Growing up, I was fascinated by how creative minds come up with TV commercials that not only entertain but also teach lessons about life in general. Never did I imagine that as a full-fledged world language teacher, I’d find TV commercials useful as language teaching materials.
From an educator’s perspective, TV commercials are a creative resource for learning world languages and can be a valuable addition to the world language classroom.
5 Reasons to Use TV Commercials
1. TV commercials reflect the culture and social sphere of a given country. I love how commercials from different countries reflect a sense of culture and societal truths that can touch anyone’s consciousness and awareness.
For instance, a commercial for Thai Life Insurance about “unsung” heroes features the universal nature of kindness and genuine concern but makes it more culture specific by highlighting the joy and pure love that Thai people show when they extend help to others.
In my world language classes, this type of TV commercial is what I want my students to watch, as it gives them a taste of the target culture, plus it offers the possibility of inspiring benevolence and empathy among the learners.
2. TV commercials present the natural way that locals speak the target language. In my Tagalog classes, I capitalize on the availability of Filipino TV commercials that naturally present how Tagalog is spoken by native speakers. Aside from learning the correct pronunciations and the specific types of sounds to produce in a conversation, students also learn about gestures and other linguistic nuances that support negotiation of meaning.
The Filipino TV commercial for a fast food company titled “Vow” is my personal favorite because it easily captures students’ attention, especially when the unexpected twists and turns in the story line begin to unfold. The learners are also exposed to how present-day speakers of Tagalog use the language in everyday conversation, such as small talk and other congenial discussions.
Downloadable commercials also provide subtitles or translations to scaffold learners in understanding the meaning or context.
3. TV commercials can be a source of entertainment. Humor and entertainment value are the criteria that set a good TV commercial apart from the rest. In world language learning, students find it entertaining to watch TV commercials that tickle their imagination or touch their curiosity, such as this Japanese TV commercial for a beauty spa. Apart from the natural use of the Japanese language, the unexpected turn of events makes this material very engaging and a source of humorous relief. Humor is a useful pedagogical tool that can relax the atmosphere in language classes, especially in world language classrooms.
4. TV commercials often touch on the notional and functional nature of language learning. It’s helpful for students to learn a language by performing communicative activities (functions) while practicing language structures that highlight certain situations and ideas (notions). Many TV commercials spoken in world languages are structured around real-life situations where people communicate with one another.
I found this Italian commercial for Fiat very notional-functional for world language teaching. The woman featured in the commercial screams for help in Italian when her bag is snatched by two guys riding a motorcycle. For world language learners, or anyone, this can happen in real life, especially when they visit a foreign country that they may not know very well.
Listening to how people react and communicate in different situations enables learners to mimic and notice how communication occurs and thrives when people are confronted with real-life circumstances. Other examples of notional-functional scenarios include someone at the airport trying to figure out how to get to their hotel or trying to get to a museum by asking locals for directions in the target language.
5. TV commercials can inspire interactive assessment activities. The beauty behind TV commercials in the target language is that they can also be resources for endless interactive assessment activities. For instance, in our Tagalog class, I let students watch a Filipino TV commercial titled “Date,” which is about the death of a father and how the son steps up to make his mother happy on Valentine’s Day. I asked learners to put themselves in the child’s shoes and had them answer the hypothetical question in Tagalog, “If I were the little boy in the commercial, what else should I have done to make my mother even happier?” Students shared their answers using the simple Tagalog sentence patterns they learned in class.
Another interactive assessment activity is to let the students create a different ending to the commercial by reenacting important scenes. This can provide a more authentic way for learners to practice how to use the target language.
Just as with any other language resource, teachers should be careful when using TV commercials as teaching tools. With learners who are minors, choose TV commercials that have universal themes and are generally wholesome. Be sure to provide enough guidance and supplementation, especially when the commercials get a little sensitive and context specific. The teacher should always be prepared to explain things and remind students why they’re watching the featured TV commercial.