When people first get to know me and they hear about my passion for language learning, I am often asked how I’ve managed to learn ‘so many’ other languages. During these conversations I have heard the argument that watching television and movies in a foreign language accelerates the development of a second (or third) language. As a multilinguist, I am somewhat skeptical of this theory, even if it is how my husband claims to have learned his second language.
Does watching foreign films help you learn another language?
First, in establishing my argument against using television to learn a language (unless it is in addition to a variety of other tools and resources), I would like to say that I have, in fact, experimented with this method first hand on more than one occasion.
While I was in middle and high school, I attempted to watch foreign films and absorb the languages I was learning, but I didn’t really ever feel like I was improving. Of course as a teenager, I always assumed that there was something wrong with me. I had to be the exception because I had so often heard that this method was effective.
For me, it seemed, the most noticeable improvement I made was when I used the language I was learning in writing but most of all in conversation, not by watching movies. The only time films really worked for me was once I was already quite proficient in a language and could read the subtitles in the original language rather than my native language.
One might argue that watching foreign-language films is a way to immerse yourself in a language when the real environment is unavailable. This is one area where I might agree, however, if one does not already have the basic tools of another language (some vocabulary and grammar), then this form of immersion won’t work.
If you think about it, this method is like trying to learn a language through osmosis. How can you expect to absorb a language let alone understand what is happening on a screen without any roots? I would compare it to picking up a novel in a foreign language and trying to learn to speak it using that book without any previous knowledge – it’s an awfully difficult way to go. I wouldn’t say it was impossible, but I wouldn’t say it was easy either.
One might say that children learn their first language through osmosis, but I’m quite certain that many linguists would argue. Children are born with the natural ability to decipher the complex system of language by picking out repetitive sounds, eventually words and then finally phrases.¹ The total language learning process takes them a total of five years to complete with 24/7 immersion in the language and endless interaction with speakers that are trying to help them learn the language.
Why don’t movies work as well for language learning as one would hope?
If you are looking for a shortcut to language learning – a fast way to learn a new language and skip steps, watching foreign films isn’t going to help you. Not without a basic understanding of the language and a decent vocabulary already built up.
The reason that television is an ineffective means of language learning is because it is missing one incredibly important element – interaction. It is a form of passive rather than active learning and therefore can be seen as less effective than other means. By watching others’ conversations in films or even by being read to by a computer (yes, there are now books that read themselves to children), one is missing one of the most important learning elements, that of interaction. When a mother reads to her child, they discuss the book, what is happening, what might happen next and what the child thinks, allowing them to become involved with the story and use the language they are developing.
One could argue, however, that if one is actively engaged with the movie or television program, it could be considered active learning. Instead of merely watching the film, one could repeat expressions or mimic dialogue, and thus, make the activity interactive rather than passive. I myself have done this, but I usually find that using an expression in conversation (or picking one up in conversation) works better for me because I get real-time response from another person.
On the other hand…
To argue for television language learning, on the other hand, I’d like to tell you about my niece. My niece lives in a French-speaking household. Her parents are French, but they live in the US so she is frequently exposed to American television. She recently turned two and is just now starting to speak, but she understands both French and English. Her parents don’t really use English with her, so the only way she would have picked it up was by watching television. She is still quite young, so we have yet to see how she’ll progress in the two languages, but so far the scenario makes a pretty strong case for how television can be used as a tool for language learning.
I also know that there are several techniques that you can use to make films an effective learning tool (shadowing among them). But really, when it comes down to it, films are best for intermediate or advanced learners and not as a standalone learning tool.
So what do you think about using foreign-language films or television to learn a language?
PS. There is this really fun tool that translates famous movie quotes into different languages with audio that is super entertaining to play with.
1. Countless studies have been conducted on the brain activity of infants when hearing different sounds and as early as only a few months it has been demonstrated that they are capable of discerning meaningful sounds as “their” language.
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