The Play’s the Thing

Lori Langer de Ramirez recommends using suspension of disbelief and simulations as means of connecting to global communities

The communities standard — Why it’s worth the bother
Nothing gets a student more excited (or engaged) than being able to express herself or read a sign in situ in the target language. We can all remember that moment when we first communicated something to a native speaker in French, or Mandarin, or Hindi — and we were understood! It is exhilarating, but it is the kind of interaction that can be hard to replicate in the language classroom.

If we ask language learners to articulate their reasons for studying language, they will frequently share their desire to use the language in some real context. They might share that their dream is to travel the world or simply to meet new people. In other words, they want to “participate in multilingual communities at home and around the world” (ACTFL Standards, Furthermore, those language learners that are most successful at the task of learning a new language are “lifelong learners.” They “[use] the language for personal enjoyment and enrichment” (ibid.). The raison d’être of language study is embodied in the communities standard. But then, why is it so hard to accomplish in the language classroom?

The communities standard involves connecting our students with the real world, including communicating with speakers of the language and interacting with cultural products, practices, and perspectives. Recreating an authentic language and/or cultural experience for students is a worthy goal for language teachers, but the classroom is an innately inauthentic environment for language learning. Often we, the teachers, are the only sources for language input, and we serve as the principle culture bearers. For these reasons, it is up to us to build real opportunities for authentic communication back into the classroom.

Textbook authors do their part to bring cultural authenticity to the classroom by providing realistic materials among the pages of their books — a student report card here or a bus schedule there. But these bits of realia are often few and far between, and they don’t feel real to the users. Furthermore, they are often what we might call “fakealia” — material created for didactic use that is made to appear as if it were culturally authentic. Real or fake, the context for these materials — usually a stand-alone short-answer-based activity — ­­­can feel decontextualized and often meaningless to students.

Along with imperfect materials, language teachers must contend with the challenges of limited time and space. We would likely all agree that the best way to learn a language is to be immersed in it — both temporally and spatially. But most of our programs are restricted to short bursts of language study. The typical scenario is 30 minutes a day for three days a week, or perhaps an extended period in a block schedule. Our students just have a brief stretch of time to hear the language and speak it with us. All we have are those 90 minutes a week, plus the occasional bonus, to expose our students to the target language, its grammar and vocabulary, and the subtleties of its rhythm and cadence.

And then there are the space limitations. Language teachers are notorious travelers (and not always in the good sense of the word). We are the specialists, the “teachers on a cart,” the “time-share teachers.” We often don’t have the luxury of our own rooms. Given our own space, we are prone to filling it with realia, posters, and signs in the target language. We instinctively recreate the target-culture environment by covering every inch of wall space with ads from magazines, movie posters, photos, and other bits of cultural information. Without space, we downsize and do the best we can, but it is rarely enough to get students to take that all-important journey with us into the target language and culture.

But there are viable alternatives to the static realia of the textbook or the mock reality of a short fakealia activity. Fantasy trips, simulations, and online virtual worlds provide teachers with excellent materials, authentic contexts, and possibilities for asynchronous communication that help extend the language-learning experience for students while connecting them with the broad community of speakers around the world.

Suspension of Disbelief
Coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, the term “willing suspension of disbelief” describes a situation whereby a reader (or in our case, a student) would be able to “suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of a narrative” (or in our case, a classroom activity) (Wikipedia,, accessed online 5/6/14). This term aptly describes the experience I have had in doing simulations, fantasy trips, and online projects in the language classroom. The more “real” the teacher can make an activity, the more willing students are to play and follow through a narrative, context, or story — no matter how silly, unlikely, or unrealistic it may seem. Suspension of disbelief is an imperative part of any classroom activity in which students are asked to pretend as a means of establishing a cultural experience. Kids of all ages — from perky pre-K students all the way up to jaded high school seniors — want to play and want to pretend. It is up to us to build a world that is as real as it can reasonably get, and in which students feel comfortable to taking risks and to experimenting.

There is also a part of me that relates to this concept on a personal level. So many of us language teachers are also dreamers, fantasizers, and travelers. If we are non-native teachers of our languages, we were probably drawn to language teaching as a means of establishing our own personal connections with communities around the world. If we are native or heritage speakers, we are likely already teaching in a culture that is not reflective of our own, and so we are surrounded by difference — and we gravitate toward that difference. Our own suspension of disbelief as language teachers is reflected in our willingness to be flexible, to learn about cultures other than our own, and to be able to “go with the flow.” We continue to do this in our classrooms; we long for the same connection to target language communities that our students yearn for. And so, we look for ways to experiment, to play, and to travel — without ever leaving our classrooms.

Setting the Stage
Any good stage set needs scenery and props. Similarly, any well-constructed simulation, role play, or fantasy trip needs its related “stuff.” Depending on the theme, these materials could include backdrops, music or sound effects, lighting, and the paraphernalia associated with the topic. One of the most important props for use in the language classroom is realia. Realia can be described as “materials which convey the everyday life of different cultures” (the REALIA Project,, accessed online 5/6/14). Realia abounds on the internet, and these materials are mostly free and readily available, if you know where to look. For example, there are websites that provide scanned images of movie schedules, bus tickets, and photos (see Resources for a list of some of these sites). Not only do these bits of ephemera provide language learners with highly contextualized sources of reading, but also they serve to make our simulations, games, or fantasy trips more authentic. Imagine students taking a fantasy plane trip to Shanghai and being greeted at the door to their classroom by a teacher/flight attendant asking for their Air China boarding passes (for a free boarding pass generator — a clever use of fakealia for fantasy trips— visit the Resources).

Videos are a ubiquitous way of connecting to target language communities around the world, and they can provide context and scenery for our simulations or projects. When left to their own devices, students consume entertainment in their home languages. For this reason, it is important to bring authentic forms of culture and entertainment to class. More often than not, we teachers create ancillary material such as video or songs around language points. But let’s face it: teachers are not script or songwriters, and students see through it. Why not turn tables and build language lessons around authentic material and entertainment? Here are some examples:

Airplane takeoff/landing videos: After the obligatory safety demonstration (done in the target language, of course), have students watch outside the window as the plane takes off. There are hundreds of videos available — pick one in which you hear announcements in the target language (like this one in German, which includes a lovely view of the Rhine River:

In-flight movies: I created these videos for use in my own fantasy trips — they are a funny mix of realia and fakealia, as they are made from real photos taken “in the field” but are clearly designed as teaching tools. Still, these short (three- to five-minute) videos provide students with a nice overview of a city or region that they can watch “on the plane” en route to their destination (for example, this short video about Machu Picchu:

Demo videos: Whatever the topic, there are likely demonstration videos that would make an excellent addition to any simulation. Demo videos can share art techniques, STEM concepts, experiments, or cooking. Any task that involves step-by-step instructions can be accessed via video (for example, this craft video shows you how to make decorative paper flowers:

Virtual tours: There are many videos that one can access in which people give tours of their neighborhoods, towns, markest, or homes. These videos can give students a view into the videographers’ cultures in a very direct and personal way (like this one from teacher Lina Samawi from King’s Academy in Jordan, in which she takes her Global Online Academy students on a tour of her local market while teaching them vocabulary in Arabic:

Websites of all sorts can also be co-opted for use in our fantasy trips or simulations. Since they are aimed at speakers of the target-language, they allow our students to interact asynchronously with the target language community. Here are some examples:

Department stores: Students can access the websites of major department stores (i.e., El Corte Inglés in Spain,, or Galleries Lafayettes in France, as a means of taking a virtual shopping spree in the target language.

Online shopping sites: With so many people worldwide doing their shopping online, it makes sense to provide students with a glimpse of these virtual environments in the target language. Try TaoBao (China’s eBay), or Italian eBay,

Maps: Interactive maps like those provided by Google Earth ( and MapQuest ( allow students to explore specific neighborhoods. They can search for the best routes between two cities, or check if there is a park nearby as part of an impromptu virtual picnic.

Classifieds: Sites like Craigslist ( can be accessed via specific country or city pages, and students can be asked to find information about furniture for sale, handyman services, or jobs (caution: personals are easily accessible on the site — some safety protocols should be in place in your school to avoid student access to the “over 18” sections of many classified sites).

Movie schedules: Students can search for their favorite current films and determine movie times and find theaters “near you.” Good examples of movie sites in different languages include (in French from Canada) or (in Spanish from Chile).

“The Play’s the Thing”
This famous quote from Hamlet serves us well in the discussion of play and simulation in the language classroom. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet needs to find out if it is his uncle who killed his father. In order to do this, he writes a play in which there is a scene of regicide — with the purpose of evoking a reaction from his uncle. If his uncle winces at the scene, we know that he is the murderer. In a far less dramatic, but no less crafty way, we must become playwrights, directors, casting agents, and producers of our own dramas for our students. If written cleverly, our productions can recreate realistic scenes and elicit visceral responses in our students as they move through the plots and interact with the characters. We construct simulations to push students toward heavy practice of a specific verb tense, or use of particular vocabulary, or interaction with a historical or cultural theme. We manipulate by writing scripts that meet our curricular needs and produce emotional responses in students — and to do this, we need to develop very convincing scenes indeed.

My personal favorite form of play or simulation is the fantasy trip. I think it would be safe to say that we all view travel to the target culture as the pinnacle of possible experiences for language learners. However, due to staffing, budgetary, time, or other constraints, travel is not always possible. But we can take trips with students within the classroom — and with good props, scenery, and a solid context, it can look and feel real to students (assuming they have suspended disbelief, of course). Some of my favorite projects, simulations, role plays, or trips include:

Travel fantasy trip: Students come to class with a passport in hand. They meet the immigration agent (teacher) at the door, and get stamped and processed. They look at their boarding passes for their seat assignments and sit in their seats on the plane. We then view a safety video, take off, and watch an in-flight movie. When we arrive “in country,” students eat local food, interact with townspeople (often via Skype), and visit important sites.

Semester abroad: Students can spend a semester abroad in a target-language city. Give them bank accounts and have them go to the classifieds to find apartments within their budget. Have them search for specials in the local (online) supermarket flyer. Encourage them to meet new people (via keypals in that city) and explore new neighborhoods, including the restaurants, parks, museums, or other sites. Students can take side trips on the weekends to neighboring towns or cities and share their travels via blogs with their classmates. (See “The Resource” on page 45 of this issue for information on McGraw-Hill’s new virtual-reality study abroad game).

Market simulation: Provide students with a list of items they need to buy to make a recipe, or to clothe themselves for a special event. Some students will be customers and others will be vendors. Sellers create merchandise (printed out from online sources), and the buyers try to negotiate (if this is culturally appropriate) for the best products at the best prices.

Immigration role play: Give students dossiers with biographical information about (fictitious) people applying for legal immigration status in the U.S. Students do research online about immigration law and the particular political and economic realities of their applicants. On the day of their “hearings,” students make their cases to the immigration authorities.

Political debates: Students research topics of interest and assume particular stances in relation to their topics. Debates in the target language occur as students take on the personas of protestors, supporters, or other identities relating to the theme.

Participating in target-language communities is always best done face to face. Those joyful moments we can all remember in which we connected with speakers on a personal level are the stuff of beautiful memories and the motivation for continued study. However, in today’s ever more digitally connected world, we can’t ignore the opportunities for the simulation of these real experiences as a means of extending our reach. Playing with students through simulations, role plays, and online activities can expand our opportunities for language work and give students much-needed communicative practice. Furthermore, interacting virtually with the same resources that target-language communities use is a way of connecting with those communities. We usually think of connections as being synchronous (i.e., we are both in the same place at the same time), but our digital-native students would be the first to tell us that much of their interaction with their current circle of friends is done online and asynchronously (i.e., via text message, Facebook, Instagram, or other such social-media tools). We can leverage these tools in our language teaching to great effect.

Connecting to target-language communities does not need to involve leaving the classroom. Through the careful construction of simulations, role plays, using digital media, and other props, we can take our students on many journeys through space and time — and connect multilingually with the global community along the way.

Realia from Around the World: a Flickr page from, including a collection of tickets from museums, transportation, and other cultural places, receipts, menus, and other materials from “real life.” Great for fantasy and virtual trips in the world-language and ESL classroom.

REALIA Project, from the website: “The REALIA Project publishes faculty-reviewed media for the teaching and study of modern languages and cultures. Faculty and students at all levels are encouraged to contribute materials to our searchable, online database. The focus of the REALIA Project is realia: materials which convey the everyday life of different cultures.”

Ticket-o-Matic: A free boarding-pass generator. Type in your student’s name, destination, flight date, and boarding time, choose an airline (30+ to choose from), and generate, save, or print a realistic boarding pass for each student.

Lori Langer de Ramirez, EdD, is director of world and classical languages & global language initiatives at The Dalton School, New York. Her website,, is full of free resources for language teachers.