Wednesday, September 30, 2009

TV Can Be Good for You


When I was in Chile earlier this year I had a conversation in English with a local teenager at my hostel while she folded laundry. Her grandfather Jaime owns the place, and though he seems to understand a lot of English, his speaking is terrible. Many Chileans don’t speak any at all, though, so I asked her how she became so fluent.

“I just watched all the English TV shows and movies here when I was a little girl. I remember when I was about eight years old, my mom finally said to me, ‘¿Por qué estás viendo eso? No puede entenderlo.’ But I could understand. Once I had started learning how to read, picking up English became even easier, but I had probably understood a good bit even before then, just like any kid does from just watching.”

Of course, I thought. If we had all had constant access to foreign language shows growing up, we could already have a solid understanding of a second language by the time we graduated elementary school. If only I had grown up in a country that imported much of its best media from a country with a different language . . . well, obviously this is a lot less likely to happen in the U.S. But wouldn’t it be great if there were one channel on standard issue free television, like an alternative (non-profit channel) that has only shows in Spanish, with English subtitles? Or, though to a less effective extent, at least one that offers Spanish subtitles on every kid’s show and a few of the adult shows, too? It would still be a matter of encouraging a child to prefer that station over others, but something that is well within the grasp of our powerful corporate station owners. Not only would this take advantage of the wired-in ability of young children to pick up language more easily than learning to tie their own shoes, it would also help them recognize the validity of another culture. This is pretty much the opposite of what the U.S. does right now.

The last time I watched a TEDtalk I noticed that I could choose to have this particular one subtitled in 14 different languages. Though it was already in English I chose Danish since I’m in Denmark, and the majority of words I’ve learned have been through watching English movies or shows translated into Danish text. I'm aware this isn't even close to a new idea, but it's well worth emphasizing--why not watch TV and learn a language at the same time?

As an adult with a brain every day looking more like pumice than sponge, I can of course opt to watch every DVD I see with its available subtitles or buy cable (doubtful, seeing as how I haven't had a working TV in several years) and watch foreign language channels. I can also now go to the TEDtalks website and find the ones that both interest me and offer subtitles in the language I want to pick up. Since I want to work on my Spanish I have more options than those who are attempting to pick up Cantonese, but the options are growing quickly. TED is enlisting volunteer translators as part of their enlightenment army, and anyone can join and turn in translations (which will of course be reviewed by another fluent speaker before they attach it). Sounds like something teachers could encourage students to do for extra credit—translate your favorite not-yet-subtitled TEDtalk or any favorite speech into your studied language, and not only do you make Teacher happy you can literally help educate others when the translation is uploaded to the web. Fantastic.

From TED’s website:
“Along with subtitles, every talk on now features a time-coded, interactive transcript, which allows users to select any phrase and have the video play from that point. The transcripts are fully indexable by search engines, exposing previously inaccessible content within the talks themselves. For example, searching on Google for "green roof" will ultimately help you find the moment in architect William McDonough's talk when he discusses Ford's River Rouge plant, and also the moment in Majora Carter's talk when she speaks of her green roof project in the South Bronx. Transcripts will index in all available languages.

The interplay between the video, subtitles and transcript create what we call a Rosetta Stone effect. You can watch, for example, an English talk, with Korean subtitles and an Urdu transcript. Click on an Urdu phrase in the transcript, and the speaker will say it to you in English, with Korean subtitles running right-to-left below. It’s captivating.”

With statistics like these below, a lot of kids could probably be performing the translations themselves by high school:

  • Approximate number of studies examining TV's effects on children: 4,000
  • Number of minutes per week that the average child watches television: 1,680
  • Percentage of day care centers that use TV during a typical day: 70
  • Hours per year the average American youth spends in school: 900 hours
  • Hours per year the average American youth watches television: 1500
                              -- California State University

I’m a huge fan of Academic Earth as well, the website that offers actual university classes for online public viewing, where I can see brilliant professors from schools like MIT, Stanford, and Yale that some families are refinancing homes to let their kids listen to while I watch for FREE. Academic Earth has yet to offer translations, though, so I save those talks for when I am working on something a little mindless like assembling an Ikea TV stand or cleaning house, and can simply listen while only occasionally watching. No, you can’t ask questions or ask for feedback from these professors, but if you need to you can play their words over again until you get the gist of their subject, or you can simply switch them off should you not enjoy it. Who hasn’t wanted to do that in class before?


  1. That's good. The Rosetta Stone is a good system for leqrning a language.

    Rohaihu Paraguay.

    Michael Berg

  2. Wow, how do you find all these great sites? I am totally hooked on TED already, and now I have to explore Academic Earth too.

    Norwegians grow up with subtitled English/American tv shows. I guess that's why we are better than most other Europeans in English. A lot of Norwegians (like me) also grew up with Swedish kids' tv. So we understand Swedish fine. I always thought this was because the two languages are so similar. Turns out, the Swedes don't understand us as well as we understand them. They never had Norwegian kids' tv.