A leak of insight: Bobby McFerrin, Improvisation and Language Learning

Oops, another little break happened for a couple weeks there.  As an excuse to any possible devoted readers I have, I am in the midst of writing my thesis and simultaneously applying to PhD programs, a perfect concoction for general insanity, so I hope this post is at least mildly coherent:)

I recently listened to a fantastic interview with the music savant Bobby McFerrin.  If you’re not familiar with Bobby McFerrin,  you may remember him from the classic tune (guest starring Robbin Williams) called “Don’t worry be happy.”

Anyways, after listening to this interview I realized I hadn’t thought about the implications for improvisation and language learning for a little while, although it does come up in a book called “Language play, language learning” by Guy Cook quite a bit it, which I mentioned in a previous post. Cook (2001) writes,

“Much language play is characterized by that same undirected exuberant outpouring of energy which characterizes the spontaneous improvised play of children and young animals: that is, in Callous’ terms, paedia.”

I have found some research that mentions the notion of improvisation in addition to this.  For Mauer (1997)…

….“Improvisation can be considered the fifth skill — the skill which follows reading, listening, speaking, and writing. In many ways, it is the most important because it is the real test of whether students can use what they have learned without being told exactly what to do or say.”

Holland et al. ask the questions,

“Why celebrate these moments of resourcefulness?Why pay attention to these improvisations that piece together existing cultural resources opportunistically to address present conditions and problems? Why pay attention to them instead of analyzing the web of constraints that limit people’s activities and possibilities?”

And in addressing task based language teaching, Leo Van Lier writes on the role of improvisation in language teaching,

“The term ‘balanced’ suggests that in most cases a lesson which is so tightly planned (and implemented) that there is no room at all for improvisation, and conversely, a lesson which is not planned at all and therefore entirely improvised, would generally be considered unbalanced and perhaps not entirely effective.

There’s probably a bit more being said about improvisation out there in the academic battlefields of language acquisition, although it seems to be a fairly crucial aspect of getting around in a new language. I’ve found one post on it by bloggers in the language learning webosphere here, (let me know if you have posted on it as well so I can add your link), as well as a book chapter that describes improvisation as the process as “breaking out of a cocoon.” I’ve also briefly mentioned improvisation in a post or two, relating it to Jazz of course!

But I just the love the way that Bobby McFerrin describes how he learned to perform through improvisation, and I think we can relate it to language learning by extending the metaphor just a bit, but I’ll let your mind fill in the blanks:)

There are a couple of reasons why (improvisation) works.  One, people can tell that I love what I do, I mean I love what I do, I have a great time, it’s fun.  The other reason it works is what I don’t sing, you hear. Your mind makes up for the spaces I mean I give you enough information when I sing and what I don’t sing, you hear it anyways. Go figure, that’s the mind. So my instrument is not only me up here, it’s you out there.  So you are my instrument just as well as I am.  I might be the facilitator, the sound might be coming out of my mouth, but your ears hear what I don’t sing. – Bobby McFerrin

The sources used for this post are:

Holland, D., Lachicotte, W., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Maurer, Jay. (1997). Presentation, Practice, and Production in the EFL Class. The Language Teacher, 21 (9), 42-45.

Van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum: awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.

The featured image for this post is from an unknown photographer (will post the link when I find you!) who got this amazing shot of a lifeguard warning a tourist getting a little too close to some dangerous surf.

5 responses to “A leak of insight: Bobby McFerrin, Improvisation and Language Learning

  1. Never really thought about improvisation as another separate aspect of language learning. I just assumed that would with output (speaking + writing), but then I realized in some language classes you might be forced to say certain things and creativity & improvisation is lost.

    In a sense I agree. Improvisation would be a good measure to test how well you know your language. At least in the active sense.

    • Thanks for your comment! In a way, I’d like to think that every moment of ‘output’ is an act of improvisation, simply because we’re always producing output in a slightly different context. But maybe it’s because I’m less drawn towards notions of language learning that describe linguistic competence simply as ‘input’ and ‘output.’ Et bon courage dans tes études!!

  2. Thanks for this. I find myself thinking a lot about what constitutes spontaneous production for young beginners, or even older, more advanced learners. I posted here http://sco.lt/8FVUnp

    I think what Bobby McFerrin has to say is pretty relevant; another musician who has a lot of things to say about teaching which is relevant to language teaching in my view is Robert Duke. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODfUcc-0YLY He has a bit about teaching someone to drum that is a perfect example of scaffolding.

    • Wow, thanks for sharing the links Shona, these are great. I only have had the chance to watch the first portion of Robert Duke’s talk but looking forward to watching the rest!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s