Sunday, August 14, 2011

Using films in the language classroom

Shedding Khawatir has asked me to write a post on the topic of using films in the language classroom for an intermediate/advanced course. These are some of her questions/concerns:
I don't want to spend class time watching the film, but I can't assign them the whole film at once at home as there is other homework, so I was thinking of breaking it into parts. I also can't spend all class talking about a film as there are other activities. So I was thinking of breaking it into 10 minute segments for them to watch at home with some guidance and go over in class watching the relevant minutes only. But then I thought it would be really annoying to watch a film in ten minute segments. So, ideas?

The first thing I need to say is that, above all, I'm a film fanatic, so the idea of watching a film in ten minutes segments would drive me nuts. That being said, here are a few ideas.

- I will be writing this post with a language course (as opposed to a culture/civilization course) in mind. I don't get to choose what textbook I use, but I can supplement the textbook with whatever additional materials I want. And I do it pretty often. It can get tricky to show just clips of a movie if they don't have the context, but nobody has enough time to show the whole movie in the classroom. Usually, in a language class, I use films to illustrate a cultural aspect that appears as a lesson in the textbook (I've never used it for linguistic reasons). So the goal is not the film in itself (as an art form, as a cultural production), but an aid to an explanation of a particular issue. In my Spanish courses, I've used films in relation to topics such as tango, globalization, immigration, NAFTA (or any free-trade agreement) and/or social classes. So how do I do it?

- In my advance level class, one of the assignments is that throughout the semester they have to watch a movie that corresponds to a particular topic viewed in class, and then they have to write 2 pages explaining the movie and the connection with the topic. I give them a list of possible movies for each topic, and then students have to turn in the paper within two weeks of the topic being discussed in class. Of course, I give them guidelines as to what do I expect from the paper, as well as how it is graded.

- For the intermediate/advance level classroom, I show film clips. Sometimes, to add to the material that appears in the textbook, sometimes to contradict it. I always show them in the classroom because the resources my institution has are really poor, so I have to bring my own copy. I do spend the entire class on the clip, doing different activities with it.

- As an example. Let's say that in the textbook, there is a short text about immigration. 99% of the time, it will be about immigration of Latin Americans to the United States. I like to show my students another phenomenon: immigration within Latin American countries, and the problems, obstacles and issues that immigrants go through. Why do I do it?

a) Because it goes against the student stereotype of a monolithic Latin America.

b) When showing them problems of racism and discrimination that occur in other countries, it's easier for them to empathize, that the do not feel it's an attack from the professor on the United States. And then we can have a class discussion about similarities and differences between what they have seen in the clip and what they know about what is happening in the United States.

So how do I do it?

a) I assign the reading that appears in the textbook for the following class, and the comprehension questions that come with it. The following class, we briefly discuss the text and the comprehension questions (5 - 10 minutes). I also bring to class a brief set of comprehension questions about the clip they are about to watch. I distribute the comprehension questions, I give them a summary of the movie they are about to watch a clip, and then I show 2 clips of the Argentine movie Bolivia. As the summary from the website IMDB describes it, the movie is about
A Bolivian immigrant working illegally as a cook in a small restaurant in Buenos Aires suffers abuse and discrimination from its customers.
There are a lot of clips in the movie that illustrates this perfectly. I use two clips.

b)The first one is a scene of the movie in particular where the patrons of the restaurant and the owner of the restaurant constantly confuse the nationality of Freddy, the cook. They say he is from Peru and from Paraguay (other countries from where there is immigration to Argentina). Although the customers are not openly hostile, their attitude of superiority is very obvious.

c) The second clip is a conversation between Freddy and Rosa, a waitress at the bar who is originally from Paraguay. Rosa asks Freddy why did he emigrate to Argentina, and Freddy explains how he used to work in the coca fields in Bolivia, but after the Americans raided and destroyed those fields, he was unable to support his family any more. Rosa, on the other side, explains how one of her parents is from Paraguay, the other is from Argentina. She was born in Paraguay, came to Argentina 4 years ago, and can't wait to leave.

d) Explaining the film and watching the clips takes about 10 minutes. Then, we discuss for 5 minutes the comprehension questions, and I explain them any doubts they may have. So far, we have used 25 minutes (out of a 50 minutes class). Then, I put up a power point with questions (in Spanish, of course) such as:

- Did you know that there was immigration within Latin America and not just to the United States?

- Why does Freddy say that he emigrated to Argentina after the US destroyed the coca fields in his native country? Do yo know what he is talking about?

- How can you compare Freddy's situation to that of an illegal immigrant in the United States? What kind of attitude towards Freddy can you observe in the movie clip? Do you think they go through similar experiences?

I then split them in groups and have them discuss the questions for 10 minutes. I walk around, just to make sure they are talking in Spanish and to help them with whatever they need. Then, the last 15 minutes of the class, is an open class discussion regarding immigration, and all the complexities of the topic. Of course, there are a lot of different positions within the students, and I make sure that everybody talks and gives his/her opinion, regardless of what s/he believes. As a follow up, I ask them a two paragraph reflection on the topic for the following class.

This is just one example of how I use films within a language class. To go back to Shedding Khawatir concerns, I would say that a) try to use clips more than entire films; b) Using the entire classroom time is more productive than cutting the discussion short. Of course, it means sacrificing something else. As an instructor, you will know what is essential and what you can sacrifice. An additional benefit of using the whole class time and this format is that it prepares them for more complex discussions they will encounter in upper level classes.

Of course, I have many other examples. Some do not take up all the class time (tango, for example). Any questions, additional issues you'd like me to expand on? I'll be glad to answer.


  1. Queeee maravilla de post, I must study this.

  2. @SK: Was this what you had in mind? Any additional questions?

  3. Do you ever show films in dialects that are hard for students to understand? If so, do you try to show clips where they don't have to understand that much, or show them multiple times, or what? (this is kind of an unavoidable problem at the moment in Arabic).

  4. Just out of curiosity: what clips to you show for the tango? I can never seem find any good, authentic clips.

  5. Tango: not right as a starting point for class, but here's an authentic clip, sho' 'nuff:

  6. This is authentic, too:

  7. Those are good clips. What I do in my class is that I try to separate tango as music and tango as dance. For most of my students, "tango", if they even know what it is, is what those hot blooded Argentineans dance. Some also like to use it as a proof of "machismo" in Argentina. The fact is that, while tango as music has had and still has a great impact in contemporary Argentine music, you will be hard pressed to find many Argentineans under 50 who actually dance it. It is just the exotic export for tourists, mostly. So what I do is that at the end of the class, we start talking about tango, and Carlos Gardel. Then, as homework, I ask them to watch a few YouTube clips of Gardel movies, with him singing.

    Here is one of "Por una cabeza":

    Here is another of "Yira, Yira":

    I also give them a link to the lyrics (there is a site that has the lyrics in Spanish and translated into English, which is essential because even I would have a hard time understanding those lyrics completely).

    So the following class, we start by talking about the lyrics. I ask them what are some of the topics of the lyrics. I also point out that you can make some connections between Gardel and Elvis Presley (awful movies included). And then I show them current uses of tango:

    This is a clip of a cover of "Yira, Yira" by Los Piojos, a rock n'roll Argentine group:

    And this is a clip of the tango scene of "the movie "True Lies", with Arnold Schwarzenneger. (99% of the students have seen it, so no need to explain it):

    I used to use Al Pacino tango scene in "Scent of a woman", but "True Lies" is better to point out the "exotism" of tango as used in Hollywood. And the scene is also funnier.

  8. @SK: "Do you ever show films in dialects that are hard for students to understand? If so, do you try to show clips where they don't have to understand that much, or show them multiple times, or what?"

    Spanish textbooks and the instruction doesn't emphasize differences, but on the contrary, tries to find some kind of "neutral" Spanish. That is true in a lot of cultural productions in Latin America also. For example Televisa, the huge Mexican media empire, has a voice training school for the actors and actresses in their soap operas, to try to erase dialectic differences.

    Sometimes I play short video clips that come with the textbook where people from different countries are talking, and then we talk a little about different accents. However, that is as far as I go, specially because I do not know much about dialectic differences and I do not feel qualified to spend too much time around it.