Sprechen Zee TV – Entertainment Learning Via Foreign Television

“Mein Hund möchte eine Schinkenrolle bitte.”* While I’m sure common phrases uttered in Austrian crime series Inspector Rex may not have helped me navigate the Viennese transport system, they did at least prime my ears to understand when to get off for the “Volksoper”. Watching non-English speaking television has benefits beyond mere entertainment. As multicultural TV channel SBS says, to ‘be a citizen of the world’ means making an effort, and for those of us who cringe at the idea of language classes or car radio cassettes in rush-hour, plain old television osmosis-learning is a fun way to gain entrée into faraway lands.

Spechen Zee TVEvery day, Australians watch an average of 3 hours 7 minutes of TV, but few of us watch non-English speaking/foreign need-to-read-that-yellow-text kind of entertainment as shown by SBS, who in 2007 ratings, had a market share of 5.5% . SBS broadcast more than half their programs in over 60 non-English languages and have more than 400 international and local program sources including dramas and comedies from countries such as Denmark, Austria, Italy, and Russia. Some notable shows include the crime/drama series of Unit One from Denmark, which won an Emmy in 2002, the Austrian crime series Inspector Rex, with a team of detectives and their sleuthing German Shepherd, and the Italian ladies of romantic drama Shopgirls.

So in all those hours of plasmatic light or cathode rays with noise blaring from endless Harvey Norman ads, why should one flick the switch over to a foreign TV show for entertainment? Surely the effort of having to READ is just too much after a day at work. Au contraire, the reading bit is easy. And there are so many more benefits of watching foreign television that won’t happen with another Friends re-run, which is just a saga of who will hook up with whom and in the end maybe Phoebe and Joey should have too just to give us that snuggly feeling.

**What is good TV anyway?

The contented sighs one might have when protagonists finally “get it on” are a sign that TV had an effect beyond a mere advertising medium. The ingredients for a good TV show have the aim of tasting good; of entertaining you. To hold audience attention, a TV show must have certain essential ingredients: a good script, good acting and believable characters. You know, those shows that make you believe “Hey it’s Rachel!” Rather than “Hey, it’s Jennifer Aniston who married then divorced Brad Pitt and had a string of mediocre romantic comedies.” Character not celebrity. Good TV ingredients can be sprinkled among many cuisines with varying degrees of taste, whether it be the Aussie barbie of Neighbours, the British beef wellington of The Bill, or the foreign fricassee of shows on SBS.

**Why bother to learn another language?

So what, you reckon TV is only for having a few laughs or drooling over the latest in it-girls and spunky boys, why bother learning more words in some other language? People sprechen zee English pretty much everywhere these days. This may be so, but the natives appreciate any effort foreigners make to learn the lingo, or at least try to pronounce the words. Imagine the oft-reported scenario of French waiters cocking their head in mock confusion over your rounded ays and arrs of hybridised “le water glug-glug le please”. Until they realise you’re from Australia and then that the bottle of six Euro water is proffered to thirsted tongues. The renowned arrogance of the English and Americans of refusing to even say please – even in English – have hardened the garcons and gaullish gals to defend their language behind a protective sheet of fillo pastry.

The easiest of the languages to pick up casually from TV are the European ones, as they don’t rely on tonal variations or squiggly writing.

But what does learning a language really mean? There’s writing, speaking and listening – for sure watching foreign TV you won’t learn how to write the little umlauts and cedillas and which way the thingee goes over the e, but the most important element of languages is being about to speak and understand.

So, when in Rome as they say…

**Learn to Speak and Pronounce

And in Rome you may be, but reading out words from a language dictionary sounds like Dame Edna trying to sing the Marseillaise. So there’s the first benefit learning another language – charming the natives so you won’t end up with overcooked snails thrown petanque style at your backpack.

No doubt the community class German tutor I had went home to a bottle of schnapps to dull the pain of two hours of cringeworthy ocker-isation of his language. “Vass ohben in douitzland see fet swyne mitt hunndden alls swestern ist” – which, if you could be understood by confused Berliners – would earn a mighty slap with some of their bratwurst and perhaps a jail sentence (what’s up in Germany you fat pigs with dogs as sisters). Do you think someone would serve you at Oktoberfest with that accent? Kein Malzbier for du. So that’s why, while sitting on the couch having a laugh, or biting your nails in suspense, your brain is picking up on the tongue-twisting utterances of another land. You hear what is right, and that safeguards against embarrassing faux pas. Just imagine “What would Moser from Inspector Rex say right now.” If you’re pretending to be Inspector Rex himself, the rest is easy. Woof will suffice.

**Learn to listen at real pace

Hearing the natural conversations of native speakers also helps to comprehend a language – those cringe-worthy classroom read-alouds stumble on cedillas and circumnavigate through ^ circumflex thingees. The real world is fast and full of slang that would never mention “baladeurs” in the age of iPods – so don’t bother with your high school language tapes, which were dumbed down for hormonally impaired students anyway. Listening to another language from natives accustoms you to the express train pace of colloquial speech; helpful for those frazzled moments at ticket booths and checkouts.

**Learn about culture

So, you can sprechen and you can comprende, but the most useful element of foreign TV is the visual element, sort of like looking up swear words in the dictionary at home because they’re not in the study curriculum. Foreign TV gives a backdoor tour that travel brochures photoshopped to paradise perfection won’t show. For example, one could surmise that the Viennese police all drive the latest in Audis or Alfa Romeos, generally live on a diet of ham rolls, and mental patients are treated with the civility of English Lords. And that in Denmark, murders are freaky, everywhere is within one hours’ drive of Copenhagen and interrogating prisoners without a lawyer is no worries as long as you cloud the cramped room with a fog of cigarette smoke. How true this is to real life, I am yet to find out, but watching the landscape used in the show makes me want to go there. Yes, most of the time Denmark looks dreary, windy, and cold, but the homes are exquisite, the streets look clean and they eat danishes, albeit not the ones we’re used to. Every episode of Inspector Rex is a travel spruik for Vienna, even the one in the sewers (typical Austrians, one could eat a schnitzel of those floors). So strong was the love of Inspector Rex that I diverted part of a holiday for four days in Vienna, to have a Rex experience. The hours of dogged detective work helped me to know where the public transport went, that “Prater” fun park was quietest on Mondays and that ham rolls could be found as easily as beer at an Oktoberfest. There’s even an Inspector Rex tour, with your own German Shepherd escort. Watching foreign television also gives a hint at what white-teethed preppy travel hosts won’t show you; the drug scene, the dodgy areas, the racial tensions and role expectations. Stilettos not sneakers while shopping, as shown in the Italian series Shopgirls, which illustrates a point that European women make an effort to look fabulous even when buying milk.

Remember though that even European ladies might succumb to ugh boots in winter, so it’s worthwhile to keep a sceptical raised eyebrow. Sort of like questioning American TV shows and how a chef and a waitress could afford a massive New York apartment, or that all lifeguards have minimum double D buoyancy devices or six-pack washboard stomachs.

The couch potato lifestyle can be pommes frites fabulous by watching foreign TV shows – the sights, sounds and speech will filter into your brain and itch your credit card to rack up some frequent flyer points. So beam that TV remote to foreign television to become a citizen of the world and learn that yes, you can buy ham rolls for dogs in Vienna.

*Note: I fully admit that any foreign language in this article is most likely grammatically incorrect, but hey, at least I gave it a go.


SBS FAQ, 2002, SBS, http://www20.sbs.com.au/sbscorporate/index.php?id=380

List of Australian television ratings for 2007, 2007, Wikipedia,, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Australian_television_ratings_for_2007

Bob Peters, Free-to-air television: Trends and issues, 2005, Australian Film Commission, http://www.afc.gov.au/gtp/wftvanalysis.html

Adrienne Gross