Why don’t we use more movies and television for language learning?
Maybe it seems too easy. Teachers don’t have to do much if students are “just” watching streaming video. Maybe there are not many appropriate materials to bridge the gap for lower to intermediate-level students, like there are in extensive reading (ER).
When ER came into vogue in the 1980s, experts said that ER materials should be easy and interesting, a low-threat activity. (It was such a novel idea!) It wasn’t long before classroom research showed that while ER was effective for language learning, ER plus EL (extensive listening to the audio) was even more effective.
So, if two language modes are better than one, why not three modes—ER, EL, and EV (extensive viewing) with streaming videos? Students can listen to the dialogue while reading the subtitles, and watching the action. Recent studies have shown that if students have sufficient vocabulary to follow the plot of a video, they learn new vocabulary incidentally, especially with video series of several episodes (e.g., see Rodgers & Webb, 2020).
But it’s not just language modalities that hook students’ attention during a movie or TV episode. Consider: Videos are entertaining, but why are they so compelling? Why would students—or any of us—hungrily binge-watch an entire season’s worth of episodes? Even in a foreign language? (A hint: It’s not the vocabulary.)
I’ve realized it is because videos offer a full-scale simulation of social reality. This means that a) the dialogue displays characters’ personas, including motivations, intentions, and other characteristic behaviors. The characters are b) operating in family, social, and work roles in a network of relationships (parent-child, employer–employee, husband–wife). This action c) occurs in specific settings (the crime-scene room of a police department, a hospital hallway, out in the woods) on specific occasions (problem-solving, arguing, holding a meeting) where the social norms, expectations, and customs operate. With enough exposure, viewers begin d) to see the cultural values, ideals, and beliefs that underlie the story (what good people should do, beliefs and philosophies, what is/isn’t meaningful in a situation).
This is much more than multiple language modalities operating. Student viewers get an entire cultural, sociological, psychological, and dramatic context from a video.
This is a flood of internally coherent information helping to form meaning, minute by minute, for every utterance and action. Video stories are replete with verbal rituals, collocations, and expressions tied to specific, complex event histories.
Students watching video action in the target culture can see the characters’ demeanor and facial expressions, hear intonation and emotional expression, witness the timing of the dialogue, action, and events. They unconsciously integrate the confluence of the macro- and micro-elements making up meaning as they watch. The reward centers in their brains light up as they process meaning in the target linguaculture. Mentally, they are in the drama.
No wonder students learn incidental vocabulary! They also learn how to be blunt, be tactful, formulate reasoning and argument logic, ask for something surprising, articulate a belief, and identify subtle changes in facial expression. They can adopt anything they understand and find useful, and integrate it into their own target language and behavior repertoire.
Small group activities can complement extensive viewing. Students can identify collocations and what occasions them; study socio-cultural elements of settings and events; study how characters’ relationships evolve over time. They can give reports, offer dramatic readings, or rewrite scenes and stage them for class. For period videos, students can investigate the language conventions, historical eras, and social life. They can annotate videos for future students.
I retired a few years ago but, now and then, I wish I were in the classroom again using cool new ideas and teaching tools. Extensive video viewing would be #1 on my list.
Rodgers, M. P. H., & Webb, S. (2020). Incidental vocabulary learning through television. ITL: International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 171(2), 191-220.
Christine Winskowski, retired professor from Iwate Prefectural University, now consults, edits, and writes in Hawaii.