We sometimes like to get our students to learn scripts. These could be simple functional scripts covering day-to-day needs (at the carwash, at the fishmonger,
on the funicular railway etc.), or they could be more professionally oriented, more loosely arranged, more a sequence of prompts than a script to be
memorised. But learning a script generally feels like sound practice, building a little trellis around which we can drape relevant functional language.
And social psychology would seem to bear this out. Ellen Langer and Robert Abelson conducted a series of experiments in the 1970s the results of which seemed to indicate that we all use scripts, all the time, whether conversationally or behaviourally, or, indeed, professionally. We interact according to stereotyped event sequences. The customer service operative who has a prepared script is only a formalised version of what we do in every workplace. While we like to think of ourselves as spontaneous conversationalists, much of our life is in fact spent selecting and rehearsing pre-existing scripts.
Using a script can be both liberating (it is quick, it is efficient, it is often effective) and limiting: limiting, because grappling on the margins of our scripts is how we carve out fresh scripts, and how, just occasionally, we make new discoveries, however humble.
It can also be perilous when an interaction veers off script. Hopping from one agreed and scripted interaction (talking about the weather, for example, or the weekend on a Monday morning) to a wholly different one (opening up about a pet bereavement, say, or episodes of mental illness) can be very destabilising. Still more so for a non-native speaker, when not only the emotional or social form is disjunctive, but also the vocabulary sets used to frame that form. Each time we change script, we force students to call fresh communicative sub-routines.
And so while in this enlarged sense, I use scripts all the time in class – I very often tell the same stories, for example or I exploit material in the same way, or I set up activities fully knowing the stages they will go through, the problems that will arise, and the byways that we might or might not take – going off script creates sometimes the most memorable, sometimes the most challenging, and not infrequently the most incomprehensible segment of any given lesson.
Which leads me on to the pleasures of incomprehension, but to discuss that here would mean veering off script, so I will leave it for another post.