Incidental learning through animated cartoons

A case study of intermediate Italian L2 learners

Stefano Maranzana, University of Arizona

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Today’s language teachers find increasing resources online, which allows access to a greater variety of authentic materials (Kern, 2014). For example, digital videos bring new possibilities for incidental learning and learner’ autonomy (Robin, 2011). While conscious attention is on the message delivered by the audiovisual, learners assimilate new words from context without intending to do so, stimulating incidental vocabulary learning (Carlisle, 2007). Videos’ inherent multimodality makes sensory information available in various semiotic codes, allowing the comprehension of information via separate channels (Guichon & McLornan, 2008).

This case study involves three students of advanced Italian at a large American University. It will argue in favor of video cartoons as a valuable tool to create a constructive environment for the acquisition of the L2 (Bahrani, 2014). Specifically, we will look at the award-winning British preschool cartoon Peppa Pig in its Italian version. The rationale for choosing this particular cartoon includes: 5 minutes of episode length, authentic interpersonal language and descriptive prose, slow pace of speech, familiar every-day and humorous stories, free online access and the possibility to activate captions. Furthermore, it is applicable to the 30 other languages in which the cartoon has been translated.

Conventionally, authentic materials are those that are created by native speakers for native speakers. While Peppa Pig is originally in English, the dubbing is rendered by Italian actors for the Italian audience, with a suitable speech rate for young children. Indeed, excessive rate of speech in authentic materials may be a setback for comprehension, whereas the ideal pace is estimated to be between 100 and 150 words per minute (Griffiths, 1992). Short narratives with simple plots and familiar themes are less demanding in terms of attention span and background knowledge than longer videos, such as movies (Robin, 2011). Furthermore, watching cartoons may promote a low affective filter environment considered conducive to learners’ motivation (Rule & Ague, 2005).

Feedback from university-level students confirms the potential of this particular cartoon and will be presented in this poster. Students reported strong motivation and improvement in areas like vocabulary, pragmatics and idiomatic expressions from contextual clues.

Stefano Maranzana

University of Arizona

26 thoughts on “Incidental learning through animated cartoons”

  1. Hi, Stefano!

    Great job!
    Yes, cartoons are a great source of learning!
    The challenge is finding the right cartoon, the right story!
    Thank you.
    Denise Osborne.

  2. Very interesting presentation. I am curious to know if you gave the students a brief introduction or had some form of discussion about the content of the video before the first showing. Would you think such an approach could increase incidental learning or shift it to intentional learning?

    Thank you,
    Wid Allehaiby
    Ph.D. Student in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching

    1. Hi Wid, thank you for the question. In the case of Peppa Pig, the stories are very self explanatory and simple. Therefore I didn’t find it necessary to give an introduction. I think it would spoil the experience.

  3. Great presentation! What did students need to do after watching the cartoons? Was there some type of comprehension activity? Vocabulary activity? If so, what did it entail?

  4. Thank you Silvia! I am trying to think at something better that would give me data for quantitative analysis, but what they did was watching and writing down words they didn’t know and could not understand and words they didn’t know but would infer from context. Then we would watch the episode a second time, with captions and after that we would discuss it. I would ask the students to give me some example of the new words or I gave the English equivalent of a word they didn’t understand.

  5. Excellent job, Stefano! Not many people think of how difficult it is to encounter authentic materials that are useful for lower and intermediate language learners. Most authentic materials are way beyond the level taught. You seem to have found a solution that is available in so many languages, is enjoyable, entertaining, and allows for semiosis to occur in an environment conducive to low affective filter and high interest. I can’t wait to see you develop this further! Side issue: I love this multimodal poster presentation!

  6. Hi Stefano,
    Excellent idea and rationale for its use. My question was whether you allowed or will allow in the future any choice in the genre of cartoon you choose. Having some buy-in in terms of opinion always helps.
    Great job!
    Good luck – I think you’ve got something for sure!

    1. Hi Christine,

      Of course, everything tends to get boring if overdone. But the problem with other cartoons is that often they speak faster and have “funny voices”. I have trouble understanding some cartoons in English myself. But one other alternative would certainly be Little Einsteins. They have an Italian version. But the episodes are longer than Peppa Pig.
      Thanks for the comment!

  7. Ciao Stefano! Excellent project and great presentation. After doing the activities in class did you notice improvements such as new vocabulary use or the use of phrases coming from Peppa pig? I think this is an excellent way to learn the language in a fun way! Grazie!

    1. Ciao Borbi, thank you for the comment! I wasn’t able to actually quantify the gain, this is something I would like to do next. But generally the students said that they would pick up new words easily from the context, and also find “real life” examples of grammatical constructions that they previously only found in the textbook and were not really sure how to use. Instead, through the cartoon, they found them simplified.
      Thank you!

  8. Great presentation, Stefano! Being that I have been exposed to Peppa Pig both in and out of the classroom, I can attest to its validity as a language-learning tool. The short episode length makes it easier to remember the content and specific vocabulary words. My favorite part, by far, is understanding the jokes! Thanks for sharing!
    Natalie Hannah

  9. Hi,

    I really liked your presentation. I was wondering whether you allowed the students to talk about the episodes after watching them in small groups. Also, if you did allow them to discuss the episodes in small discussions, did you allow them to have laptops so they could re-watch certain parts and look up terms online?



  10. Thank you Christian! No, I didn’t. The fact is that I tried to sneak this activity within a syllabus that does not include it, so I could not really spend too much time on it. But by all means what you suggest is interesting. A lot could be done in my opinion around this activity, like discuss the episode and re-watch and look up the terms online.
    Thank you for your comment!

  11. Hi Stefano, I really like how you capitalized on the affordances of the digital presentation format to seamlessly integrate clips from the cartoon and to include the voice of one of your students. Nicely done!

  12. This is great! I know I really enjoyed the videos, not only because of hearing actual conversations and learning new words but also because it was a nice break from reading the textbook or creating conjugation tables.

  13. When I was in your class and had watched Peppa Pig, I remember loving how much clearer the language seemed coming from the voice of a “child.” I completely agree with your statement of how this show empowers students. Not only did I learn new words, I also learned that I knew more Italian that I had thought. I am very excited to see where this goes. Maybe they might create an Italian wolf character in your honor!

  14. Thank you Ariella, for your feedback. It is a very good point the one that you realized you knew more Italian that you thought. Yes, they should definitely make a wolf character in my honor!!

  15. Hi Stefano! Very interesting presentation! You mention in your introduction that using digital videos/cartoons can promote incidental learning and learner autonomy. Many of your students commented on incidental learning, but where there also comments regarding learner autonomy and/or can you speak to that a little more?

    1. Hi Kristin, thank you for your comment. Students mentioned watching the show at home, on their own; not only that cartoon, but also they explored other cartoons and, while they were there, tried also other more “serious” videos. I believe that much of what it means learning a language comes from the learner’s efforts outside of class. Being able to spur interest and give a wide range of tools to the learner are, in my opinion, the principal roles of a language teacher.

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