The television trick to learning a new language

Every day for about five years, Israeli sisters Reut and Shoham Nistel ran home from school, made themselves sandwich...

Posted: Mar 19, 2018 12:53 PM
Updated: Mar 19, 2018 12:53 PM

Every day for about five years, Israeli sisters Reut and Shoham Nistel ran home from school, made themselves sandwiches and plopped down on the couch to watch an Argentine telenovela with Hebrew subtitles.

The girls became so proficient in Spanish that they started speaking it at home to keep secrets from their parents.

Some people find that they can learn new languages by obsessively watching TV shows

Studies show that it's best to acquire a language through both active and passive learning

"That's how we learned English, too," said Reut, now 26. "We had English class in school, but I never paid attention. All my English is from 'Full House' and 'Family Matters.' "

Although excessive screen time is often frowned upon, language experts say that watching shows in a foreign language -- if done with near obsession -- can help someone learn that language.

"These stories are hugely common," said Melissa Baese-Berke, associate professor of linguistics and director of the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching program at the University of Oregon.

Baseball players learned from 'Friends'

She points to a New York Times story about professional baseball players from Latin America who learned English by watching "Friends" with Spanish subtitles.

But they didn't just watch "Friends"; they watched it over and over again. Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis told the Times that he had watched every episode of the 10-season show at least five times.

Stephen Snyder, dean of language schools at Middlebury College in Vermont, said this story sounds familiar to him.

"Our Japanese classes are full of Chinese students and American students who grew up watching Japanese anime, and without having any formal training in Japanese, their comprehension is quite reasonable," he said. "It's a transnational phenomenon, and it makes sense."

Baese-Berke says science supports what these young people have experienced. Studies show that 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.

The 3 keys to learning from TV

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

First, it has to be highly engaging. The Nistel sisters, for example, never missed an episode of "Chiquititas," the Argentine tween musical telenovela that was enormously popular among Israeli middle-schoolers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The fact that their classmates talked about the show obsessively 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-Berke said.

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.

Vardit Ringvald, a professor of languages and linguistics at Middlebury and director of the school's Hebrew program, said she learned Spanish by watching "Andrea Celeste," another Argentine telenovela.

"When I married my husband, who's from Uruguay, I didn't speak a word of Spanish," she said. "After three months of watching 'Andrea Celeste,' I was fluent."

Soon, she and her husband were speaking Spanish to keep secrets from her mother.

"But we can't do that anymore, because my mother started to watch telenovelas, and now she's fluent, too," Ringvald said.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 69374

Reported Deaths: 1989
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds5700119
DeSoto371031
Harrison260136
Madison245569
Jackson231444
Rankin230735
Jones193159
Forrest182656
Washington170142
Lee152142
Lauderdale141592
Neshoba128892
Lamar123115
Bolivar113635
Oktibbeha113339
Warren112535
Lowndes109239
Panola106816
Sunflower105625
Scott101120
Lafayette98719
Copiah96228
Leflore94966
Pike94037
Holmes91049
Grenada85123
Pontotoc8429
Yazoo84113
Lincoln83442
Monroe82155
Simpson80631
Leake79526
Coahoma78113
Wayne78021
Tate74330
Marshall7129
Marion68420
Union66216
Adams63225
Winston62916
Covington62214
George5956
Pearl River55940
Newton54511
Tallahatchie54111
Attala52725
Walthall50221
Chickasaw47619
Noxubee46112
Tishomingo4377
Alcorn4355
Calhoun4259
Prentiss42310
Claiborne40914
Smith40613
Hancock40214
Clay40114
Jasper3949
Itawamba38710
Tippah37414
Tunica3587
Clarke33626
Montgomery3295
Lawrence3238
Yalobusha31610
Humphreys29712
Quitman2691
Carroll26111
Greene25612
Perry2428
Amite2376
Webster23712
Kemper23314
Jefferson Davis2336
Wilkinson21513
Stone2115
Sharkey2045
Jefferson1957
Benton1451
Choctaw1354
Franklin1312
Issaquena272
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 100801

Reported Deaths: 1814
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson13366246
Mobile10581212
Montgomery6825151
Madison546934
Tuscaloosa426979
Unassigned392566
Baldwin367029
Shelby333437
Marshall319438
Lee270847
Morgan241819
Etowah218034
DeKalb183414
Calhoun181918
Elmore176039
Walker154465
Houston142813
Russell13892
St. Clair136320
Limestone135913
Dallas133624
Franklin129722
Cullman123012
Colbert121517
Lauderdale119020
Autauga116222
Escambia108817
Talladega105414
Jackson10264
Tallapoosa87579
Chambers84738
Dale84329
Clarke82610
Chilton8189
Blount8165
Butler77036
Coffee7656
Covington74021
Pike7137
Marion58226
Barbour5796
Lowndes57124
Marengo56616
Hale48526
Bullock48111
Winston45711
Perry4454
Bibb4445
Washington44412
Wilcox43410
Monroe4236
Pickens4089
Randolph40211
Conecuh39310
Sumter36618
Lawrence3542
Macon33914
Crenshaw3326
Choctaw28912
Cherokee2768
Clay2675
Geneva2652
Henry2643
Greene25211
Lamar2302
Fayette2235
Cleburne1291
Coosa1053
Out of AL00
Tupelo
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 75°
Feels Like: 82°
Columbus
Clear
73° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 72°
Feels Like: 73°
Oxford
Broken Clouds
75° wxIcon
Hi: 89° Lo: 71°
Feels Like: 75°
Starkville
Clear
70° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 70°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather