Recently someone asked me if watching TV in another language is a good way to learn that language. The answer is… it depends. There are a number of benefits and also a number of factors that may not benefit the learner. Here’s my take on it:
Watching TV exposes you to authentic language, spoken by native speakers. The vocabulary and grammar that students are exposed to in textbooks is carefully controlled to make the learning process methodical. However, real life is not so methodical. By watching TV, you can get a sense of what authentic language sounds like.
You get accustomed to the real rate of speech of the language. Languages are spoken at different speeds. Proper language learning materials will often slow down the speech so that learners can process what they are hearing more effectively. TV is an excellent way to get used to the regular speed at which native speakers talk.
You can learn colloquialisms and slang. Learners often want to master informal jargon and slang not only to understand native speakers, but also to sound like they “fit in”. TV shows often showcase popular slang at the time the show was produced. Slang is presented in a particular social context, among speakers who are likely to use it. The downside to this is that learners still have to master when and how to use the slang in an acceptable way in their own social circles.
The grammar and syntax of TV are not always correct. TV may represent authentic language, but let’s face it, the real world is far messier than a textbook. TV is a lousy place to learn proper language structure.
Learners can develop language habits that may cause others to laugh at them. TV characters often develop, in part, due to the way the writers script their characters. Sometimes they are given particular words or sayings that, after many repetitions, will become part of their character’s “brand” (Quick! Who do you think of when you hear, “Bazinga!” or “Beam me up, Scotty” or “D’oh!”) Language learners need to know how to distinguish between what is an accepted part of normal speech and what is peculiar to a particular show or character. If they miss the mark, they may find themselves the object of some ridicule.
Frustrations can escalate quickly. Learners may find they become frustrated easily when they can not understand a TV program. This may be more likely to happen if they are watching a show with a group of native speakers or others who are more advanced. For the “Type A” personality who demands nothing short of absolute perfection from themselves, watching TV can be a frustrating experience because until your proficiency levels are high, it is unlikely that you will be able to absorb much of what happens.
Watch the news. Newscasters are trained to speak clearly and articulate their words precisely. They also do not use much slang. If you also follow the news in your native language you may have a sense of what some of the news stories are about, giving you contextual clues that can help you understand what is being said.
Avoid comedies. As much as we may love comedy shows in our native language, they are almost impossible to understand in a foreign languages, unless you are already very proficient. Comedy shows tend to use more slang and colloquialisms, making them harder for a language learner to decipher.
Use subtitles in the target language to help you. The “closed captioning” function of your TV to also project the written script of what is being said. Be aware that this service is not always 100% correct, but reading at the same time you are listening may decrease your frustration levels.
Use subtitles in your native language if you have to. If you are really a beginner and the TV show or movie is completely out of your grasp, then use the translated subtitles if your system allows you to. This is not the ideal situation, but it is preferable to sitting there in complete misery as you try to muddle your way through a program and not understanding a word of it.
Live interaction trumps watching TV – Get out and talk with people. For a language learner (or for anyone, really), social interaction with real, live people is probably a more effective way to develop your language skills. If you do not have access to native speakers in your area, then watching TV is not a bad way to get exposure to authentic language. But real-time face-to-face interaction helps you build both listening and speaking skills simultaneously.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.