Friday, 9 June 2006

Watch a movie, learn a new language...?

Image by Fortune Cookie How cool would it be if you could learn a new language simply by watching subtitled foreign films? So far, research has shown that you can certainly learn new vocabulary this way, but not grammar. Now Sven Van Lommel and colleagues at the University of Leuven have again tested whether subtitled films can be used to learn grammar, following their belief that prior research was hindered by methodological shortcomings, such as the lack of suitable control groups.

Van Lommel’s team showed a film in Esperanto (‘En Somera Vilao’), with Dutch subtitles, to half of 94 Dutch-speaking primary school sixth-formers and 84 secondary school sixth-formers. Unfortunately, watching the film brought the pupils no advantage in a subsequent test on Esperanto grammar.

In fact, watching the film actually impaired grammar test performance among those pupils who were previously read a short story that introduced some rules of Esperanto grammar. Overall the pupils who heard the story tended to perform better on the grammar test, but among the pupils who heard the story, those who also watched the film did worse than those who didn’t. “Inserting a movie between the advance rule presentation and the test increased the retention interval and may have caused some interference, leading to more forgetting of the presented rules” the researchers said.

When it comes to learning, it seems there’s no substitute for practising speaking a new language yourself. In the researchers’ words “…grammar acquisition may remain minimal without verbal production of the to-be-acquired language forms”. However, they also said the possibility remains that the film shown in this study was too short to be of any benefit, and that a sequence of several films spread over an extended period of time could be useful.

Van Lommel, S., Laenen, A. & d’Ydewalle, G. (2006). Foreign-grammar acquisition while watching subtitled television programmes. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 243-258.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Update: I've added the name of the film they used, following the query posted under comments.