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TEFL Activity: Instant Interpreter
A highly adaptable, fun speaking activity for any lesson.
This one is a personal favourite. One student is a two-way interpreter, and two other students have a conversation via the interpreter. Here are example instructions to set up and run the activity and some example scenarios to use.
This activity is excellent for the accuracy of language and meaning, and I also love that it brings the learners’ first language (their ‘L1’) into the classroom.
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I’d suggest giving the ‘interpreter’ role to stronger or more confident students to begin with before rotating later.
Language focus: any
Skills: speaking, listening, accuracy
Lesson Stage: controlled or free practice
Interaction Pattern: groups of three, turn-taking.
Limitations: needs groups of three. Students must share a language other than English.
Example Setup and Instructions:
Model the Activity
Choose two strong students to volunteer.
Line up at the front of the classroom, with you at one end, then a student, then another student—all facing the class.
Point to yourself, “I’m ‘A’, this is ‘B’ [point to middle student], and this is ‘C’” [point to the student at the other end].
“I only speak English. ‘C’ [point to the student at the other end of the line] only speaks Chinese. ‘B’ speaks English and Chinese!”
“I want to talk to ‘C’, but he doesn’t speak English. What can I do?” [Elicit that ‘B’ can help you and translate] Yes, well done! Ready?”
[Wave at ‘C’] “Hello!” [C may answer, but remind them that they don’t speak English. Prompt B to translate if needed. Be prepared for laughter].
From here, B will translate and say ‘hello’ in Chinese to C. Motion C to respond to you, and they will say ‘hello’ in Chinese to B, who will say ‘hello’ to you in English. You can follow up with a ‘How are you’ or ‘What’s your name’, etc.
Instructions for Grouping Students
“You’re ‘A’ [gestures to a student], you’re B (ideally choose stronger students for ‘B’), you’re C. You three are a group” [gestures to A, B and C]. Repeat with the rest of the learners until all are grouped. Move learners’ chairs into a circle, if possible.
“Look at me, please. Listen.”
“Who is A? Raise your hand” [Check to see that the correct students put their hands up]. Repeat with B and C. Clarify if necessary.
“Student A, put your hand up. You are a student visiting Shanghai, and you only speak English.”
“Student C, put your hand up. You live in Shanghai, and you only speak Chinese.”
“Student B, put your hand up. You are friends with Students A and B. You speak English and Chinese and will help them talk to each other”.
Instruction Check Questions
“Student A, which language do you speak? Student B? Student C?”
Running the activity
Once the activity is running, walk around and monitor the students. Listen to what they’re having trouble with. Error correct if necessary. If you have uneven numbers, you could make up a group of three, but being unable to monitor is a disadvantage.
After some time, switch the roles of the students. Move A to B, B to C, and C to A. Write this on the board, so students can refer to it as they switch. Ask the same instruction check question as before.
Finally, do one last rotation so that everyone has a chance to play A, B and C.
Students often find this a funny activity, especially at the start when it’s common to make mistakes in turn-taking. Keep it light-hearted.
Match the language to the context.
Make sure that you match the scenario of the activity to the rest of the class context. Here are some ideas for contexts to get you started:
A tourist visiting students’ home city.
A business colleague in a different country is visiting or on a conference call (could even try on the phone in a separate room!).
You visit your boy- or girlfriend’s parent for the first time.
Seeing a doctor in a different country.
Making a complaint in a hotel.
See you again in two weeks.
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