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Automatic English For The People

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Body & Movies

by AJ

"The meanings of signs (words, artifacts, symbols, texts) are situated in embodied experience. Meanings are not general or decontextualized"

--James Paul Gee

Returning to that quote again because its a powerful statement with revolutionary implications. The meaning of language is situated in EMBODIED experience. Not only in the head.

Now think of the average school (of any type). How often do schools engage their student's physical bodies? When was the last time YOU engaged your students' bodies? When you teach them a new word, do you merely give them a definition composed of yet more ephemeral, disembodied words? Or do you give them sensory experiences to "anchor" the word.

An obvious example: The word "ball". Teach this word to one student by explaining its meaning in words... maybe drawing a ball on the whiteboard to aid comprehension. Teach another student by bringing several real balls to class,... throw them, discuss them, play with them (all the while repeating the word "ball" as often as possible... but never directly stating, "I will now teach you the word "ball"). Which student is most likely to remember this word longterm (6 months to one year later)?

Both common sense and research predict that the second student is most likely to retain the new word. Why? Because we dont learn language from definitions and memorized grammar rules. We learn language by making multiple associations with experiences. Say "ball" to a native English speaker and they will not think of a definition... they will instantly imagine a rapid chain of associations... times in their past when they saw, touched, or played with balls. One association will lead to another and yet another... a whole web of experience and meaning tied to this "simple" word.

The classroom is a piss-poor place to learn language. Most are devoid of physical stimuli. Sitting at a desk, students create few to no embodied associations with the language. They try to manage by brute intellectual force.... "study" the same word over and over and over again.... memorize "grammar rules". Its a very (VERY!) inefficient system.... because its brain antagonistic. Lots of effort and very little return on that investment.

This is one reason I love using movies. Ideally, Id rather be out in the "real world"... teaching language in sensory rich environments. But while Im stuck in a school, I find that movies are an excellent tool. Compared to ANY textbook Ive seen, or "language tape".... they are far superior. The average 2 minute scene has more visual stimuli than most textbook SERIES.

When a student learns "ball" from a movie, they are at least seeing a ball, in action, in a meaningful & interesting context. Its not as good as physically handling a ball... but is damn superior to memorizing a definition (or viewing a lame drawing on a whiteboard).

At higher levels, movies are even better. They contain idiomatic conversations at normal speed. By viewing the same scene multiple times, teacher and student can explore this language together. The students learn "English as its actually used" instead of what some textbook writer deems "English as it should be used". The teacher pauses, explains, questions, and discusses in order to make the scene (and its language) more comprehensible to the student.

This technique works. Focal Skills research shows that students who engage in a movie technique class improve 35% faster than students in a "traditional" class (as measured by a test of general English... in this case the TOEFL exam).

A final suggestion-- Dont underestimate the importance of massive repetition. Its a mistake I often make. To my mind, watching the same scene three times is "more than enough". But Im a native speaker... of course its easy (and therefore boring) to me. But not so for my students.

Yesterday I had a discussion with a Korean student about my use of the movie technique. I was curious how he liked it. He said he loved it because I repeated the scenes many times. At his last school, they showed movies, but they never paused. Of course the students couldnt understand most of the language. He said that they typically paid attention for about 10 minutes, then lost focus and often went to sleep.

He encouraged me to use even more repetition, "The first time I couldnt understand the language. But after you explained it and showed it again, I could hear more."

So dont be afraid of repetition overkill. Show the same damn scene 4-5 times if necessary. You might get bored, but chances are your students will appreciate the repeated input.

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