Learn a Language: 6 Takeaways from Acting Every Language Learner Should Know
Teaching and learning languages has been my life. It has allowed me to see the world while paying the bills, and teach others how to communicate with people in different languages. Anyone can learn a language with the right tools and information.
When I started my career more than two decades ago, I came to the classroom with a BA in Theater Arts and Foreign Languages. Not only did the lessons I learned in my training allow me to get my students speaking from the very beginning and move quickly through memorized phrases and words and into their own language, it allowed me to creatively combine my passions for drama and languages.
Get the Part and Learn a Language
Actors must audition in many cases to get a job. Oftentimes an actor must come with a prepared monologue, and/or read from a script without time to prepare. This gives directors a chance to see the range an actor can play, as well as how good a fit they are for a part.
As a beginner in a new language, you need to memorize words and phrases. To move out of this range and towards fluency, you need to have enough memorized words and phrases to begin to make your own sentences and express your own thoughts. The monologue is the perfect place to start. I would advise a drama student preparing a monologue from Shakespeare to watch several on Youtube so that they can hear the intonation and pronunciation and replay it enough times to accurately mimic it themselves, and then google the text to memorize their own delivery. I would advise this also to anyone serious about learning a language quickly to do the same. You can find your target language word for monologue, search Youtube for videos from native speakers delivering monologues, and get started on your own.
The same holds true for poems. Find your target language equivalent vocabulary word. Google, watch, memorize and learn a language. You will find that the words really stick.
Know Your Character
Many actors thoroughly research their roles as soon as they get them. The goal is to completely understand the character’s history, background, tastes, family, major life events- anything one can imagine- so that the actor can make that character come to life. Deeply understanding the culture and people of the language that you are learning is critical. There are some great ways to incorporate this into your activities to learn a language.
Hot Seat is one of the best activities to do this. An actor gets a part, and then begins a deep study to really bring the character to life. This not only involves learning the details about the character and story from the script, it also involves adding even more to create a three-dimensional person that an audience can empathize with and believe. Details like the character’s favorite drink, birthplace or the worst day of their life are added. The rest of the cast then puts them in the Hot Seat, and they must answer any and all questions about the character. It is a great way to practice conversation and learn more culture as well. Here are some ways to get started:
Research a famous person from the target culture or a period of history. It could even be a famous place. A list of common get-to-know someone questions It is a great place to start. Learning these in the target language can be a great way to prepare for your first conversation with a native speaker. Here are some examples:
What’s your name?
Where are you from?
Where do you live?
Where were you born?
How old are you?
This provides an opportunity to learn more about the target culture while recycling lots of everyday language. The possibilities are infinite. Get more complex with the questions and answers as you progress.
Learn Your Part
Actors must learn a script well in order not to bomb and ruin it for everyone. In a play, the actor must thoroughly know all of their lines, as well as their movements, gestures, exits and entrances before opening night. A film actor must learn scenes, often out of sequence and changed at the last minute, in a matter of hours. These jobs require great attention to detail and the ability to bring words and stories in black and white to life.
When you are just getting started in a language, there are many tools readily available. Your “play” is a beginning-level dialogue intended to teach survival language skills. Think getting round, getting a meal and asking for directions. The FSI and DLI programs are great for this. There are free and in the public domain.
I would advise skipping over all but the dialogues to begin. Read, understand, learn and speak. Learn a new language on your own time with these free materials.
As you progress out of the novice range, you can create your own dialogues and monologues. Make your own task notebooks, and create your own conversations based on a situation. Think complaining at a restaurant, returning a broken item or talking about your family history. Get more complex, and take materials from new and novels as you advance.
Polyglot and bestselling author of Fluent Forever Gabriel Wyner recommends that people invest time early in their studies of a new language in developing proper pronunciation. Actors must understand how the character they are portraying speaks, and must study and listen closely to be able to produce those sounds themselves. This work makes the difference between the character sounding believable or not. Gabriel has a deep understanding of how to develop proper pronunciation from his strong background in vocal arts and opera, and is even developing an app to learn this on the go here.
Listen to the Director
Talk, but don’t be afraid of people telling you how it is done. Think of teachers and native speakers as your directors. You can put your “scripts” online and have them read by a native speaker at a site like rhinospike.com. MP3 files can be made and students can hear their lines read by a native speaker as they are being learned. Actors routinely listen to recordings of nuances of speech to accurately portray a character’s accent and speech patterns.
The same FSI that trains Department of State employees for assignments abroad and offers us free materials in a ton of languages also shares how long it takes to learn a language for English speakers. While we are all different, and our prior experience will influence how long it takes, it is great knowledge to have. Basically, some languages are easier to learn for English speakers because they are more closely-related. Think England’s closest neighbors: Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, etc. Some are a little farther away: Russian, Greek, Latvian. Some are far away, and have little in common culturally and linguistically with English: Arabic, Korean, Chinese. These lists are in no way exhaustive, but here is a resource to get you started if you want to learn more specifics:
Regardless of your current level, goals and language of choice, you have to commit the right amount of time to reach your goals. If not, you will never be ready for the performance, and you will never learn a new language.
Many actors love telling stories. Combine this inclination with wanting (and often needing) to make opportunities for their own work as actors. Remember when Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote Good Will Hunting? They won started their stellar careers in film, and even won an Oscar. Your students can write their own films easily, too. Microsoft Word has a screenwriting add-on that correctly formats stories for the screen. Courier 12-point font creates documents that make one page equal to one minute of screen time- essential for the industry to plan programs. And while you may have no aspirations to seeing your name in lights, there are great takeaways for learners here:
Whether you are on your own or practicing with a native speaker on a site like italki, record them on audio or video. Do this regularly and see and hear your fluency progress quickly. The recording serves as documentation of your progress. You can also use these recordings and share them with your directors to offer your corrective and helpful feedback.
Use Stories to Learn a Language
Being able to narrate fully and completely is considered an advanced-level task for learners. Practice telling your own stories though speaking, journaling, writing your own plays and creating your own films. Try using storyboards, a technique often used in French films. Many filmmakers plan out their films on storyboards, concentrating on the larger concept and visuals. They then return and write what will happen under those pictures. The actual script, with dialogue and action written, is last.
Don’t forget that many films are created from stories. Coyote Ugly began as an article about Elizabeth Gilbert’s experience working in a bar. The classics are often made into modern films. How many books have you seen made into movies? The takeaway: read, read, read. You will learn so much target language and culture, all in context, and all while you engage in a great story.
I wish you many stellar performances as you learn a new language. Break a leg!