process of trial and error. My second presentation went way over time, and I had to run through the final few slides completely off script. This required the use of quite a few communication strategies to buy some thinking time and signal that I was summarizing, one of which was (over)using the Korean word 그냥 (Geunyang, “Just”). The feedback afterwards was that this was where I’d departed from the formal register. The lesson here perhaps is it’s very difficult to predict what elements of a complex performance might come off as in the wrong register until you see an actual performance. The key thing here is to make sure that the feedback comes as part of the process, not at the end. It really annoyed me that I used a lot of lower register connectors ((이)랑, Korean fans) rather than higher (와,과). I had no idea, and to my further frustration a classmate confessed that she had incorporated that feedback into her presentation directly after mine (“That’s my feedback! You can’t use it!”).
All in all my presenting experience was considerably less terrifying than I thought it would be. It helped that I was familiar with the audience and the surroundings, and that I got to present twice (the second time was much better). In terms of what I learned in terms of teaching, I would aim for more options of how to prepare (though reading should still be heavily penalized), as well as a good practice stage with useful feedback. I should also try to ease student concerns about register as well as teaching a few more stock phrases, and perhaps some strategies for what to do if it all goes wrong. Presenting in a second language is rarely going to be easy, but this way it could be a bit less stressful for everyone.