Using Silent Films

Silent films are wonderful tools. They can be used in so many ways, providing a background for discussion and story development. It allows people to talk about what they see as opposed to what they hear, which just supports people in developing a larger range of communication.

Not all of us watch the same thing, whether it’s a film or a series, and take away the same message. We’re all analysing it differently, often according to our cultural knowledge and personal experiences. Silent films prompt this even more because it removes all of the dialogue. What story do you think is being told? What makes you think that?

When learning language—or even when exploring literature, we often focus on the written and spoken vocabulary of a text. This is fine, but it is also quite limiting. Without it, we get a wider range of learning to interpret meaning and narrative. Being able to understand gestures, facial expressions, physical distance between people, and so much more gives us an even wider vocabulary for expression.

But not everyone is going to see these things and see them in the same way. Sometimes where one person might see excitement, another might recognise it as anxiety. When one person might see happiness, another could understand it as hesitance. And this is really interesting because it lets us understand someone else and how they see the world, it builds our own internal vocabulary that enables us to interpret the world through many different lenses.

But they are useful just in the more obvious ways, where people can see something they recognise but might not know the name of and describe it. What if a student is watching something like the animated short Coin Operated, and they’re not really sure what to call the thing that the main character of the story wants to go for a ride in? They can easily tell someone that it’s a red children’s toy, that it’s like a rocking chair, or that it’s what people use to go to space. Everyone else around them can help provide different a range of alternatives, all of which would be correct: a rocket ship, an amusement ride, or a kiddie (kids’) ride. All of these feel different and give, to some extent, a new context for the language being learnt.

They’re useful for exactly the same reason that using a still image is helpful. Students can use the language that they’re learning and describe what they see. Instead of flooding them with a lot of language at once, it gives them a moment to understand something on their terms and then describe it in the their target language. It helps provide a relaxing environment where someone doesn’t feel overwhelmed or frustrated by something they haven’t yet learned.

Similarly, it’s a great skill to learn. Description of images and video helps build a more inclusive world, particularly for people with vision impairments like blindness. In learning to describe an image, you’re also building skills that can provide information for someone who can’t see it. You’re also learning to explain what you’re seeing, which can help someone who just doesn’t understand it because of cultural or community context.

It’s also just a lot of fun and a good relaxing time. So give it a try sometimes!