Improv as a Second Language

by Amy Farley

Você fala português?

I don’t. Not really.

They say that learning a second language is easier the younger you are. It’s become hip and trendy to enroll children who barely have a firm grasp on the English language– babies, really– in Mommy & Me Spanish or French classes, promising fast fluency.

My parents didn’t subscribe to this theory. That is, I wasn’t working with a language coach at age 3, diligently conjugating verbs. (They didn’t enroll me in any biomechanical engineering or neuropsychology courses at my preschool, either, and I place the blame solely on them for my not having a lucrative career in the hard sciences today.)

If only I’d been enrolled in Pharmacy Preschool, I could be making tens of hundreds of dollars today.

Instead I took my first language the usual way– as a requirement in high school. Spanish was an alright class– about once a semester, we’d have a day where everyone was supposed to bring in authentic food, and some smartass (not me– my smartassery developed over time) would bring in Taco Bell for everyone, thus securing their position as Most Popular Student In 5th Period.

When I started college, you could take a language placement test during orientation to allow you to skip over the introductory levels. The Spanish placement test was set for 1 p.m. during a long day of orientation activities, and I’d heard there was free pizza somewhere. Pizza won out, as it typically does. So in a way, it was my penchant for authentic* Italian food that led me to take Italian to fill my college language requirement.

The light of my life.

My major only required me to take a language through level three, so after a year and a half of fairly successfully learning Italian, I was finished with my multilingual progression. Or so I thought.

Senior year, enrolling for second semester classes, so close to graduation I could feel it in my Red-and-Black veins, I discovered I needed just one more credit to reach the 120 required to graduate. The classes I’d signed up for already put me at 119, so I could choose one credit of anything– freshman-level or graduate-level, major or minor, biomechanical engineering or badminton. So naturally, I choose a three-credit-hour class called Intensive Portuguese, a course that combined the first three semesters of Portuguese into one short semester. In that class, English was verboten**.

I’m still waiting for some mysterious benefactor to whisk me away to a beautiful Brazilian beach so I can utilize my acquired knowledge.

It sounds like a disaster, but it wasn’t. It was a fun course, after which I and my classmates were completely conversational in Brazilian Portuguese***. I guess adults can learn a language after all.

Graduation was awhile ago, though, and by now my Spanish, Italian and Portuguese have all lapsed. I remember enough to tell a lie in each language: Hablo español, parlo italiano e falo português. But that’s about as far as it goes.

Last year I began to learn another language, although I didn’t know it at the time. When I began taking improv classes, I thought I knew what I was getting into, but as with many aspects of life, things surprise you. And now, I find myself becoming completely conversational with the language of improv.

I don’t mean a verbal language, although there’s certainly a bit of that. I mean a silent language. The way team members who know each other onstage and off communicate effortlessly without a word. The way groupmind kicks in and everyone on stage is suddenly on the exact same page. The way two players build a scene to a logical (or illogical, but earned) conclusion, without consulting with each other or planning.

This baby finds improv to be a snap, although he struggles a bit with his object work, thanks to his poor motor skills.

Words, lines, monologues, they’re all part of improv. But the silent language you share with your fellow players forms the foundation of a scene. Without first learning this language, your scene is built on shaky ground.

Improv is hard, but improv is also easy. A baby could learn it. So can you, even if your babyhood is behind you. And signing up for a level one class with Automatic Improv is the easiest thing of all.

Do you speak improv?

I sort of do.

*Nope.
**Clearly I’m a master of the German language as well.
***Portugal Portuguese, as it turns out, is so weird and strange and odd that the two barely sound like the same language.
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