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A case for cartoons

"Willst du die suchen gehen, Leo?" I called out to the kitchen walls. Two seconds later a disembodied voice from the tablet echoed my question. "I'm getting good at this," I thought with a smug smile.

While I was up to my elbows in greasy suds, my 15-month-old sat enjoying his cartoon at the kitchen table. Having seen, or at least heard, each episode three times, I wasn't surprised I could anticipate the next line. This screen time is completely justifiable, by the way. I play the German version, so, thanks to Covid-19, it is currently one of the only sources of German my son is exposed to regularly. Also it, you know, provides some much needed quiet time. 

But there's more to cartoons than meets the eye. They've turned out to be a helpful little study aid for me. In fact, I believe cartoons aimed at very small children can be great learning tools for adult learners. Here's why: the sentences are short and uncomplicated, the meaning is generally very clear from the context provided by the images and the intonation the characters use, and the same words and phrases tend to be repeated within episodes and from one to the next. What's more, the long pauses give you time to repeat words and sentences, so you can try out new phrases for yourself. Children's cartoons are listening and speaking practice rolled into one with a helpful dollop of grammar and vocab on the side. 

What I'm now finding is that snatches of text pop randomly into my head long after the cartoon has ended, and I can change the verbs and nouns to create sentences of my own. But am I going to sit down with a notepad and a pencil when my son is asleep and study his cartoons? Probably not. The language isn't challenging and, let's face it, cartoons simply aren't entertaining enough. I'm really not that invested in what Leo will build next. But as long as they are on in the background, cartoons are helping me fine-tune my pronunciation, soak up some fixed expressions and reinforce (and question) my understanding of articles, separable verbs and sentence structure. 

6 ways to use cartoons to learn:

1. Choose one aimed at little kids - these tend to have less dialogue and limited language variety. Switch it on and just listen. See if you can understand what's happening with sound only. If not, try watching it, too, next time.

2. Repeat what you hear. Sure, it might be easy to understand, but how is your pronunciation? Does your voice go up and down in the same way as the characters' voices on the screen?

3. If there's a question, try to guess the answer before you hear it.

4. Play the role of a character. While you watch, ask the questions or give the responses.

5. Turn off the sound and try to narrate what you see happening on the screen.

6. Label everything you see in the cartoon. It can be quite a shock to realise how many words there are still left to learn!

*Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

Words from the text

Willst du die suchen gehen, Leo?   Do you want to go and look for them, Leo? 

smug    feeling pleased with yourself for something you have done (negative meaning)

suds    the foam or bubbles created by the cleaning product when you wash dishes

anticipate    expect (here it means 'guess')

justifiable    when there's a good reason for something 

there's more to sth than meets the eye    there is more than you think at first

intonation    part of pronunciation - changes you make to sounds (rise/fall) when you talk   

rolled into one    combined

dollop of    a small amount of soft food (like sauce or cream) that you eat with sth else 

snatches of    short parts of sentences or conversations

pop into my head    occur to me / I think of

fine-tune    to make small changes to (here it means 'perfect')

soak up    absorb 

to narrate   to tell the story


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