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Learning to Improvise: Lessons from der Märchenwald

By Justin Quam | Published: November 7, 2017

Language learning can feel, at the beginning, like memorizing lines for a play. But what happens if your partner isn’t following the same script? Learning to improvise, to talk around the words you don’t know in order to achieve your goal—this is one of the hardest skills to teach.

Imagine night has fallen. You find yourself waiting in a wooded clearing, the stars dimly illuminating the path back to your cabin. A light deeper in the woods flickers to life, and two masked figures glide toward you. After reciting a poem whose solemn timbre matches the gloom, the torchbearers guide you into the trees to a secluded stage, where students perform a play based on a medieval legend—entirely in German.

Four villagers in medieval attire
In der Märchenwald, villagers adopt medieval
identities to learn German language, literature,
and history.

This play is the capstone of der Märchenwald program, an adventure program for two- and four-week students at Waldsee, the German Language Village, that uses medieval history to channel villagers’ interest in German. Der Märchenwald immerses its participants not only in German language, but also German history.

Villagers take on a medieval identity and develop new personae as smiths, artisans, or craftsmen, documenting their new lives in a journal; they may also learn calligraphy, heraldry, Middle High German, and medieval customs surrounding medicine, warfare, and religion. The anchor of each session is the play, for which we draw on classics of the German literary canon: Das Nibelungenlied, Tristan und Isolde, Parzival, and others.

After the play, inevitably at least one audience member asks, “So, did they write the script all by themselves?”

This question allows me to correct a misconception: the ‘script’ is never written down. While we rehearse the bones of each scene several times and practice the grammatical structures our villagers need to represent their character, what our audiences see each night is essentially improvised; the actors know how each scene begins and where it needs to go, but everything that happens in between is up to them.

In Märchenwald, just as at Waldsee and throughout Concordia Language Villages, we prepare our villagers for real-life situations not by memorizing dialogues or parsing grammatical rules, but by practicing language patterns that are adaptable to new and ever-changing environments. Waldsee’s daily curriculum is built around these patterns; we reinforce our Frage des Tages (question of the day) throughout the day in a variety of contexts to demonstrate how the most basic questions can be adapted to serve villagers’ goals. We follow this same approach in Märchenwald rehearsals; as we jointly imagine how each scene could go, we help the villagers practice the building blocks of each scene, while allowing them the flexibility to try out new combinations of language to suit the moment.

Marchenwald villagers sword fighting
Märchenwald villagers rehearse a fight scene.

Learning this way also better prepares villagers for hiccups that emerge on performance night. After all, having rehearsed your own lines perfectly may not help you if your partner forgets theirs. Some of those moments of improvisation still make me smile to remember them—particularly one from a production of Erec und Enite, a German rendition of the epic by Chrétien de Troyes. In the play, the knight Erec has proven his virtue to the lady Enite, and the two have married and settled down, but the ease of marital happiness has made Erec slothful. Enite finally breaks down in frustration, and Erec asks the heroine what ails her. The student playing Enite had rehearsed the reply, “Du bist schwach und dick und faul” (“You’re weak, and fat, and lazy”). But on performance night, our Enite ad-libbed: “…und es gibt einen toten drachen in meinem haus!” (“…and there’s a dead dragon in my house!”). This was an original twist on a 12th-century romance, bringing to life a character truly at her wits’ end.

Working with the Märchenwald program has been one of the highlights of my teaching journey and I always try to employ its lessons in my classroom teaching outside Concordia Language Villages. Performing an entire play might be outside the scope of those 50-minute classroom sessions, but the principle behind our rehearsals—learning adaptable patterns—can work with all kinds of improvisational activities. For further inspiration on that score, Waldsee has published a volume, Gute Idee, full of ideas for translating immersion activities like those we use in der Märchenwald to the classroom.

About the Author

A headshot of author Justin Quam

Justin Julius Quam is a Ph.D. candidate in German at Georgetown University. He has spent twenty summers at Waldsee, including seven as a villager, and is currently a member of Waldsee’s leadership staff, working with the Märchenwald program and curriculum development. 

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