Here's your go-to icebreaker for the first day of any level of foreign language class:

“You are from Blissland. In your country, it is not polite to make eye contact. Usually, you focus on a person’s feet while holding a conversation.”

foreign language classSeveral years ago I attended an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme Professional Development Training. While most of the training was somewhat forgettable, I walked away with one particular activity that I’ve returned to time and again for my first day of Spanish class. The great thing about this activity is it is very simple to set up, and it is perfect for teaching any level of any language (or possibly even a course on sociology or culture).

The activity is called the United Nations Cocktail Party. This is how it works:

  1. As students enter your classroom, hand them a strip of paper (an “invitee description” – see PDF, Editable Google Doc) and project the United Nations Cocktail Party instructions (slide 1) for students to read. Be sure to tell students to keep their description a secret.
  2. Once everyone has arrived, review the instructions above and check for questions. Then encourage students to get up and mingle with one another (in English for lower levels or informally in the target language for upper levels if desired). Every so often, ring a bell to cue them to say goodbye to the person they were speaking with and go find a new partner.

The only rule is that students must follow the normal behavior laid out in their invitee description! So, if a student gets the “Blissland” descriptor above, they must avoid eye contact at all costs during the conversation, staring instead at their partner’s feet.

As you can imagine if you’ve read through some of the invitee descriptions, this activity leads to a fair amount of awkward interaction, which is actually the desired outcome!

In being forced into uncomfortable situations (holding conversations with partners who are speaking too loudly, standing too closely, staring at their feet instead of making eye contact, holding hands while speaking, keeping one’s back turned to the person with whom they are speaking, and so on) students are forced outside of their comfort zones while they chat with one another.

Some reflection discussion questions to consider engaging your students in following the activity include:

  • What did you have to do while talking?
  • What did it feel like to act in this way?
  • What did it feel like to be on the receiving end of some of these behaviors?
  • How did you cope with the awkwardness and discomfort?  
  • Why did we do that activity? Why is this activity relevant for a language (or sociology or culture) class?

That last question is a rich opportunity to dig into the idea that “normal” is not actually a concrete, black-and-white definition but rather is culturally and socially defined and varies based on country and context (and even classroom — this activity could be a great way to kick off establishing student-generated norms for your class).

My normal may be to shake your hand when meeting for the first time, while you may innocently go in for a kiss on the cheek due to your concept of normal from your upbringing elsewhere. Neither way of doing things is wrong or better, they are just contextual norms that arise from our life experiences and cultures.

From here, there is an important opportunity to remind students that in learning another language, to communicate effectively, a person must learn not only vocabulary and grammar but also cultural norms, gestures, and what constitute “normal” behaviors for members of that culture, in order to put that academic knowledge into everyday practice.

How about you? Do you have a go-to activity to break the ice and initiate important conversations about the nature of your content area (world language or otherwise?) with your students?

About the Author:
Becky Searls is a driven, globally-minded educator with 11 years of classroom experience teaching middle and high school Spanish, as well as an MA in foreign and second language education. She is also the founder of Elevating Educators, where she offers instructional coaching and educational consulting services for individuals, schools, and districts seeking meaningful professional development in the areas of World Languages, Proficiency-Based Instruction, Standards-Based and Holistic Assessment, TESOL/ESL, Thoughtful & Efficient Technology Integration, and Global Ed / Connections.

Find her on twitter @beckyjoy and more of her writing on her blog:  https://medium.com/@beckyjoy or reach out via email to becky@elevatingeducators.com