Teaching Irony and Word Play through Drama at Lessons of English as a Foreign Language – Анна Горностаева

Vera Beliaeva
Russian State Humanitarian University
Anna Gornostaeva
Moscow State Linguistic University, Russia


The English culture and communicative style are closely connected with irony, while the English language is rich in metaphors, homonyms and homophones, ironic comparisons and ironic word play. It has been noted, that, being an integral part of communication, irony is vital for the English as a way to perceive reality and an instrument to create discourse [1, 2]. Yet, the question of teaching irony and other expressive means is still open. The current study is dedicated to teaching English as a foreign language to students of intermediate level, focusing on lexis and phraseology, namely such expressive means as irony and word play. The suggested method is based on analyzing pieces of English drama, concentrating on interesting linguistic phenomena, which means studying irony and word play as textual categories. The next step involves staging performances, which includes using these phenomena as categories of discourse. The combination of the two approaches ensures a good effect in education. The paper gives a detailed description of the method and its advantages.

Key words. English as a foreign language, teaching, irony, word play, drama.

1. Introduction

One of the modern trends in teaching a foreign language is through drama. The combination of a foreign language class with theatre appears to be an interesting and exciting approach, posing challenges for students as well as teachers. The real aim of the process – acquiring linguistic skills – is disguised under a set of tasks, involving studying the screenplay, analyzing and learning the text, playing the role and, finally, staging the performance. While fulfilling these tasks the students are involved in a play, feel more relaxed than at usual classes and have motivation. All these positive factors contribute to creating a friendly inspiring atmosphere and to the final effect.
2. Methodology

Recently there have emerged new methods on teaching English through drama for both adult students and children [3, 4, 5, 6], which are aimed at developing various language competences, like speaking skills, listening comprehension, the development of grammatical and lexical mastership. This paper is devoted to teaching irony and wordplay to secondary school pupils (pre-intermediate and intermediate level). Since irony is an important an integral feature of the British communicative style [1], it is essential to attract the attention of pupils to these expressive means of the language from an early stage of education. Irony is a category of discourse, ironic word play can be found in dialogues. At the same time these phenomena exist in written texts and should be studied and intertextual category. In this view analyzing pieces of drama followed by staging them seems to be an efficient method, which combines text analysis with discourse analysis. The process of performance involves pupils in discourse, at the same time they follow the script and practice certain language means and devices, learn the mechanisms and functions of English irony.
The present method relies on the works of G. Tovstonogov [7], who accentuated the importance of the text for the actors, and his theory of absorbing the lines, penetrating into the implicit meaning.

3. Screenplay

While choosing the text for the performance, it was necessary to bear in mind the following factors:
1. The authenticity of the text
2. Substantial number of expressive means, used in the text
3. Number of characters, involved in the action
4. The level of difficulty
5. The age of the actors.
Regarding all the conditions, the choice was limited by “The importance of being Earnest” (O. Wilde), “Pigmalion” (B. Shaw) and “Alice in Wonderland” (L. Carrol) [8]. In view of the pupils’ age the latter option was preferred, as a fairy-tale with elements of mysticism is warmly received by children.
So, the first stage of work consisted of transforming the text into a play and adapting it to the level of the pupils. This process involved omitting several parts of the story, shortening the plot to several scenes and adapting the text, including as many expressive means as possible.
The second stage is presenting the text to the class, reading it aloud, singling out difficult parts, translating and explaining the meaning. After distributing the parts each actor concentrates on his/her words, leaning them by heart, pronouncing the text with a proper intonation, receiving a feedback from the partner. It is desirable to change parts several times so that each pupil should fully understand and learn the whole text.
While the lines are pronounced on the stage, the dialogue is accompanied by movements, gestures and mimics, which all contributes to better understanding and memorizing the mechanisms of irony.

4. Case study and commentary

Here are some examples from the screenplay that are recommended for analyzing.
Situation 1. Alice and the narrator (L. Carrol) are at picnic, talking to each other. L. Carrol is speaking about his childhood, but Alice is not listening – she is watching a white rabbit calling her
Alice: “To go or not to go? To go or not to go?”
These words resemble the famous “To be or not to be” of Hamlet, the character of one of the best tragedies of Shakespeare. This phrase, together with some comments of the teacher, gives children some knowledge about one of the most significant authors in the history of theatre and drama.
Situation 2. Alice is getting larger and then smaller, she is giving a small monologue.
Alice: “Curiouser and curiouser!”
In the original there are no exact words like these, here we use deliberate quotation spoofing, which can be regarded as “childish” language. It is reflected in the Russian translation of the book and the phrase is familiar to almost everybody. The aim of such transformation is to make children interested in the text, to make it funny for them. At the same time grammar is trained (degrees of comparison).
Situation 3. Alice is trying to find the door to a wonderful garden.
Alice: “If there is a key there must be a door.”
Such transformation is similar to a famous quotation “If there is a will there is a way”. The play is full of such remarks, placed in the text to emphasize the difference between our world and the one created by the author. Everything is turned upside down, even expressions like this one.
Situation 4. The Mouse is giving a talk that is supposed to make Alice and a number of animals dry.
The Mouse: “Sit down, all of you, and listen to me! I’ll soon make you dry enough! ‘Ahem!’ Are you all ready? This is the driest thing I know.”
The word “dry” means firstly “not wet” and secondly “cool”, and both meanings can be applied in this situation. The interconnection between the literal and the figurative meaning is shown clearly, which gives actors an opportunity to enrich their vocabulary.
Situation 5. In the same speech of The Mouse there is another detail.
The Mouse: “…Silence! William the Conqueror, whose cause was favoured by the pope…”
This phrase is an example of an unnecessary complicated official language, and that is an extremely important issue in terms of culture and national history: “Alice in Wonderland” was written in Victorian age, when children heard this language at school. Now this style is viewed with a degree of irony, when used in simple conversation.
Situation 6. In the dialogue between Alice and the Caterpillar some phrases have a double meaning. For example in the phrase “I can’t explain myself, because I’m not myself” the meaning of the collocation “explain oneself” (which means “explain something clearly”) is transformed into literal meaning of both words, taken separately. So the sense is different – “I can’t say anything definite about my identity”.
Situation 7. Another example of such transformation in this dialogue is a word play with the word “see”. The Caterpillar says “I don’t see”, which has two meanings: to see in literal meaning and in collocation which can be replaced by “I don’t understand”.
Situation 8. The following phenomenon can be recognized not only in the dialogue between Alice and The Caterpillar, but also in the “tea party”: “He [The Time] won’t stand beating” (beating as “hitting” and as “striking of the clock”); “They lived on treacle” (“live on” in literal meaning and “to survive by eating something”). This is ironic word play which adds ambiguity to the sense and provides amusement to the audience.
Situation 9. Some logical nonsense, typical for the British mentality, can be found in the text of the play: The Madhatter’s watch shows date, not the time; The Queen orders the Madhatter not to be nervous otherwise he’ll be executed. These are all paradoxes which create an atmosphere of absurdity and ensure ironic perception of the play.

5. Conclusions

1. Drama classes combined with teaching a foreign language pose challenges for both students/pupils and teachers and open vast perspectives in terms of developing creativity as well as linguistic skills.
2. Learning irony and wordplay through staging a performance is an interesting and useful method, which combines different approaches: analyzing irony and ironic wordplay as a text category and viewing them as a discoursive phenomenon.
3. The screenplay, chosen for analysis, should correspond to the age and level of the students/pupils and contain a substantial number of expressive means.
4. Being involved in a play students/pupils feel more relaxed and absorb information easily.
5. The aim of staging a play makes the actors motivated. This creates a positive approach and inspires students/pupils acquire the language material and skills.

6. References
[1] Fox, K., Watching the English. The hidden rules of English behavior, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2005.
[2] Hutcheon, L. Irony’s Edge. The Theory and Politics of Irony, New York: Routledge, 2005.
[3] Beliaeva, V., Learning a foreign language through theatre: secondary school experience, Inted 2019 proceedings, [https://library.iated.org/view/BELIAEVA2019LEA], 2019.
[4] Gałązka, A., Drama in education for sustainable development, Inted 2017 proceedings, [https://library.iated.org/view/GALAZKA2017DRA], 2017.
[5] Rooney, C., Coleman, M., Applying lessons from drama and stage in formal communication training: strategies to overcome oral communication apprehension for business students, Inted 2019 proceedings, [https://library.iated.org/view/ROONEY2019APP], 2019.
[6] Yaroslavova, E., Shraiber, E., Drama and theatre in foreign language teaching at the University level, Inted 2016 proceedings, [https://library.iated.org/view/YAROSLAVOVA2016DRA], 2016.
[7] Tovstonogov, G., The mirror of the stage, Textbook, Planeta muzyki, 2018. (In Russian).

[8] Carroll L., Alice’s adventures in wonderland, Usborne Publishing, 2015.

For citation: V. Beliaeva, A. Gornostaeva. Teaching Irony and Word Play through Drama at Lessons of English as a Foreign Language. Proceedings: Ireland International Conference on Education, Dun Laoghaire, October 22-24, 2019. Published by Infonomics Society, UK and ROI. P.57-59. DOI: 10.2053/IICE.2019.0050. https://www.iicedu.org/iice-proceedings/