“In an effort to make language use more authentic and spontaneous, communicative language teaching has moved away from memorisation, recitation, and choral responses. It has put a premium on the unique, individual, and repeatable utterance in unpredictable conversational situations. And yet, there is value in repetition as an educational device: utterances repeated are also resignified” (p. 209).
That is to say, simply repeating something gives it an added or even different signifiance. Walt Whitman captured this principle in this brilliant little poem:
What am I, after all, but a child, pleas’d with the sound of my own name? repeating it over and over;
I stand apart to hear—it never tires me.
To you, your name also;
Did you think there was nothing but two or three pronunciations in the sound of your name?
Kramsch goes on to argue that “we may want to put the principle of iterability to work…: the same text, reread silently or aloud, can yield new meanings. The same utterance, repeated in various contexts, with different inflections, can index different emotions, evoke different associations. The same poem, memorised and performed two or three times in front of the same class, yields each time new pleasures of recognition and anticipation. The same story, told to three different interlocutors, can enable the storyteller to put different emphases on the same general theme depending on the listener…” (ibid.)
The value of repetition as a means of achieving fluency has also been acknowledged in the recent literature on task-based learning. When learners repeat a task, even a relatively long time after its first performance, gains have been shown in both fluency and linguistic complexity. Bygate (2009) suggests that this is because “previous experience of a task is available for speakers to build on in subsequent performance” (p. 269). He makes a similar point to Kramsch’s: that the communicative approach tends to value spontaneity and creativity. “And yet to provide speaking practice only under these conditions runs the risk that learners will constantly be improvising, constantly experimenting with new forms, but also constantly doing so while having to pay some considerable attention to the content of what they want to say” (ibid.). In other words, ‘free expression’ may come at considerable cost to fluency.
Corpus linguistics has shown, too, that a large proportion of what we say and write is ‘second-hand’: we recycle our own utterances repeatedly, as well as those of the discourse community we are affiliated to (or wish to be affiliated to). As Hopper (1998) puts it, echoing the Russian scholar M. Bakhtin, “We say things that have been said before. Our speech is a vast collection of hand-me-downs that reaches back in time to the beginnings of language” (p. 159). He adds that, from this perspective, “language is … to be viewed as a kind of pastiche, pasted together in an improvised way out of ready-made elements” (op. cit. p. 166). A good writer of academic text, for example, knows how to select formulations that are already part of what T.S. Eliot called ‘the dialect of the tribe’ in order to create “an easy commerce of the old and the new” (The Four Quartets).
The problem with repetition, from a pedagogical point of view, is that there is a tension between the need to repeat, on the one hand, and the boredom factor, on the other. It requires skilful management to balance repetitive language practice with the need for variety and a change of focus. One way is to change some element in the task for each iteration. Here are some ideas:
1. Change the amount of support: e.g. ‘Disappearing Dialogues’: learners practice a dialogue that is written on the board or projected, chunks of which are progressively hidden or erased, until they are perfroming the entire dialogue from memory.
2. Change the mode: e.g. ‘Paper conversations’: students interact passing paper and pen back and forth (like on-line chat), then repeat the exchange speaking.
3. Change the time: e.g. the 4-2-1 technique: students take turns to talk to their partner about a topic, for – at first – 4 minutes, then again for 2, and finally for 1, trying to keep the content constant.
4. Change the speakers: e.g. the ‘onion’ technique, whereby students are seated in two concentric circles, the inner circle facing the outer. Students perform a speaking task in pairs (e.g. a role play) and then the outer circle students move one seat clockwise, and the task is repeated with new partners.
Bygate, M. 2009. Effects of task repetition on the structure and control of oral language. In Van den Branden, K., Bygate, M., Norris, J. (eds.) Task-based Language Teaching: A Reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Hopper, P.J. 1998. Emergent language. In Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Kramsch, C. 2009. The Multilingual Subject. Oxford: Oxford University Press.