gramMAGICal structures! #1

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Thank you very much to everyone who came along to my session, ‘gramMAGICal structures’ at Language Show Live in London today.

Below you’ll find the main points from the first part of the session and an instructions sheet for one of the tricks I demonstrated.  Come back next week for the rest!  This post kicks off a new series of articles on the whole area of using magic in foreign language teaching.  Most of them, I hope, will be of use to many who are interested in communicative language teaching through the medium of the target language and who might like to give magic an occasional go in their lessons, and a couple of articles will be mainly for teachers who, like me, have been performing as magicians for many years.  I know of magicians who are maths teachers and science teachers, but I haven’t met any other magicians who are MFL teachers … yet!  If this is you, do get in touch.  Fear not, fellow magicians, no professional secrets will be given away on this blog!

So, my session today:

Magic is sometimes used in lessons by teachers as something of a performance item, something to hook in somewhat difficult classes or just as something fun.  I think this has its place occasionally.  (There was, once, the most difficult class I have ever taught in my life, a Year 7 group in a middle school where I went to teach their French lessons twice a week.  Very challenging behaviour in the class, zero support from senior management in the school, in short, a complete nightmare.  Once I’d been through every strategy I knew of, and failed, magic at the end of the lesson was the best bribe for good behaviour I could come up with.  It worked…. sometimes).

However, I’m more interested in how magic can be used to move pupils on in their competence in the language by watching a trick performed (listening with lots of visual clues to back up the meaning), speculating with a partner on how it might be done (a real incentive to speak, supported by multiple choice possibilities projected on the screen), working out how the trick is done (testing their hypothesis as they read an instructions sheet – a real motivation for reading), practising the trick (lots of repetition of language, the whole thing is visual, auditory and kinaesthetic) and then performing it.

Like any genuinely communicative activity, i.e., where language is used for real purposes (as opposed to the really-not-communicative dialogues in text books), learning a magic trick in the target language exposes pupils to grammatical structures which are often much more advanced than they would normally be expected to learn at their current stage of a course.  But because they understand the context, the situation, what they want someone to do or what they expect to happen at any point in the trick, the language is comprehensible and it has a much greater chance of it ‘going in’ and sticking and becoming part of their active language.  They may not be able to explain how a grammatical structure is formed at this stage, but they can use it correctly and they understand what it communicates.  If their awareness is raised to salient features of the structure and the teacher creates more opportunities to use the same structure in other contexts, for example through classroom routines, they can be led to a point where they can explain it, if that is thought desirable.  In this way, this fits with my position on teaching inductively.

Let’s look at a ‘typical’ script for a basic card trick plot:  A card is chosen, committed to memory, returned to the deck, the deck is shuffled and the card is found or revealed in some way.

The script is quite basic in that it is really just a list of instructions for the spectator or description of what is happening.  There are no jokes, stories, recaps or build-ups.  This is what it could look like in Spanish.


These are the key grammatical structures we find in the script:

I wonder when you would normally teach these?  I would guess that most of us would teach imperatives and negative imperatives quite early on, especially if we teach 100% through the target language and if we use classroom routines.  For Spanish this is important because negative imperatives require a present subjunctive form.  Most teachers, though, would probably leave direct and indirect object pronouns for quite a while.  Possibly because they might be considered ‘difficult’ or ‘advanced’ (but are they really?) or because of potential confusion between the definite article and a direct object pronoun … although there are far more complicated concepts than this in most languages.  They are very, very useful structures, though, in authentic, spontaneous speech, and learning a magic trick gives our pupils a good opportunity to use them in context.

Here is the trick I presented and explained in my session (the one I didn’t have time to present will be here on this blog soon!).  It’s probably the oldest card trick in the world (apart from the 21-card trick, you know the one?).  Done badly, it’s dead obvious.  Done well, it can be very deceptive even to those who actually know how it’s done and it’s very entertaining.  All I’ve included here is the effect and the method – you’ll need to work out how you want to put the instructions into a level of language your pupils will understand and a script that they can cope with whilst also challenging them.  (You can, of course, use the typical script above).  Whatever you do, please don’t give them the instructions in English (unless you teach English, of course!) Click here for the instructions: This is your card!

In the next post, I’ll show you a sequence for presenting, explaining and practising a trick, and then in the coming weeks, I’ll give you the second trick and I’ll explain the logistics for setting up a Magic Day.  But before I disappear…

This presentation is dedicated to the memory of Ali Bongo.

Ali was my childhood hero, and the only fight I ever had in the playground was over his book – my alleged best friend had the temerity to turn 10 years old one month before me, and he got The Ali Bongo Book of Magic for his birthday before I got it for mine.  I was most put out.  Not many people get to meet their heroes and far fewer ever become friends with them.  I got to know Ali Bongo when I joined The Magic Circle and, with a group of magicians, we would have dinner on Monday nights after our meetings.  I told him the story of his book and the fight.  He was very amused by it!  And the last time I saw him, not that either of us knew that, he signed my copy of his book.

Ali Bongo was the Magical Adviser to Paul Daniels for the 16 years his show was on primetime Saturday TV in the UK, and for David Nixon before him.  He was the inspiration for the character of Jonathan Creek and he was also the magical consultant on that programme.  Respected all over the world as a magician, he was also a wonderful man.  This is the act he was famous for and which I loved as a child.  He became President of The Magic Circle in September 2008 but died just 6 months later.  You can read his obituary here.

Ali was also a keen linguist.  He had learned French at school and loved languages.  Whenever he travelled abroad, which he did often to lecture and perform at magicians’ conventions, he loved to make the effort to communicate in the language of the host country.  Click here to see a performance in French.

One Monday night as we chatted over dinner, we got talking about languages and language teaching and how it had changed over the years.  I told him about an idea I had for producing a full glass bottle of wine out of a copy of the Beano comic, because ‘vino’ (wine in Spanish) and Beano are pronounced the same (this was my first trick in the presentation today).  His eyes lit up when I told him how I thought it could be taken further by producing a further two bottles, a white wine and a rosé wine out of the same, flat comic.  We talked about how the present subjunctive in Spanish could be taught by adapting a 4-ace trick Paul Daniels had used in a series he had advised on.  He stopped for a minute, thought in silence, and said, ‘You have to write a book about all this, and I will write the Foreword.’  Can you imagine how I felt? This childhood hero of mine, who I had come to know and have the most enormous respect for, was offering to write a foreword for a book he insisted I should write?  Sadly, Ali died just a couple of years after that, and the book was never written.  But I have some very treasured memories of a true gentleman, much loved and missed, and I offer this presentation in his memory.

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