Chinese-to-English Whispers

There is a children’s game called Telephone in which a long line of people whisper a preselected message down the line, comparing how it came out in the end to what it was when it started, often with hilarious results. This game is called Chinese Whispers in the UK, possibly because the name Sneaky Orientals was already taken.  I have adapted this game into a few short written activites for English classes, one of which is what I consider a defensible use of grammar-translation in the classroom.

I presented the version of this activity with pictures at Shizuoka JALT this April in a My Share event as a form-focused activity with a clear communicative purpose. Both are for classes of 3 or more people.  The translation version is best for high school and above; the pictures version for elementary and up.

Both versions I will introduce here have a much shortened line of communication – 3 people.  The basic order of the game is the same for both as well:

  1. Person 1 writes a message in English at the top of a piece of paper and passes it to the next person.
  2. Variation A:  Person 2 writes a translation in the students’ shared L1 of that message under the original message.  Variation B: Person 2 draws a picture of the contents of the message under the original message.  In both variations Person 2 then folds the paper so that Person 1’s message is hidden and passes the paper to Person 3.
  3. Variation A: Person 3 retranslates Person 2’s message back into the original language. Variation B: Person 3 writes a description of Person 2’s picture.
  4. Papers are unfolded and passed back to Person 1 for review and usually some laughs.
  5. (Optional) Person 1 rates the closeness of the first and third sentences – which are rarely identical – on a scale of 1-5.
chinese whispers 2.jpg
Variation A, using translation as a means for grammatical focus.  In this example, the final sentence is significantly different from the first, and for very teachable reasons – 高い takai means both “high,tall” and “expensive” in Japanese.  The two phrasings “Tokyo has…”, and “In Tokyo, there are…” are both compatible with the Japanese sentence “東京は、〜がある”.  Less experienced students might translate the first English sentence literally as “東京は〜を持っている”, which is highly unnatural in Japanese; and the Japanese sentence word-for-word as “Tokyo is, ~ is many”.  Both present opportunities for explorations of how English and Japanese customarily present features of large objects like cities.



chinese whispers 1_edited-2.jpg
Variation B, with pictures rather than translation.  Depending on the type of sentence that students are to write, this activity can be used with much younger classes.  Although the final sentence in this example is different from the first, this is an example of a highly successful instance of this activity.

If you noticed, both versions of the game have a message undergoing some transformation of medium or code but not content.  This allows easy focus on the form of the message, and in instances where the content of the message changes, easy tracking of where the message got garbled.

Not all garblings are mistakes, and mistakes are productive in this activity too.  First, in Variation A, code-switching may naturally result in some loss or addition of information compared to the original message.  An example that came up frequently in my classes, both private and at university, was the lack of plurals in Japanese.  Hence “Dogs are running in the park” might become “犬は公園で走っている” inu wa kouen de hashitteiru Person 2, which gets retranslated as “A dog is running in the park” by Person 3.  The error has a clear source – the lack of plural in the Japanese sentence, which is perfectly normal in Japanese – and therefore is an effective teaching tool as students’ attention is directed precisely to the feature in English missing in Japanese which caused the difference.

In Variation B, differences between the first and last sentences may come from misinterpretation or just from the fact that numerous sentences can describe the same picture, at the level of perspective and at the level of grammar.  A misinterpretation can arise if the picture is drawn badly, as they often are, but this doesn’t harm the value of the activity.  Often in my classes what was a cat in the first sentence became a goat in the third just because one kid in the middle still draws circle heads with triangle ears for every single animal.  Some more interesting differences arise when Person 1’s sentence “the desks are being cleaned” becomes something like “the maid hates her job”, which may both be accurate representations of the picture.

The grammar aspect of this activity can be emphasized more by the teacher designating a particular pattern or sentence builder for the students to use; then the difference between the first and third picture is less likely to be purely a matter of interpretation.  One I used with TOEIC students was just that above – either “is being ved” or “s has been ved”, both structures used often and compared against each other in Part 1 (the one with the pictures) of the test.

For simplicity’s sake I have presented these activities as if only 3 people were taking part and each person was active for only one step of the process.  In reality, whenever I used this activity each person in the class was Person 1 for the first step, and when papers were passed they became Person 2 for the classmate sitting to their left.  A class of 4 kids would have 4 concurrent instances of the game going at once, and all would fold and pass at the same times.  In smaller classes we would share the sentences with the entire class.  In my college classes I would split the class into groups of 3 or 4 and have them pass within their group.  At the end of the activity I would usually choose 1 person from each group at random to share his or her sentences, first and last, with the entire class and explore any issues the class could benefit from on the blackboard.

I hope I’ve made a convincing case that translation can be an effective tool for grammar-focused learning – but if I haven’t, the other version of this game is lots of fun and similarly instructive on the links between form and meaning.  Enjoy!


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