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How subtitled films can help you learn a language

This post originally appeared on the Oxford University Creative Multilingualism site.

I have an indistinct memory of five-year-old me bashfully articulating my first English words. I was so fascinated by the mystery lying behind what I thought was a secret code that I would listen to my father’s music collection and try to translate the lyrics. Our English lessons at school involved doing boring and repetitive exercises and my friends rapidly lost their enthusiasm for languages, but mine was kept alive by music and some animated cartoons my mother used to buy me.

At the age of fourteen, I applied for a linguistic high school where I studied French, English and Spanish. By eighteen, I was fluent in four languages, including my mother tongue (Italian). I had the chance to spend some time abroad as a teenager and that was crucial in my language development since I learnt things that books could not teach. At university, my studies were mainly concerned with literature and critical reading methods. I learnt how to pull apart the narrative structure of a novel in order to have a full understanding of it, but still, I felt ill-prepared to engage in conversation and unable to act naturally whilst speaking in a foreign language. It was during my master’s that I had the chance to join the staff of a local film festival, which gave me the opportunity to view films from a different perspective and understand how they can be an effective language learning tool. The pages of books turned into minutes on screen, descriptions into long shots, and words into gestures. My job was to translate the subtitles from English to Italian, requiring patience and attention to detail, because every word has to be weighed on a scale where weights and measures are ever changing.

Film is an extremely powerful communication medium and aims for the noblest purpose: knowledge. One can see and hear language used at the same time and, as a result, language stops being just about grammar and syntax, and comes to life. The auditory component is essential to the learning process and, with the help of subtitles, watching films can be an effective way to learn or hone language skills. In Italy, subtitles are quite unpopular and people have favoured dubbing over subtitles ever since Benito Mussolini imposed a protectionist policy in order to safeguard the Italian language from foreign influences. I believe this is now anachronistic and also a possible cause of diversity denial. The use of original-language films with subtitles would encourage people to experience other languages and lead them to a new awareness and to a more open-minded attitude.

Teaching English to children as a private tutor helped me to experiment with different learning methods and to be creative, as kids need constant entertainment and stimulation. The use of animated cartoons with English audio and subtitles helped the children to develop their language skills as their school lessons seldom involved listening exercises. It requires a significant effort at the beginning, but the results are remarkable in the long run. First, one has to get used to the sound of the language; then, subtitles help retain what one has heard and re-read unclear dialogue bits. Last but not least, contextualisation is crucial and the use of certain expressions or idioms is clearer when boosted by visual information.

Now I’m working at the Oxford Language Centre Library thanks to the Erasmus post-graduation project. We have books written in about 200 languages and a wide collection of films in their original language with subtitles that students often use, confirming that they are an essential learning tool.

Marta Triberio is currently doing an ERASMUS in the Oxford Language Centre Library. She has a Master’s degree in Comparative and Postcolonial Literatures at University of Bologna (Italy) and previously worked as an Audiovisual Translator at Lucca Film Festival.

French Film Competition 2017

 

posted by Jenny Oliver and Jonathan Patterson

2017 sees the sixth year of Oxford University’s French film competition, in which school pupils are invited to watch (a) selected French film(s), and write an essay or script re-imagining the ending. As in previous years, the competition was open to students across secondary school year groups, and in 2017 we received almost 100 entries, from over 40 different schools.

The judges were delighted by the incredibly strong field of applications, and hugely enjoyed reading (and watching!) the entries. Across the age ranges, students from across the country had clearly enjoyed tackling the creative challenge set. This year, entrants were given the choice of two films in each category: one ‘classic’, and one contemporary. Shortlisting was not easy; there were a great number of highly inventive pieces that showed impressive maturity. The most successful entries managed to develop plot and character convincingly from the tone established in earlier scenes, picking up smoothly from the set starting-point, with compelling dialogue and plausible innovations, all within the specified limit of 1500 words.

The winner of the years 7-11 category was Sophie Still, whose screenplay re-imagining of the ending of Jean de Florette both captured the mood and character of the film and dramatically reworked the ending. Runner-up in this category was Dylan Ferguson for his humorous and imaginative reworking of Mic Macs. Highly commended by the judges were Peter James Cocks and Ella Keith, while Caroline Mirza, Sarah Shah, Charlotte Cheah, Lucy Horobin, Arabella Hall and Carol Habib were all commended.

In the older age category (years 12-13) the winner was Lidija Beric for her brilliant and ingenious reworking of Paris Nous Appartient, which perfectly captures the darkness and complexity of the original. Runner-up is Matilda Butterworth, who impressed the judges with her vibrant and tonally sensitive new ending to Microbe et Gasoil. In this category, Sophie Daisy Elliott and Eilidh Morrice Lang were highly commended, while commendations go to Ilana Pearce, Lucy Morgan,Tom Owens, Louisa Van Aeken, Beth Molyneux, Finlay Marum, and Ella Williams.

We’ll be posting some extracts from the winning entries on next week’s blog.

 

Some more specific notes from the judges on the entries for individual films follow below:

 

Jean de Florette: Pagnol’s classic received a large number of entries, many of which were very promising. A number of excellent entries majored on the divided loyalties of Ugolin; others gave a fresh perspective to the Soubeyran deception as perceived through Manon’s eyes. The most convincing entries were those that developed the motifs of tragedy, greed and/or revenge, engaging all the main characters, with a strong sense of cinematographic drama.

Mic Macs: the best entries were humorous and imaginative, but balanced this with great attention to plot and character motivation, and kept the underlying topic of the arms trade clearly in sight. Many entries developed the psychological profile of Bazil and/or his relationship with Elastic Girl, and quite a few played in dramatic ways with the competitive dynamics between the villains Marconi and de Fenouillet.

Microbe et Gasoil: the most successful re-imaginings of the ending maintained convincing characterisation, but added a significant twist to the denouement. Many entries reflected sensitively and thoughtfully on the relationship between the two main protagonists, and several very successfully maintained director Michel Gondry’s quirky and distinctive sense of tone.

Paris Nous Appartient: rewriting Rivette’s complex, contorted screenplay was a demanding task, and the judges were extremely impressed with the overall standard of entries. Several played on the motif of appartenance with considerable sophistication. In keeping with the original, the very best entries were those which shifted the action around Paris, offering terse dialogue and unexpected plot twists that did not attempt to resolve or demystify the dénouement to a neat conclusion.

Letters Home: Le Lunch

In the second Letter Home from our archive, Sam Gormley,  French student at St Hugh’s, and year-abroad hotel-worker in the Auvergne, tells of trouble at the hotel reception. New weekly posts from next Wednesday.

Recently, a woman came to reception to ask for her ‘lunch’. It being a calm point of the day- that particular day was a Wednesday, I think, or a Monday, it doesn’t matter- I had just been quietly minding my own business. The sun was out, I was emptying the dishwasher, nothing special, it was a Wednesday or a Monday, maybe a Thursday, and I was minding mes oignons. 

She asks me for her ‘lunch’.

I merrily ask her to repeat the request.

‘Mon lunch’.

All I hear is ‘moleurrncsh’. I ask her, apologetic, to repeat again.

[With annoyance] ‘Tu sais? Leleeurrrnsch que j’avais commandé hier?’

Nope, sorry, still….

…still not getting it.

She looks at me as if I were an idiot, as if this were all a joke, a hilarious joke on my part, and that no, really, ha!, I know what your ‘leeurrnsch’ is, this just a set-up, you’re actually on television right now, joke’s on you! I ask her again to repeat, and by now I’ve gone bright red, I’m floundering like a beached whale, at least, one that can’t speak French, and, somewhere, all my past languages teachers vomit simultaneously.

She then proceeds to mime shoving food into her face, into her unimpressed French face.

And it suddenly twigs. She’s saying ‘lunch’.

Lunch! Yes! YES. I know what that is! At that point I slapped myself on the forehead, jabbering something about being an idiot, how could I not know what ‘lunch’ meant, and I probably looked like a psychopath and she probably reached into her pocket and quietly started dialling for the police.

Now, as an Englishman, I am generally expected to have a decent grasp of English. But ‘lunch’ throws me entirely. ‘Lunch’.  An English word. I failed to comprehend my own language. I hand the woman her panier pique-nique, which is the set phrase I’m used to, still jabbering pathetic apologies, and she nods and gives me a chilling, sarcastic smile and takes her plastic bag of food.

Fortunately, this has only happened once since I’ve been in working in the hotel. Actually, it’s less common to hear nonsense like that than it is to see it. A few days previously, I notice these words on an advert:

‘Le top shopping sensation!’

No, France, wrong. That’s wrong. That’s not French. That’s English. I am English, trust me, that’s not French. There are lots of these floating around, including, but by no means limited to:

– un total-look

– Stabiloter (i.e., to underline something with a Stabilo highlighter)

– une garden-party

– un one-man-show

– un brunch

It’s a strange phenomenon, but one the student of French just simply has to accept, especially when the English word used does not even seem to make any real sense in English. It’s all part of language change and, love it or hate it, it exists, and the French bloody well love it. If anything it adds to the exciting unpredictability (read: maddening unpredictability) of studying a foreign language. But it also adds to its richness; many bizarre conversations are to be had with foreigners on the subject of word-swapping. Not only do you learn about the way in which a modern French person speaks, you also learn about the huge number of French expressions in English. Here’s the catch: they don’t mean anything in French either. I used the phrase ‘un double-entendre’ when explaining to a French person, well, what a double-entendre was. We all know what it means in English: to a French person? Nothing at all. Just nothing. Not even a flicker. The just heard the words ‘twice-hear’ put together for no reason. So it’s as strange for them as it is for us. When you do travel experiences like this, in France, or Germany, or wherever you go for your Year Abroad, you come face to face with the reality of language as it’s really spoken by people (which, incidentally, is nothing like how you’ll speak it for your GCSE or A-levels- but that’s a matter for another time), and not the kind of French the Académie française wants us to learn. For better or for worse (often for worse, especially when stupid stuff happens to modern language students), languages change. All we can do is deal with it, adapt, move on, and then sob silently when no-one’s watching.

(For my Year Abroad (2012-13) I worked: as a language assistant in primary schools in Briançon, in the Alps, for seven months; then as a waiter/ receptionist/ barman for two months in a hotel in the Auvergne (South-Centre); and finally as an au-pair for three boys, still in the Auvergne, for two months. This article been adapted from a blog post I wrote whilst I was working in the hotel, hence the lack of context.)

Letters Home: The Year Abroad Game

In case you are going away over the Easter break, this week and next week we’re re-posting a couple of letters home from our travelling students on their modern languages year abroad in the third year of the degree. First, from Rowan Lyster, who studied French and Linguistics at Somerville, the Year Abroad Game:

I’ve decided it’s time that the secret competitiveness of being-on-a-year-abroad was made official, and have created the Year Abroad Game. Rewards are measured in smug-points; any inconsistencies in the rules are down to artistic licence (and definitely not the fact I couldn’t be bothered to make up a proper scoring system).

START: You find yourself trapped in a foreign land where nobody has heard of Doctor Who. Will you survive? 

Gain 5 points for each cool attraction you discover in your new hometown.

Such as the ice rink, which has a disco section complete with a light tunnel and hills. In classic French style, this is completely dark, and full of terrifyingly reckless locals. Great fun, despite frequent near-death experiences.

Gain 2 points (and a few pounds) every time you sample a local foodstuff

such as crêpes, of which I’ve eaten a shocking number since discovering the heaven-in-a-pancake that is Nutella with Speculoos-spread.

Gain 10 points if you wring a smile out of one of the bitter and twisted administrators you’ll no doubt encounter.

Such as the receptionist of my accommodation, who regularly tells off residents for the heinous crime of asking for our post. After a determined campaign of sickly sweet bonjour’s, I miraculously got a friendly smile back.

Lose 15 points and go back 3 spaces if you let out a snarky comment to one of the bitter and twisted administrators who’ll no doubt be pointlessly rude to you.

Believe me, the former is ultimately a better way of getting things done.

Gain 30 points if you get a non-disastrous haircut during your time abroad.

I managed this the other day, despite an alarming lack of French hairdressing vocabulary. Aside from nearly accepting an unwanted fringe, it went surprisingly well!

Gain 20 points if you go on a spontaneous trip with no particular destination in mind.

We accidentally did this after attempting to go to Nîmes by bus (it turns out there is no bus to Nîmes, despite the confident assertions of 6-8 locals who sent us on a frankly impressive wild goose chase). After giving up on Nîmes, we hopped on a bus and ended up in Pézenas, a gorgeous town an hour or so away.

 

 

Pézenas

Gain 15 points for each new town you visit.

The Nîmes story has a happy ending; we finally made it there (by train) the other day!

 

 

We saw this gem…

 

 

…and this badass.

Gain A MILLION POINTS if you ever manage to actually receive CAF (the French housing allowance).

I was lulled into a false sense of security by a letter saying I’d been approved for this, but apparently that’s just a hilarious prank they like to play before asking you for every document you’ve ever heard of and a lot that you haven’t. On the plus side, there’s free money available to anyone willing to undergo the seven labours of Hercules.

Lose 1 point every time you accidentally insert snippets of English e.g. ‘yknow,’ and ‘like,’ into your target language.

This is particularly embarrassing in official meetings.

Gain 10 points for each new hobby you take up.

I’ve joined a walking group. Yes, I have become my parents… It’s actually a great way of exploring, as the people with cars drive everyone to somewhere cool.

Gain 15 points per nationality for all the international students you manage to befriend.

So far I’ve met people from Germany, Spain, Italy, Algeria, America, Switzerland, Poland, Brazil and Hungary.

Gain 30 points if you do something ridiculously brave that you’d never do at home.

I went with a German friend to a café that had libre-service instruments, and eventually decided to go for the plunge and play the piano in public. Nobody booed, although hell may have frozen over.

Wild card: OH MY GOD ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN if you completely change your plans for the year.

By ‘completely’ I mean ‘quite a lot’ – I’m moving house at Christmas and have replaced a lot of my study-time with volunteering-time, which conveniently involves interacting with Actual French People.

Gain 100 points if you get mistaken for a French person by another foreigner.

This has happened to me a few times, albeit briefly. I’m also often asked if I’m German, due to my Nordic good looks (I like to think).

And if you get mistaken for a French person by an Actual French Person

Go home, you have won.