Learning to Talk Like Jesus: How TV shows in Sweden support the Aramaic revival in the Middle East

May 29, 2012

Sarah Elaine Eaton blog - Languages, Literacy and Leadership

Sweden is providing a new twist on learning an old language, for  young learners of Aramaic in the two villages in the Holy Land’s small Christian community, in Beit Jala, Palestine and Jish, Israel.

In the Beit Jala Mar Afram school, run by the Syrian Orthodox church, priests have taught over 320 students Aramaic over the past five years.

In Jish approximately 80 elementary school children are taking Aramaic as a voluntary option in school.

The elementary school children who take part in the Aramaic language learning program learn to speak, listen, write Aramaic script and read the language.

Dia Hadid of the Associated Press reports that:

“The dialect taught in Jish and Beit Jala is “Syriac,” which was spoken by their Christian forefathers and resembles the Galilean dialect that Jesus would have used, according to Steven Fassberg, an Aramaic expert at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.”

The language classes have been met with criticisms from some parents and community members, some of whom are worried that having students learn Aramaic may be an attempt to convert them to Christianity or may be a threat to their Arabic identity.

According to the Associated Press, some members of the Christian community in the region still chant their liturgy in Aramaic, but few people understand the prayers.

Enter Sweden. Swedish officials estimate that anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 Aramaic speakers reside in that country. The Aramaic community is strong there and includes an Aramaic soccer team, “Syrianska FC” in the Swedish top division from the town of Sodertalje.

Aramaic speakers in Sweden publish a newspaper called “Bahro Suryoyo”, as well as pamphlets and children’s books, including The Little Prince. But what really helps the students learn the language is Soryoyosat, a satellite television station maintained by the Swedish Aramaic community. For some members of these two villages in the holy land, watching Aramaic programming from Swedish TV station provided the first opportunity in decades for them to hear the language spoken outside church. The Associated Press reports that “Hearing it in a modern context inspired them to try revive the language among their communities.”

This is one case, where technology and television are benefitting language learners both in terms of making learning more accessible and in increasing their motivation. These kids are “kickin’ it old school”, using new technology. Aramaic may be saved, yet.

Related post:

Can TV can help you learn another language?



Associated Press. (2012, May 28). Pair of villages in Holy Land teaching Aramaic in effort to revive language that Jesus spoke: New focus comes with help from modern technology. NYDailyNews.com. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/pair-villages-holy-land-teaching-aramaic-effort-revive-language-jesus-spoke-article-1.1085728

Hadid, D. (2012, May 28). Aramaic: Efforts To Revive Jesus’ Language In Christian Villages Beit Jala, Jish In Holy Land, Sweden. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/28/aramaic-holy-land-jesus_n_1550507.html

Hadid, D. (2012, May 29). Revival of Jesus’ language attempted in two Holy Land villages. Southeast Missourian. Retrieved from http://www.semissourian.com/story/1854012.html


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Can TV can help you learn another language?

May 24, 2012

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:

The good

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 bad

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.

The ugly

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.

My recommendations

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.

Related post:

Learning to Talk Like Jesus: How TV shows in Sweden support the Aramaic revival in the Middle East –  http://wp.me/pNAh3-1q7


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Imagine: A reality TV show for literacy?

September 5, 2011

I don’t watch a lot of TV. Or at least, I didn’t a few years ago. My other half, however, is a television disciple. I have two degrees in literature and I liken his knowledge of television and movies to my knowledge of literature. He knows just about every major television show and movie ever produced, when it was produced, who directed it, who the actors are, and what other shows the actors have appeared in. He also picks up on cameo appearances of the director or the writer. He instantly understands intertextual references between shows (except that he calls them “Easter eggs”) and can point out in a second when a show makes reference to a show or movie before it. He’s really brilliant at this stuff.

I, being a somewhat stereotypical academic I suppose, tend not to watch much TV. But because it’s important to my other half, we sit down and watch TV. He works hard to find shows I like. We have found common ground in some competitive reality TV shows. Top Chef Canada was one of our recent favorites.

Competitors who excel in their field are gathered and given challenges. They compete against the clock and against one another in order to prove their skills. They are judged by experts in the field. Their work is critiqued, praised, applauded and trashed — all in the matter of a few minutes. Every week, a chef is sent home. No competitor escapes criticism and no one is ever perfect. Even the last chef standing has experienced harsh criticism from the judges and has been trashed by their fellow competitors. Despite it all, they continue to focus on producing their best work, every single time.

Imagine if there was a reality TV show for literacy programs. An episode might go something like this:

“Competitors: Your challenge this week is to develop a 3-hour workshop to teach adults how to write a resume. You will have 12 adults in your class, with reading levels between IALSS levels 2 and 3. Your budget is $50. You have 1 hour to prepare your workshop. The winner will receive a $5000 prize to make their workshop a reality. Your time starts… now!”

There would be no whining about a lack of funding. There would be no grumbling about being overworked. There would be no complaining about there not being enough time. There would be energy, hard work, inspiration, creativity, a deep sense of purpose and a heightened awareness of urgency to produce something amazing with severe financial and time restraints.

Imagine if we worked as if we were on a TV reality show… pushing ourselves to produce consistently outstanding results under ridiculously difficult circumstances, working through the fatigue, ignoring the trash talking by others and the lack of resources, time and budget.

There’s never enough time, never enough money and never enough resources. That is, after all, our reality, isn’t it? Passion, creativity and purpose drive what we do. It’s when we expect reality to be something other than what it really is that we lose our sense of urgency and purpose, let frustration take over… and emotionally, mentally or literally, we get voted out.

Accepting the limitations of any given situation can either mean giving in or using those same limitations as a challenge to fuel your own inner drive.

Achieve the impossible because of the circumstances, not despite them.

Be the star of your own reality show.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

6 Reasons I love Glee – a language teacher’s point of view

September 23, 2010

This week, the new season of the TV show Glee aired. When I first heard about the show, I wasn’t interested. At first glance it looked fluffy, silly, and not particularly engaging. I don’t watch much television so when I do pick a show to watch it needs to engage my mind, as well as entertain me. For some reason last year, an episode of Glee got recorded and I, grumbling and growling, finally agreed to watch an episode of it. I was hooked.

As a language teacher I can’t help but notice that this hot new TV show offers a veritable cornucopia of material to use in class. Here are a few examples:

  1. The characters, young high school students speak eloquently. Verbal prowess is the norm among the characters.
  2. In speaking eloquently, the characters become role models for clear, concise and articulate communication.
  3. There’s much less slang than on other comedy shows.
  4. Characters express a wide array of emotions with no vulgar language. Nothing needs to be “bleeped out”. They find appropriate words to express their feelings.
  5. Characters don’t use phrases such as “So, like…. ya know,” leaving the listener to fill in the blanks.
  6. Characters will correct each other’s language mistakes. In this season’s premiere, this exchange happened between lead characters Rachel and Finn:

Finn: Rachel is what you’d call a controlist.

Rachel: I’m controlling. ‘Controlist’ isn’t a word.

Where else on television do you get teenage characters who show their vulnerabilities as they try to find their way in the world in a lighthearted, yet serious show where being articulate, and using the English language properly are highlighted?


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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