How Improv Can Help You Learn A Language

Believe it or not, theater techniques have a place in foreign language learning.
three actor silhouettes in front of red curtain illustrating benefits of improv

Okay okay, hear us out. Yes, amateur improv can sometimes be cringe-inducing to watch, but so is just about any novice attempt at speaking a foreign language (no offense). One of the biggest benefits of improv is precisely this: the fact that you’re encouraged to stick with the process in spite of its clumsy beginnings. And there’s a lesson in there somewhere for the rest of us, whether we’re endeavoring to learn a new language or become a semi-decent ballroom dancer in the span of a movie montage sequence.

Actually, drama has played a role in the foreign language classroom since at least the early ’80s. It’s no secret that engaging the emotional part of learning, as well as opting for more participatory methods of engaging with the material, can help students invest themselves into the learning process. There’s something to be said, in so many words, for “the value of the unexpected” in the classroom. Real life is often anything but predictable.

Here’s why the benefits of improv are entirely relevant to language learning.

It Makes You More Comfortable With Uncertainty

If you think about it, the act of speaking is inherently improvisational. Unless you’ve written and rehearsed a speech ahead of time, you’re usually stringing together sentences on the fly. It just doesn’t usually feel that way because you’re comfortable enough with your native language to make up for your lack of preparation.

If you’re speaking a language you’re not yet comfortable in, then it stands to reason that you could opt to become comfortable with the uncertainty that’s going to come with searching (and struggling through) your word choices.

That’s sort of the idea behind improv: not knowing what comes next and learning how to roll with it. This is especially valuable in a language classroom because a communicative approach to learning inherently gets you ready for real-life situations (rather than memorizing the rules, which is important but can only get you so far). Don’t think of yourself as a bad French speaker — think of yourself as an actor who’s playing the part of a novice French speaker.

It Makes You More Nimble

One of the core tenets of improv is that you have to pick up the thread someone else started and, no matter what, keep it going. “Yes, and” is the guiding philosophy because you’re simultaneously accepting what came before you and adding your own contribution to the score. Sounds kind of like what happens when you’re having a conversation, to be honest.

Improv exercises prepare you for the turn-taking that’s required when you speak to someone in the real world because you’re simultaneously sharpening your listening and speaking skills. You never know exactly what someone’s going to throw at you during a conversation, but you can get comfortable with your own capacity to react to it.

Truthfully, a lot of this is really about getting out of your head enough to get out of your own way. Improv helps you do this by teaching you to trust your instincts and be in the process.

It Teaches You How To Laugh At Your Mistakes

The other cool thing about a “yes, and” ethos is that it cancels out the fear of failure or being wrong. Other people will automatically accept your ideas and run with them, which helps you, in turn, become more uninhibited.

One of the biggest obstacles to improving language fluency is letting your fear of mistakes get in the way when, in fact, mistakes are what help you learn. Students of improv often display a growing willingness to take risks and embrace “failures” as either learning opportunities or segues into a funny new plot twist.

Among the major benefits of improv is that it not only lessens your anxiety around failure — it also helps you enjoy the humor of it all.