I recommend taking an improv class for so many reasons, one of which is that some of the exercises can become great springboards for ideas to get students to speak in a group language class. Knowing how to read and write in a language is quite different from speaking it. This is especially true with some Japanese women I have taught. Although their spouses may have opportunities to use English in the workplace, many Japanese women I’ve met tend to befriend other Japanese whose husbands have been assigned to work in the United States. Making American or other English-speaking friends can be tough.
From what I have learned, the Japanese can read and write with a fair amount of clarity; however, forming spoken sentences doesn’t happen without a lot of thought first. Sometimes a series of imperfect sentences can communicate much more than a few perfectly constructed sentences. My goal is to create an environment in which students feel free to try to speak in front of their classmates and me with the understanding that they will be corrected afterwards so that they can ultimately improve and communicate more fluently. This has to be done carefully so the students are not discouraged from speaking at all.
One recent activity that I did with a group of four women was to role play buying a used car. First, I introduced some vocabulary. Next, we listened to a dialogue while reading the script silently, and then the students were paired off. Each person took turns with the role of salesperson and car buyer while reading the script aloud. Afterwards, I modeled how to act out the skit without the script and emphasized that the skit did not have to exactly match the original dialogue. (I chose the most advanced student who was the least shy to help model how to do this.) After we completed the demonstration, I asked the women to work their partner and take turns playing each role without a script. After some practice, it was showtime.
The grand finale was when I had the students speed up the performances from about five minutes to a time limit of three minutes. The result was that the students spoke more naturally, sounded more fluent, and were talking to an actual person while speaking. It wasn’t just reading from a script anymore. It was about interacting.
Improvisation is a part of daily life. We may have patterns that we use in different situations, but ultimately, we think of what we’re going to say depending on whom we are speaking with and what the situation is. Rehearsing is a good idea when stakes are high, but reading from cue cards is not nearly as effective as communicating with the person in front of you.