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Children Who Watch American Cartoons Learn to Speak American English Without Accent

There have always been students of English who were very good at pronunciation, and who could successfully adopt native accents. Occasionally, a young person who liked to listen to English music, watch American films and memorise lines from them could be encountered in classroom. The lack of foreign accent was usually contributed to their sense of hearing likened to musicality. Even as recently as fifteen years ago those students were nevertheless very rare, and they were usually the ones who spent at least a short period of time in an English-speaking country.

As a teacher of English and English literature at several Eastern European Universities, a few years ago I started noticing that there was an increasing number of students who not only spoke excellent English, but also spoke it with an almost pure American accent, including intonation. At first, I attributed this phenomenon to individual talent and interest in American movies and music, but two years ago I started conducting brief, informal interviews with those rare students, and found out they all grew up watching Cartoon Network. This seemed logical, after all, since the appearance of this phenomenon coincided with the appearance of that channel in most middle-class households with cable television in Eastern Europe.

This revelation gave me an idea to approach the idea in an organised manner and document my findings, so I made a questionnaire. Out of about 200 Vilnius University first-year students I had between 2013 and 2015, I chose nine who could fool any native American with their lack of foreign accent. Most of them have not even visited an English-language country. I had them fill out a questionnaire. Their answers confirmed my hypothesis. Even though the internet was cited as having a strong influence, especially after the age of twelve, watching American cartoons in the early childhood had the most decisive influence on the students' adoption of the impeccable American accent.

Most experts agree that foreign accent is lost in the native-speaking environment at an early age, before puberty. The results of this survey prove that watching and listening to cartoons, combined with limited usage, is enough for such effective language acquisition.

YOU CAN LEARN BEST WHILE STILL LITTLE

All linguists interested in the subject agree that the rate and success of second-language acquisition are strongly influenced by the age of the learner. Penfield and Roberts (1959), two of the pioneers in the field, argued that the optimal age for language acquisition falls within the first ten years of life. The well known Lenneberg "critical period hypothesis" (1967) also suggests that there is a biologically determined period of life when language can be acquired more easily. Most subsequent studies showed that the chance of children reaching a near-native pronunciation of English is highest until the age of six, very small after the age of 13, and probable between those two ages. During this period, the brain retains plasticity, and language acquisition, therefore, takes place much more easily. Several studies show that watching cartoons, along with classroom practices, can significantly help students learn English faster. Children during  this early age have integrative motivation that helps them learn and improve their listening and speaking skills. Cartoon-watching enables young people to acquire an affinity toward the English language and English-speaking people.

Why is cartoon-watching so effective in acquiring a foreign language? It was found that cartoons can engage the attention of learners, create a non-threatening atmosphere in presenting information and have the potential to encourage thinking process and discussion skills. One study concludes that the language learners exposed to cartoons can produce oral answers that are very productive and interesting. Children achieve high confidence in adopting the language due to the creation of low-affective atmosphere for learning. They prefer cartoons in language learning, since cartoons create an atmosphere that causes a high degree of motivation. On the basis of their research, the linguists argue that students who use cartoons can improve different language skills and achieve higher test scores. The dialogue of cartoons is characterised by sentences that are simple and complete, and repetition is used frequently. Children, therefore, learn significant number of words from the context of cartoons that they can use in real life. Moreover, by watching cartoons, students are highly stimulated to speak the target language.

THE SURVEY

So, I created a questionnaire, and gave it to students with native-like English proficiency. Those nine students not only demonstrated a perfect knowledge of the language in classroom, but spoke it with a spotless American pronunciation. During my interaction with them that lasted for either one or two semesters, beside their perfect or near-perfect employment of all levels of the language, they also showed a thorough orientation in all aspects of the American culture, even though they have never visited North America. The survey consisted of eight questions related to the usage of media in their English-language learning process, and especially to their watching of cartoons, with a special emphasis on a single channel, the Cartoon Network. 

After identifying the medium that helped them most in adopting English, they were asked to explain how they perceive the manner in which it helped them learn the language. Every student of a foreign language knows exactly what helped him/her most in the learning process, and the answer to this question is supposed to be indicative of the source on which I attempted to focus. The following set of questions was related specifically to Cartoon Network, the amount of time they spent watching it in childhood, and naming the specific cartoons they remember watching.

Out of the nine students who filled out the questionnaire, six cited cartoons as the single most important or one of the most important media that helped them learn English. One student specified role-playing video games, which use cartoons and force you to converse, and only two cited a different source as decisive in their learning process. One of those two students names English summer camps with native speakers she attended in her childhood as the most important, and the other indicates relevance and pervasiveness of the English language in everyday life. Both of them also indicate, nevertheless, that they watched Cartoon Network at least two hours a day. Other key sources for the acquisition of English mentioned are TV, movies, to which teenagers switch from cartoons, video games, and speaking with family members. When asked about the consumption of English in films, cartoons and the internet before the age of twelve, all eight students confirm cartoon-watching, while two exclude films and two exclude the internet.

Answering the question how using the English media helped them learn English, most students try to explain the influence cartoon-watching had on their learning process. One student writes, "I believe that films and cartoons help children learn the basics of English in an entertaining way, and later they can build their English skills on these foundations with more self-confidence in classes and public conversations. Also, hearing people speak in cartoons and films help to understand pronunciation." Another student mentions the lack of cartoons on TV in his native language, Lithuanian, and the abundance of English ones as the reason he watched American cartoons. So, it is safe to say that the appearance of all-cartoon channels on Lithuanian cable TV changed the manner and the intensity of children being exposed to English on a daily basis. Television in general, and especially cartoons, have a mesmerising effect on children, and they can keep even the most hyperactive child glued in front of a TV set for hours. So, channels such as Cartoon Network came as a babysitting relief for many busy or overwhelmed parents.

LONG HOURS IN FRONT OF TV

As Suggestopedia and certain scholars suggest, repetition is crucial in the learning process. A student explains: "As a kid I was constantly watching English cartoons and naturally I wanted to understand them better [...] The learning process was simple – watching old and new cartoons, I think re-watching old episodes was the most useful because I would try to understand the parts I haven’t understood the last time." The pervasiveness of American cartoons, and then movies and TV series formed a specific anglophile culture among teenagers fascinated with the American culture. "So without noticing, me and my friends would share English jokes more often than Lithuanian ones, or start using specific phrases or slang. I guess I had immersed myself into the culture more than my friends and eventually I developed an ear for the language", a first-year female Economics students testifies. One of the key factors is the fact that cartoons are created for young people at this stage of mental development, when they think visually rather than verbally. Another student explains: "The thing that helped me the most in the early stages of learning English was cartoons. The animated TV shows were always really visual. So for me as a kid it wasn’t hard to learn the words and associate them with real life things, considering that most of the time when the cartoon characters talked about a specific thing, they pointed to it and you could see what they were talking about on the TV screen."

When asked how many hours a day they spent watching Cartoon Network (or any other American cartoon channel), the answer varies from two to three hours a day (four students) to 5-6 hours or "half of afterschool activities." That means that all the interviewed students spent at least part of the afternoon and weekends watching cartoons, and some spent most of the afternoon consuming them. Other than Cartoon Network, two students mention watching Fox Kids, another American mostly-cartoon cable channel present in Lithuania since the early 2000s. Of the 35 different cartoons students remember watching, they mention Powerpuff Girls most often (6 students), then Ed, Edd n Eddy (5 students), Dexter's Laboratory, Courage the Cowardly Dog and Ben 10 (4 students) and Tom and Jerry, Scooby Doo, the Flintstones, Johnny Bravo (3 students). The rest of the cartoons cited received less than three mentions. In general, all of these cartoons are modern-looking, fast-moving, graphic 2D animations with quite a bit of violence, exaggerated action and slapstick humour popular in American comedies. The action-packed, colourful cartoons are bound to grab attention and fascinate young viewers. The language is full of easy-to-memorise, clichéd, conventional phrases and adolescent slang.

Now when most of them have turned 20, students use written English mainly on social networks and forum discussions, and spoken when playing video games and on Skype, talking to their English-speaking friends. English is the international internet language, and students spent a lot of time online, displaying a distinct, pervasive addiction to the most popular contemporary medium. Whereas cartoons developed their listening and speaking skills and shaped their pronunciation in early childhood, social networks, video games and the internet in general are now helping them refine their reading and writing skills. With their tablets and smart phones, the new generation is now even more exposed to cartoons and other programs for children.

CONCLUSION

Lithuanian, as well as other non-English speaking European children, have been increasingly exposed to American cartoons for the past two decades or so. As a result, there is an increasing number of children who not only speak excellent English, but also speak it with an American accent. English has become omnipresent. One student who filled out the questionnaire used in this survey writes about the single most important factor in his adoption of the English language: "I think the relevance of the English language played the main role in my learning process. The relevance, in the sense that it surrounds virtually everyone and everywhere in our time." Children do not only become aware of the importance of English at an early age, they come to like it. One of the main vehicles in the process of capturing the fancy of young people is the presence and the exposure to American cartoons, attention-grabbing, humorous animations that create a low-affective and non-threatening atmosphere in the learning process. Even before benefiting from classroom foreign-language studies, movies or the internet, children learn English from cartoons, and the level of their successful adoption of the language seems directly related to the number of hours they spend watching them. Commensurate with the studies on the age most suited for second-language acquisition, the study on the correspondence between cartoon-watching and the rate of their consumption contributes to the finding that cartoon-watching successfully improves both listening and speaking skills in children, while propagating American culture and values at the same time.

No one can replace parents in upbringing children. Watching too much TV, especially cartoons with violence in them, cannot be a good influence on young children. One cannot deny, however, the huge effect they have on learning the language. If your children watch American cartoons, they will soon start speaking like some of the cartoon characters in them.

Svetozar Postic

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