Automatically learning a foreign language through television

By Michael Seifert

Germans do not speak English well. This is the result of a comparative European study: According to it, only 40 per cent are able to hold a simple conversation in English, while in the Netherlands and Scandinavia it is over 80 per cent of the population. Some experts explain the poor performance by the fact that Germany is a “dubbing country”, i.e. English-language films are dubbed into German for television and in the cinema, while in other countries they are broadcast in the “original with subtitles” (OmU). This would “automatically” make people who see these films better at English.

tünews INTERNATIONAL spoke with Rosemarie Tracy about how television and films in the original can have a positive effect on learning a foreign language. Tracy worked at the University of Tübingen for a long time, has been a professor at the University of Mannheim since 1995 and researches language acquisition and multilingualism.

“When we see a film in a foreign language, despite not knowing the language, we can guess what it is about based on our knowledge of the world and our common sense. We see the context, the actions, facial expressions and movements of the people acting,” Rosemarie Tracy explains. “We know this from everyday life as well. If we want to understand what small children are trying to tell us, we also pay attention to what they are doing and what is happening in the situation.” Films have the advantage that you can watch them several times and shift more and more attention to the language. You get used to sounds, combinations of sounds, the melody of the language, the stress patterns of multi-syllabic words, the rhythm of the foreign language. “In this way, we also quickly pick up the usual phrases of greeting and typical idioms. And our brain registers grammatical regularities based on frequencies, the appearance of words in the same context. This happens quite automatically without our being aware of it, just as a child learns to speak.”

So it can happen that an Albanian taxi driver learns Italian without ever having taken a language course. Or that a brother and sister in Kosovo have learned enough by watching Spanish feature films with subtitles to then use Spanish as a secret language. “The subtitles, of course, help enormously with learning at first,” says Tracy.

So what does this mean for refugees? It seems that most of them predominantly use their mother tongue when consuming media on TV, the internet and YouTube. Tracy finds this understandable: “There is something comforting about native-language offerings in a foreign environment where it is difficult to find one’s way around. The films keep you connected to your old home.”

The refugees usually attend language courses at different levels and try to improve their German skills through contact with Germans. They often complain, especially in times of pandemic, that they have too little contact. Using German media offerings, for example on television, could improve their language skills in an entertaining way. Rosemarie Tracy: “Listening comprehension in particular can certainly be improved significantly. It doesn’t replace interpersonal communication, but it can pave the way to it.” Helpful for understanding can be the German subtitles for the hearing impaired, and they also support knowledge of written German. Here’s how to activate these subtitles: Fernsehen: Untertitel am TV einschalten – so geht’s – CHIP

Tracy can give even more tips: “You don’t necessarily only have to watch feature films, programmes with everyday relevance such as cooking programmes, advice programmes or explanatory programmes for children are easy to understand. And why not watch the films together with the children as a family? Children go to school and usually know German better than their parents, so they can help with understanding and gain self-confidence.”

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Sprachen lernen durch Fernsehen. Foto: tünews INTERNATIONAL / Mostafa Elyasian.

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