Sunday, March 14, 2010

Learning Vietnamese Through Television

My friend Terry and I have been having a heated discussion on Facebook, regarding how people learn languages. Central to the discussion has been an idea that should be in the mind of every language learner: that people do not LEARN language so much as they ACQUIRE it.

What's the difference?

Learning is a conscious process. It takes effort. We study grammar, memorize vocabulary, drill dialogs, and so on. It's how most of us who have ever studied language think we're supposed to learn.

Acquisition, on the other hand, is unconsious. It's effortless. It's how children learn. They're exposed to the language around them. They listen for a long time, and the ability to speak develops automatically.

Do adults learn in the same way? The answer, based on half a century of language research, seems to be yes. Most of our language learning comes through acquisition, not study. The more we're surrounded by the target language, the more we "pick it up."

This brings me to something I've been doing a lot lately: watching Vietnamese television. It started a couple of months ago. I turned on the TV, and realized I could understand a fair bit of what was happening! Not everything, mind you. There are still gaps, and at times I barely understand a thing. But more and more, as I listen every day, I find it gets easier and easier.

As a language teacher, I understand what I am doing. I am giving myself exposure to comprehensible input. What does that mean? It means input that is slightly above my current level of understanding.

Input that's too far above your current level is not particularly useful. Oh, you might pick up a few things, and no harm is done in being exposed to the rhythm of the language. But real acquisition comes from input that is just at the edge of your ability. In other words, input that is comprehensible.

It's exciting to me that Vietnamese television has finally become a source of (sometimes) comprehensible input. To heck with school; now's when the real language learning begins!

I generally leave the TV on in the background while I do other things. I do this for a couple of hours every day. But for at least a half hour, I try to consciously focus on a program (usually the news). The visuals help me pick up clues about what's being said. And I find I can usually follow the main themes, even when the details escape me.

This practice does many things. For one, it activates the dormant vocabulary in my brain. For example, I may not be able to immediately translate the phrase "economic development" from English to Vietnamese. But when I hear the news anchor say, "Phát triển kinh tế," I immediately pick up "phát triển," which means development, and "kinh tế" (economy), and am able to put them together.

The other thing this practice does is improve my pronunciation. Yes, listening improves pronunciation! How?

We all have a model in our heads of how a language is supposed to sound. We need a significant amount of input, however, for this model to become developed.

Listening provides this input; once wired, we can more easily correct our mistakes. What's amazing is how often we say something right the first time! The right sound spontaneously emerges from that internal sense of the language that we have magically acquired.

There's a lot of research to indicate that language learners, in the early stages, can benefit from a long period of silent acquisition before they begin to speak. How long this period of silence should be has been the focus of my debate with Terry.

But the benefit of silent acquisition is unquestionable. Again, think of how children learn. They listen for months, even years, without speaking...and then language begins to emerge.

Because we are DNA-wired for language, listening enables unconscious language acquisition to occur. It is not the same as consciously learning, or studying. It's something much more thrilling.


  1. My favorite way of learning languages is through songs: listening first, then grabbing a hold of lyrics to sing along (get a good start at pronunciation), then starting to look up vocabulary and figure out enough grammar to make sense of meanings.

  2. Franklin,

    To support what you suggest, I know a 15 year old girl here in Vietnam, who has the best pronunciation of any Vietnamese English speaker I have ever heard.

    Her secret? She's in love with the boy band, the Jonas Brothers. She listens to them constantly on her iPod. She knows all their songs. She sings along.

    Her intonation, rhythm, and pronunciation are the best of anyone I've heard here. And she's never been to an English-speaking country.

    It's enough to make me want to start a new class: English through Jonas Brothers!

  3. and I don't think you can attract many students since it's Jonas Brothers :D

    even I listen to English news everyday seriously, I still can't improve my English listening skill :( maybe it's not for everyone

    do you know Mr.Dautay, Hal? He published a book collecting his entry. His Vietnamese is perfect. You can try it, your language's improved and you make $

  4. I can see my work has been well done. A few more tweaks, and you will have been converted to the correct perspective, MINE.

  5. Hal,
    You are brilliant. Thanks for this reminder, as I have been struggling to take my French to the next level - this is a fabulous reminder.


  6. Hey Hal - This is a great idea. What are your favorite programs? When are they broadcast, and on what channel?

  7. Hi Chris,

    To be honest, I mainly watch the news. It's just something I'm interested in. From the perspective of a language teacher who is advocating the "natural method" of learning English, that's really all that's important.

    Witness my response to Franklin above, about the girl who loves the Jonas Brothers.

    The rule is, if you're interested, and enjoy watching and/or'll be a fine vehicle for you to learn the language. So for me, it's the news. But you should channel surf and see what works for you!