Brainbox is an activity/exercise that puts down on paper what is actually happening inside our heads (inner voice?) when we get ready to say something. It combines the application of what we've studied/learnt as regards grammar, vocabulary and whatnot (accuracy) with the linguistic competence to speak as naturally as possible (fluency).
A worst-case scenario
In our favourite dread situation - as immortalized in a scene from the film Love Actually where the new girl on the household staff at 10 Downing St who, on being introduced to the newly-elected PM, comes out with an unintentional succession of taboo words – what often happens, regardless of our language level or intellectual capacity, is that we start speaking knowing more or less what we want to say but without having prepared exactly which words we are going to use.
It doesn't matter whether we're asking a question or replying to one. Either we'll fall victim to our natural shyness and decline to speak or our natural enthusiasm will lead us to start off full of oomph.
But suddenly we realise that things aren’t going exactly the way we’d like them to... so we slow down and hesitate (for two seconds) and we think maybe we'd better stick in a new idea to make it a bit clearer... and we stumble... regain our balance (another two seconds) get our tongues twisted (two more seconds) try to start again... (a further two seconds) rewind... and this time round it comes out even worse, because even if our interlocutors are making a great effort to hide their impatience (or laughter), we ourselves are well aware that we’ve made a total hash of it all. Result?
A disaster! And next time round we'll be less likely to want to put our foot in it by speaking...
Take a deep breath
However, a 15-second pause in which we prepare the sentence before speaking - and give it a trial run in our heads - produces less stress for all parties involved than that series of four two-second pauses (eight seconds total) spread out over the whole sentence. That's because each of those pauses which broke the sentence into little bits seemed to last an eternity for both the speaker and the listener. And the sum of 'em all is exponentially greater than both would wish for.
The idea is to practice - on paper - the process that goes on in our brains when we get ready to speak. After a few trial runs, the process becomes almost automatic and we no longer need pen and paper - we're basically rarin' to go...
- So the first step to preventing the kind of awkward situation described in the worst-case scenario is to make sure that we have perfectly clear what we want to say, in our own language, and write it down without modifying it. Let’s suppose that what we want to say in English is: "Esta noche voy a ir al cine." (I'm going to go to the cinema tonight)
- The word “inspiration” comes from the Latin inspirare, which means “breathe”. When our words are not connected to our thoughts they tend to have less meaning, and the resulting message can be very different from that originally intended.
- The following step is to breathe deeply. We all need to take from the environment: breathing, or respiration, is the process in which we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, an action we all do all the time without even noticing. Controlling our breathing is the nexus between thinking and expressing something, either verbally or nonverbally.
- Once we've taken a deep breath, it's time to look for all the “ingredients” necessary for constructing the sentence, or rather, its equivalent in English, and put them into a large box on the piece of paper - to represent our brain. The secret is to start with the easiest words and language concepts, the ones which spring readily to mind. This will give our brain time to complete its search for the more "difficult" elements.
- When all the components have been brought together in the box and any necessary grammatical items added, it’s time to put them in their corresponding places and utter the sentence in one go.
- 1. (Write down on paper in L1) "Esta noche voy a ir al cine."
- 2. (Write in box) I / the cinema / tonight (remember: time reference usually at end of sentence) / go + to / be going to / (remember: contraction of “be” with “I” = I’m)
- 3. (Write down on paper in target language) "I’m going to go to the cinema tonight."
Remember: L1 - (breathe) - brainbox - (breathe) - L2
Students write down five spontaneous sentences - questions, affirmatives and negatives - in their own language and for each one draw a small box in which to put the corresponding words.
The students have to put the words in their corresponding place in the target language sentence and then say them out loud as fluently as possible.
Obviously, for the first few times, at least, putting the whole process down on paper takes longer than the hypothetical fifteen-second pause mentioned above, but with practice, the pen and paper will no longer be necessary and the whole process takes place in the head, automatically and instantly.