TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (5)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Improvisation is a vague concept that is not defined clearly. With regard to speaking a foreign language, it refers to

  • situated target language performance, and to learning by / while doing,
  • accessing one’s target language / intercultural resources under communicative pressure, especially in informal communicative contexts which are usually less scripted and predictable,
  • employing (compensatory) communicative strategies spontaneously, and furthermore to
  • making use of whatever the totality of the communicative context has to offer,
  • being flexible and creative in a variety of linguistic and non-linguistic ways,
  • being prepared to take risks in the process of negotiating / co-constructing meaning.

How does this relate to current research and theory construction? In a recent issue of Applied Linguistics, Joann Swann & Janet Maybin (2007: 491) emphasize the importance of creativity for language learning. They point out that “creativity may be identified broadly as a property of all language users in that language users do not simply reproduce but recreate, refashion, and recontextualize linguistic and cultural resources in the act of communication.” They go on to say that “playfulness and humour is a potential characteristic of creativity” (2007: 492). It is evident that improvisation is a similar concept, which focuses on spontaneous, unprepared language use in the first place; more generally: on the predictability-unpredictability dimension of oral exchanges. 

The theory of foreign language improvisation is grounded in classroom-based empirical research spanning more than a decade (see, for instance, Kurtz 1997). Here is one more transcript illustrating what improvised speech is all about in actual classroom practice, how it affects oral production and how it contributes to target language communicative flexibility. Again, the format of interaction is Bus Stop (as described in part three of the TEFLSPEAK-G series). The improvisers are two 11-year-old German 5th grade students (after about nine months of learning English in a comprehensive school in Germany) (L = learner; T = teacher; … = pause; ? = intonation suggesting a question):

T:  All right … who is next? 
L1: Can I please? Herr Schneider .. can I?
T:  O.K. Simon … and who is your partner? … Murat? … no? what about Marc? … fine .. Simon and .. eh .. Marc .. you are at .. em .. the bus stop. … let’s count! … [whole class] … THREE, TWO, ONE, ACTION
L2: Yes … em .. hello. 
L1: Hello, my name is .. Simon. 
L2: Pleased to meet you, .. em .. I’m Marc. 
L1: Are you waiting for the bus? 
L2: Yes .. how about some sweets? 
L1: Thank you .. [cue:]  … em .. your shirt .. eh … is really beautiful .. [begin impro:] .. is it new?
L2: Yes.
L1: Look, … es [German word] … ähm … it [self correction] is dirty. Can you see .. it?
L2: No .. your shirt is dirty … look 
L1: What? .. that’s not .. er .. dirty … that’s modern  /mo’de:rn/ [end impro] [outburst of laughter in class]
L2: Oh, mmh .. here comes my bus. I have to go. Nice talking to you. Bye.
L1: Bye

Still more to come. Stay tuned.

Swann, Joanne & Maybin, Janet (2007), “Introduction: Language Creativity in Everyday Contexts.” Applied Linguistics, 28, 491-496.

Kurtz, Jürgen (1997a). Improvisation als Übung zum freien Sprechen. (Improvisation as Free Speaking Practice). Englisch, 3, 87-97. 


5 responses to “TEFLSPEAK-G and the Idea of Encouraging Improvised Speech in the EFL Classroom (5)

  1. Improvisation seems to be a useful and necessary concept in addressing the dynamics of language learning. Your example clearly shows that learners’ creativity and autonomy are at work in their actual use of language. I think your point is important as a evidence of learner autonomy in actual language learning situations in addition to the long-studied learner autonomy evidence identified in meta-cognitive strategies learners take in planning and reflecting their learning.

  2. Thank you very much for your contribution!

    Let me perhaps try to connect the ‘impro’ foreign language classroom research project to the more general question of sociocultural / intercultural participation. In the International Handbook of Child Psychology (1998), Barbara Rogoff points out that …

    “From the perspective that development is a process of transformation of participation, evaluation of development focuses on how individuals participate in and contribute to ongoing activity rather than on ‚outcome‘ and individuals‘ possessions of concepts and skills.“ – The central question becomes: How do people participate in sociocultural activity and how does their participation change from being relatively peripheral participants [..], observing and carrying out secondary roles, to assuming various responsible roles in the management or transformation of such activities.”

    This is exactly what I wanted to achieve in the foreign language classroom: … “transformation of participation”, i.e. enabling learners to become more and more active / proficient in the process of negotiating meaning in the target language. To my mind, this is what foreign language learning and communication is all about.

    Rogoff, Barbara (1998), „Cognition as a collaborative process.“ In: Damon, William (Ed.). Handbook of Child Psychology. Fifth edition. Volume II: Cognition, Perception, and Language. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 679-744.

  3. I appreciate your comment on my comment. :) I fully agree with your focus on “transformation of participation” in language classroom.

    One of the broader concerns for characteristics of the transformation is how we can empower our students so that they can “interact” rather than “interfere” with other people and the world. What I mean by “to interfere” is related to the mode of communication where the competent learners feel superior to others. In this case, the more communicative repertoire they have, the more focused on one’s own power they become, rather than appreciating the beauty of mutual communication.

    By the way, the “apprenticeship” model (especially by Rogoff and Lave & Wenger) is valuable in that it allows us to reconceptualize human learning. It seems to me, however, that it does not open the possibility to go beyond the status quo. I am aware that the scholars do not stick to the traditional apprenticeship model. However, their examples give me the impression that it is quite about social apprenticeship, which posits the aim of education is to be (like) a master or to get a set of competence valued in the current system.

    Ultimately, we need to empower our learners to “go beyond” us teachers/researchers, I think. In this vein, students’ improvization is a result of and at the same time a driving force of new approaches to teaching.

  4. I think this is a wonderful insight, that improvisation can be used to teach a second language. All conversation is improvisational–some more than others, of course. But fluency in a language requires a high degree of improvisational skill; it’s a form of everyday creativity. I also believe that effective learning, more generally, must involve improvisation in the classroom; that’s why I like the connection to Barbara Rogoff’s theory of learning, which is deeply improvisational (although she doesn’t use that word).

    In my recent book GROUP GENIUS I show that all effective collaborations are deeply improvisational–not only in classrooms, but in the arts and in business. http://www.groupgenius.net

  5. Thank you very much for your comment!

    I agree. Especially in informal communicative contexts, improvisation (used here as an umbrella term for spontaneous, creative, and flexible communicative performance in intercultural exchanges) is a highly important everyday phenomenon. Of course, improvisation is not only interesting in terms of linguistic performance in interaction and target language / culture learning.

    Here is what Hodson & Richards (1966: 13) wrote about it more than 40 years ago:

    “At every moment throughout our lives, we are having to adjust to whatever happens around us. The more unexpected the happening, the more spontaneous and frank the response is likely to be. Because people are less predicable than things, we are more often called upon to adjust to what is said and done by others in a way which we cannot easily plan. If we are open and receptive, we can make discoveries both about ourselves and others from these moments. If we are less receptive, the tendency will be to reproduce what we consider to be socially accepted responses and these become standardized and stereotyped.”

    Hodgson, John & Richards, Ernest (1966). Improvisation. London: Methuen.

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