The previous blog focused on a great time we had making a short film parodying James Bond to push a dry, corporate message about job competencies. The experience was personally enriching and got me really wondering if film could actually help folks learn. This blog will cover the topic of what we call ….
… The Language Effect
After the last blog, folks have shared stories that are quite interesting and connect to my experiences with film and learning. Take this story, for example, relayed by a fella named Ted Johnson that helps to emphasize the importance of language. Earlier in his career Ted had a unique opportunity to impress an influential European corporate leader. The U.S. based company that he worked for was acquired by a firm headquartered in Germany. The acquiring firm’s CEO, Herr Ferdinand von Meister, requested that an employee be granted a once in a lifetime chance to work closely with Ferdinand so he may gain an appreciation of what makes American employees tick, or as he said, “zick”. Von Meister told the HR leader that “zee preferred profile is someone who is an average employee, not a zuper star, not a high potential employee, not necessarily a strong performer, perhaps not even particularly bright.” Ted figured that he fit the profile because the following week he was on a flight to Germany for a six week gig. Mr. von Meister is quite brilliant, recognized as one of the top leaders in his industry, and speaks 4 languages, including English. However, before beginning the assignment, Ted discovered two important pieces of intel from his trusted co-worker Willy “The Weasel” Farina who tipped Ted off that Mr. von Meister prefers to speak German and actually prefers to be called Ferd. Ted’s a crafty little bugger, so, he decided to take a self-taught, computer based, German language course, to impress the new boss during his first meeting, by speaking a few basic German sentences. First impressions are critical in the business world. And if Ted had any hope of turning this gig into a full time European vacation/job, he’d need to strike early.
You Talkin’ to Me?
The computer based language course, offered by a firm called “You Talkin’ to Me? Language Learning” teaches simple to remember German phrases like, “please pass me your weinersnitchel”. Not terribly useful. However, the very first phrase that Ted decided to memorize was, “I like to take a long, hard ride on the large horse”. The phrase connected with Ted because he always imagined Germans riding horses in beautiful fields and through the Black Forest. And because the German word for “horse” is “pferd”, which is pronounced “Ferd”, the same as the CEO. “That’s cute”, Ted thought, “but not terribly relevant to the work world.” So, Ted skipped ahead to various chapters and was able to piece together a simple phrase, spoken with a severe German accent, “Hello Ferd, I am looking forward to working long and hard for you.”
Don’t say it… Do… Not… Say It!
The big first introduction to Ted’s new boss was rather formal. It took place in the Executive Conference Room, in front Ferdinand’s team of 12 senior vice presidents. Ferd walked up to Ted with his administrative assistant Heidi by his side, and Heidi said in English with a severe German accent, “Herr Johnson, I am pleased to introduce you to Herr von Meister.” Here was Ted’s moment to impress Ferd, his team, and the entire organization because he was sure word would spread like wildfire how this newly transferred American spoke German to Herr von Meister during their first introduction. Although not as big a moment as John F. Kennedy, in Berlin in 1962, capturing the hearts of millions of Germans when he spoke those famous words, “Ich bin ein Berliner!!” (I am a Berliner — or jelly donut depending on who you’re asking) but, Ted figured it would be pretty darn close.
Ferd put his hand out to Ted. His entire senior team was watching. The internal communications manager was there to capture the first introduction. Ted told me, “geez, I suddenly felt incredibly nervous. ‘Here goes,’ I thought to myself. So, I took a deep breath, firmly shook Herr von Meister’s hand, looked him square in his eyes, and said, “Ich mochte lange unt hard ein grosse Ferd reiten.” Ted unknowingly mixed up his words and ended up saying, in flawless German with a severe German accent, “I am looking forward to riding you long and hard, my large Ferd.” Ferd’s mouth dropped open. His senior vice presidents gasped. And Heidi’s knees weakened as she nearly fainted. There was a moment of deafening silence that seemed to last for hours. Herr von Meister broke the silence by saying in English with a severe German accent, “Ja, good luck, Zed and velcome aboard. I too am looking forward to riding you long and hard.” Needless to say, Ted’s six week assignment was not extended. However, a lot of thoughtful employees occasionally left carrots, apples and sugar cubes on his desk.
What’s the connection to film and learning?
It has to do with language and specifically mother tongue. A few years ago my team conducted a global experiment with 339 participants in ten cities around the world. The experiment used film to support an important message for groups of participants and no film for the same important message for other groups. The important message focused on a change curve reflecting ten emotions or steps that people tend to experience when experiencing change. The change curve was a central and recurring theme in the workshop. A PowerPoint slide showing the curve contained only fourteen words and listed the ten emotions or steps including: shock/denial, anger, fear, nostalgia, bargaining, choice/decision, curiosity, readjustment, commitment, and renewal. The NO FILM version of this session showed the ten emotions on a PowerPoint slide and facilitating a discussion about the emotions.
The FILM version included all that was discussed during the no film workshop, plus a quiz featuring ten film clips from popular films that were produced in the U.S. or Europe. Each clip represents one of the emotions or steps on the change curve. The workshops’ participants, divided into small groups of four to six individuals, were given approximately ten seconds to identify the emotion or step portrayed by each of the film clips. After the ten seconds, the name of the step or emotion that was being portrayed in the film clip appeared on the screen and, at the same time, the facilitator would orally state the answer to the clip. This choice in experiment design was inspired by Richard Mayer’s signaling effect, which is a part of Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning (CTML). The signaling effect occurs if parts of the pictorial material are highlighted at the same moments that they are referred to in the narration. Each film clip differed in length, running from thirty seconds to four minutes. The film genres included comedy, drama, romance, and action. The quality of the audio and visual of each clip was similar.
Immediately after the workshops, participants completed a quiz asking them to list, based on memory, the emotions on the change curve. Those who watched a film clip scored better than those who did not watch a film clip. However, particularly interesting is our findings when controlling for the effect of Asia and Europe versus North America. In every instance, the scores coming from Asia and Europe show a statistically significant difference (higher) score boost compared to Asia and European who DID NOT see film. Although there was an increase in score in North America when comparing film versus no film, the increase is much smaller than the increases in Asia and Europe.
What’s the Why?
My theory addressing the differences in scores is based on English as either a first or a second language. The difference in scores noticed in the change curve test is connected to English as a second language, as is the case with the Asian and European participants, versus English as the first or only language for the North American participants.
The first consideration is that the facilitators delivered the workshop speaking English, the PowerPoint slides were written in English, and the participants interacted with each other by speaking English. Receiving and processing the information was more natural and easier for the North American participants compared to the other groups.
Secondly, the change curve discussions were central to the workshop and received more attention than other important messages via storytelling and group exercises to reinforce the curve’s ten steps and emotions. The depth and quality of the discussions were identical among all groups.
Third, the abstract nature of the change curve discussion, compared to the leaders’ messages, made the change curve topic more difficult to grasp. In conclusion, the North American participants, who received the change curve information via their mother tongue, understood the change curve content well enough without the film clips. They did not need the film clips as much as the Asian and European groups to increase their understanding. Because English is not the first language for most of the Asian and European based participants, the use of the film clips increased their understanding of this abstract notion of a change curve, or had a greater effect compared to the North American participants.
Until the next blog when we cover the Leader Effect, I’d love to hear your thoughts or experiences with language or film. However, feel free to keep to yourself any stories of riding anyone or anything long and hard. Happy trails my friends, until we meet again….