Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Monday, February 20, 2006

Improv Wisdom

by AJ

"You should listen to the other folks and trust that when it comes to you, what you need to say will come forward. I challenge everybody to try this. Trust that when you start to speak, you have a lifetime of being in meetings, being a person who can communicate. Human speech is the ultimate improvisation. If you screw up, you can correct yourself.
That's another thing I want to say. Go ahead, make some mistakes. Maybe the sentences aren't perfect, but you can go back and sculpt them and fix them. I think natural utterances produce credibility. We feel comfortable around people who speak naturally rather than too smoothly, in my view."

--Patricia Madson

The above is advice Ms. Madson gives to public speakers & presenters (ie. NATIVE SPEAKERS). Focus on listening. Be aware of whats happening in this moment.

If you screw up, you can correct yourself. Go ahead and make some mistakes.

If only foreign language teachers/students would heed this advice. Much of the problem my students have with authentic communication is caused by their insistence on perfection. They are terrible at improvisation... they try to script everything. In the midst of a real-time conversation... they are thinking about grammar rules instead of focusing on the MEANING of the conversation.

Its painful to talk to such students... their speech is halting and unnatural. However perfect it may be grammatically (or not!), its simply impossible for a normal (ie. not a teacher) English speaker to talk to them at length. Theyve got enough vocabulary for the job. Theyve got enough basic grammar. But theyve never learned how to use the language creatively. Theyve never learned to improv. In fact, they are terrified of it.

These students seem to crave certainty. Theyve been taught that language is a formula. Theyve memorized scripts (dialogues). Theyve memorized complex grammar "rules". Theyve used "controlled practice" again and again and again. The problem is, real people dont follow a script.

This is why I typically shun "controlled practice". You know the kind of exercise Im talking about-- first you study the "present progressive".... then students engage in highly structured questions and answers using this verb tense (and no other). From a skills-building point of view, this is logical... you build one isolated skill at a time. But communication doesnt work that way. Students must be able to improv.

Part of being a good improv communicator is a willingness to screw up. You make a mistake.. so what. Native speakers make mistakes all the time. Rather than drill & kill, I prefer to stress circumlocution. If I dont understand a student's speech, I ask them to tell me in a different way. If they cant remember the perfect vocab word for the situation, I ask them to communicate the idea using simpler vocab. After they do so, I might say, "oh, you mean......". But the focus remains on meaning and context, not the structure of the language. This is what native speakers (adults and children) do all the time.

There is a very large emotional component to all this. Much of the work here, for a teacher, is helping students become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. In my experience, the students who progress fastest are those who are comfortable with improvised speech. They accept imperfection. They are eager to communicate ideas. As they gradually build success, they grow bolder... creating an upward spiral of confidence, meaningful & comprehensible input, and social connections.

My advice, therefore, is to strictly limit "controlled practice". Like a good zen master, I prefer to kick out the crutches as fast as possible. Close the textbook. Make mistakes. Engage in the always messy process of genuine communication. Bit by bit, help students grow comfortable with uncertainty.

Most likely, they will hate you in the beginning (its a scary process)... but in the end, they will thank you.