Teaching Zulu Language and Culture Through Film

Many studies show that film or “video has vast potential for enriching language study and making it more enjoyable and effective” (Wood 1992). My fall 2009 BLC Fellow’s project is a demonstration of how film can complement other materials used in class (especially the textbook) by tapping this resource. It involved cutting and preparing Zulu video clips from a feature film and developing from them exercises later used with my Beginning Zulu class. The goals were to improve listening comprehension, reinforce language and linguistic skills learned in class, develop interpretive skills in particular regarding cinematographic elements of film, and help students gain more cultural knowledge and experience.

The video clip project stemmed from the realization that listening skills and some topics are not adequately covered in materials used in class. The main textbook for the Beginning Zulu class, for instance, does not have any accompanying audio CD and was designed mainly for use at secondary school level. Although there is also an electronic book with some video clips used in class, it, too, does not have exercises accompanying the clips and its availability in the future is not guaranteed. Given this scenario it became clear that supplementary video materials with appropriate exercises could fill the gap. Video clips or film in general can, for example, provide a better understanding and experience of culture compared to the regular textbook as it clearly shows how people live, think, and behave. The regular textbook can provide the reader with a mental image that is generally not as complete as the audiovisual one provided by a film. Film can also be viewed as authentic speech as it make viewers feel as if they are in a real-life situation, experiencing the life and culture of the people portrayed in it.

The use of film or video in language teaching is theoretically sound in many respects. Since videos are generally eye-catching and cannot be ignored by students, many studies cite motivation of students as one of the most compelling reasons for exploiting them in the classroom (Wood 1990, 1995; Knee 2001; Sherman 2003). In fact Kirk’s (1992) survey of motivation suggests that movies encourage learners to study twice as much as ordinary texts. Moreover audiovisual materials are generally effective in teaching when used appropriately. Videos also offer, often simultaneously, “wide ranges of such features as: subject; language; communicative situation; imagination; and, culture” (Wood 1995: 14). As Knee (2001: 146) observes, video also offers multiple layers of meaning like literature and “can be employed to help students develop more advanced interpretation skill” Given this similarity with literature Knee further argues for reading film as film so that in teaching language attention can also be paid to formal technique, the cinematographic elements of film.

In many cases in the teaching of Foreign or Less Commonly Taught Languages such as Zulu the instructor is often the only or one of the few speakers of the language students can communicate with and video helps in exposing students to more authentic language communication. While “video movies may be just fiction dressed in reality” (Wood 1995: 14) they have the advantage in that “unlike real-life language situations which are uncontrollable and unrepeatable, videos can of course be replayed a limitless number of times—by the teacher in imaginative activity design, and by the student working independently at an individualized pace” (Wood 1995: 12). Although in many places there are now surveillance cameras that could provide footage for more authentic recordings, both the sound and picture quality cannot match that of the movie video.

Video clips can be used for in-class work or homework. When students have to complete the work within a very short period (especially timed) or when the instructor wants to ensure that all students do a given assignment, in-class work may be preferred. Giving video clip exercises as homework is particularly useful when it is important for each student to work at their own pace to go through and understand the materials. As Altiman (1989: 35) observes, when video is integrated into language teaching it is also important to generally reserve the classroom “for activities that require face-to-face contact …” and “avoid wasting valuable class time on work that can be done elsewhere.”

In supplementing a textbook, video clips can also be used to great effect in highlighting important points in the chapter such as language, grammar, or some aspect of culture. A video clip can also be used to introduce or conclude a chapter or topic. To provide some examples, the following is a brief discussion of how two Zulu video clips were used in class.

The first step was cutting the video clips from the feature film, Yesterday, currently the only one available entirely in Zulu but with English subtitles. Each video clip was given a title and had to be later prepared before use in classroom. The preparation involved ‘tagging’ and ‘annotating’ the clip. Useful details to each clip such as year portrayed, short comment about what goes on in the clip, vocabulary used in the clip, possible uses of the clip in teaching, and tags such as ‘female’, ‘rural’, ‘health’, etc., were added during the tagging process. Annotation involved adding to the clip questions that pop up at the right place while the clip is running as illustrated with the last of the seven questions in the clip attached to this article.

The questions were all in English and many of them were higher order ones, as students would not be answering them in the target language. A worksheet with questions in Zulu or requiring responses in Zulu was also prepared. The final step was ordering the clips for the class. The ordering had to be done through the BLC website at least an hour before the clip could be used. A link to the clip was sent to the instructor (myself) who then placed it on bSpace (the course management system) to enable in-class viewing or for students to view at home. Note that in ordering the clip the instructor chooses tags and annotations that come with the clip. For the two lessons most of tags were left out except for the title and year portrayed.

The clip “Beauty Goes to School” was used after going through the first two chapters of the main textbook of the class. The chapters cover mainly ‘greetings’ and ‘the store’ but with some reference to ‘the school’. The book does not have a chapter focusing on ‘the school’ and the clip was brought in to fill this gap. Pop-up questions in English served as an introduction to the lesson and many students were very eager to discuss cultural issues and compare the school shown on the clip to schools they attended. Filmic questions also drew interesting responses. Student then had to answer cloze and comprehension questions from the worksheet. In addition there were grammar question that also required knowledge of what had already been covered in class besides listening comprehension. That way grammar was dealt with as part of everyday speech and not in isolation. At the end the class reviewed the answers. This exercise was done well by students and generally not more than two students of eleven gave an incorrect answer for a given question. For other possible exercises and activities, see Kaiser (2009), Koshewa (1985), Stempleski (2001), Tsuta (1993), and Wood (1990).

The clip “Doing Laundry” was used at the end of the third chapter. It was introduced after the realization that the chapter focuses only on chores done in the kitchen and does not include other activities done at home, doing laundry being one of the important ones. The lesson was similar to the one already discussed in the first example but the questions, of course, were now different. For the most part this lesson also went well. The students were especially excited to explore cultural issues and life in the rural areas—many said they had never done their laundry in a river such as they were seeing on the video clip. However, there were a few questions on the worksheet that were done poorly by about half the class. It became necessary to find out what was wrong or unfair to the students about the questions. An example is one of the Zulu questions that could be translated as “Who is thinking?” In the clip the woman says to her daughter a number of times, “I am thinking (that)” and students had just learned to ask “who is/are?” in Zulu and they knew the word for ‘thinking’. Deliberately keeping the question simple must have confused some students as they realized that the daughter might be thinking too. Students should have been taught how to use the question “Who says…?” before this exercise. The question would then have been phrased appropriately as “Who says she is thinking?” While it’s essential to use language that students understand in asking a question, it is also important to think of what the possible responses might be. Sometimes even this might not be enough; actually getting feedback from student as they answer the question may be the best way of determining if it is reasonable or what needs to be done before it can be asked.

By developing and using exercises accompanying video clips I hope I have illustrated how a Zulu language class is enriched through feature film, the exercises themselves helping achieve various interpretive and language learning goals in addition to listening comprehension. The project helped improve my skills in phrasing questions and made the importance of student feedback in preparing appropriate questions for a given level very clear to me. More video clips with accompanying exercises from the same feature film and other movies are planned for the future. It is hoped that more video clips with exercises will be prepared for beginners. Later video clips with exercises for intermediate and advanced level should also be developed. Some clips may, of course, be reused with different levels but with appropriate questions for each level. With availability of more Zulu movies video clips may accompany each chapter or topic in the main textbook. Additional film clips will provide multiple clips that could be used for any topic, for example, contrasting an urban school with a rural one rather than showing just one school.

Altiman, Rick. 1989. The Video Connection: Integrating Video into Language Teaching. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Kaiser, Mark. 2009. Teaching with Film Clips. Presentation at the UC Consortium Summer Workshop: Teaching Language and Culture with Film. University of California, Berkeley.
Kirk, Daniel. 1992. Comparison of Student Responses to Source of Motivation. The Language Teacher 16(2), 23-25.
Knee, Adam. 2001. Feature Films in Language Teaching: Possibilities and Practical Problems. In Brauer, Gerd (ed.) Pedagogy of Language Learning in Higher Education: An Introduction. Westport: Ablex Publishing.
Koshewa, A. 1985. Film and Video Activities. JALT 12.
Sherman, Jane. 2003. Using Authentic Video in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stempleski, Susan and Barry Tomalin. 2001. Film. Oxford: Oxford University press.
Tsuta, S. 1993. Developing Authentic Video Materials. JACET 32.
Wood, David John. 1990. Video for Motivating Passive Students. JALT 16.
Wood, David John. 1992. Educational Video Materials. Kyushu LLA 25.
Wood, David John. 1993. Video Movies: Language and Culture in Action. JALT 19.
Wood, David John. 1995. Film Communication Theory and Practice in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press.