I am French, I practice improv in English, and I live in the Netherlands, learning Dutch. Improv is scary. And learning a language is scary as well. These two fears can feed each other, but they can also tame each other to make the journey a little easier.
Our inner judge is the enemy
For most things we try to do in our lives, our worst enemy is ourselves. In both the artistic fields and when we are learning a new language as adults, the inner critique is very active. It is that little voice that chatters in our head, the one that says that “we are not good enough”, that “we are failing”, that “we should stop trying because it’s ridiculous and the whole world is laughing at us”. Especially as a pure product of the French education when it comes to foreign languages, the fear built by years of mistakes pointed out by my teachers during long sessions of German lessons if flaring up almost instantly when I try to speak Dutch.
This inner judge comes from a part of the brain that is very active when we call for stored knowledge: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Let’s call it The Judge. The Judge is the part of our brain involved in decision process, to measure what’s good or bad, involving our sense of morale, thus also what is right or wrong. The Judge is in charge of the error detection. And if you have already tried something new in your life—whatever that is—you probably realised that you have to make mistakes to improve. Language learning is no different.
We want to get rid of The Judge
On the other hand, there are situations and moments when we feel free to explore, to try, even to fail. Moments when we feel creative. These are very inspiring and exciting moments, whatever might be the object of that feeling: a drawing for ourself, a made-up lullaby to a child or a recipe of our own for someone we love. But reaching that state is sometimes complicated when The Judge is casting shadow on us.
The part of the brain where this creativity is happening is the medial prefrontal cortex. Let’s call that energy The Friend. The Friend is used when we are truly creative, when we use our mother tongue, when we want to communicate, to connect with others.
Studies show that when we practice music or theatre with a sheet or a text, The Judge is the part of our brain that is activated. When we are improvising—music, theatre, or just talking, as life is improvised and we don’t have a script for it—The Friend is the part that is working.
What is bringing The Friend in the game?
The difference between the moments when we play text theatre and when we play improvised theatre resides in where our focus is. When we are improvising, we focus outward, on our partner, and the brain doesn’t have the time to focus on ourselves. The consequence of that state is that The Judge is not needed anymore, and only The Friend is there, to continue to engage, focus, be in the moment. The state of flow that we reach as improvisers is a beautiful way to lower inhibitions, limiting beliefs and our self-judgment.
By training improvisation, we are training our brain to be more flexible, more in the moment, and accepting our mistakes, being less judgmental. This state is the perfect state to practice a language, as it activates the same part of our brain as the one supposed to be active when we made up words—activity also named speaking.
This is the reason why we decided to create a class accessible to all languages, and all levels of improv. To explore together the joy of failing, to go back to what forges languages in the first place: connecting to someone else. And as well as improv is an amazing way to practice any language, improvising with another language is the best way to make you a better improviser.