Mass Media and Its Effect on Language Maintenance and Acquisition

Mass Media and Its Effect on Language Maintenance and Acquisition


Television, radio, the internet, and other forms of media have the power to both shape our culture and to mirror our culture back to us. These powers are only growing as devices like cell phones and tablet computers allow us to access different forms of media from almost anywhere. Language is an aspect of our culture which is not an exception to the media’s influence. Just like other aspects of our culture, the media has the power to both influence a societies’ language use as well as reflect a societies’ language use. Examples of this phenomenon are everywhere in the media world:  Univision, which is the largest Spanish language television network in the United States, has recently beaten the major English language television networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox) in the Nielson T.V. ratings (Bauder 2010) Spanish language radio stations are increasing in numbers all across the country and are also achieving strong ratings (Deitz 2005). The Bi-lingual television show aimed at preschoolers Dora The Explorer has generated over a 11 billion dollars in revenue with a wide array products across different forms of media (Ratner-Arias 2010). Popular social networking sites like Facebook enable people to interact with their friends in different languages and Facebook  even created a Spanish language version of their website and continues to update the site to be accessible to more languages (Vera 2008). These are just some recent examples relating to Spanish in the United States, but the media plays has been playing  small and big roles in allowing people to maintain their home  maintain or culture for long periods of time. For instance the Grecian Echoes radio show has catered to the more niche market of the Greek community in the Boston area for over 60 years (Grecian Echoes 2011).

Despite the large and small niche media in various languages, most countries have a dominant media language; in the United States this is no doubt English. How does the mostly English mass media effect language acquisition and maintenance? How do the ever increasing opportunities for people to access media in their L1 language effect L2 language acquisition and L1 language  maintenance? The following literature review will look at the research in an attempt to answers those questions. (Different aspects of language will be discussed such as verbal skills, written skills, and reading skills. In addition this review will look at how advances in new media technology from subtitles in different languages to the ability to translate websites into different languages might effect language maintenance and language acquisition.

Different Types of Media and Language Acquisition  

        Watching television is often derided by many as being a mindless activity that inhibits a child’s education and learning. For example, former President Obama often in speeches urged parents to “turn off the T.V.” as something that can be done by parents to facilitate their children’s academic achievement (McNeil 2007). Additionally, studies have been done relating to monolingual children’s language development and their television watching habits that seem to support Obama and others assertions that watching television is either a mixed bag or a hindrance a monolingual children’s language acquisition.  One study even went so far as to look at the impact of different shows aimed at toddlers relating to their language acquisition and found negative effects on monolinguals toddlers language development when watching Teletubbies, but positive effects on language development when watching Dora The Explorer and Arthur (Linebarger & Walker 2005). However, that study was done using monolingual toddlers against monolingual control groups so we cannot generalize these effects of watching television to English Language Learners (ELLs). Would ELLs watching television produce different effects in terms of acquiring a second language than the effects of the Linebarger & Walker study found with monolingual children acquisition of vocabulary?

Television provides a unique opportunity for ELLs to experience hearing a second language. Often immigrants to a new country may live in ethnic enclaves and live and work with people who speak their native L1 language. This can limit the amount of time they actually get to hear the dominant language of a country being spoken. The media often provides one of the main models of speaking correctly in a L2 for many non native speakers (Allan 1995) This may especially be the case for young children living at home before they enter formal schooling because they may only be interacting with members of their family who speak just the L1 language to them at home.

Similar studies to the one conducted by Linebarger and Walker have been done on children who are ELLs. One such study conducted by Yuuko Uchikoshi focused on Spanish speaking ELL kindergartners’ acquisition of phonological awareness skills by watching television. Phonological awareness skills have been shown in numbers studies to be predictive of long term reading success (Smith , S, & Andreassen, M. 2008 ). In the study, 150 Spanish speaking ELLs in a large East Coast City, were split into 3 groups: one group would watch the PBS Children’s show Between The Lions three times a week during school hours, another group watched the PBS Children’s show Arthur three times a week during school hours, and the final group did not watch any additional television programs during school hours (Uchikoshi 2006). Children were then given a battery of standard test to measure phonological awareness skills and vocabulary skills; it was found that children who watched the show Between the Lions scored statistically significantly higher on a number of the measures than students who watched Arthur or students who did not watch any additional educational television programming during school hours (2006). This seems to suggest that watching some television programs can be beneficial to ELLs language and literacy development.

It might be tempting to view the impacts of the show Between The Lions as evidence of the positive effect television can have on young ELLs language development. However, it should be noted that Between The Lions is not a typical television program. Between the Lions is a program on PBS that was specifically designed to target children between the ages of three and seven’s reading skills like phonemic and phonological awareness (Program summary 2011).

Other examples of exist of videos that are designed to enhance language development also exist. The Success For All reading program has a component of the program that includes children watching videos at school as a supplement to the other language acquisition curriculum. (Chambers, B., Cheung, A. C., Madden, N. A., Slavin, R. E., & Gifford, R. 2006). A randomized control study was conducted using 450 first graders who either watched video clips designed for The Success For All reading program and those did not; the results found that for both ELLs and monolingual children students who watched the videos did better on DIBELS protest tests (2006)

These types of positive effects for videos that are directly designed to facilitate language development have been found in a variety of countries with different languages. A study conducted in the Netherlands that revolved around low income immigrant kindergartens who spoke either Turkish or Aerobic found that the children who were part of the intervention group that were exposed to videos based on familiar stories during school hours had greater statistically significant improvements  in vocabulary development and increase (though not as large as vocabulary development) in post tests about syntax than those students who were in the control group and did not watch the videos (Verhallen, M. J. A. J., Bus, A. G., & de Jong, M. T. 2006).  Despite those encouraging results with televisions shows and videos specifically designed to teach children language skills having positive effects, the majority of television and video that ELLs will encounter most likely will not be designed in this manner. Thus, it would be spurious to use the effects of televisions shows or videos designed to teach language skills as a way to generalize about the effects of other “educational” children’s television shows or regarding the effects of television watching in general.

There are few studies that directly measure how viewing television programming in general without a specific focus on a particular show (or shows) effects language acquisition. This is most likely due to the logistical difficulties one would most likely encounter while trying to create a randomized control study to examine the effects of watching television in a L2 has on ELLs English language skill development.  In addition,  On the other hand, many general theories of language acquisition point to the conclusion that watching television alone without more explicit language instruction or interactions with others in the second language is doomed to not be sufficient for someone to acquire a second language. For example, well respected linguist Stephan Krashen “Imput Hypothesis” posits that in order to acquire a second language the input one receives must be one step above where the learner currently is at (Stephen Krashen's theory 2007). Television is not organized in this way. A television show’s level of language may vary widely which means that there is little hope in the level of language input being at an optimal level for an ELL individual watching a program.

Despite the small amount of research regarding watching television and language acquisition, there have been number of studies looking at the effects of watching subtitled television. This is particularly important to examine today since modern technologies are allowing for greater opportunities for subtitles. Many DVDs today come with the ability to have Spanish subtitles on the screen for movies with English dialogue. Most major foreign language movies released in the United States come with subtitles in English. Some European countries like the Netherlands and Belgium already subtitle foreign language television shows into the countries native language (Koolstra & Beentjes 1997) The required switch from analogue television to digital television that was imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also included guidelines to television stations to improve closed captioning subtitles in both English and Spanish (Federal Communications Commission 2011). One can only assume that continued technological advances produce the ability to have more media with subtitled translations of audio in Spanish or other languages; whether or not the watching of subtitles television programs can be helpful in acquiring a second language will be an important question in the future and one that will be the focus of the new few paragraphs.

Studies looking at the effects of second language learners watching L2 televisions that includes subtitles in their L1 language are have been undertaken with a wide array of age groups and native speakers of languages. One of the most frequently cited studies was conducted by Koolstra and Beentjes in 1997. In their study three different groups were included in the experiment: a group that watch a television show in dubbed with voiceovers their native language, a group that watched the same show in their L2 with no subtitles translating the show into their L1, and a group that watched the show in their L2, but with subtitled translations of the show in their L1 (Koolstra & Beentjes 1997). The 4th to 6th grade students in the study watched minute episodes of a television program about Grizzly Bears and took pre and post test using vocabulary measures. The study found that the children in the group that watched the program with subtitles of the show in their L1 had the greatest gains on measures of vocabulary development (1997)  

A similar study to Koolstra and Beentjes was conducted in an east coast city by Neuman and Koskinen. Their study  focused on students in grades 7 and 8 who were in the process of acquiring an L2 (in this case English); most of the students in the study were of south east Asian descent who were at least two years below grade level in their language skills (Neuman & Koskinen 2005). Students in the study were placed into different groups including watching the 8 minute videos that were part of the science curriculum without captions, students who were only taught via the textbook, and captioned television (2005). Students who watched the video with the captions performed   statistically significantly better on all post-intervention measures of vocabulary including on measures related to the “target words” which were the words that the three week science theme were supposed to teach to the students (2005). Both of the previous studies were conducted in the context of school with media that was designed to be used in an education setting. While they might be informative in terms possible effective pedagogical techniques for ELLs in the classroom and possibly give some broader implications of how network television could be used to improve the language skills of Ells on abroad scale, they still do not provide us with information on the effects of television shows that ELL students most likely watch during their own time.

While little research exist on the types of shows students are more likely to watch on their own time effects on ELLs language skills, there are some monolingual studies that can give us clues as to what their effects might be on ELLs. In many parts of India there are low literacy rates; in order to develop literacy abilities, a study was conducted to measure the effects of literacy development of adding subtitles to popular music videos ( Kothar, Pande, & Chudga, 2004). The study found that people that watched the subtitled music videos improved their literacy abilities on post tests that tested literacy skills such as decoding (2004). This insight might suggest that ELLs might also benefit from watching subtitled popular music videos as a means to assist in L2 language acquisition.

One of the obvious differences of music videos compared to traditional television programming is that they feature songs and not traditional television show dialogue. Music streams from all kinds of media such as television, the internet, and most commonly via the radio or specific music player devices. Hence, it is another aspect of media to look at when thinking about language acquisition. Do any of the characteristics of music like rhyming lyrics, melody, or pitch or tone provide any benefits for ELLs language abilities?

A recent study attempted answer that question. Groups of 23 year old French speakers were divided up and either listened to speech sequences or sung sequences from a pseudo language they were not familiar with. (Schon, Boye, Moreno, Besso, & Peretz, 2007)It was found that hearing the sung language as opposed to spoken enhanced had was correlated to stronger language learning; in addition, when the sung lyrics where accompanied by similar sounding musical tones that coincided with syllables, it enhanced learning outcomes. 

A study done by Medina focused on a younger age range of limited English proficient second graders. Students were told to go to a listen station to hear a story; the story was either heard by the children via the traditional oral version or by listening to  the story the same exact story as a song (Medina 2000). Results on post tests of target words showed not difference between the children who heard a story in the traditional oral way vs. children who heard the sung version of the story (2000). This would seem to imply that music is just as effective for ELL students to acquire new L2 vocabulary words as listening to a non musical version a story. Later on in this review we will examine how the traditional facilitator of music listening (i.e. radio stations) can play a role in language maintenance.

But, now we will move away from more traditional forms of media’s impact on second language acquisition, and focus more on more modern forms of media such as social networking websites and online communities can impact second language acquisition. For students who were born in the 90s or later, online social network websites like Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter play a significant role in their interactions (Mills 2011). This phenomenon of online interaction is not just limited to so called social networking websites. Children and teenagers today often interact in forums like online fan fiction communities or multiplayer online gaming communities that are designed to mimic aspects of real life interactions such as the popular games “Second Life” and “The Sims” (Thorne, S.L. , Black, R.W. , & Sykes, J.M. 2009).

These online communities provide another space for ELL students to potentially use and develop their written or oral[1] communication skills.  How effective are they in helping with L2 language acquisition? The context of the interaction can play an important role in L2 acquisition even when it is online. For example, high school or college students who are attempting to learn another language are technically second language learners. A study was conducted to find out if social networking and other internet based media can be used as a supplement to these language learners who are learning a new language in the context of taking a course on the language at school vs. the more traditional way most think of acquiring a second language which is after moving to a new country or region of the world.  In the study 17 college students in a French course created fake Facebook profiles for the course in French taking on the role of a Parisian character and wrote about their fictional experiences as the character based on weekly themes (Mills 2011). While the fake Facebook profiles did seem to engage the students who very often created elaborate stories based around their Facebook profiles, there were not any objective quantitative measurements taken as to determine of the experiment of using online social media as a tool for language acquisition (2011).

Different Types of Media and Language Maintenance

In the realm of social media is where this review will shift its focus away from language acquisition to language maintenance. Many are beginning to see the importance of a vital online use of a language as a tool for language maintenance. Recently, there have been calls in Welsh community for people to engage in more online interaction using podcast and blogs as a way to support their languages vitality (Misstear 2010). These types of calls to preserve a language in the more macro cultural sense can have impacts on the language maintenance of families and individuals.

Tse (2001) in her study of reversing and resisting language shift found a key factor to be language vitality; furthermore, Tse (2001) points to a “lack of exposure to the non-English language and literacy.” Creating an online community that uses the heritage language would be away to increase exposure. Furthermore, Tse’s study of those who managed to resist language shift found that having a peer group that used a heritage language played a part in resisting language shift. Since many of today’s students interact with their peers via social networking websites and other online communities, it stands to reason that those communities being used by peers to interact in a L1 language could be a key in young people’s future ability to resist language sift.

Now we will go full circle and look at the role that traditional media like television and radio can play in language maintenance. It is estimated that currently only about 14 percent of the residents of Ireland are native Irish (or Gaelic) speakers (Watson 1996). Because of arguments based on both minority right and the right of an individual to speak a language of his or her choosing, a national Irish language television network was developed in Ireland (1996). There have been no studies done to determine if the creation of the channel has increased the levels of language maintenance in Ireland. However, Tse’s work would suggest that having another institution (in this case  a television station) using the Irish language would give the language more vitality. More language vitality has been shown to influence individuals language maintenance (Tse 2001)

A similar situation exists for members of the Navajo tribe. They have struggled to maintain their native language; however, one of the institutions that have supported the language is the radio station KTNN which is known as the “voice of Navajo nation (Peterson 1997). Again there have been no direct studies to determine if listening to the station has helped language maintenance for members of the Navajo tribe. However it is interesting to note that many of the criticisms of the station are because they frequently incorporate English words into their broadcasts and do not have enough programming those appeals to the younger demographics (1997). Since language vitality in institutions is associated with language maintenance, these criticisms are grounded in what we know about language maintenance. If the station cannot make itself appear vital, then there is a good chance that it will not have a significant impact in language maintenance.


        The first conclusion that can be drawn from this review is the need for more research on the effects of the media on language acquisition and language maintenance. Despite the changing access to media in different languages and technological enhancements that might be able to help facilitate language maintenance or acquisition, little research has been done.

The research that has been done was reviewed here and has a few general themes. For one, the potential for subtitled television to assist in language acquisition seems to be large as it was found to consistently be beneficial in a number of studies. On the other hand, there is not a lot a research to support the theory that one can just “pick up” a language via watching television or listening to the radio in another language outside of the possibility of some incidental language acquisition. New media like social networking websites also need further research to determine if they are effective vehicles for language acquisition or maintenance. Currently it appears that social networking website can go a long way in terms of engaging students and young people in a language, but it reminds to be seen of that engagements can translate into quantifiable results.


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[1] While most interaction on website like this are written communication many offer features that allow for both audio and video chat.

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