Going against common parental wisdom, I encourage my students to let their kids watch all the TV they want – in English of course, with subtitles. There are many factors that go into learning a language well, but this is one that should never be underestimated. I’ll never forget an experience I had at the Predjama castle in Slovenia, which convinced me of its undeniable power. While waiting outside for my tour group to leave, some Spanish tourists were chatting with one of the guides, a Slovene girl who spoke an impeccable Spanish. The Spaniards were extremely impressed and asked her how and where she learned to speak it so well. Her answer? She was a die-hard fan of Latin American soap operas (telenovelas) and seeing as they are subtitled, she started studying it on her own to understand what they were saying without relying on the often inexact subtitles and then continued on studying it in University. And there she was, using her telenovela-acquired Spanish to work as a tour guide.
Italians hear daily the fantastic results obtained by the Albanian immigrants that attended the ‘RAI* school of Italian’, a school made up of soap operas, football matches and movies dubbed in Italian. Yet unfortunately, there’s no such luck for Italians wanting to watch their favorite American television shows in English – on the other side of the Adriatic Sea, everything is dubbed. Not only that, Italians are proud of the domestic dubbing industry and vaunt having the best dubbers in the world so there’s no chance of Italians getting tired of dubbed films any time soon. The origin of this industry stems from a 1933 law which required all foreign films to be dubbed into the Italian language. Despite the law now being off the books, old habits die hard and despite a few channels offering some subtitled cartoons, it looks like this generation won’t have the linguistic leg up of their Eastern European counterparts.
The linguistic leg up that TV and cinema gives you is because you learn English not because they have a bully standing behind you threatening you with the consequences of not learning English but, as in the case of the Slovene girl, you have a real desire to understand English itself. For some, this leg up is because of a love of a telenovela, for another music, for another a love of fantasy novels. One student of mine, without having ever studied the language, had accumulated an extraordinary vocabulary just through dedicated reading of fantasy novels with her dictionary, translating them almost word for word! The TV and film situation in Italy is unfortunate because the average Italian misses out on being able to enjoy this extremely useful language-learning tool and sees it as something akin to broccoli – something you eat because you have to and not because you enjoy it. Hopefully, my students will follow my advice and allow their kids to watch all the TV they want, in English of course, and maybe, just maybe, some years down the line those kids – now adults – will knock on my door because they want to better understand those TV shows and films they watch.
* Italian national TV and Radio network
Photo credit: gbaku. Creative Commons Licence