Learning Language Through Soap Operas

A few weeks back I had a great comment from Gail Brown on my 40 Simple Ways to Learn Another Language post.  I enjoyed her comment so much I thought she should share with all of us her insight into using soap operas to learn Italian with a guest post.  I am very excited about what she wrote and am glad we will all be able to learn a bit from her experience. Thanks Gail!

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Watching a soap opera regularly could really move your language learning along!

What, you say, you wouldn’t stoop to being a soap opera aficionado even in your own language?

Me neither. But watching a soap in your target language is somehow more entertaining, more captivating, heck, even more profound than in English.

Here’s how I got hooked started, how it evolved, and what I accomplished along the way.

After studying Italian in a conventional, part-time, off and on, rather casual way for a few years, I thought that I would never become competent in the language unless I went to live in Italy for an extended period of time. I needed immersion, complete immersion.

I needed a family discussing their day at the dinner table, I needed old ladies haggling over the price of vegetables at the market. In short, I was out of luck because there was no way that I could arrange this extensive immersion experience in Italy.

So I made excuses for my inability to move ahead with Italian and felt correspondingly sorry for myself.

But I kept revisiting this language that I love, and I thought: why can’t I create immersion in my own home? Okay, it would be a sort of fake immersion, but so what?

All the resources were there (see Aaron’s blog posts, he’s already listed them all for you), I just had to be a little creative. Where would I find this family, this background of babbling Italians?

Un Posto al Sole, of course, Italy’s longest running soap opera.

Here’s how I started back in 2005 and how the learning experience snowballed:

  • Un Posto al Sole (UPAS) is available on the internet to watch or download. It’s on 5 days a week for 25 minutes. At first, I understood less than 50%, but gradually my comprehension improved. Now I understand almost everything. What a sense of accomplishment! If I don’t have the time to sit down and watch, I load the episode on my iPhone and watch while I’m working out or just listen to the audio while I’m walking the dog or running the vacuum cleaner. The wonderful advantage of a soap is that the dialogue is almost constant, and the characters are using the kind of real language you would use every day. Plus watching the action gives you plenty of clues about what’s happening even if you don’t understand every single word. Oh, and don’t get hung up about understanding every little thing, just let it flow. You’ll get it eventually; I did.
  • For UPAS episodes, there are 4-5 paragraph summaries available for each episode on websites like Blogapuntate. In the beginning, I read the summary to fill in what I didn’t get by just watching. I gathered new vocabulary words to add to my “words of the week” vocabulary list. More importantly, these summaries provided the language that I needed to think about, talk about, and write about what happened in each episode.
  • Who do I write to about UPAS? Incredibly, I found a friend on Livemocha, a woman about my age, who has been a fan of the soap since it began in 1996. We exchange frequent silly, gossipy e-mails about the outlandish occurrences on the soap. What frivolous fun!
  • The official website for UPAS includes a fan forum which I sometimes read and also make comments, another great way to practice. The fan facebook page offers the same opportunity.
  • The official website also hosts occasional live videochats with the show’s stars so I’ve even been able to interact with the actors over the internet. With some luck, maybe I’ll be in Naples sometime when the monthly studio tour is offered.
  • Since this is a long-running soap with tons of history, I can go to Wikipedia to read the complete history of each season and every character. It’s hard to believe the characters that have had past relationships and which ones have returned from the dead!
  • There are so many ways I focus on my target language while I’m watching my soap. I can look for examples of a specific grammatical structure, the future tense, for example. When I hear the future tense used, I write the sentence down or simply repeat it.
  • Those short but loaded with meaning words that are so difficult to remember like but, however, besides, as well as, just like. either, let alone, etc. somehow solidify in my head when I hear them used repeatedly in context.
  • I like to pause the video periodically and repeat what I just heard or  mirror the dialogue aloud without pausing. Sounds easy, but it’s not!
  • To work on my pronunciation, I chose a character whose way of speaking I like. When I read aloud or speak, I try to model my speech with her in mind, and my intonation has become much better.

Finally, watching a soap opera is a cultural window. I enjoy seeing how holidays and birthdays are celebrated. I’m fascinated by a linguistic roadblock that doesn’t exist in English, the formal versus informal “you.”

There’s a real cultural dance that occurs around how individuals address one another, and I love seeing this played out on UPAS.

Being a devoted Italian soap opera fan has taken me from the intermediate to advanced level. Give it a try, it can’t hurt!

This guest post was written by EDLL community member Gail Brown of Traverse City, Michigan. While she doesn’t have a drop of Italian blood, she discovered her inner Italian years ago while perusing Berlitz Italian for Travellers. She is primarily self-taught and continues to indulge her passion for, some might say obsession with, Italian.

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9 Responses to Learning Language Through Soap Operas
  1. Lauren Yal
    August 11, 2011 | 9:18 pm

    I am so inspired by the techniques this learner uses at home with soap operas. The authentic dialogues that are found in soap operas (maybe the story lines are unbelievable but that makes it fun) provide a learner with valuable knowledge of how to use conversational elements like pauses, fillers, and those tricky adverbial phrases this writer mentions. In my classroom (I’ve been teaching English for a few years), I often encourage my students to mimic a character or singer who they like in the target language in order to practice pronunciation and intonation. It helps to build a new identity in the language and can give you confidence when speaking. Great guest blog post on an already great language learning blog!

  2. A Friday Supplement
    August 12, 2011 | 9:05 am

    [...] Did you miss Gail Brown’s great guest post yesterday? Learning Language with Soap Operas [...]

  3. Miss Language Learning
    August 18, 2011 | 5:36 pm

    I used to love talk shows in English. They’re a bit like soap operas—very addictive!

  4. [...] and to be able to share their insights and experiences with all of you. We’ve heard from Gail and Clarence in earlier posts and today we have the priviledge of hearing from Christina Schierling. [...]

  5. [...] (Extra Reading: Language Learning Through Soap Operas) [...]

  6. Chris
    November 18, 2012 | 7:35 pm

    I had the same thoughts about soap operas.

    - they are dialogue/conversational heavy so use the most useful vocabulary.
    - better than radio as you see the actions related to the words
    - reflect real life/culture/customs better than movies
    - fun and addictive, the latter being a good thing if learning a language
    - soaps offer more hours per money spent than movies or other TV series.

    I have just ordered a Dutch TV series for this very purpose! 30 Euros gives me 8,000 hours of viewing and that’s just the first series! :)

  7. Anna
    January 4, 2013 | 7:20 pm

    I guess not only watching soap operas, but also following TV news in a chosen target language will be beneficial for the overall learning process. More info can be found here:

    http://www.myforeignlanguagecraze.com/2012/10/how-can-tv-news-strategy-help-you_5823.html

  8. [...] Our second postcard today comes from Traverse City, Michigan and is from long time reader and a past guest author on the blog, Gail Brown.  For those of you who have been around here a while, you’ll remember Gail’s fantastic guest post Language Learning Through Soap Operas. [...]

  9. SamB
    June 5, 2013 | 3:18 am

    I personally never got on well with soaps, as I didn’t find them interesting enough to hold my interest and force me to concentrate. Instead, I tend to be attracted towards reality TV.

    I’m currently completely addicted to the Norwegian version of Paradise Hotel, a completely trashy reality show, but one I find really fun and exciting (and it has attractive, undressed young people in, which never hurts). It’s silly fun, with lots of natural dialogue spoken by real people, and those people are of my own age, which helps. And all the talk is about relationships, who likes who, which is the kind of easy gossip that I’m likely to chat about too. I’ve picked up several natural phrases from watching, and I know my listening comprehension is improving.

    Similarly, when I lived in Serbia I watched the Serbian series of Big Brother, often just in the background. It was good to have on, just to hear natural speech by normal people.

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