Students, professors utilize foreign media to learn languages

Sabrina LeBoeuf

"Celia,” a popular telenovela about the esteemed salsa singer Celia Cruz, charmed audiences beyond Latin America. The telenovela made its way to biology junior Hallie Brown’s Spanish class.

Brown had never taken a Spanish class in her life. So while watching “Celia,” where characters speak rapidly and with a Cuban accent, Brown needed to use English subtitles.

This is because foreign language media are helpful as a learning tool when a student is at the right level to take advantage of it, said Orlando Kelm, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese.

Kelm said beginners may still understand what is going on in the story without subtitles. For example, “Celia” viewers do not need to know Spanish to understand that Celia is a great singer.

But Diane Schallert, professor of educational psychology, said watching movies in English helped her learn the language when she immigrated to the United States.

She said she remembers watching “The Parent Trap” movie as part of her learning experience. Through the imagery, Schallert said she could understand the story, and over time, she started to catch certain phrases.

“You develop meaning (first),” Schallert said. “Then learning the words that go with the meaning is a lot easier than when you don’t understand what the person is talking about.”

Schallert said this type of learning uses anchored instruction, a technique developed to teach math problems through visualization.

While language students may understand the story line, Kelm said they are not necessarily learning.

Kelm, who researches innovative foreign language instructionyyytechnologies, said subtitles are helpful for people watching foreign language media, but the effectiveness of the subtitles depends on the language they are in.

“When I have the English subtitles turned on, I’m cheating a lot,” Kelm said. “I’m probably not getting much of a learning experience of what’s going on in Spanish because my brain is just kind of getting the meaning.”

He said a better method is to watch forgein language media with subtitles in the same language as the dialogue. One tool he recommends is Language Learning with Netflix, a Chrome plug-in which displays subtitles with a pop-up dictionary and allows users to playback phrases.

“I was listening to a movie I’d already seen in German,” Kelm said. “But because I had the German (Language Learning with) Netflix turned on, I was seeing the German text on the screen and thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, I totally hear words I didn’t hear the first time.’”

Now in her third semester of Spanish, Brown can watch Spanish media with Spanish subtitles. She typically watches telenovelas and Spanish movies with her classmates because she said it’s easier to understand the program in a group.

“Listening to Spanish media with others is more helpful,” Brown said. “If you didn’t understand something, you can ask somebody else about it, or you can ask your professor while you’re in class.”

Kelm experienced this effect during a homestay in China. When he watched the Chinese version of “America’s Got Talent” with his aunt, he said she would make commentary on the show, which helped him pick up on new phrases.

“I learned more from talking to her about what was going on in the screen,” Kelm said. “For me, that exchange meant more for (my) language development than actually watching the
show did.”