Get Animated: Learning through Cartoons

Anyone who visits the Language Trainers blog regularly will no doubt be familiar with my suggestions to try experiencing your target language in a new way, most recently comics and gamebooks. But before you say to yourself, “Here she goes again with another spiel on something only a kid would like. It isn’t worth trying, I’ll just feel silly.” I ask you to reconsider. Yes, I do tend to favor things that may be more appealing to younger crowds, but the fact is, children DO have an easier time learning language, so why not try to learn the way they do. Give cartoons a chance.

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With a traditional, teacher-centered approach to learning, students sit, listen, and recite. This method has many merits, but when combined with unstructured language acquisition in a natural environment, the combination is unbeatable. Learning new words in a classroom environment sometimes results in a whirlwind romance with foreign language vocabulary. You meet your new words and think “wow, these words are great, this time we’re going to stay together forever!” The next thing you know, it’s a week after your big vocabulary test and all those nouns you were so excited about earlier have been relegated to what’s-it-called status. Before you start to think that maybe you’ll never be able to find a good language to settle down with, try to relax and have fun and let the language come to you. Learners are prone to learn new ideas from what they enjoy and experience from their environment.

Take, for example, my 2 year old daughter’s newfound haggling skills. She is usually limited to one sugary snack after each meal so I make it a point to say to her “only one cookie, ok.” Generally when I try teaching her numbers she seems to enjoy the attention she gets from correctly repeating the number and showing the appropriate amount of fingers, but otherwise seems pretty uninspired by the experience. One day, while explaining there would only be one snack, it clicked for her. She held up her hand and said with a shy smile, “Two” holding out a little peace sign. Up till that point, she only knew numbers as abstract concepts (answering when asked her age) or in terms with no real value (counting blocks seems pretty pointless when your main goal is to knock them down), but with the cookie situation she was able to see a tangible and useful relationship between the words and their meaning. I still try to keep the snack limit at one, but—I’m not surprised by this fact in the least—she has recently mastered the meaning of the number “three”. Cartoons give children, and willing adults, the same kind of experience, being able to see and relate an object within its environment. As an avid watcher of the cartoon Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, an American children’s show centered on a Chinese girl named Kai-Lan, my daughter once surprised the heck out of a server at our favorite Chinese restaurant by referring to dumplings in mandarin (Jiao zi).

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Learning through cartoons attempts a relaxed, low-anxiety approach to learning. I’d recommend starting with a children’s show, the dialog is generally pretty easy to follow making use of common words. If you can’t find anything you enjoy native to the language you’re trying to learn, try to find a dubbed version of an old favorite (with subtitles in your native language if available). You probably won’t be able to understand anything but a few words at first, but soon you’ll be able to pick out and contextualize words learned in your class. Don’t discourage yourself by trying to understand everything, it’ll come with time.

After you’ve mastered the basics of the language and can more or less follow without relying on subtitles and translating words via dictionary, step up to a more adult show. Choose wisely though, this method only works of you are interested in the content you’re consuming; however, if you opt to watch only shows with very specific subject matter, you may be limiting yourself to a very narrow vocabulary. It’s best to use material that covers a broad range of topics and speaking styles.

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As a supplement to a traditional language education, watching cartoons is a simple and enjoyable way to improve your language skills. Then again, the point I’m trying to make with all these media-based articles, is that almost anything that appeals to your sensibilities can serve the same purpose. If you enjoy reading, give it a go in French. Like cartoons? Try them in Korean. Is gaming more your thing? Try playing your favorites in your target language; you can even practice your speaking—and swearing—skills if you play games that use a headset to communicate with other players when playing with native speakers of the language. The main point is to have fun while learning.

What do you do, if anything, as a supplement your language classes?