MovieTalk Original Content Copyright 2012 by Global Language Education Services, LLC


 One Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

 The use of pictures as aids to understanding is so familiar that we may tend to overlook their importance. Modern dictionaries include many illustrations that help readers grasp the meanings of words. In fact, there are picture dictionaries designed specifically for second language students. Language teachers frequently draw pictures on the board to illustrate the meanings of new vocabulary items. Many second language textbooks incorporate illustrated stories as key components in each lesson. When language students can see something related to meaning, they understand more than they would otherwise.

Understanding is obviously a prerequisite for language acquisition. If you have ever tried to learn new words in a second language by memorizing vocabulary lists, you are probably familiar with the "list mist" experience: you remember the form of a word, but its meaning seems to be hidden by a dense fog in which the words of the list are floating, often causing you to confuse its meaning with that of a different word in the list. The problem is that you learned to associate a set of words with each other, without coming to a clear idea of each word's meaning by encountering and understanding it in actual contexts. Pictures can provide the vital link between form and meaning, resulting in understanding and acquisition.

The same is true for grammatical structures. Memorizing grammar rules without understanding how the structures are related to meaning is pointless. Pictures can make the significance of grammatical structures clear in a way that abstract explanations and diagrams cannot.

One of our favorite classroom stories illustrates this point. An ESL teacher was trying to teach a group of Russians how subjects, verbs, and objects work in English questions. He was using a story about a man, a bear, and a sandwich. When he asked the class "What ate the man?", they answered "The sandwich." Repeated explanations of English word order made little impression on the students, because in their native Russian, this word order would be consistent with "the man" as subject. (For them, the correct answer to the question—"the bear"—would mean that the man ate the bear, not a likely event in their opinion!) Finally, the exasperated teacher drew two pictures on the board—one showing a bear eating a man, the other showing a man eating a sandwich. He pointed to the pictures and said: "What ate the man? The bear. What did the man eat? The sandwich." This immediately got the point across, much to everyone's relief and delight.

Dr. Stephen Krashen, the world-renowned researcher and educator, has articulated the principles of language acquisition more clearly than any other scholar. Watch this clip of Dr. Krashen demonstrating two language lessons. (Our thanks to Dr. Krashen for permission to use this clip.)

[Note: there is a brief break partway through the clip, but only a second or so is missing.]

Let's extract the main points of Dr. Krashen's demonstration:

Language teachers can use pictures to show students what they are talking about.

When students can see what a teacher is talking about, they can understand at least some of what the teacher is saying.

When students understand what a teacher is saying, they automatically acquire language.

The job of language teaching is basically this: present students with interesting comprehensible input.

While this is easy in theory, it isn't so easy in practice.

One Movie Is Worth 172,800 Pictures (More or Less)

The last point listed above is worth repeating: It isn't easy for a teacher to present a constant stream of interesting comprehensible input. Dr. Krashen used some simple sketches to make his lesson comprehensible, and he used humor to make it interesting. However, it would take an exceptional artist and storyteller to keep this up for a hour! How many pictures can a teacher draw and string together as an interesting story? The task seems too daunting!

This is where movies can help. At the standard rate of 24 frames per second, a two-hour movie contains 172,800 pictures, all strung together in a sequence that tells an interesting story. Almost everybody likes movies. And there are thousands of movies, with new ones being produced all the time. The equipment for displaying movies in class is widely available and affordable, and it's relatively easy to build a large collection of movies on DVD.

Movies would therefore seem to offer us a powerful language teaching tool. And, in fact, language teachers have been using movies in various ways for years, going back to the days of reel-to-reel projectors.

However, movies have traditionally been regarded as more appropriate for advanced students, less appropriate for lower-level students. This is because movie dialogue is ordinarily too difficult for language students to understand, at least until they have reached the intermediate level. It might be objected, therefore, that movies cannot be used for the earlier stages of language acquisition.

The MovieTalk technique was developed as a way of overcoming this problem. With MovieTalk, teachers can use movies with students who are below the intermediate level, and even with raw beginners.

The Role of Narration

When you watch a movie in a language you don't understand, you usually rely on subtitles or dubbed translations to help you understand the dialogue. This fact may lead you to expect that MovieTalk is a technique for making movie dialogue comprehensible to second language students. Indeed, dialogue does play a role in the technique, but there is much more to it than that.

The main activity in MovieTalk consists of narration. The teacher narrates the scenes as they occur in the movie. Narration in MovieTalk involves naming objects, describing actions, and talking about the characters and their emotions. We can think of narration as the kind of running description we might give to a person who could not see the movie but wanted to know what was going on at all times. For example: "There is a man on a horse. It's a white horse. He's riding very fast. His face looks angry."

In order to make it clear what each narrative statement refers to, a MovieTalk teacher will frequently pause the movie and point to particular objects, characters, or actions; rewind and go over a scene again; or do whatever it takes to establish a clear link in the students' minds between what they see on the screen and what they hear their teacher say. As the movie progresses, the characters, motivations, settings, and plot lines will become more familiar, creating a network of meaningful associations and making the teacher's narrations more and more comprehensible to the students.

At first glance, narrating a movie in this way may seem a strange thing to do. After all, the students can see perfectly well that an angry man is riding fast on a white horse, so why bother to tell them? But this objection would completely miss the point. Narration is not intended to give the students information about the movie; it's intended to give them information about the language. The movie images play the same role in MovieTalk as the sketch did in Dr. Krashen's demonstration. The difference, of course, is that in MovieTalk we fit the language to the pictures, rather than fitting the pictures to the language. But the impact on language acquisition is the same. The students hear language; they see scenes and events that illustrate the meaning of what they hear; they comprehend; and they acquire.

There is always something going on in a movie that the students can see and the teacher can narrate, so MovieTalk enables us to use virtually any frame as a language teaching tool. There is never a shortage of material; rather, the problem in MovieTalk is how to manage the material effectively. The teacher needs to evaluate each scene in terms of its role in the main plot and subplots, in order to determine what narrative comments will fit best with the flow of the story. It is also necessary to decide how to segment the movie for effective presentation.

Dealing with Dialogue 

Narration is not the only component in MovieTalk. Almost every movie, even the most action-packed, has at least some dialogue that is crucial to the plot. Often, important dialogue refers to matters that are not visible when the dialogue takes place, so there is nothing for the teacher to point to or narrate.

For example, two characters are sitting in a restaurant. One says to the other, "If I don't come up with a thousand dollars by tomorrow, the bank is going to foreclose on my house." It may be that the next part of the movie will make no sense to the students unless they understand the gist of this line. However, there is nothing on screen that illustrates what the line means. In such cases, a MovieTalk teacher can paraphrase in simpler language, repeating as needed in order to get the crucial information across.

Pantomimes, sketches, and realia can be used as well, if they will help explain the meaning of important dialogue.

Paraphrases and explanations of dialogue may not introduce new language, but they contribute to language acquisition by making the story clear, so that subsequent scenes and language will be more comprehensible.

Some movies rely very heavily on dialogue to carry the story line. Such movies may not be suitable for MovieTalk.

Preparing and Presenting a Movie

Using MovieTalk in the classroom is enjoyable, but it requires preparation, mindfulness, and skill on the part of the teacher if it is to be maximally effective. In addition to the matters sketched above, it is important to ensure that the equipment, lighting, and classroom setup are appropriate for MovieTalk. Time management is another important factor. The teacher needs to speak clearly and distinctly, and maintain a close association between what is seen and what is said. MovieTalk does not require students to speak, and indeed they will be kept busy listening and watching; however, comprehension checks that elicit short answers are useful.

Appropriate Expecations

No one would claim that every student will immediately acquire every word or grammatical structure that you use in every video. The effects of comprehensible input are cumulative: the most common words and structures in the language will be used frequently, in movie after movie, and will be acquired over time. Also, regular exposure to comprehensible input will help students become more familiar with the sound patterns of the language, and this will facilitate listening comprehension.

It should be kept in mind that MovieTalk is designed specifically to help students reach the intermediate level of listening comprehension. MovieTalk is not a complete language program. Other teaching techniques are required to develop higher levels of proficiency in listening and/or other language skill areas.

A Word About "Teacher Talk"

Some language teachers regard "teacher talk" as an unmitigated evil that should be stamped out. This viewpoint assumes that language students must spend as much time as possible speaking in order to learn. Anyone who holds this view is likely to regard MovieTalk as an especially egregious form of teacher talk. If you plan to use MovieTalk, you may encounter objections along these lines, so it's a good idea to be prepared with answers. Here is what we would suggest:
  • MovieTalk is intended to increase students' listening comprehension. They can't do this by speaking. They need comprehensible input that only the teacher can provide.

  • Listening comprehension is a prerequisite for speaking. Language students cannot speak above their own comprehension level. (If they could, then they should be able to say things that they wouldn't understand if someone else said them!)

  • As the research cited in "Preview" shows, MovieTalk has an excellent track record. It delivers what it promises: rapid progress in listening comprehension.

  • There are other opportunities during the instructional day for students to speak. The time allotted for MovieTalk should be focused on listening.

"But Can't They Just Watch Movies at Home?"

This objection has sometimes been heard from people who are not familiar with MovieTalk. The answer is: Of course they can watch movies at home, but they won't understand most of the dialogue, and they won't get any narration at all, so they won't acquire nearly as much language as quickly as they can with MovieTalk. For a language student, the input provided by a MovieTalk teacher is much more comprehensible than the sound track of a movie.

In fact, research indicates that for each minute of a movie, only about two words of dialogue refer to something visible, while a teacher producing narration can easily include eighteen words each minute that are illustrated on the screen. Furthermore, typical paraphrases of dialogue use words that are much more common, and therefore more likely to be understood, than the original dialogue.

For details, see Murphy, B. and A. Hastings, "Making Movies More Comprehensible: The Narrative/Paraphrase Approach," The International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, Fall 2006. (If you have trouble accessing the journal, you can download a copy of the article here.)

For some examples that illustrate how MovieTalk can be used with various types of movies, see the next page.

MovieTalk Original Content Copyright 2012 by Global Language Education Services, LLC