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?
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.
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.