Multilingualism and education

Learning through soap operas – does ordinary TV assist foreign-language competence?

© ColourboxGerman subtitles in German TV are relatively rare and are primarily intended for the hearing-impaired. But in Scandinavian countries, the option of viewing productions with subtitles in one’s respective native tongue is available. In this way, immigrants are supported in their efforts to learn their new country’s language. However, definitive studies on the efficiency of this strategy are not yet available.

Conceivable in Germany?

In Germany, the action „Gegen Synchro“ – or „Against Dubbing“ – promotes the showing of films in their original languages with German subtitles. A film is not just a collection of “colourful images, but also an abundance of listening experiences.” Many cultural and linguistic associations cannot be transferred into a foreign language, and the initiators reject dubbing on these grounds.

One of them, Ute Engmann, emphasises that watching TV in the original language can be very helpful in learning the language. But in her view, the time-frame for subtitling German productions in general has been bypassed, since the German TV landscape has been moving increasingly in the direction of „trash“ in the last ten years, and has lost its educational character. Referring to her own experience, she reports that she profited greatly by watching Swedish films with Swedish subtitles when learning the language. Prior to this, she had acquired a basic competence in the language. “One won’t understand the structure of the language if one doesn’t have a command of the basics, and one won’t be able to learn all that much.“ In her view, films are not a substitute for textbooks, much less for human interaction.

Learning without “learning”

Immigrants to Germany can receive programmes in their native tongues via satellite. A 2009 study by the foundation „Centre for Studies on Turkey“ (Zentrum für Türkeistudien) confirms that Turkish immigrants in Germany are increasingly making use of Turkish TV. The reason is not so much the language barrier as the fact that they cannot relate to German programmes. Since Turks are not “EU foreigners,” they are not included in the calculation of viewer ratings. It is therefore unlikely that their wishes regarding German TV will be taken into consideration in the future, either.

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Zuzana Leetz, a specialist on language instruction for the broadcaster Deutsche Welle, finds learning a foreign language with TV very effective. The viewers understands the respective scene by means of visual impressions, enabling them to grasp directly what is going on. She sees undemanding soap operas as especially suitable here: the dialogues are short, are repeated a lot, and images such as impressions of a city give the learners time to catch their breath. And above all: they learn without “learning.”

According to Leetz, television lets one pick up common-place phrases and build up a practical vocabulary comparatively quickly, which the learners can then use appropriately, based on their visual grasp of the story line. This would not be possible so fast and so comprehensively with conventional textbook learning. She has noticed that people from Eastern European countries speak English increasingly well, and sees the reason in the fact that there, English-language films and programmes are broadcast in their original versions with subtitles to limit costs.

Slower, and still authentic

She also wishes for an English-language channel with TV series and Hollywood films, with a slower tempo that what the BBC or CNN provide, and containing authentic vocabulary. But she does not think much of the idea of subtitling most German productions in German, because reading them demands a high level of concentration from the learner and distracts from the relaxation provided by the visuals.

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„A decrepit school system“

Nicolas Böll, press relations officer of the Interessenverband Synchronschauspieler (i.e., dubbing actors’ advocacy organisation, IVS), offers another argument against subtitling: the technical and financial expense involved. For technical reasons, subtitles must be kept within a certain length, so that the spoken text is often shortened, with the result that what is heard does not match up with what is read. Böll’s deliberately exaggerated conclusion: in Germany, the reason learning foreign languages is suffering is „a decrepit school system,“ and educational responsibility in this situation should not be surrendered to the “questionable medium” of television.

To be sure, television cannot take the place of a language course or a textbook, but it can assist the process of learning. In addition to the soap operas mentioned above, quiz shows such as Wer wird Millionär? (i.e., who will become a millionaire?) may be very well suited for this purpose, since the questions and possible answers are inserted for a long time, and learners can both hear them and read them at leisure.

Katrin Berentzen
is a journalist and instructor in German as a foreign language.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
September 2009

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