One way to liven up a class (or a club meeting) is to introduce a game. The more a game involves speaking, the more suited it is to language teaching. Chess, for example, would probably not be a good choice. In addition, a game should be neither too hard nor too easy for the players’ command of Esperanto. Finally, it has to be fun, or you might as well do grammar exercises.
Most toy departments have a selection of children’s board games that can be adapted for class use with varying degrees of effort, and there are plenty of what used to be called “parlor games” (like Charades) that require little or no equipment.
Some games are suited even for a beginning course. For example, you can buy the prerequisites for Bingo for as little as a few dollars, and it’s quite good practice for understanding and interpreting the names of numbers. It helps students get past such initial confusion as misinterpreting tridek because of interference from the English word thirteen (and similarly for the other “teens”). In my experience, students who have just learned the numbers have a surprising amount of fun playing Bingo because the frustration level is just right, making it just difficult enough to be entertaining.
A good game for building vocabulary is Clue, the mystery game in which players guess that the crime was committed by “Fraŭlino Blua en la salono per la tranĉilo” and the like. You can use a label-maker to replace the text on the board and the cards with Esperanto. You can add to the fun by introducing additional characters, locations, and objects, and offering different ways of phrasing an accusation, “Mi pensas, ke la ĉefministro mortigis la kelneron per la florpoto sur la tegmento” or “Mi opinias, ke faris la krimon la ĝardenistino uzante la katon apud la sofo.”
With a larger class size, you may find it best to play a couple of rounds with just a few players while the rest of the class watches, then once everyone has the idea, divide up into smaller groups of appropriate size. Ideally each group should include at least a few students who are progressing rapidly in the language since they can help the others. The instructor can circulate among the groups — observing, answering questions, and providing encouragement and some help, but not too much criticism, since the game should feel more like a game than a test.
More advanced students who already have some conversational skill can play a more involved type of mystery game of the “mystery party” sort. Each player is assigned the role and receives a printed description of his or her character along with some facts about the crime that are not known by the other players. One of them plays the villain (and is the only one to know that) while the rest serve as detectives whose task is to identify the bad guy by asking each other questions. The villain is allowed to lie but the others must answer truthfully based on the information on their character sheets. There’s admittedly a fair amount of advance preparation involved in translating the character sheets (or inventing them and the background story from scratch).
Such role-playing isn’t limited to mystery games. Students can simply act out a given situation, such as meeting someone at a kongreso or a visit by a foreign Esperanto-speaker. The scenario should probably be played realistically most of the time, but it wouldn’t hurt to introduce some comedic or fantasy elements as well. For example, students could try to explain Earth society to an Esperanto speaking visitor from space.
You may have seen the British television show Whose Line Is It Anyway? or the U.S. version hosted by Drew Carey. If so, you recall that a set of comics, sometimes joined by audience members, played various short games that involved acting out scenes. One game gave each of the players a very short description of a role to play (a man terrified of wood, say). An additional player then had to guess what each person’s role was based on their words and actions. Such a game could obviously be used to practice and improve one’s Esperanto in a class or club meeting. Search for “Whose line is it anyway?” on YouTube and you’ll see plenty of examples.
One caution: Shyness can be a problem for students in the more open-ended games, and the discomfort of speaking a language in which one is not fluent can bring out a sort of stage fright even in people who have not the least problem with it in their native tongues. It’s critical for everyone to be supportive and encouraging toward one another. You should also be prepared to allow some to simply sit back and play the role of audience if they like. If they seem concerned, talk directly and preferably privately with them about it.
As with games like Clue, it can also help to start out with a few players participating and the rest watching, then break up into small groups to allow more people to get to talk. Put the shy students in with the friendliest and kindest partners.
Another approach that works well for less experienced speakers, and can help with shy ones as well, is to divide students into groups and have them write short scenes based on an assigned situation. This allows them to think about what to say without having to extemporize. They can look up words in a dictionary rather than struggle with a balking memory. Once the scene is written, they can then act out the scene in front of the class reading from a script, or even cue cards.
A fun game that can be adapted for almost any level of language knowledge past the absolute beginner stage is Mad Libs. That’s the game in which a story has some words replaced by blanks identified by part of speech or other categorical term (substantivo, transitiva verbo, loko, ilo, ktp). Someone calls out the prompt for each blank (“Ni bezonas substantivon!” “Ni bezonas profesion!” ktp) and the audience responds with suggestions (“Kato!” “Lokomotivo!” “Kosmoŝipo!”), one of which the first person selects to write in the blank. (It’s up to you whether you want the person doing this to know the contents of the story. It often helps if they don’t know, since trying to make comedic choices can actually make the result less funny.) Finally, someone—possibly the same person as the one who filled in the blanks or possibly another so as to give more people a chance to talk—reads the story out loud, including the words filled in the blanks. The results are often hysterical. (When I was a kid some friends and I once filled in a Mad Lib so that a farmer announced to his wife one morning that he was going out to “squash the hogs and disassemble the chickens.” I can think of other examples that I can’t repeat here.)
Yet another amusing game is to read definitions and try to guess what word is being defined. The online Reta Vortaro is a possible source of definitions, but you may prefer a dictionary aimed at beginners, such as OVO, the Oportuna Vortaro de Ordinara Esperanto. A variation on this is to have someone guess a word based on clues invented by his or her partner, who of course isn’t allowed to simply say the word in question. Rather than a word it might be a phrase or even a book or movie title (translated into Esperanto, of course).
The foregoing are only a handful of possibilities. Almost any game that involves talking can be used, provided it doesn’t call for a level of language skill beyond that of the class in question. I’d like to hear more suggestions for games, especially based on your experience using them in classes, in local group meetings, during Esperanto-kongresoj, or in other settings.