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Film clips as models of language use?

Written By: markkaiser on October 22, 2007 1 Comment

The BLC is currently engaged in a large project involving the digitization of foreign language films and cutting them into short clips for use in classrooms or as homework assignments to illustrate the grammar, discourse strategies and culture of the target language. In working on the project, I have been struck by just how much information can be found in these relatively short clips. Take, for example, this short clip from the film “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears” (requires Windows media player):


This clip might be shown to illustrate the many forms of the male name “Georgii”, or as one example of the role of vodka in men’s relationships, or as an example of the gender attitudes in Soviet Russia, or perhaps as an illustration of how very far from the original the English subtitles have veered (and in one case misrepresented the meaning of the Russian).

The use of clips in foreign language classes raises two issues that I thought we might discuss here. The first is using film as a model of the spoken language. On the one hand, the dialogs of films are so much more natural sounding to our ears than what appears in our textbooks, either in text or audio format. The dialogs of films are intended to sound authentic, from life, even if they are only representations of the way native speakers actually speak and tend to avoid the false starts, incomplete sentences, mispronunciations and confusions of words, etc., all inherent in natural speech. They, like our textbooks, have been written, rehearsed, and performed – a long shot from natural speech. So can we use them as models of natural speech, and if so, what caveats should we give our students? (It should be noted that there are numerous examples of speech from film that become set expressions in the language).

The second issue concerns the decontextualization of the clip. If this clip is presented as is without any setting of the scene within the larger context of the film, we would have no understanding of the characters, why the women are crying, whether to take (at least initially) the knocking on the door as drama or comedy. I suspect that many students would be rather perplexed not only by the language barriers that must be overcome, but also by their lack of knowledge of the characters, plot, and themes in the film. Can the instructor provide sufficient context to make the use of clips in language classes a productive exercise?

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One Response to “Film clips as models of language use?”

  1. daveski on: 25 October 2007 at 9:57 am

    The first question you ask reminds me of an exercise the teachers had me do at an intensive Korean summer course I took at Seoul National Univ. We had to listen to news broadcasts in class numerous times — the first few for general comprehension, then to catch some of the finer details and discuss issues raised in the news program, and then in a pronunciation component, to imitate the style and speed of the newscasters’ speech. The teachers then timed us individually reading the passages to see how many words per minute we could correctly pronounce. I often asked myself while doing this what the larger point was; I don’t think anyone in our class was aiming to use the style and speed, frequent stops, exaggerated intonation contours, etc. of a newscaster. And yet there was something very satisfying about assimilating this ‘voice of the other’ into our own linguistic repertoire, no matter how imperfect. To this day, when I hear others’ voices, or even my own, I can pick out little resonances here and there that give depth to my experience of the language.

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