Language Hacking: Dangers and Delights of Movie Immersion

Sex and the City was the bane of my existence during my first summer in China. Every time someone discovered I was American, I could see this pop up in their head. Yep, Americans were loose, lewd, and full of regret-filled fun. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t dressed like that, had neither been to New York or watched a single episode of the TV show, and was (at the time) on my way to academiadom. Nope, that was the image that Chinese people carried of America. Sex and the City was America, and I was American.
I once had a language exchange partner at Peking University – the top university in China. Over the summer we met once or twice a week in the lounge of the foreign visitors hotel, one hour English, one hour Chinese. Strictly platonic, without a hint of romance or … anything but verb conjugation and sentence correction. Then, the next summer when I was back in Beijing and my language exchange partner was about to graduate and leave the capitol we met up again. After a half an hour or so of chatting, he asked me to kiss him. What? “I’ve never been kissed by an American before”, he explained. Apparently this was worthy cause. He left disappointed, but it wasn’t the first (or last) time someone expected me to kiss them because I was an American. And because America was what they saw on TV.
Aside from S&TC, FRIENDS was also quite popular at the time. Also set in New York, also full of young people shopping, eating, going out, having flings and making repeated mistakes (even if the overall vibe was a bit toned down). A Bishkek-American friend of mine named Rachel happened to be in China around the same time, and said that people latched onto her name and immediately associated her with the TV persona. Thankfully, in late 2008 Prison Break became immensely popular, and people stopped associating us with Friends and Sex in the City, at least to the same extent.

Why am I writing about this? Because one of the greatest ways to supplement your language learning is by watching videos and TV shows in the target language – immersing yourself in natural, native input and learning to listen to how native speakers speak to each other, learning to pick up speech ques and situationally appropriate diction and dialogue. One of the things that helped me pick up natural expressions in Chinese was watching movies and then buying a whole 60-show TV set about young things in Beijing and watching it with Chinese subtitles (though I suppose nowadaysyou could just torrent or YouKu it). At first I watched movies with English subtitles, using the subtitles as a guide to pick up on what I was supposed to hear. Then I watched with Chinese subtitles (one of the great things about Chinese shows and movies – because Chinese people speak so many dialects in everyday life, shows and movies all have standard Chinese subtitles for those non-Mandarin speakers), pausing to read when I didn’t understand what was being said, writing down good phrases to use or words I didn’t know, learning how to appropriately respond in certain China-specific situations.
But if I hadn’t been living in China at the time I would have misjudged the country. For nearly all shows and videos portray one of two Chinas: either everyone is extremely wealthy and posh and lives in cavernous modern apartments, or lives in a corrupt underworld where residents struggle with poor poverty and broken families (or they’re really good at kung fu and live in the mythical past where they were kind of dragons and magic). Because, as I so often had to explain to my students and acquaintances in China, no one wants to watch something reflective of their everyday life. It’s too mundane, not entertaining. We watch what we can’t have, or what we don’t know. And usually this means that media portrays is either high class (or a seamless, perfectly privileged middle class) or the grungiest and lowest of the low (think Gossip Girl – also unfortunately extremely popular in China – and Winter’s Bone). I think most people who have lived for some time in America would acknowledge that these are two aspects of American Society – but certainly not overly representative of the population as a whole. We have Ozark rural poverty, and we have a extremely privileged East Side upper class, but those are only two small segments of society.
The film that perhaps best represents this dichotomy of social portrayal in media within Turkish cinema is Bliss (Mutluluk), which exhibits the clash of values and lifestyles between rural villagers (who live in a dust-colored hamlet featuring ancient cave dwellings) and ultra-modern urbanites (who live in homes of slick steel and glass). From the film I’d probably gather that everyone in Turkey either tended sheep and lived in a hut, or spent sun-drenched summers sailing and sipping cocktails. It’s a beautiful film, and I was thinking of sharing it with my mother – then hesitated. I doubt my mother has seen many Turkish films; do I want this to be her first visual impression? For it is Turkey, and yet it’s just a part (or, rather, two parts).
(If you are interested, you can watch the film with English subtitles here:)

In short, watch films and shows as part of a complete approach to learning language, but watch with a grain of salt. The more you watch (hopefully from different directors and genres), the more you will learn about different aspects of that culture and society/societies.

Natural native input is just one part of learning a language. But input is not enough. You also need to learn grammar, and practice, practice, practice (reading, writing, speaking), and you need someone to correct your mistakes! Preferably that will be someone you know and trust. For sometimes, those native expressions you pick up through films – you don’t want to use them everywhere, and you certainly don’t want to misuse them. In Chinese, this can be particularly tricky with tones and close cognates. I’ve heard of executives being taken to the cops because their taxi driver thought they wanted to be taken to the prostitutes of Dongzhimen (Dongzhimen XiaoJie), and not Dongzhimen Side Street (alas, also Dongzhimen XiaoJie, just different tones). I once told another language exchange partner, a petite little girl who wore only pastels, that I hadn’t decided where I would do my PhD yet because I didn’t know who I wanted to work with. Or at least that’s what I thought I said. She burst out laughing, and then was so shell-shocked/embarrassed that it took me five minutes to coax out of her that I’d actually said, “I don’t know who I want to f* with yet”. Yep, not a mistake I’d like to repeat; certainly not one I would have wanted to make in public the first time. Hurrah for language tutors.

To conclude on a promotional note: Get as much input as you can, but also seek out tutors and structured learning. I have yet to meet anyone who has actually taught themselves a language (all components – reading, writing, listening and speaking) on their own.
italki is a great platform for students learning languages (not to mention that the community manager is a fellow Reed College grad!). You can find tutors or professional teachers (like me!) in your target language, but most features of the site are free, including finding language partners, writing notebook entries (and getting them corrected by native speakers!), and getting answers to those troublesome little language questions. If you (or someone you know) is looking for a professional English teacher, feel free to check out my teacher profile here. And, as you probably know from reading this blog before, my favorite vocab-learning site is memrise. And it’s free! (Not to mention a fun was to spend your time in traffic, provided you aren’t the one driving)


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