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PICKIN' ON FILM: American flicks help teach foreign students

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Ever since the world’s first motion picture exhibition was given in New York City in 1894 on one of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscopes, the United States has consistently dominated the world of film-making.

The U.S. enjoys a scope of audiences from across the world who flock to catch the year’s biggest blockbusters and help studios make up for poor earnings that many of those films garner during their runs here in American theaters.

Not only have American movies boomed, so have their grosses. According to box-office tracking website The Numbers, in 2012 the U.S. film market made just under $11 billion worldwide.

What’s interesting about this data is that even though the U.S. film market makes more than 100 movies a year, that number of films is eclipsed by both Indian “Bollywood” and Nigerian “Nollywood” films, even though those two markets combined only make about a quarter of what Hollywood does every year.

The reason I mention all of this boils down to what I do for a living. In my professional life, I teach five different classes at a high school that has students from 53 different countries. In addition to teaching Media Arts courses in Journalism, Digital Communications, and TV Broadcasting, I also teach two levels of English, of which the latter two are solely for students who have advanced out of the three levels of Progressive English courses that they need to be prepared for mainstream English courses.

It is amazing, albeit challenging, to teach international students for many reasons, but on the most basic level many of them come from having no understanding of how to speak English, let alone write it. I know this seems like a simple and obvious notion, but let me explain.

As a person who has the honor of writing a column for The Post, I like to think I have a command of the English language, and that I can put thought to page in a way that other people can understand and empathize with, or at least hopefully engage with so that they’ll watch a movie or a TV show that I recommend. One of the biggest recurring points I make to the writers in my classes is that they need to realize that their audience isn’t forced to read what they write; they can stop at any time.

When I began to teach fundamental English to international students, I realized quickly that I didn’t know a single pertinent thing about the building blocks of the language, nor could I properly teach it to students who are counting on me to extol them with the ability to navigate colleges in the United States with the most basic aptitude necessary to pass a core-level English class.

This is where American movies come in. When I begin to teach a unit, be it on O. Henry or Edgar Allen Poe, my lessons begin with the basic formatting of plot structure, also known as Freytag’s Pyramid. If you’re thinking that you’ve heard of this five-step plan before, you have. Even if you’ve taken an English course that took place on the moon, you’ve undoubtedly studied this guide.

Analyzing stories makes us understand internal and external conflict as it equates to Harry Potter wanting to be a person who seeks a true family but is also driven to avenge those who he has lost. If you analyze the “Iron Man” trilogy, you’ll see a story about one dominant power that exhibits military force all around the globe while inflicting worse damage upon itself.

Now, while I may teach high school students from all over the world, I do not have much understanding of stories that come from their homes and cultures, so the only way I can get them to relate to the stories that I am teaching is to relate them to American movies.

Tagged under  Entertainment, Media History, Movie, Pickin On Film

Members Opinions:
February 07, 2014 at 11:20pm
I completely agree and commend this article. I, being someone who has always been a visual and interactive learner, relate to the foreign students trying to grasp the English language. What better way than film? Movies have emotions, accents, euphemisms, actions, and colloquies that make learning the language not only audible but also visual. You can pick up on little regional differences and local slack by watching this medium.

Both of my parents are immigrants, born into English speaking countries, but learned the tiny nuances of being Americans by television and movies. My mother has told me on countless occasions that if it wasn’t for soap operas she would probably still be speaking Jamaican Patois. (For those unaware to what that is, it is the famous semi-English language that is most commonly associated with the Caribbean nation.)

As a teacher you should continue to use films as a means of teaching and interpretation. They will begin to learn quotes and those quotes will only further cement their knowledge in the English language. I personally can say that I have learned a language with that same supplementation. When I was learning German I constantly watched and embraced German media to learn the minor things that make the language unique.

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