Comprehension Over Production

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Comprehension Over Production

Postby Spots » November 3rd, 2013, 6:59 pm

Was your scene partner really listening in that last scene? For that matter-- were you?

I'd like to throw linguist Robbins Burling into our lexicon of improvisation. Perhaps a handful of people will start using his name and his arguments. And reading his books. The primary reason this is necessary is that I find modern gurus and instructors lean toward "production" over "comprehension."

You'll understand what I mean in a second.

Burling's work shines a light to show us that "production over comprehension" is totally backwards when it comes to the evolution & use of language. To look at how we learned to produce language is merely to study some wind pipes. But to imagine the actual evolution of language (and I draw the parallel to improv here) we must study the slightly less tangible-- the "ability to comprehend."

In other words: We perpetually mis-categorize how humans evolved language. Humans learned to listen and understand more and more over the course of thousands and thousands of years. It began simple and got more and more complex.

Therefore we have a superpower right now if we accept a simple call to action. Improvisation can evolve to a higher level of comprehending beginning with steps that you and I throw into the lexicon today:


It begins with a shift away from production.

Here's Burlings profound thoughts on the evolution of language:

From The Talking Ape
The central argument is that comprehension, rather than production, was the driving force for the evolution of the human ability to use language. To put comprehension first bumps up against a widespread, but barely recognized, bias that usually consigns comprehension to second place. We always act as if speaking is what really matters. We are more likely to ask a friend ‘‘Can you speak French?’’ than ‘‘Can you understand French?’’

Statistics tell us how many ‘‘speakers’’ each language has. They never count up the ‘‘understanders.’’ We have no less than four common words that refer specifically to the production of spoken language:

‘‘speak,’’ ‘‘say,’’ ‘‘talk,’’and ‘‘tell,’’

but not a single word for what happens when language reaches our ears. We make do with:

‘‘listen,’’ ‘‘hear,’’ ‘‘receive,’’ ‘‘understand,’’ or ‘‘comprehend’’ but none of these is specific to language. We
can hear or listen to music or to the passing traffic as well to language.

In the beginning ‘‘Understand’’ and ‘‘comprehend’’ are no better since, unlike ‘‘speak,’’ ‘‘say,’’ and ‘‘talk,’’ they are used for more than language. We can ‘‘understand’’ something as nonlinguistic as the workings of a mousetrap. Our language makes it seem that when we ‘‘speak’’ or ‘‘talk’’ we do something special that can only apply to language. When we '‘understand’’ or ‘‘listen’’ we seem to use ordinary skills that serve many other purposes than just language.

Grammars that describe the world’s languages are packed with rules that explain how words are built up from prefixes, bases, and suffixes. Other rules show how words are joined to form sentences. You must search out very specialized literature to find suggestions about how a sentence might be decomposed into its words, or how the words can be taken apart into their smaller bits. Speaking, admittedly, is much easier to study than comprehension. We just listen to what people say, or even peer into our own minds to find out what we can say ourselves, and then try to figure out how in the world we do it. That is how linguists spend most of their time. It is much more difficult to know how, or even whether, people understand. Nevertheless, speaking is only one half of the communicative process.

Language needs a listener as much as it needs a speaker, and whenever we pay close attention to understanding, we find that everyone—children, adults, and even animals—can understand more than they can say. Comprehension always surpasses the ability to produce. Sometimes, we can even interpret another’s actions when
he would much rather we understood nothing at all. [continued]


Comprehension isn't a single skillset. It's thousands of unique skillsets. Thousands. Think of all the patterns and associations you are making when you listen and connect. All without verbalizing or producing a word.

Improv is practically a physicalization of what happened with human language. Language is verbalization of the abstract. Improv is a further externalization of the abstract which includes our physical presence and a group's ability to share pretense. It's true. The more we focus on rules of production today, the more we send those ripples into the future. So should we concern ourselves with sending ten more Harold formats toward improvisers of the future? Should we hit the future with more and more rules about "how to produce"? What good is that going to do? Say a word at random. Done. You've produced something.

Rather we should do the right thing and bring forward a shift toward "comprehension." My explanation is simple. Whereas production has a limit-- comprehension has ZERO limits. None. We have the ability to improve our level of comprehension infinitely.


Producing is important sure. But consider that for every 6 workshops you teach on production, it's almost a crime not to include one on comprehension. We can never listen enough.
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Re: Comprehension Over Production

Postby Spots » November 7th, 2013, 9:29 am

A Boy with a Flying Squirrel


"The Power of Patience":

http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/11/the- ... f-patience
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