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Not Quite For Real: Language Learning and Pantomime – 5 Quick Lessons

‘Tis the season to be jolly. And in my current neck of the woods, this means crossdressing and slapstick on stage…ah, the good ol’ pantomime.

If you have seen one, you don’t need to be convinced of its peculiar charm. And if you haven’t seen one yet, this post may persuade you to do so. You may not believe this, but for a language learner, a pantomime is a symbol of everything that’s good and worthy about the study of foreign speech and culture. And no, I don’t mean men in tights.

Grab your mug of hot chocolate, read on and let me explain.

1. Someone Else Entirely: Pantomime And The Comfort Zone

Serious people hate pantos. They never go. Having to drive their kids to and from one is an embarrassment. And the thought of having to play in one would probably give them headaches.

I’m pretty sure serious people don’t do well in language learning.

The first lesson that pantomime will teach you is that awesome stuff happens once you leave your comfort zone. A panto is a universal permission to laugh, joke and do silly stuff in public. This is why everyone leaving a pantomime is beaming with joy: they’ve managed to step out of their everyday serious bubble and become someone else entirely.

Which is what you will do, sooner or later, when learning a language. So why make it hard and painful, when there’s a fun and easy way?

2. Good Effort: Pantomime vs. Perfection

Show me a pantomime with all roles perfectly played and rehearsed an infinite number of times, and I’ll show you a potentially boring time.

This must be one of the few moments when mistakes don’t really matter that much. If you forget your lines, improvise: if you come on stage in the wrong moment, fool around. Most of all, carry on: the audience will, and does, forgive you most hiccups.

If this is true, then why do people forget these moments in a language classroom – or when speaking with foreigners?

Real world resembles the pantomime audience, sometimes. It does not require perfection. What it requires – both on stage and in real conversations – is quick thinking and strategies for coping with failure, inadequacy and breakdown.

3. “Oh, no he isn’t!” – Pantos and Participation

Here’s a thought: let’s transplant the pantomime audience conventions – the “boos” and the “awwws,” the responses and jeers – into serious theatres.

No?

OK, here’s a better one: whenever you use your foreign language in the real world, think of the people around you as of your panto audience. They are not there to ridicule and criticize: they will respond, and are willing to engage in any conversation you’re going to initiate.

Speaking a foreign language always gives you stage-fright. But when you stop thinking about the outside world as your critic, and start treating the folks you’re speaking to as your supporters – the mood changes.

4. Not For Real – Suspending Your Disbelief

You’re never going to have fun anywhere if you believe every story completely. This is true of cinemas, newspapers, and pantos. In fact, it would be easy to spot the people who are not having too much fun during a pantomime: these are the ones who find it hard to suspend their disbelief and just “go with it” (like Emma Thompson in the clip below – from “Love, Actually“).

When you’re in a language classroom – or studying in a foreign country – it is all too easy to become obsessed with rules, structures and earnest expectations. Which leads to pain when rules get punctured by exceptions, structures dissolve into flawed, but actual usage – and expectations reveal the stereotypes behind them.

Language and pantomime are messy, spontaneous affairs. There will be times when things will no longer make sense to you.

The little girl’s “duh…” may be a better reaction on the whole.

5. For A While – Pantomime vs. Permanence

Nobody expects a panto to last forever. Nor do people expect to watch a pantomime every weekday. The beauty of this silly affair is that there is a right time and place for it: if overdone, it would become just another fact of life, and wouldn’t be so remarkable.

This is difficult to grasp, but for language learners, it’s all about moments. Don’t expect to spend your entire day – or week – constantly learning a language. It is far better to seek out moments: your speaking moment in the evening with friends, your listening moment in your car with your podcast – or your grammar moment at home with an exercise book.

This kind of approach takes care of two things at once: it prevents boredom, and makes you more aware of what and why you’re doing at the moment.

Which, again, is why pantomimes are so cool and intense.

 

There – I hope you enjoyed this. Now go watch a panto – or better yet, put one up in a foreign language of your choice!


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2 Responsesso far.

  1. Pri says:

    Well written post, but I must say: don’t be so pretty sure serious people don’t do well at languages… I’m serious, hate Pantos and still can speak 4 languages so far…

  2. Wiktor K. says:

    Thanks for that, Pri – I stand corrected 🙂