Recently I read the book “The Tipping Point – How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” by Malcolm Gladwell, and while it obviously doesn’t focus on language learning, but on the spreading of ideas and trends, it is nonetheless interesting from the perspective of a language learner. At some point in the book he compares two children’s programmes to other children’s programmes as well as to each other. The first one I believe most of us know: Sesame Street. The other I had personally never heard of before – Blue’s Clues. Loads of experiments are done regarding what works and what doesn’t for TV programmes – what do people actually watch when they watch a programme and when do they lose interest.
The purpose of this comparison was to look at the ability of each programme to retain the focus of young children, and while Sesame Street performed well, Blue’s Clues outperformed Sesame Street. So far so good. The children were more attentive when it came to watching Blue’s Clues for reasons I won’t get into here. But now we get to another interesting point. The broadcasting of Blue’s Clues follows a quite specific pattern: the same episode is broadcast from Monday to Friday before a new episode airs the following week rather than airing new episodes after each other and then allowing re-runs later in the year .
Not only did the children pay more attention to what was going on on the screen while watching Blue’s Clues, they also retained more knowledge of what they had been exposed to due to both the structure of the programme and the repetition. Compared to the children who watched Sesame Street, they performed better on recognising items and concepts. Basically they weren’t bored by watching the same episode multiple times, but it offered them valuable predictability and repetition. Of course it’s important to recognise that there is that pesky detail that this is based on an audience which is significantly younger than us and therefore while most concepts were new to them altogether, we probably already know them in minimum one other language. Therefore the exact format of Blue’s Clues is not very appealing to an adult learner.
Also they realised that the children tend to zoom out and focus elsewhere because they don’t understand rather than because they are bored. I’m guilty as charged on this one. When I watch something without subtitles, the level of my understanding varies wildly from scene to scene, and I sometimes catch myself zooming out if my understanding drops below some undefinded threshold.
What I think we can benefit from as adult learners is to think more carefully about the combination of focus and repetition to our own studies when it comes to movies and dramas.
1) Make an effort to watch actively no matter how much or how little we understand of any given scene.
2) Watch the same episode multiple times.
Most learners will agree that only very few new words or concepts will stick after hearing them just once, but many seem to associate repetition with flascard drills or spaced repetition through Anki or Memrise – which are basically just electronic flashcards. Some people will look through old notes. But how about including repetition in other media?
While watching the same episode of a drama of one’s own choice five times might seem a little much even for the most enthusiastic drama lover, I actually quite like seeing the same episode twice. Once without subtitles just when the episode is published, and once again when subtitles have been added. Depending on one’s level, I guess the ideal solution would be the other way around, but…
Due to difference in time zones between me and subbers this usually means that I watch the raw version during late afternoon/early evening on the day on which the episode airs in Korea, the subbers work while I sleep, and then the subbed version is ready for me on the next day. The first time both the story and the language are new. The second time I can spend more energy on the language itself and see if I understood correctly the first time I watched it. I’ve done this before, although not consistently. Maybe it’s a better idea than I had initially thought?
Many learners will switch sources all the time – don’t get me wrong, diversity in learning materials is a good thing – but maybe we would get a better return on investment if we take the time to e.g. watch the same drama episode just once more before moving on to the new and exciting episode? I’ve sometimes caught myself saying a sentence before the actor or actress the second time I watched the same episode. Being exposed to the same scene and therefore the same context once more helped trigger the memory of the wording.
Is drama watching just enjoyable pastime for you or do you make it an active part of your studies? Have you thought about how you do it? Don’t forget to leave comments below – I’m super curious how you study with dramas and movies 🙂