Japanese Tips

3 Powerful Improv Principles That Will Help You Speak Japanese More Fluently

Aug 30, 2023

When I was a teenager in the early 90s, I was obsessed with the British improvisational comedy TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? (the American version of the same name came much later).

If you've never seen the show, here is a quick summary of the improv shenanigans that ensue.

Each episode featured four improvisers, with a few regulars coming back frequently (Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, Josie Lawrence, Greg Proops, etc.).

The host, Clive Anderson, chose a series of improv games and selected which improvisers would partake in each round. My favorite games included:

  • "Questions Only" in which the improvisers had to create a scene using only questions. If someone accidentally answered with an affirmative statement, they got the buzzer and had to sit back down.
  • "Hoedown" in which the audience suggested a title or theme, and then the improvisers had to create a new song on the spot, line by line, performed to live music, complete with a rhyming structure.
  • "Foreign Film Dub" in which two improvisers spoke in a gibberish language while the other two "translated" their lines into English. The performers were often forced into embarrassing situations by the translators.

My 12-year-old brain could not fathom how the improvisers were able to instantly produce hilarious, coherent narratives out of thin air. I often wondered to myself:

  1. Did these improvisers have better brains that let them think faster than the rest of us? Was their ability endowed or acquired?
  2. Were their performances truly improvised on the spot, or did they prepare scripts, beats, and gags beforehand?

Fast forward a few decades and I now know the answer to these questions. After studying and performing improv for a number of years, I can now attest to the fact that:

  1. Improvisers learn to make optimal use of normal cognitive abilities. They aren't smarter; they're just better trained.
  2. Most improv shows are indeed spontaneous and unscripted, but improvisers are supported by a handful of powerful principles.

And it turns out that some of these same principles can help you learn to speak a foreign language more fluently!

Here are the top three improv skills you can use in Japanese.

1) Listen, don't plan

Most people don't listen very well during conversations. As the other person speaks, the vast majority of our cognitive bandwidth is dedicated to:

  • Planning what to say next.
  • Trying to come up with a witty reply.
  • Scanning for pun opportunities (okay, maybe that's just me 😜).

While we can usually get away with this bad habit in our first language, it's much this is a surefire way to miss the message in a foreign language context.

Instead, give complete focus to the following:

  • What your interlocutor (the person you're speaking with) is saying. Don't get distracted by unknown words; just try to follow the basic gist.
  • Non-verbal signals like their tone of voice, facial expressions, eye movement, body language, hand gestures, etc. These can express a LOT of meaning.

But I know what you're thinking... If you don't plan ahead, how will you know what to say?

That brings us to principle #2.

2) Talk, don't think

One of the most important principles I learned in improv classes is to speak extemporaneously without fear or filters.

You just say the first thing that comes to mind based on what the other person just said (or whatever will move the "story" or "scene" along).

Though your goal in real life is to communicate, not entertain, this approach is still a powerful ally.

Instead of second guessing yourself, over-analyzing, or trying to remember a certain word or grammar rule, just start moving your mouth. Trust your instincts. You will be amazed how often you produce correct, grammatical utterances despite—or I would argue, thanks to—a lack of conscious monitoring.

This same phenomenon can be observed when foreign language learners have a few alcoholic beverages. By suppressing the prefrontal cortex, ethanol lowers your inhibitions and reduces "language anxiety" (though at the steep price of damaging your health).

Fortunately, improv drills can train you to speak quickly with calm confidence, all without the need to imbibe any booze.

3) Yes, and...

"Yes, and..." is the golden rule of improvisational comedy.

In short, the phrase means that you instantly accept whatever is said by your interlocutor (the "yes" part) and then immediately build upon it (the "and" part).

In improv, this principle helps keep a scene moving along and ensures that no time or utterances are wasted in disagreement.

Its opposite, "No, but..." is a scene killer than every new improviser is quickly taught to avoid like the plague.

Improvisers don't necessarily say "yes, and..." out loud, but they maintain the sentiment that whatever comes out of the other person's mouth is "true" (at least temporarily for the sake of the scene).

How does this relate to speaking a foreign language?

"Yes, and..." thinking enables you to:

  • Expand your comfort zone.
  • Meet people where they are.
  • Consider new ideas and values.
  • Have flowing, fluent conversations.

This doesn't mean that you can't have polite disagreements or offer an alternative point of view. But try to resit the knee-jerk impulse to automatically disagree or shut down ideas or beliefs different to your own.

In fact, a skilled improviser can indirectly disagree with someone but frame the rebuttal in affirmative language.

So there you have it: three powerful improv principles that will help you speak Japanese more fluently, have more flowing conversations, and even become a better listener (and dare I say, a better person!) along the way.