How languages are learned in films and TV series

Spoiler alert

I remember very well the day I decided I wanted to learn English. It was the first time I watched Grease (1978). I was around 12 years old and I thought the story was absolutely amazing – those “cool” boys and girls, those lovely dresses and hairstyles, that cheerful atmosphere and those unforgettable songs… that I could not understand. Well, I must say the dialogues were dubbed in Spanish, but the songs were all in English. How could I enjoy the story fully if I could not understand a word when Sandy and Johnny sang? I was really determined to transform those unintelligible words into information that would make sense to me. And I did. Now, I understand what they say and I know they were actually an important part of the story. However, I expected them to say something a bit more exciting.

Learning English was not fast or easy – at least for me. I still feel there are so many things I still need to improve. That is why when I watch a film where the characters try to learn a language using some peculiar techniques, it sometimes makes me chuckle. In a way, it also makes me wonder if this way of learning a new language actually really works for anyone. In this article, I am not going to talk about an exhaustive list of films and TV series. I am just going to mention those examples of methods that really shocked me and I found difficult to believe.

The 13th Warrior (McTiernan, 1999)

This was the most shocking way for me to learn a language. Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Antonio Banderas) has to fight alongside some Vikings who do not speak his language. They are not very friendly at all, so Ahmed has to learn the language by just observing and listening to them. In a few nights, he does not only understand what they say, but he can also speak to them when they say something rude about his mum. No interaction to check the meaning of words, no repetition to practise pronunciation… just like that. In the scene, the Vikings speak a foreign language and suddenly they start speaking in English. That was quite confusing. Wasn’t Ahmed the one supposed to speak their language? I understand they made that decision and change the language to make it easier for the viewer. Personally, I could not take the rest of the story very seriously.

The Pink Panther (Levy, 2006)

I must confess I did not know what to expect the first time I heard about this film. So I did not watch it until this year and I must say I found it hilarious. There is a scene in the film where inspector Clouseau (Steve Martin) tries to improve his American English accent by repeating “I would like to buy a hamburger”, which may not be the best expression to practise phonetics, but it is perfect to be used as a cliché and the film is full of them. He is helped by a very patient teacher who suggests to stop and have a break, but Clouseau refuses to quit. Even if this seems to be a very comical scene, the truth is that determination is key to learn a language. However, I do not necessarily agree there is something wrong with not having a “native” accent. Do we actually have a standardised accent in our own language? I don’t think so. If the accent does not interfere with communication, we should not be obsessed with it.

Spanish 101 (Community, Russo, 2009)

The Community story starts with a Spanish study group. The way the language is taught is hilarious. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be very effective because, by the end of the season, they do not seem to have learnt that much (or maybe the expectation was too high?) Well, what I liked about this series was, specifically, the Spanish rap sung by Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi) in the end tag of the second episode in season one. Although this may just seem to be a bunch of words that make no sense, I think it is a very creative and fun way of using a language as well as a very effective memory technique to remember vocabulary and grammar tags. I still remember struggling with the position of tenses in conditional sentences in English until I discovered “If You Had My Love” by Jennifer López.

If clause Main clause
If you had (Preterite) my love and I gave (Preterite) you all my trust, would you comfort (Conditional) me.

Love Actually (Curtis, 2003)

Can love be motivating enough to learn a language? For some people this can be the case. What I liked about the story about Jamie (Collin Firth) and Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz) in Love Actually was the fact that they managed to communicate without even speaking the same language. They spoke at each other as if they understood (and what they said was not actually that different), they used gestures and they finally decided to learn each other’s language. Jamie used some CDs to repeat random sentences to learn Portuguese and, in just a few days (they met only a few days before Christmas), he managed to tell Aurélia about his feelings and he proposed in a foreign language he had not spoken before. This could be relatively easy if you prepare a script with what you want to say. Surprisingly, Aurélia actually replied to him in English. Well, I must admit their final scene in the restaurant is one of the most romantic in the film, but the fact they have learnt each other’s language in such little time is unrealistic. But that is what you have to accept when you watch some films – things happen as if by magic because “love conquers all”.

The One Where Joey Speaks French (Friends, Halvorson, 2004)

Friends’ case combines most of the elements mentioned before. Joey (Matt Leblanc) asks Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) for help to practise his French for an audition. He does not even have to learn the language, he just has to learn a few (simple) sentences off by heart. Although he is very motivated, he is not good at all and Phoebe loses her patience. After she gives up, Joey decides to use a tape to help him. It is hilarious to see how he thinks he is pretty good at it because “the guy on the tape said I was doing a good job!” By the way, the French version of this episode is equally hilarious as Joey is actually trying to speak Spanish.

Can you think of other language learning scenes?



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