S is for Soaps

24 03 2013

first things first tvA friend and former colleague, Nick Bedford, is excited about the possibilities that soap operas offer for second language learning. He himself has been watching soaps in Russian for a number of years now, clocking up literally hundreds of hours of exposure. He comments:

The thing is you get to know the characters and their voices and you can predict their answers and even pet phrases. Also there’s lots of “real-life” dialogues which are delivered in a kind of wooden way that doesn’t render it ridiculous but at the same time isn’t like trying, say, to understand ring-side banter in a Scorcese movie. There’s something satisfying about the whole activity, like you feel you’re being equipped or kitted out with useful and natural language. I know my spoken Russian is the better for it.

There is some evidence to support Nick’s enthusiasm. In a recent study of six highly proficient English learners in China (Wang 2012: 341) the researcher found that the subjects ‘attributed their progress in English language learning to an intensive watching of [English television drama] and a careful study of its dialogue.’

One of the informants reported that ‘it’s full of real dialogues, very conversational. It’s about ordinary people and their everyday life. It’s the best channel to see people living with the English language. […] It’s the most dynamic learning resource’.

The authenticity of TV drama has been validated by researchers using the tools of discourse analysis. One study, for example, compared conversational closings in textbooks with those in a New Zealand soap opera and found the latter more consistent with descriptions in the literature on conversation analysis (Grant & Starks, 2001). More recently, Al-Surmi (2012) has analysed the lexical and grammatical features of sit-coms and soap operas (the latter consisting of ten seasons of Friends), and compared the results to a corpus of natural, unscripted American conversation. Both TV genres replicated many of the characteristics of naturally-occurring talk, although sit-coms come closer than do soap operas, it seems.

kernel tvVocabulary coverage in TV programs has also been the target of some recent studies. Webb and Rodgers (2009) for example, analyzed the lexical range in a corpus of 88 television programs of a variety of genres , including soaps, and concluded that, ‘if learners knew the most frequent 3,000 word families and they watched at least an hour of television a day, there is the potential for significant incidental vocabulary learning’. Children’s programs, sit-coms and dramas were found to make fewer vocabulary demands than news or science programs, unsurprisingly.

Nick Bedford can attest to these benefits: ‘I’ve noticed that students who follow soaps – and there are a lot of them, especially people in their twenties here in Spain – whose English is way better, in all respects, than those who don’t.’

Because of this, he has started posting small 8 minute doses of the BBC Extra English soap for his students to download onto their mobile phones. ‘The results are that students – even at lower levels – are talking to me ALL the time in English outside class and they even have a kind of new-found bravado!’

The Chinese study identified a number of strategies that the six informants had in common, and which might constitute worthwhile advice to learners wishing to exploit ‘the joys of soap’:

1. Select material carefully – don’t go too far outside your comfort zone

2. Repeated viewings – just once is not enough

3. Use subtitles – first in your L1, and then in the L2

4. Take notes, e.g. vocabulary, phrases

5. Imitation – assume the ‘voice’ of your favorite character, for example

6. Practice – recycle learned vocabulary and expressions in real-life conversations, if possible

7. Share experiences, tips, transcriptions, etc with peers as part of an online study group

donn byrne tvThe beauty of soap operas, of course, is that they have in-built motivational potential: once learners are hooked they are likely to stay hooked. In this sense, they are a far remove from traditional classroom materials, which is one reason that Wang (2012: 342) adduces for their appeal:

It seems that classroom teaching materials are primarily textbook-oriented and test-driven, with the focus on form rather than meaning and on accuracy rather than communication. Such standard teaching materials lack a realistic and meaningful context and fail to deal with contemporary issues that are relevant to learners’ lives, and therefore do not help extend English learning beyond classrooms.

Nick makes a similar point:

One thing I like about the issue is how people are pro-actively sifting and appropriating the language they feel they need from soaps. There’s something picaresque about it – as if students had got tired of hanging around for teachers and course book writers and had burrowed a tunnel into the vault.

References:

Al-Surmi, M. (2012) ‘Authenticity and TV shows: A multidimensional analysis perspective, TESOL Quarterly, 46/4.

Grant, L., & Starks, D. (2001) ‘Screening appropriate teaching materials: Closings from textbooks and television soap operas’, IRAL, 39/1.

Webb, S. & Rodgers, M.P.H. (2009) ‘Vocabulary Demands of Television Programs’, Language Learning, 59/2.

Wang, D. (2012) ‘Self-directed English language learning through watching English television drama in China’, Changing English, 19/3.

Illustrations from Alexander, L.G. (1967) First Things First, Longman; O’Neill, R., Kingsbury, R., & Yeadon, T. (1971) Kernel Lessons Intermediate, Longman; and Byrne, D. (1967) Progressive Picture Compositions, Longman.


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61 responses

24 03 2013
alexcase

If you can bear to watch soap operas, they are without a doubt the best thing on TV for language learning. Not having those viewing tastes myself, I have to wait until I reach the level of getting something out of sit-coms and catchphrase-based sketch shows before I can benefit from something similar. Series of similar films can also have the same benefits.

Two things I really get stuck on with students I would usually recommend TV drama series to, though:
– What can my students who struggle with understanding Indian accents do that is similar?
– What can my Business English students do that is similar?

25 03 2013
Karenne Sylvester

Hi Alex,

Long time no speak🙂 … like you, I do tend to recommend TV drama series rather than soaps and two great drama series, with British accents (for those on the hunt for that), are “The Tudors” or best yet, “Downton Abbey” because of its very safe content but captivating storyline…which depending on where you are teaching may be important – in my case, teaching mainly Saudi students, it’s the safest bet.)

You can get your Business students watching TED (www.ted.com) – it’s my favourite website – namely because a video can be chosen to match any coursebook subject or any emergent moment in a dogme class – by simply visiting the site and typing in the subject being sought into the search bar…there’s always something amazing to be watched and learnt from, whether about Giant Squid discoveries or the history of Qatar or questioning our rights to privacy via mobile phones -if you haven’t gone to it yet, I promise your BE students will love it – especially as you can get them to search the site themselves, for content related to their own interests and/or looking for short speeches on a vast array of subjects given by people representing people from just about all nationalities and accents. (It also comes with the option of reading the transcript (useful if you yourself want to make an accompanying worksheet) and many have subtitles).

That said, I do confess that I did actually learn Spanish from “Betty, la fea” (Betty the Ugly) in Ecuador and then when the German remake of the same was done- I equally learned from Verliebt in Berlin!) and moreover, I remember both stories with quite some fondness even though I would never watch the same soap in English. One of the things I also found really interesting, as a language learner, was how although they were, in their essence, the same story there were significant cultural differences in some of the character roles (the women being stronger and less concerned with beauty) and they wound up with very different but equally happy endings.

Anyway, Scott, great post – I especially like this one because I believe that we live our lives in story and in these digital televised narratives (whether a speech on TED, a drama series set in a different time period, or silly emotional story) we learn so much more than just vocabulary but the way that words are used in context, the multiple layered meanings, and their affect…
K

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Karenne said ‘I believe that we live our lives in story and in these digital televised narratives … we learn so much more than just vocabulary but the way that words are used in context, the multiple layered meanings, and their affect’.

Yes, the power of narrative simply can’t be underestimated: we make stories of our lives and we respond to, and identify with, the stories of others. How much of our first language we must have learnt through story-hearing and storytelling. Even the stories that people are telling on this blog thread, about their learning of other languages through soaps, are as salient and as memorable as any amount of research or theorising.

26 03 2013
Rob

For more on storytelling as a way to learn languages: http://tinyurl.com/dx636rw

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Alex said: ‘Not having those viewing tastes myself, I have to wait until I reach the level of getting something out of sit-coms and catchphrase-based sketch shows before I can benefit from something similar.’

The study I quoted on the vocabulary demands of different kinds of TV programs did show that these demands differed according to whether they were more fact-based (like news, science documentaries) or more fictional (like drama, soaps etc), with the former making more vocabulary demands than the latter. However, this study is based simply on the relative frequency of individual words. When you factor in the fact that many words appear idiomatic chunks, a different picture emerges. I was reminded of this because I happened to run into Ron Martinez at the TESOL convention in Dallas last week, where he had been presenting on the topic of his recent research into reading comprehension and idiomaticity. To quote from the abstract of his 2011 TESOL Quarterly paper (Martinez, R. and Murphy, V., 2011: 267), ‘Tests of reading comprehension indicated that learners’ comprehension not only increased significantly when multiword expressions were present in text but students also tended to overestimate how much they understood as a function of expressions that either went unnoticed or were misunderstood’.

One assumes that the same applies to listening comprehension — maybe even more so. All this is by way of picking up on Alex’s point about ‘catchphrase-based sketch shows’, and to remind ourselves that it is not simply having a critical mass of vocabulary that allows access to such shows, but that this vocabulary knowledge must be heavily larded with high-frequency, and less frequent, lexical chunks.

Of course, the lexical load is mitigated if your viewing is supported by subtitles, either in the L1 or L2. Which suggests that learners don’t have to wait until they have the 9000+ word types likely to be encountered in a season of Friends, but can dive in much sooner.

24 03 2013
Ken Wilson

Extr@ English was commissioned by Channel 4. I know because I wrote the workbooks to accompany it. From a discourse point of view, it was absolutely terrible to begin with, although it got better, mainly because of the excellent performances of Spanish actor Javier Marzan. It was supposed to be based on Friends, but anyone hoping to hear some real and natural English would have been better off watching Friends. Marzan plays a character called Hector. The fact that his first line is “My name is Argentina, I come from Hector” tells you all you need to know about the writing.

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

The history of soap opera genres in ELT materials would make an interesting study, albeit of somewhat specialized interest. You of course would remember ‘The Man Who Escaped’, the adventure story that was threaded through the whole of Kernel Lessons Plus. Has there been anything similar, I wonder? And, if not, why not?

24 03 2013
Mike Harrison

Thanks for this post, Scott. I’m largely in agreement – in my experience, the learners that make the most progress are those that do what they normally do, but they do it in English. Of course, the fact that they are living in an English-speaking country helps this. I always recommend to students to read what they would normally read (e.g. romance novels, technical manuals, etc.) but in the L2. This way they can be generally familiar with the topic, style and conventions (though they may be different in different languages) and this helps them assimilate the language (individual words, phrases and longer stretches of discourse). I would assume the same is true with watching soap operas, since almost every culture I know tends to have its own version of this programme.

HOWEVER, even given all my encouragement, almost insistence, I do notice that some learners fail to make progress in English, despite the fact they are in England. Who are these learners? The ones who don’t make much effort to interact with people outside of their language communities and those that watch TV in their native language. It’s too easy for them to find a satellite or cable Hindi or Polish television channel.

I wonder if there’s similar research that could be done on how learners who DON’T watch soap operas fail to make much progress…

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, MIke… yes, there’s always the ‘you-can-lead-a-horse-to-water-but-can’t-make-it-drink’ syndrome. For those who don’t make any progress in an optimal exposure environment, two sets of reasons may be operating: 1. resistance — they simply don’t want to become part of the target language discourse community, or even interact with it peripherally; 2. ignorance — they don’t know how to take advantage of the affordances on offer, which is where the teacher can be an invaluable ally.

24 03 2013
Jane Purrier

YESS…you have let me off the hook. For ages I have recorded soaps for my 8-11 year olds and watched them with them. They love them, the tackier the better and it really works, they pick up masses of vocab and since otherwise mine would be the only english voice they hear, it vastly increases their experience. I have a couple of adult students who have at my suggestion downloaded the podcast of The Archers (an everyday story of country folk, FYI) from BBC radio 4 to their i-phones. I felt guilty about using these soaps and thought it was my own dirty secret. I certainly never dared mention it in DELTA work etc. Good news. Excellent.

24 03 2013
Jessica Mackay

I agree with Nick that the typical learner profile in Spain has changed in the last 10 years and this is largely due to their language contact outside class (which in turn is influenced by their, ahem, motivation – but that’s another story!).

Learners in my classes don’t seem to be watching soap operas as much as the downloadable US comedies such as ‘How I met your mother’ and ‘The Big Bang Theory’, At twenty minutes long they are bite-sized, watchable on their mobiles on the bus journey to university and, in common with soaps, viewers are invested in the characters and story arcs.

There’s also an element of peer one-upmanship; being able to watch episdodes of a popular series before it appears on Spanish TV usually means watching in English. ‘Game of Thrones’ being a recent example.

The language skills of Spanish university students are certainly changing. They have more confidence in classroom presentation, as it is now a requirement in their L1 for university preparation courses and many undergraduate degree courses. Listening, traditionally the weakest skill, has improved according to FCE and CAE results and reading is slipping. Does this also reflect the habits of young adults outside the classroom?

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jessica. As an addendum to my original post (but not 100% germane to your comment, except in its relevance to the Spanish context), my informant, Nick Bedford, added the following:

A few years ago the [university where I work] decided to place-test all new undergraduates and I was one of the teachers drafted in to administer the oral test. I had had this idea of the benefits of soaps buzzing around in my head so I decided to ask all the students the same two questions : 1) When (not why) did you decide to do the degree that you’re going to follow? and 2) Do you watch any British or American TV series on-line in English? The amazing thing is that after about 20 interviews I could already guess the answer to the second question through having listened to the answers to the first question. Also I even turned the question into a statement: “I suspect you watch British or American TV series on-line in English – so which ones do you watch?” . I even freaked a girl out by telling her that I suspected that she watched “Gossip girls”! After a while I could also tell by the end of the first question those who didn’t.

24 03 2013
Sarah Emsden-Bonfanti

What a great post, Scott! It’s great to know that there is evidence to back-up my own experience of language learning from soap operas that Ive been slightly wary of sharing, until now…When I was Spanish student, I finally broke through the ceiling of thinking and dreaming in the language after becoming addicted to the soap of the time (in Cuba – though I believe it was Colombian) ‘Cafe con aroma de mujer’. So when I moved to Brazil and started teaching English, rather than enrol myself in a class, I simply made myself watch the (often terrible) Portuguese/Brazilian soaps, where the set wobbled when a character stormed off, and again, within a few months I found I was able to ‘tune into’ the accent which until that point had prevented me understanding the Brazilians I had met. As a teacher, I have sometimes tried to encourage my English-language students to watch soaps like ‘Eastenders’ (since I’m based in the UK) though I must say it has never been with much conviction. However, thanks to your blog, that will now change: I see my students getting ‘soap-opera-watching’ homework next week, though the flip-side is that I will have to start watching it myself, and without the intrinsic motivation of having a language to learn may well be the biggest challenge of all!!

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Sarah, for the comment — keep us posted on your ‘soap-opera-watching’ homework project!

24 03 2013
Nalan Kenny

It really works and when I first came to England I learned different expressions from Eastenders! I used to tell my students to listen to the weather on the radio and write the temperatures for the next lesson. Soaps are really good and effective learning/teaching sources.

24 03 2013
Gareth Knight

I learnt a lot of conversational Japanese from an NHK soap set in a sumo dojo. Possibly explains why I got into fights and got fed large bowls of gruel. ‘Picaresque’ indeed. Seriously though, intrinsic interest in the sumo soap allowed me to hear in context language I was in the process of acquiring. It reinforced my learning elsewhere. This was not an experience that needed to be shared or directed – it was entirely subjective and personal.

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Gareth! Your sumo-based soap opera learning experience reminds me of this extract from Alistair Pennycook’s latest book (referenced in my last blog) about his learning of Japanese:

After I had been in Tokyo a couple of years, a Japanese colleague listening to me speak Japanese suggested that I had a Japanese girlfriend and practised martial arts. How on earth did he know? Because my Japanese wavered between two registers: on the one hand, I could be very polite, speaking in a register that suggested I was learning my Japanese from a woman…. But when I tried to be less formal, my register sank a few levels too low, to the male on language of the dohjo [i.e. the martial arts school] (2012: 92)

24 03 2013
damo04

Thanks for another really interesting post Scott. However, what if you just can’t get past the awful acting and poor production? When I first moved to Brazil, lots of people recommended TV novelas to me (similar to soaps but they’re finite – a kind of mix between soaps and drama series), for these very reasons. I tried several times, but just could get past the awful acting and overly emotional story lines. This is probably more of a problem with me and my taste than with soaps themselves, but Alex’s comment at the top says a similar thing.

Also, I wonder how natural the language is, as with Brazilian TV novelas, every single scene involves someone crying, screaming, fighting or something else overly dramatic. Isn’t this one of the defining characteristics of the genre?

Interesting that you mention Russian soaps, too, as when I lived there they were all badly dubbed Argentinian offerings. This was back in the 90s though so I guess there weren’t many about at that time.

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Regarding Russian-language soaps, Nick tells me: ‘I’ve been following soaps in Russian for a couple of years now – I watched “Karmelita” – about a Russian gypsy – there were 250 45 minute episodes then the sequel: “Karmelita -Gypsy passion” – another 170 45 minute episodes and I’m 200 episodes into one called “One day there’ll be love” – also 45 minutes per episode – so I’ve had a lot of input.’

It would be interesting to see if a Russian native speaker could identify traces of these soaps in Nick’s Russian!

24 03 2013
Jessica Mackay

For students starting out though, I tend to recommend documentaries rather than series or films. Simply because the commentary in a documentary is directed at the viewer/listener and you are therefore involved in the communicative act rather than ‘eavesdropping’ on the conversations of others.

Also, in soaps, there can be an assumption of shared cultural knowledge beyond the grasp (or interest) of students in an EFL context, when English is viewed as a tool for international communication rather than the property of individual communities.

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Interesting point, Jessica, about the 2nd person vs third person perspective. I wonder if the effect on both comprehension and engagement of being addressed directly versus eavesdropping has been researched. At the same time, I’m wondering if a strong identification with any character in a soap opera or other form of drama might turn eavesdropping into a more active involvement, whereby you almost know what the characters going to say because you would say it too!

24 03 2013
Paraskevi Andreopoul (@pandreop)

And sth hilarious from me….as a language learner of English myself, I used to watch systematically the American soap operas( Dynasty , the Young and the Restless and the Bold and the Beautiful) to enhance my command of the language… first , reading with Greek subtitles and then ,by listening to the real life dialogues, without my watching the screen…it really helped me develop idioms, vocab. , language awareness and acculturation, if you come to think of it (although real life is nothing like virtual reality)…
Still, Soaps is a dynamic weapon in language teaching……We ought not to neglect its usefulness in the language classroom…

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Paraskevi. And there is evidence from some studies of Chinese learners of English that memorizing whole screenplays of movies feeds into their active lexicon — see M is for Memorization.

24 03 2013
Kathy

When hubby and I were studying German as a foreign language, we were desperate to find examples of everyday spoken conversation that were interesting enough to hold our attention. We found Das Erbe der Guldenburgs, a primetime soap similar to Dallas, and it was tremendously helpful! Although soaps have a narrative element the main thing (IMO) is relationships, and many of the problems encountered are due to miscommunication. Neither one of us was a big fan of Dallas or other soaps, but we did get “addicted”. I wonder if it’s because of the investment in background knowledge? You don’t just want to know what happens next, but what happens next given what you know about each character (their secrets, their past experiences, etc.). Soaps also have a life off-screen in the water cooler talk they stimulate. Fans of the same soap have a shared experience even if they don’t know each other very well … it’s a good opportunity to practice talking about relationships without getting too personal!

I’ll pass the tips here on to my students. Some maybe interested in this idea! I guess I should watch some soaps first so I can recommend one and support whoever decides to go with it …

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Kathy!

Is it a coincidence, by the way, that I posted the blog about soaps while I was in Dallas?!!

24 03 2013
Emilia Siravo

Dear Scott,

Thank you for this very interesting and timely post. Just today I had lunch with an advanced ESOL speaker from Portugal who attributes his English language skills to watching TV. Apparently, in Portugal many of the American / British TV sitcoms and movies are kept in English (with Portuguese subtitles) and he commented that this was very helpful for his language development.

In terms of learning intelligences, watching TV simultaneously targets visual, audio and even linguistic learners (when subtitles are provided). So, there seem to be many benefits to using video in and out of the classroom to supplement learning. But are there drawbacks as well? Did the students in the Chinese study learn as a result of solely watching TV in English or because they supplemented TV videos with the 7 strategies you mentioned (i.e.: repetition, reading/ translating (subtitles), and practicing)?

Current research in children’s L1 development suggests that TV actually hinders language development. In a 2007 report, the Journal of Pediatrics noted that “for every hour per day that babies eight to sixteen months old were shown infantainment DVDs, they knew six to eight fewer words that other children.” (in Berman, 2010, p. 243). Since then, countless other studies have warned of the dangers of TV to children’s overall cognitive and linguistic development.

While this research has mostly been done for children’s L1, I wonder if TV (too much TV or TV without supplemental strategies) actually hurts L2 development.
As always, thanks so much for this very interesting post! Emilia

Berman, J. (2010) ‘Superbaby: 12 ways to give your child a head start in the first 3 years.’ New York: Sterling.

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Emilia – you ask:

Did the students in the Chinese study learn as a result of solely watching TV in English or because they supplemented TV videos with the 7 strategies you mentioned (i.e.: repetition, reading/ translating (subtitles), and practicing)?

The short answer (according to the study) seems to be ‘yes’: it is not enough simply to watch a lot of soaps — there needs to be some kind of intentional learning going on even if it’s just stopping and rewinding, with the occasional pausing to consult a dictionary (as a friend of mine does, watching Egyptian soaps).

And, yes, that’s very interesting about the effect of TV on L1 development. This suggests that we acquire a lot of language through interacting with others, and appropriating their utterances, or parts thereof. Watching soap operas on their own, without any other form of active language use, might be equally detrimental in the long run, for second language learners. An interesting point — and well worth investigating.

24 03 2013
Jonny Lewington

Coursebook texts suck, its a wonder that they are still being produced at all. I remember all the odd, badly acted mock radio shows about nothing in particular, pre-scripted to include as many examples of the present continuous as possible, no matter how unnatural it sounds. Proud to say I ditched them long ago.

I agree with everything said in this post, a lot. Being a language teacher in several different non-English speaking countries, you inevitably meet the occasional person who has become extra-ordinarily proficient in speaking English with very, very little actual tuition. I always ask them how they learned and there only ever seems to be two answers: talking to foreigners on IM programs and, of course, watching Friends. Exploiting authentic materials is my major interest as a language teacher, and I use soaps a lot.

I think that it’s important to remember, though, that different students like different things and that for the motivational aspect to kick in, you need to find stuff they are interested in. I find that some students get interested in the soaps I play, some in the documentaries, some in the reality T.V. shows, the game shows etc. And some only go for the books, newspapers or radio shows and avoid the box all together (there’s still a lot of people who don’t like watching TV at all!). In class, I often see one of my major roles as introducing students to various soaps, sitcoms and reality T.V. and letting them know where they can find more to watch at home. Teenagers world over, for example, seem to love Dr. Who and I’ve hooked a few students onto Eastenders, too.

By the way, as far as samples of realistic dialogues go, its hard to beat Come dine with me, a British format which has gone global. You get extended scenes of people sitting around a table and having conversations about normal things that people talk about, which are great for classroom use.

I also think we need more ideas, resources, techniques and such for using authentic materials in class, for those of us who have ditched the coursebook texts completely. At the minute, I find the downside is the preparation it takes to find, select and exploit authentic texts. There’s a few sites (like lessonstream.org ), but not nearly enough to keep those of us doing this day in, day out afloat without a doing load of extra preparation work compared to the teachers who just run through the coursebook😦

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Jonny comments:

As far as samples of realistic dialogues go, its hard to beat Come dine with me, a British format which has gone global. You get extended scenes of people sitting around a table and having conversations about normal things that people talk about, which are great for classroom use.

Which makes me wonder why no one else has mentioned reality shows, which presumably have many of the contextualised, and even addictive, features of soap opera is, but, being unscripted (presumably!), perhaps offer a more authentic sample of real language use. Has anyone had students who have found these helpful?

25 03 2013
Rob

The learners I encounter are much like those Mike describes (above): “… the learners that make the most progress are those that do what they normally do, but they do it in English.”

That’s also how I remember learning German: my first days in Bavaria were spent in a tiny flat with a small black-and-white TV set. I’ll never forget the first words to come out of that little red box after I’d adjusted the long metal antennae to get a signal in:

“Entspannen Sie den Darm” (Relax your bowels) – it was an instructional program for yoga enthusiasts! I’d never be the same, nor would my German if I hadn’t changed channel.🙂 Which brings me to an observation about encouraging language learners to absorb target-language media:

Aside from the inability to stomach programs such as soap operas (an aversion I share with some of your readers here), what about the side effects a diet of prime time fare can have on language learners?

A colleague, who lived for years in New York, was commenting last week how Friends looked nothing like New York, neither in its set design nor the (mostly white) cast of young people who seldom had to work.

As someone who studied and worked in TV broadcasting and film production, I understand the importance of ‘suspension of disbelief’, but isn’t it also important to remember that TV sit-coms and soaps teach more than language? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard visitors to the US tell me they were surprised to discover life in the United States is not at all like they’d seen it on television. Do I tell them to watch more cable TV?

TV teaches culture, and culture is inextricably linked to language, isn’t it? That’s a sincere question tag, with rising intonation, by the way, not the subtle falling intonation a character in say Doc Martin might use to imply the interlocutor is a nincompoop.

You see, to learn British English(es) I turn to Doc Martin and other UK TV series. Of course I’ve got an advantage there that a Japanese learner of English who watches Friends hasn’t, in terms of language. But, despite my inheritance of an English that enables me to understand the dialogue, so that a visual cue (Doc Martin motioning for a patient to enter his surgery) helps me know that “Go through” means “Come in”, can I tell which actors are putting on a regional accent well? Do I know whether the Doc always bumping his head on low doorways is commentary on British architecture, slapstick, etc.?

I can only imagine how more social distance between cultures and less linguistic congruence adds to the confusion. A German friend once told me he used to laugh every time he saw US movies showing a supermarket employee bagging groceries for customers – ‘Who would do such a thing?!, he mused. Crazy American humor…’

Sorry if you’re not familiar with the Doc Martin series, it’s just an example; my suggestion is that teachers might wish to select material that does in fact encourage learners to go just far enough outside their cultural comfort zones (another ZPD?) to enhance critical viewing and thoughtful reflection. Maybe awareness-raising tasks and appropriate classroom discussion?

Would such activities make learning a language more meaningful and memorable or take the enjoyment out of target-language media?

Thanks for another interesting post.

Rob

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob, and as usual you help situate language, and language learning, in its contexts of use, including the cultural baggage that goes with it. You are right, I think, to warn against some of the less positive consequences of deep immersion in specific aspects of a language’s culture, as it is (mis-) represented in its media. Ideally, I guess, any viewing should be complemented by some kind of critical analysis, and, again this is where the teacher can come in handy. To these ends, it might behoove us to look at some of the literature on cultural and media studies.

26 03 2013
Rob

Such as Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”? Here, perhaps ironically, is a television interview about the book’s premise: http://tinyurl.com/ccdwmhb

25 03 2013
alexcase

No one got a recommendation for TV dramas that could be suitable for Business English students?

25 03 2013
damo04

How about The Office? I’ve seen this used in a lesson on features of spoken discourse – worked well.

25 03 2013
alexcase

As with the topic of this post, thinking more of things for students to watch at home. Have recommended that one before but not entirely satisfied with my recommendation because:
– You need a very particular sense of humour to appreciate it
– You need a pretty high language level to understand it (much more so than Friends)
– Not sure how much actual work goes on!

I was thinking more that one of the recent American blockbuster series must have a workplace setting (don’t watch them myself)

25 03 2013
Karenne Sylvester

ha, scrolling down to see the rest of the comments, have to agree that “The Office” doesn’t work – way too many insider jokes that simply don’t translate (culturally not just from language to language). Perhaps try “Betty the Ugly” I could only bear 10 minutes of the version in English, when I tried it but perhaps because I had been spoiled having seen it twice before)… but as I mentioned above in response to your post – it really taught me so much language, in both German and Spanish, so may be well worth a shot with your learners.

25 03 2013
damo04

Yes, come to think of it the lesson I watched was an advanced class. It was a Delta assessed lesson and involved basically showing a clip and asking students to tally the features of spoken discourse e.g. repetitions, false starts, pause fillers, etc. as an awareness-raising activity. Although it’s scripted, the dialogue comes across as though it isn’t so it’s quite useful for that.

I’ve also used it myself for a lesson on interview technique and questions, as a kind of model of ‘worst practice’ i.e. discussing what kind of questions are asked in an interview, then giving them a list of the things David Brent asks (e.g. What’s your tipple?) mixed with some ‘normal’ questions – students then watch and tick off the ones he uses. The task is quite graded and so have been able to use it intermediate up.

Whether or not the humour’s appreciated though – well that’s a different story : )

25 03 2013
damo04

But as something to watch at home ‘extensively’, then perhaps yes, it is a bit difficult. I’m not so sure about the cultural aspect though, as the same idea has been remade in lots of different countries round the world. It would seem that dealing with a boss like that is a universal concept…

25 03 2013
Karenne Sylvester

p.s. It’s set in an office..if that’s not completely clear from the title above – so it involves a great deal of work politics and work language… the story is basically of an unattractive girl who gets a job in a fashion house, falls in love with her boss who is engaged to the daughter of one of the stakeholders/partners, everything goes pear-shaped so the boss starts to rely heavily on his ugly assistant, who is a financial genius even though she’s taken the job of a secretary…she has a friend who helps her… then the boss starts to realize that she’s very important to him… anyway, ah, it’s so baaaad that it’s so goooooood – all 700+ episodes…I:-)

25 03 2013
Jessica Mackay

Suits (set in a firm of lawyers) is very popular here in Spain. I’ve used the ‘interview episode’ from the Apprentice (UK) as a set up for a role play with EAP students; imagine the most gruelling interviews ever! And Dragon’s Den is a good model for business pitch / sales forecast language.

BTW, Where is our glorious leader?

25 03 2013
Sarah Emsden-Bonfanti

Yes, where art thou?? Hope you’re ok.

25 03 2013
Jonny Lewington

Mad Men? For example, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gfK5wI1xqE8 , looks like a clip with some potential. Although one problem with American dramas set in offices like this is that they are full of people cutting each other down and undermining each other and being rude to each other, pretty different to the real business world!

Although not a drama, also consider clips from the apprentice.

31 03 2013
Vicki Hollett

I’d like to put a word in for “The Apprentice” too, Alex. If you want to show disagreements it’s a winner – so much richer than scripted stuff. But I also think it’s harder, so perhaps more suitable for watching in class rather than out.

25 03 2013
Kylie Tyler

I’m a little embarrassed to say that my French has improved remarkably since I started showing my toddler Dora the Explorer, Handy Manny and other children’s shows in French! But I really feel like my vocabulary and even my confidence have grown. Children obviously acquire languages differently to adults but I agree that repeated viewing of TV shows that interest you in a foreign language really does something. Not that I really like Dora or anything, but French Dora’s definitely easier to listen to than English Dora!

25 03 2013
alexcase

A danger I have found myself with learning languages from sitcoms is that as useful and even commonly used as the language is, the context is often completely different from its use in real life (often, but not always, for comic effect). That makes the language very difficult to then go out and use appropriately.

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Alex, this problem of register and of ‘surrender value’ has come up one or two times already, but I suppose the point is that coursebook language is not necessarily any better preparation for ‘real life’ either. Or, that what soap operas lack in terms of realism, is compensated in terms of volume — if you look at the hours that Nick clocked up watching Russian soaps, it is unlikely that anyone would get the same degree of exposure reading the Russian equivalent of Headway from cover to cover.

26 03 2013
alexcase

I’d certainly worry about a student who was hooked on Headway and couldn’t wait to find out what happened in the next book – though I seem to remember some such reaction to the continuing story in New Cambridge English Course 1 (in the workbook?) from my students.

What I meant to say is that although Friends probably has more useful language than Eastenders, to pick two random examples, the more realistic contexts of Eastenders probably make soaps better than sitcoms overall (again, if you can bear them). And the fact that the contexts in sitcoms are more memorable makes them even more dangerous – there are things in languages I still can’t use correctly years later without conscious effort because I keep wanting to use them as they were used in the comedies I learnt them from…

26 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Alex, yes, I get your point (re soaps vs sitcoms). Apropos, I wish I could trace the source of my conviction that Eastenders provides the most authentic language exposure of all (British) soaps. I’m sure I read the results of a study somewhere.

31 03 2013
Jessica Mackay

This appeared in the Guardian,

http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2012/jan/24/teens-tv-language

but doesn’t cite any academic research.

25 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for all the comments! I’ve been in the air for the last day and night it seems, but I’ll get back to your comments as soon as I recover. Actually, it seems to me you can all get on quite well without me!😉

26 03 2013
alexcase

Something that interests me is how many people mention soaps and sitcoms as helping them in their early days of language learning when they are probably understanding a lot less than the 90-something percent that is supposed to be ideal for learning through extensive reading. I think it has a lot to do with Karenne’s comment about getting hooked on things you’d never watch in L1, because as language level improves you’d be far less likely to accept the content. For example, my Japanese language learning stopped forever when I realised that the only thing on Japanese TV I’d watch if it was on the TV in England are the actual BBC documentaries.

26 03 2013
Tom

Alex’s quote: “…again, if you can bear them…” is a neat example of an attitude that seems to prevail in these contributions, i.e. soaps and sitcoms are useful but vulgar. Even those who admit to using them as a language learning tool are ‘ashamed’ and ’embarrassed’. If the students choose them, enjoy them and engage in the language through them, who are we to judge?

26 03 2013
Matt Halsdorff

Great discussion going on here! As always, thanks for sparking that.

Something that has been touched on in the comments but I think is also a big part of watching TV in the target language is the “cultural references” aspect. I did a little experiment for a blog post a few weeks back… and got my hands on a transcript of an episode of The Big Bang Theory – a show that loves to throw in cultural references. There were at least 21 cultural references within the 20 min episode. (References to books, other TV shows, restaurants in the US, Sesame Street, the concept of doggie bags, etc..) Somebody took that lesson and went through it with a group of language learners in France – and found while they knew about 70% of the phrasal verbs, they only knew about 30% of the cultural references.

So I think that a learner, say in England, gets into one of these TV shows and not only are they picking up on the language but also learning these cultural references in the language that continue to come up again & again. That is extremely helpful in helping them “connect” with the type of language Native Speakers use…. endlessly dropping cultural references into their conversations…

I suppose the most important thing is that the learner is having fun – having an positive experience with the language. As noted, the chances that one will spend hours watching TV or hours reading through Headway are likely not equal…🙂

28 03 2013
Teresa Gomes de Carvalho

Hi Scott, your post reminds me of the time I spent in the US. I learned a great deal of English by watching TV shows during the cold winter months. I watched sitcoms, soaps, and cartoons, which my younger cousin, who was 10 at the time, loved watching. Even Sesame Street taught me lots of words and expressions. And yes, it has a lot to do with routine. The characters tend to repeat their lines and we get used to their accents, sounds and the chunks that they use. We didn’t have cable TV in Brazil back then, so when I returned to Rio I missed the American TV shows in English, which were aired here in Portuguese. Now that we have cable TV and SAP, it’s a lot easier for Brazilian learners. The main difference between sitcoms and soaps, though, is that soaps have a slower pace and sitcoms and series are more economical — a lot is conveyed in a single line. Law and Order, for example, is incredibly fast-paced and if you miss out two lines, you risk missing the entire plot. However, not everybody benefits from watching TV. Some people pay special attention to the language while others don’t bother to listen for specific words. One of my teenage students knows a lot of vocabulary thanks to the TV shows he watches in English. We were discussing this just the other day and some students admitted that they find it really hard to concentrate on the language and on the content at the same time. Maybe poor listening skills getting in the way (?) or perhaps they don’t know where to begin, but I think this is something that can be learned. One more issue we have to deal with is cultural awareness. As said before, these shows usually feature lots of inside jokes, puns, and cultural references that are hard for non-native speakers (that includes me) to understand. I must admit that my little ‘English-only-speaking’ cousin helped me through all those shows by explaining the meaning of the words I couldn’t understand; it was like having a talking dictionary by my side and interacting with someone integrated listening and speaking skills. Teachers can make it happen in the classroom by turning input into output, and consequently, help students retain vocabulary and new structures by using use language for real communication purposes.

28 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, Teresa. I particularly identify with these points:

…sitcoms and series are more economical [than soaps] — a lot is conveyed in a single line.

I have to confess that I have problems watching series even in English. For a start, they can be very elliptical as you say – a lot is left unsaid, or it is said in an opaque way. This was one reason I gave up watching Wired, compounded by the fact that I was only watching at the weekends, by which time I’d forgotten the last episode! Soaps, on the other hand, tolerate long absences and missed episodes – in the end it doesn’t really matter if you doze off, because the story is so inconsequential and repetitive.

…some students admitted that they find it really hard to concentrate on the language and on the content at the same time.

I think that this is a serious problem, and this is why maybe we need to train learners into becoming active learners when watching video – using the pause and rewind buttons, keeping a dictionary nearby, and writing down new words and expressions on word cards for later memorization. And, as you say, teachers can help activate the intake e.g. by having learners re-tell what they have seen, or predict what’s going to happen next.

28 03 2013
englishteachingnotes

Scott, thanks for a very interesting post. As a native Russian speaker, I can say that I hate (and almost never do) watching soap operas in Russian, as they seem to me very artificial and full of terrible acting. But somehow I love watching series in English, both American and British ones, and I always recommend them to my students, as I am sure watching and discussing them helps in terms of better listening skills and fluency.

Moreover, for some time now I’ve been cherishing an idea of teaching grammar using series. I have already got a small collection of different grammar phenomena usage in Friends, Modern Family, How I met your mother, Hotel Babylon and some others. It all started when I was teaching tag questions to one of my students who was about to move to England, and I couldn’t find enough proof that this is somethings that’s really used in every day language, and something she should start using too. So the best source was the series. And Catherine Tate show, too!

28 03 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, which leads me to wonder if anyone has researched the grammatical content of soaps (their vocabulary and some discourse features have been scrutinized as I mention in my post). It would be interesting to see if the features of spoken grammar (as identified by Carter and McCarthy, for example, or by Biber et al, in the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English) are well represented in soaps. The frequency and type of tag questions would be a start.

31 03 2013
Naomi Epstein (@naomishema)

Soap operas are a powerful magnet for deaf learners too, even though they have to read the subtitles. Some vocabulary is repeated often enough (in a clear context) that even weak, severly deaf students pick up on it.
Unfortunately, most of my deaf high school students in Israel watch soap operas in SPANISH, not in English! Such a pity! That is why I pounced on the opportunity to experiment with the American Soap Operas series with deaf teenagers “Switched at Birth”, but ran into some trouble utilizing it as a reading comprehension activity (http://visualisingideas.edublogs.org/2012/10/14/slippery-soapy-homework/). Haven’t given up, though!
Naomi (@naomishema)

31 03 2013
Vicki Hollett

Golly Scott. I’ve just noticed where you’ve got your illustrations from. Ha! A blast from the past!

1 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hehe! Glad you noticed, Vicki!

26 04 2013
Nicola

I have suggested more or less this – using either authentic or adapted TV series scripts for Listenings or at least writing things with narrative in two course book proposals I’ve done. I got neither job! It seems so obvious to me that entertaining students will motivate them more than pure education. Just because people are sitting in a language classroom doesn’t automatically make them want to learn. But most people are primed to be entertained.

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