Our contemporary world is currently experiencing one of the most intense and dramatic periods in its history. There are a lot of simultaneous events and crises that are challenging our physical strength, mental and emotional balance, and, equally important, our moral values and principles. It is all an endurance test made up of many interlocking stages: the seemingly never-ending COVID pandemic, the war in Ukraine with its tragic loss of lives and various threats to world safety, the energy crisis, the ever-rising prices, the climate changes and their disastrous effects on our lives. In the midst of all this we are trying to keep our balance by, at least, making sense of the whole nightmare. And, as psychologists say, what better way to do that than by talking about it? And, leaving going to the psychologist aside, what better opportunity to talk about all these events and challenges than during the English class?
The fact that studying English involves interdisciplinarity is well-known by teachers and students alike. Fortunately, during the English class we can use our linguistic skills and communicative competence to approach any subject, whether it belongs to history, geography, biology, medicine, sports, even mathematics or physics. Even more, discussing about topical issues, irrespective of the field they belong to, can really arouse students’ interest as they feel motivated to use linguistic items, grammar structures and functional language both to express their opinions on a topic that they can relate to and, also, to try to make sense of the world around them. Therefore, a foreign language class can throw a new light on reality by applying a linguistic perspective on a historical, economic, political, social or medical aspect, to name but a few.
To begin with, the COVID pandemic has certainly been an important topic of conversation for a few years as it has seriously affected our lives in different manners. Thus, when dealing with a health issue or education-related topic during the English class, discussing about the pandemic seems like a natural thing to do. This obviously means activating vocabulary items (collocations, idioms, phrasal verbs) belonging to at least three fields: health and medicine, school, and social life. For instance, such a discussion could include some of the following words or phrases: to catch a disease, to become infected with a virus, to contract an illness, to experience respiratory/digestive symptoms, to have underlying medical conditions, to prevent a disease, to keep social distance, to wear a proper mask, to get vaccinated, quarantine, self-isolation, remote work, online learning, hybrid classes, to attend a webinar. The high number of verb phrases that might be used in discussions would certainly reflect the fast-changing dynamics of a phenomenon that is always one step ahead of us. These or similar vocabulary items can be employed in expressing opinions on the pandemic (“From my point of view, the COVID pandemic might really be only the tip of the iceberg as there are numerous viruses that are about to surface.”) or in holding a debate on the topic (“The virus was intentionally released from the laboratory and the pandemic is only meant to reduce the number of people inhabiting the planet.”, to illustrate a cynical conspiracy theory). However, since uncertainty seems to be the only…certain thing about this disease, most of the language used during discussions or debates might have the function of helping students formulate, by means of modal verbs and adverbs, suppositions, possible theories or impossible scenarios regarding the origin of the virus, the existence of a cure or of an efficient vaccine for the disease, the number of potential variants of the virus, the efficacy of the measures taken to prevent its spreading, and the list could go on…
Another dramatic episode that is still ongoing and that took most of the world by surprise is the war in Ukraine. Although it is difficult to talk about something so tragic for those directly involved and with very serious consequences on many other countries in the world, in a lesson about history such a topic cannot be entirely avoided, nor should it be. A discussion about it would primarily involve language related to war and politics illustrating military actions, army ranks, types of government systems, official institutions and representatives, diplomatic solutions or measures. Some of the following vocabulary items could be used: to wage war, an act of war, to be caught in the crossfire, to drop a bomb, to be in the firing line, to blow up, armed forces, enemy troops, artillery, peace talks, occupied territory, nuclear threat, governor, mayor, spokesperson, dictatorship, democratic countries. As history and politics are interrelated, the discussion about the war and its tragic consequences might lead to a debate about democratic principles vs. dictatorship rules and laws (“Freedom of choice should be defended at all costs.”). The war-related vocabulary could be integrated, together with conditional clauses, in sentences expressing hypothetical situations (“If the Russian troops had not invaded Ukraine, there would not have been so much misery and poverty in the world.”) The fact that the war brings tremendous tragedy into people’s lives certainly makes us all imagine living in an alternative reality where “war” is just a negatively-charged word, with no real destructive power.
Discussing about life in contemporary society and about living standards might touch upon economic aspects such as the energy crisis, the rising prices and the inflation rate, which are considered to be related to the war in Ukraine. Analysing such aspects might involve some of the following language items, some of them being highly specialized economic terms: supply and demand, energy shortage, estimated cost, package of support, rising electricity/gas bill, discount, energy suppliers, fixed rate vs. variable rate, purchasing power, to run high/low, cash flow. The vocabulary could be used, together with infinitive and gerund verbs, in sentences expressing plans, intentions or suggestions as regards dealing with the various aspects of the current economic crisis (“The government plans to implement packages of support that could help low-income families.”) Having very palpable effects on population, the economic crisis really needs the use of concrete language both at the level of discussion and, more importantly, at the level of crisis management. As these economic problems are mainly connected to the war in Ukraine, the topics for debates could address the students’ attitude towards moral values and principles, therefore also turning into a test on human behaviour in challenging times (“We should stop worrying about others and start worrying about ourselves.”, “The support we give Ukraine should be unconditional.”)
One aspect that has been worrying everybody for some time is represented by the climate changes caused by our technical and scientific “progress” and irresponsible way of living. As everybody knows, these have resulted in pollution, global warming, landslides, droughts, floods, storms, tornadoes, which, in turn, have led to loss of lives and destruction of the planet. Playing such an important part in our lives, climate changes and their aftermath cannot be ignored in a lesson about the environment and the quality of living. The language used to discuss about them could include vocabulary related to natural phenomena, natural disasters, flora and fauna, but, also, to protecting the environment: acid rain, volcanic eruption, lightning bolt, thunderstorm, tidal wave, sea level, coastal flooding, heat wave, wildfire, to become extinct, marine habitats, warm season, arctic regions, tropical rainforest, lush vegetation, endangered species, biodegradable packaging, solar power. Noun collocations would probably be very frequently used in a discussion about the environment since dealing with such a complex topic requires both identification of each aspect related to it and description of that particular aspect (fertile land, contaminated water, air pollution). The vocabulary could be used in sentences expressing wish for a better world and regret about reckless human behaviour (“I wish we could find a way to live in harmony with nature!”, “If only people had not wasted so many of the natural resources!”) Although measures have been taken and plans are being made to restore the balance of nature, we still seem to be at the point of wishful thinking in this irreversible process. As we exhaust natural resources and affect the ecosystem, we manage to find plenty of words to illustrate the damage that we do to the environment and, ultimately, to ourselves, but we cannot find efficient solutions to prevent it from happening every day. The dilemma of enjoying the benefits of progress without, at the same time, destroying the planet can initiate debates prompting students to seriously reflect on the consequences of their daily actions (“The way forward can be regress in disguise.”)
Discussing about contemporary problems during the English class obviously has some important advantages: students get to talk about things that they are interested in or affected by, which can be a really motivating factor; they get to practise and perfect their English while expressing their opinions on the aspects that matter to them; they can understand reality better by critically analysing and contrasting the perspectives expressed in class; they can adjust or correct their views according to the new pieces of information revealed by the others. Vocabulary, grammar, functional language can all be employed appropriately according to the selected topic in order to re-create reality through discussions and debates and, thus, to make it more comprehensible and less frightening or stressful.
1. Cohen, Louis, Manion, Lawrence and Morrison, Keith, A Guide to Teaching Practice, Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005.
2. Hiebert, H. Elfrieda, Kamil, L. Michael, editors, Teaching and Learning Vocabulary, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2005.
3. Richards, C. Jack, Communicative Language Teaching Today, Cambridge University Press, 2006.