learning from TV

Learning from Television



engage indicate telenovela
plop acquire master (2)
couch subtitle figure out
dull effective proficient
secret excessive frown upon
obsess plot (2) phenomenon
similar episode season (2)
involve miss (3) linguistics
passive support comprehension
active acquire notice (2)
admire engross character (2)
outfit trick (3) background
tween show (2) repetitive
anime devotion structure
plucky forever overcome
orphan obstacle fall in love
formal pair (2) predicable
add (2) storyline go a long way








Whether it’s “Friends” or a telenovela, television shows can help some people learn a new language. Research has shown that the best to master a language is through both active and passive learning.

Every day for about five years, sisters Lydia and Kona Gerakas ran home from school in Thessaloniki. They made themselves sandwiches and plopped down on the couch to watch an Argentine telenovela with Greek subtitles.

The girls were so engrossed in the show, they became proficient in Spanish — so much so that they started speaking it at home to keep secrets from their parents.

Television and Learning

“That’s how we learned English, too,” said Kona, now 26. “We had English class in school, but they were dull and not very effective. Most of my English is from ‘Full House’ and ‘Family Matters’.”

Although society frowns upon excessive TV viewing, language experts say that doing so in a foreign language can help people learn that language — especially if they are obsessed with the program.

Melissa Baese-Berk, professor of linguistics at the University of Oregon, has studied the phenomenon.

Baseball Players and ‘Friends’

She points to professional baseball players from Latin America who learned English by watching “Friends” with Spanish subtitles.

But not just once, but over and over again. One player said he viewed every episode of the 10-season show at least five times.


Stephen Snyder, dean of language schools at Middlebury College in Vermont noticed something similar.

“Our Japanese classes are full of Chinese students and American students who grew up watching Japanese anime, and without having any formal study in Japanese, their comprehension is fairly good,” he said.

Baese-Berk says science supports what these young people have experienced: it’s best to acquire a language through both active and passive learning, and watching shows in a foreign language involves both.

Trying to figure out a word that a character in a telenovela is saying would be an example of active learning, and admiring the character’s outfit while hearing Spanish in the background would be an example of passive learning, she said.

3 Keys to Learning from TV

Baese-Berk said there are three tricks to learning a foreign language through a show.

First, it has to be highly engaging. The Gerakas sisters, for example, never missed an episode of “Chiquititas,” the Argentine tween musical telenovela that was popular among middle-schoolers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The fact that their classmates talked about the show non-stop increased their devotion.

Second, it’s best if the show has subtitles, so when viewers hear a new word, they can look down and find it in written form in their own language.

Third, the storyline should be repetitive. In “Chiquititas,” for example, a group of plucky orphans are forever falling in and out of love and overcoming life’s obstacles. “Friends” has similar storylines about 20-somethings in New York City.

“Telenovelas have a predictable structure: They have a problem, and they find a solution. You can follow the plot pretty easily,” Baese-Berk said.

In and Out of the Classroom

She and other experts add that although watching shows goes a long way, it’s best to pair it with formal language training to learn grammar and structure.

Children might naturally learn languages more easily, but the telenovela technique can work with adults, too.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *


1. Lydia and Kona only liked to watch Greek TV shows. Is this entirely true, mostly true, in the middle, partly true or entirely false? Did they love telenovelas? What did it do to them?

2. What did they think of traditional English classes?

3. Learning from television only works with children. Is this correct or incorrect? What happened to the baseball players?

4. What are some of the favorite TV shows mentioned? What three things do they have in common?

5. Does TV viewing only help in mastering English?

6. Watching TV is only passive learning. Is this entirely right, mostly right, partially right, mostly wrong or entirely wrong?

7. According to the experts, should people rely solely on television to learn other languages?
A. I watch foreign TV shows, movies and videos. Yes or no? If yes, which countries are they from?

B. Has watching foreign programs helped you or your friends master English or other languages? Can television be informative and educational?

C. What are some popular TV programs? Are some people engrossed, enthralled, passionate or obsessed with them? Why do they like them?

D. Do people watch too much television? Should people watch more, less or the same amount of TV?

E. TV programs have a negative influence on people. What do you think? Are there any negative aspects of TV viewing?

F. What may happen in the future regarding TV (or videos and the internet in general) and learning?

Comments are closed.