18 February 2011

Watching films as language study...

Well, I've been a little bit too technical and theoretical of late, so let's go for something more practical for a change.

A lot of people love the idea that you can learn a language just by watching films (such as Keith Lucas, discussed last week).  You can't.  Well, maybe there's one or two linguistic supermen out there who can, but for most of us, it won't work.

Can we get anything out of films?  Of course.
Can we get a lot out of films?  Hard to say.

First of all, if you're an absolute beginner, you're not going to understand anything watching the film without subtitles, and all proponents of target-language-only learning say that it's in understanding that we learn.

But unfortunately, once you start reading subtitles, you stop listening.  The brain, so I'm told, has only got one "language channel", and if you load it through the eyes, the brain tunes out the words hitting your ear so as not to mix up the two streams.  I'm sure you've tried talking to someone while reading or writing and found that you've written down a word from your conversation or suddenly said a word you've just read.

So once you start tuning out the sounds, your not going to learn much.

I first bought a DVD player in the January sales in 2005, with the express purpose of learning from foreign films.  My plan was quite typical: watch them with English subtitles, then later watch them again with the subtitles off.  Well, I never really did that -- I just kept buying and watching them with the subtitles on.  Not brilliant for my language skills, but now I've got one of the best DVD collections of anyone I know.  (Well, I know some people who have better collections, but at least mine's all originals!!)

However, after about a year, I started to notice little things at the start and end of sentences.  Little things like "you know...", "I see..." etc.  You know, little things that just seeped through before I started or after I finished reading the subtitles.  But I'm still only using one language channel.  People who can hold a conversation while reading a book aren't really doing two things at once, they're simply switching backwards and forwards between two tasks very rapidly, and this is what I started doing.  As a kid, I could never hold a conversation while reading, so it's not an innate talent on my part.  (My big sister always used to be able to do it.  I always assumed she was faking it or lying.)

Over the intervening years, I've been able to pick up more and more, but it seems to me that in a way I'm "primed" by the subtitles -- I'm anticipating how that would translate and what I hear is then matched against my expectations.

But really, the way to improve when you're good is to go without English subtitles (or whatever your native language is).  The first step to achieving that is to get material with target language subtitles.  The subtitles never match what is said on screen, so it's limited, but it does help you get tricky words.

Just now, I've been watching a French series Un Village Français. I tried watching it without the subtitles, but a few words slipped by me.  The first time I watched with subtitles on, I saw the word "scierie" and I realised it had to be "sawmill" ("scie" is "saw", and I knew the guy owns a sawmill from watching it before).  I'd watched two whole serieses without subtitles and never realised what this word was.  I hadn't even noticed that the word existed.  Two minutes with subtitles on, and I doubt I'll ever forget it.

But so far, so vague.
How did I start being able to listen while reading?  It's hard for me to say, as I wasn't really thinking about it at the time, but I believe it was when I started echoing my favourite actors to try and get the rhythm of the languages.  You can't do that without listening (obviously) and at first this got in the way of reading the subtitles and I ended up using the pause button a lot.  But having done that, it seems like my brain started realising that it had to listen and eventually I got there.

I only really noticed I was doing it when I went to see a French film and one of the characters was bemoaning the fact that kids today don't watch French cinema.  The subtitles talked about "rubbish from far away", the voice said "American crap".

But even after years, my "listening while reading" is still very limited.  It leaves me with a question I can't answer.  Do I get more out of watching with subtitles and hearing less of the speech or do I get more out of watching without subtitles and hearing more, even if I understand less?  It's impossible for me to measure this, and in the end the choice is made for me by circumstance, because if I have subtitles, I watch with subtitles.  If I don't, I watch without.

TV vs film for learners

But on a different tack, it's worth noting that watching serieses is far better for your language skills than watching films.  A film is relatively short, so there's little recycling of dialogue.  Each new film has potentially new accents and ways of speaking, but a 90 minute film finishes just as you're starting to get accustomed to the actors.

TV serieses, on the other had, offer several hours of dialogue written by the same scriptwriters, delivered by the same actors in the same accents, and covering the same topics.  The vocabulary and turn of phrase is repeated in throughout the length of the series, naturally reviewing and revising your learning. I've been following a particular series in Spanish for about two and a half years now, and I personally feel it has been immensely helpful to me.  Of course I've learnt a lot from other sources during the same time, but this has really aided my listening comprehension.

I already mentioned Un Village Français - I bought a two-series boxed set for around the cost of two full-priced feature films, and that's 10 hours of drama with 3 hours of historical documentary as bonus features for the price of 3 hours of film.  As I progressed through the series, I really did feel like I "tuned in" to the accents - there were things in the first few episodes that I should have understood (in terms of grammar and vocabulary, they were withing my boundaries) but that I didn't (because my ear wasn't picking up the detail of what the actors were saying).

So how do you make films and TV part of your learning strategy?

In the beginning, I don't think you really can.  At that stage, don't consider it "learning time", consider it "TV time".  Get used to the whole idea of subtitled foreign cinema with subtitles in your native language.  If you start to hear a word or two, great.  If you don't then it's no loss as this isn't "learning time".

I only really started getting serious with Spanish TV in the run up to my exams.  I'd studied a lot, I'd learnt a lot, but it still felt really disjoint.  I considered TV viewing as a type of revision -- I was hearing stuff I already knew, but used in many different ways.  I got used to the speed of natural speech in various accents, but I don't think I could have done that if I didn't already have a solid foundation in the grammar, because it reduced the amount of unknown material in the language.  In the end I picked up a couple of structural points too, and some good vocabulary, but mostly I mostly found that it took the language I knew in an academic context and made it more real and alive.

(And in the spirit of taking nobody's word for it and what I said in the follow-up, I'd like to point out that I can say definitively that I learned the Spanish construction "volver a hacer" from the Spanish series Águila Roja.  The fact that I can give a specific example suggests to me that I didn't learn much in this way.  Unfortunately, if you don't think about it, you can be misled into believing that remembering an example is proof of the effectiveness of a method.)

One thing I think would work well is to use a DVD player or computer video player that you can slow down.  I'd like to start watching foreign serieses with the first few episodes slowed by about 10 or 15% while I get used to the characters and their ways of speaking, then speed it up to normal speed for the rest of the series.  Unfortunately most of my serieses to date have been on-line without speed control, but I'll give it a go later in the year when I order in some French TV, and possibly Italian too.


Unknown said...

Did you try it other way around? Watching movies you love in english with foreign subtitles?

It makes "learning vocabulary via context from reading" actually quite effective.

Nìall Beag said...

No, I've never tried that. For me, it wouldn't provide me for a reason to learn the vocabulary. In general, I try not to force my brain to learn things, I let it learn things that it needs. I don't think watching English-language videos with foreign-language subtitles would be seen as "useful" to my brain.

Unknown said...

Good point about "brain-percived usefulness". Could you please share, how do you realize it on an everyday basis? Especially in a situation where you already know most of the grammar, but still have rather limited vocabulary.

Suggested movie idea is not as much about just watching, but rather pausing and taking notes whenever your brain sees word/phrase/dialog as funny/useful/interesting. "Terminator" fan should almost instantly memorize the "I'll be back!" line in his target language.

Ps. I enjoy your writing, but most of the time it is about what NOT to do. I would love to read about what you actually use yourself and would reccomend trying for others.

Nìall Beag said...

OK, Sirpa, next week's blog will be entitled Don't fight your own brain, and I hope it'll provide some of the explanations you're looking for.

Anyway, as for the film, I see your point, but it sounds like a lot of effort for only a little bit of language.

It seems like you're trying to do unnecessary work -- language professionals have spent a lot of time and money compiling dictionaries and grammar books, as an amateur I don't think I can do a better job than them. It just seems like a waste of time to try to write my own dictionary when there are other dictionaries out there.

Unknown said...

Can't wait to read the next note then. :)

Unknown said...
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