Guest Post: If you look at the bottom of the screen

20 Mar

In this guest post, Dave Cosby looks at why some nationalities might be better at learning languages than others and considers the role that the pervasive influence of the international media might have to play…

If you look at the bottom of the screen…

Why are some nations better at learning languages than others? Is there something about their own national language that gives those speakers some indefinable attribute that allows them to pick up a language like you or I might pick up a newspaper?

The Dutch are amazing at this. I was once in a queue in an Amsterdam police station after being pickpocketed and was agog as I listened to the desk sergeant deal with Spanish, Italian, German, French and then me, English without batting an eyelid.

The Anglosphere  is notoriously monogolotal, even more so than the French, who I am sure secretly understand despite continual shrugging and exclamations of “Je ne comprends pas!”

But for me it’s all about attitude. If a country is open to other languages, and sees that they do indeed have a useful purpose (ie. there’s actually a point to learning them, after all, who wants to learn Dutch?), then people do actually learn them, and you don’t end up with the snails again, instead of the croque monsiuer you ordered, despite ordering it clearly and slowly with appropriate gestures.

Perhaps it’s all down to history. If the country in question is, or has been a big cheese, un grand fromage, they might consider it beneath them to bother with the double Dutch that the rest of the world is gabbling. Why bother? It’s all Greek to them. C’est comme parler chinois.

If you are, however, a policy maker, in one of these places, and you hope to encourage the learning of foreign languages in general, and of English in particular, what do you do?

The answer? Subtitle.

Get your national broadcaster to sack all the people dubbing the programmes and put up your first language (L1) in little white letters at the bottom of the page.

The American journalist and writer, Malcolm Gladwell, considers that the amount of time you need to spend to become truly expert in something is ten thousand hours. In his book, ‘Outliers’, Gladwell gives example after example of how those who really excel, those who define excellence in their particular field have practiced, and practiced. Then practiced some more. To him, practice really does make perfect and you know what? I think he’s on to something.

I would like to compare the average ability of students from two countries I have worked in and know well: Spain and Portugal. I could just as well be talking about Greece and Italy, two countries I know almost as well, but let’s stick to Iberia. In Spain students listen to Spanish music on the radio, watch Hollywood films dubbed into Spanish, surf the internet in Spanish… oh you get the idea. Then they go to three hours of English a week and expect their English level to rise from pre-intermediate to CAE/ IELTS 7.5/ C1 level in a school year and they are surprised and angry when it doesn’t.

A Spanish school year is short. Let’s start with the three month summer break. Then let’s subtract the two weeks at Easter and Christmas. We’ll add a week for Carnival (rounding up for the ‘puente’ holidays). That only leaves us 35 weeks or so. Which gives us just over a hundred hours a year in English. Not much is it?

Yet we have the same annual timetable in Portugal, or as near as makes no difference, and the chances are good that the boy or girl working at the supermarket checkout will speak English quite well, even in a non-tourist town miles from the coast. This is far less common in Spain. How?

Gladwell would look at numbers. So let us suppose that…

Perhaps our average student watches ten hours of TV. Maybe half of that is from Hollywood, shows like CSI or House. Yes, they are subtitled, but the audio booms along with the mid-Atlantic of Hugh Laurie and our student hears the cadence, the rhythm. If the language is not too far removed from English the friendly words that are close to L1 are caught easily, and reinforced with their dependent prepositions, their collocates. That’s a hundred hours of good osmotic English in a stroke. They watch because they want to watch, so they are motivated to understand, and not because they want to match the title to the paragraph but because they want to find out who the killer is, or what combination of unlikely sounding diseases are confusing the doctors this week. And it’s self-reinforcing.

Because students are used to listening to English on TV they watch films at the cinema in English too. Not because it’s art and that’s the way the artist intended, but because it’s easier. They will have passed the Tipping Point (to mention another of Gladwell’s phrases).

Their L1 no longer dominates their literate world so other media can get in on the act.

The average student may spend ten hours a week on the internet. I reckon that my average students spend far more than that, but let’s low-ball these numbers to make our point. Perhaps a third will be in English, maybe football websites or music write-ups, as well as Wikipedia for homework (my students’ favourite trick to avoid getting caught plagiarising from the internet in their L1 is to copy it from Wikipedia’s English website… and then translate it into L1. It doesn’t come up in a Google search by teacher then, or even Turnitin).

That still gives us more than a hundred hours with English right there. And students don’t stop surfing the web because they are on holiday; indeed the opposite is probably true.

The radio blasts out songs and they can sing along… all in English.

The immersion into English snowballs, as students self-select via the internet. I have Advanced and Proficiency students buying their university text books in English because they are a third the price of the translated derivatives.

In total our Portuguese learner of English is getting three times the access to English without breaking a sweat. We still don’t get close to Gladwell’s ten thousand hours, but we do get an accelerated learning… and I can get directions to the frozen food section in the language of Shakespeare, two thousand miles from home.

Dave Cosby is a teacher of more years experience than he cares to remember and has worked in a variety of countries around the world, in a variety of roles from teacher to Director of Studies to language school chain troubleshooter.  Currently he’s based in Coimbra, Portugal.

15 Responses to “Guest Post: If you look at the bottom of the screen”

  1. sharon noseley Tuesday 20 March 2012 at 20:40 #

    A great insight and so true! Nowadays in Greece,so many TV series are being dubbed that learners are not exposed to L2 but they make up for it by playing PS Games and You Tubing – the adults are suffering!! They used to have to listen to the language , and they’re the ones who are not switching on their computers!

    • Dave C Wednesday 21 March 2012 at 15:15 #

      Many thanks Sharon. When I lived there (in Karditsa for some reason) the local TV station seemed to just show movies illegally freshly rented from the local video shop with half decent subtitles. Like their modern Portuguese counterparts they always seem to get the numbers wrong.

  2. David Petrie Wednesday 21 March 2012 at 10:13 #

    Hi Dave,

    A great post and thanks for sharing it on teflgeek!

    When I worked in Poland, I found the Poles to be great language learners, primarily in their neighbour tongues of Russian and German, but English also. Polish TV had (I don’t know if it still does) an even worse system than dubbing or subtitles – the “lektor” – which was one bloke reading the entire script, male and female parts alike, with absolutely no changes in intonation or any attempt to convey the drama. Yet the Poles are still great language learners. I did ask a friend of mine why that was and he said: “Who else in the world do you know that’s going to learn Polish?”. Which is a fair point – maybe the international desirability of the learners’ mother tongue also has an effect?


  3. Stewart Tunnicliff (@theLingoGuy) Thursday 22 March 2012 at 11:09 #

    Next door to Poland, in Saxony (Germany) I have the same experience with the Polish. But some of my Polish friends say that it helped that in the past in order to really make good money, and maybe later be attractive to Polish employers, working abroad is a viable option.
    My first astonishing experience was when a Polish gal translated, conversed in a restaurant in Ostravice (Czech Republic) in English, Czech, German and of course Polish, all with an ease, and seemingly enjoying it.
    She was working in Munich, but did not really need all the lingos for the job. Amazing!

    As for the Portuguese, I have taught them and Spanish. And found them also to be ambitious with their learning. As are the Chinese.

    Contrary to this, being an Englishman, I despair at some Brits and the British instituitions that have the arrogance to assume as ours is the global Lingua Franca, we do not need to learn another lingo. However I am not sure it would be any different if say Spanish, German or Mandarin was the world lingo.

    Not only cultural history is a factor but the time and energy a person can put into it. But more so desire.

    Es macht mühe eine Sprache zu lernen.

    • Dave C Tuesday 10 April 2012 at 09:05 #

      Many thanks Stewart, it’s good to have the central European perspective

  4. Stephen Greene Sunday 25 March 2012 at 17:19 #

    Unfortunately, here in Brazil the governemnt seems to be determined to increase the amount of dubbed programming available. Everything was always dubbed on free TV, now they have laws for the amout of dubbed stuff on cable TV.

    I have learnt a lot of Portuguese from working in the opposite direction to what you wrote about. I watch programmes in English and read the subtitles to note how certain things are said. Obviously, the subtitles are simpler (and often wrong; what is it with numbers?), but it is a great way to get comfortable with a language.

    I lived in Poland a few years ago and was astounded by their system of dubbing films on TV. At least in the cinema everything was subtitled.

    • Dave C Tuesday 10 April 2012 at 09:05 #

      Thanks Stephen. I often wonder about the larger ‘half’ of the Portuguese speaking world

  5. Lexical Leo Wednesday 4 April 2012 at 16:35 #

    For someone who used to work in subtitling (that is before my career in ELT) this was a most enjoyable read and a fascinating view on national patterns of language learning aptitudes

    • Dave C Tuesday 10 April 2012 at 09:04 #

      Many Thanks Leo

  6. LouiseAlix Wednesday 4 April 2012 at 17:30 #

    Interesting read – one of my favourite topics, too! (so I can’t resist a reply even though I’m likely to be late for my next appointment). I’m not entirely sure I agree on all points but certainly on a number of them. The prestige of the language plays a huge role in language learning (cf research on subtractive versus additive bilingualism for example). Media also plays a role, but perhaps not such a large one as people seem to think. There has been a certain amount of research done over here in the Netherlands in the strict protestant communities where the children have no access to modern media and still have the same (English) books and exam requirements at the end of school. Although some difference, it is not what you could describe as huge. A lot of it does seem to boil down to teaching/teachers and hours spent in the class. Another point with regards to dubbing etc: the Germans and Austrians are pretty damn good at English and their programmes are still dubbed….. Incidentally recent research carried out over here on university students (being repeated currently for school pupils) has demonstrated that subtitles in L2 play a large(r) role in comprehension.

    • Dave C Thursday 5 April 2012 at 18:27 #

      Thanks for the reply Louise. I was really interested to read your Netherlands example, almost a perfect control group there. I have limited experience with German speakers and you’re right, they are pdg at English when compared to, say, your common or garden Italian or Turk. Comparing them to the Dutch or Scandies might be fairer though considering the advantages of linguistic proximity – I am saying ‘might’. I just don’t know!
      Hope you made your appointment.

      • LouiseAlix Thursday 5 April 2012 at 21:33 #

        ha ha – made the appointment (now just hoping I don’t get the dreaded ‘fine’ envelope on the doormat!). It’s true, what you say about linguistic proximity. Wouldn’t it be great to have thorough Europe-wide research of levels taking hours into account? I know there’s a recent OECD report but it doesn’t cover levels nor teaching methodology etc……

  7. Fernando Vidal Monday 9 April 2012 at 09:37 #

    Hi, I write from Spain and I agree with the author, our problem is we do not hear English when we are children because all movies and series in the TV are dubbed. We have a language with only five vowels and our brain is not trained to catch the difference between many phonemes you have in English, for instance. Not to mention that there is a clear rule in Spanish to pronounce what is written. Nevertheless, I think we are able to learn it with practice, may be more practice than others… I do not agree with the comment about the school calendar in Spain, you can see a comparison with other systems and calendars in

    • Dave C Tuesday 10 April 2012 at 09:04 #

      Thanks Fernando, and for the link too.


  1. Motivation, immersion and language learning | - Tuesday 27 March 2012

    […] and language learning Posted on 20 March, 2012 by Simon Thomas The excellent Dave Cosby looks at why natives of some nations seem better at learning languages than those of others.Share this post:Bookmark on DeliciousDigg this postRecommend on FacebookGoogle Buzz-up this […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: