Movies can be a great language-learning tool. Except most teachers I know have very little idea of how to use them to their full potential. Back in my teaching days in Cuzco we used movies as a kind of a baby-sitting tactic when we didn’t feel like working that day. This is, by the way, true for most of the “activities” teachers do with their students in class, including much-revered time wasters such as groupwork, teamwork, project-building and problem-solving. Clearly, school administrators (most of them worship the so-called “communicative approach”) love these things, and so do our students. Yet, they’re mostly useless for language acquisition. Later I’ll talk about why we must do away with worksheets and activities in a classroom, but now on to movie-watching.
Once again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with movies in a classroom. These, however, should not be used as an excuse for lazy teaching or for reasons none other than to pat yourself on the back for using a piece of technology in class.
Second-language acquisition research says we acquire languages most quickly and deeply when several conditions are met. The most important of them is that the language input the students are getting needs to be at an “i+1” level, that is slightly above their comprehension abilities. In other words, my students need to understand about 90 percent of what’s going on on the screen. If they understand less than that, they can’t effectively infer meanings from the context. If they understand 100 percent of what’s being said, they aren’t really learning anything new.
Now let’s see what most teachers do when they feel like showing a movie in class. Suppose their students are at the pre-intermediate or intermediate level (I know folks who do it with basic or high-basic classes but even they themselves know it’s insane). Now, the teacher finds subtitles – if ever – turns on the TV, kicks back and relaxes as his students, the wretched souls, are struggling through the mostly incomprehensible language.
Here’s what’s wrong with subtitles in such cases. Suppose I’m showing a movie in English with Spanish subtitles to my Peruvian students. Now they understand the plot and dialogues but most of what they hear is white noise, i.e garbled gibberish, scientifically speaking. And most of the words they do know will pass over their heads since the words we say in real-life speech are usually bunched together and are very hard to understand for someone with untrained ear.
As a result my students will be straining to hear any familiar words, at the same time reading the subtitles and trying to put the English words they hear together with the translated text they see on the screen. Language fluency and translation are very different skills, by the way, and translation is a very unnatural way to acquire a language.
English subtitles are not really much better for that matter. Unless my students are good readers, able to sustain focus for a long time and know many words, they’ll end up frustrated trying to chase the rapidly flashing and ever elusive subtitles. Because of that they will miss most of the movie’s visual cues as they will mostly focus on the text at the bottom of the screen. Many of them will start drifting off after about 15 minutes of such mental stress, neural pathways in their brains shutting down and very little language sinking in. So what’s the point of watching a movie at all then?
Oh, I know I can choose movies that are action-driven and easy on the language. But how on Earth is it not a waste of the precious class time if all they do is watch pretty pictures on the screen with occasional slapstick, a car chase or butt-kicking?
All in all, I have a feeling that most teachers cherish an idea of movies as some kind of a magic wand or a miracle language-learning potion that’s somehow supposed to help their students pick up the language. I’m sorry but it doesn’t work that way.
As promised, later on I’ll talk about how I use the focused movie technique in class to help my students absorb as much English as is only possible from watching a movie while enjoying the process together with their teacher.
Smile at strangers,