Teaching though Drama – Gobbledegook

Drama in the Classroom – Gobbledegook

We’re all talking gobbledegook, or nonsense, at times, even though we think everyone understands us so well! When we’re trying to learn a new language, we often feel we’re talking gobbledegook until we see the basic connections of the grammar and some vocab.

In drama gobbledegook plays an important part in getting information across without an understandable language. This can be hilarious to do and watch, but it also frees us from having to find words in improvisation. It stops improvising actors to go for a, sometimes lengthy, verbal discussion but rather to find the real intention and emotion behind the dialogue.

This activity is an English language learning activity because it doesn’t use any English – at least, not at first! It allows your students to act and improvise, they have to focus hard on what the other person is trying to get across before they can react to it, and it gives them an opportunity to have fun with something nobody really understands, but we can all speak it: the language of gobbledegook.
It also can bring about discussions on how we interpret what other people are saying, and to look at a very important ingredient in using language, namely body language.

This activity can be modified to suit your learners’ age. You can also use it in a short version to energize a lesson, or as a warm up for a conversation class.
Reflections are, as always, optional for the lessons and can be written in workbooks or on computers, or communicated as discussions.

Time for some nonsense – bring on the gobbledegook!

Gobbledegook – a perfectly understandable language

We’ll start with an inquiry exercise, but you can also go straight to the second exercise on Gobbledegook.
Below are some ways to introduce the subject, but you might have a project going that might serve as a great introduction.

1. Ask your students to talk in pairs or in small groups about the difficulty of sometimes not understanding a language, what it makes a person feel when he/she is left out because of not understanding what is being said, or what they like about learning English, and why are they learning it.

A different angle would be to show your students a short video (on Youtube) of a foreign stand up comedian whose jokes get laughs, but it’s in a language we don’t understand. Alternatively, let them listen to a foreign song, and then ask them to come up with what they think was said or sung.
Text messages also generate a lot of misunderstandings as automatic text can change our meanings; ask your students to come up with examples.
Take a famous quote and have your students discuss in pairs what this could mean, for example: ‘The world only goes round by misunderstanding’ (Charles Baudelaire).

2. Introduce ‘gobbledegook’ by addressing your students with your own gobbledegook speech.

In English, your speech would have told your students what you had for breakfast and how you got to work today, or how important it is to walk the dog as often as possible, or something else. It is important to keep the real meaning in mind, as that underlines the way we’re talking gobbledegook and what our body language expresses.
When you have talked to them for about a minute, ask them what you said. Not many will come up with the correct answer, so move on to the question of what they saw you do while talking. What information did the body language give them, and how did the musicality in your expression add to your use of this language?

3. Put your students in pairs, let them stand up (this creates more official distance than sitting down), and ask them to introduce themselves using gobbledegook only.

Some students might want to use the same few words so coach them into using a variety of nonsensical words. The introduction only has a few understandable words, i.e. their name, but the rest should represent where they live, how big their family is, whether they have pets, etc. Tell them their introduction should be about a minute long.
At the end of these conversations, ask them to guess what the other person has just said, and then let the gobbledegooker explain what he/she was trying to say. Does this match? How did they extract information from what they heard and saw?

4. Now that your students have tried out some of their own gobbledegook language, it’s time to get into character.

This is improvisation and should not be prepared – it is very important that both actors only know what character they are playing but not discuss what the conversation will be about!

Here are some scenarios for two people:

  1. Tourist asks the local person where the museum/hairdresser/doctor/landmark is.
  2. Police officer stopping a person in the street for some assumed offence.
  3. Stranger coming up to a person and insisting he/she knows the person.
  4. Red riding hood meeting the wolf in the forest and asking him the way to her grandmother.
  5. Customer asking the shopkeeper for a very complicated electric tool.
  6. Chef in a restaurant telling the new kitchen-helper to do some specific tasks.
  7. Two friends meeting and showing off their new clothes, new toys, new gadgets.
  8. Two people looking into a big hole in the ground and explaining to each other how this could have happened.
  9. Young child asking his/her parent whether she/he can play outside in the rain, have more cookies, cut up some trousers to make a bag, have a new pet. The parent must refuse at first, otherwise the scene will be over really quickly!
  10. Two small animals meeting in a field, underground or in the water.
  11. Client at the hairdresser’s: the client wants a certain haircut, but the hairdresser doesn’t think it would suit the client.
  12. Two children looking at the last cookie in the jar, and convincing each other why they should have that last cookie.

5. This exercise is for more advanced students and introduces the basic rules of improvisation
You can also ask two people to improvise a scene using gobbledegook, but without giving them a scenario or characters. Pick the two most confident students to give an example to the rest of the group.
Actor 1 comes on and chooses an action to mime (washing windows, digging up a garden, looking for the bus to arrive, etc.) and is given some time to execute this action. Actor 2 then enters the stage and reacts to the action, physically and verbally, but all in gobbledegook.
Actor 1 needs to react to Actor 2 by ‘accepting’ what Actor 2 has said or done. With this accepting attitude, the scene can continue; if you ‘block’ (by denying, or ignoring) what Actor 2 has added to the scene, this will end the scene very rapidly and will prove very uninteresting.
If both actors accept what the other brings to the scene, they can go on for a very long time, especially since they can’t have verbal discussions – at least, not the ones that lead to an understandable outcome!
Make pairs and ask everyone to try out this improvisation whereby no characters or scenarios are given. You then go around the room and observe the couples to see whether they are accepting or blocking.

Discuss afterwards what they thought was being said, how they gathered that information, and whether they felt the other actor was accepting what he/she was ‘given’.
This might be a good time as well for some written reflection; for example, ask them to write about what they tried to say to the other character.

6. If you want to use other visual examples of bad translation, lost in translation, or a stimulus for discussion on how we interpret and listen, try out these examples on youtube:


(Fake Sign Language interpreter during Nelson Mandela memorial)


(President Obama’s Anger Translator Luther at an important dinner – not suitable for younger viewers)


(Stereotypes Intercultural Communication – a film made by students, that can serve as a stimulus for discussion)

Get weekly articles and resources straight to your inbox

EFL MAGAZINE (5)