American television rarely has much to teach us about language, but The Amazing Race is a surprising exception.
I don’t know about you, but in my circle of friends and acquaintances, one of the most common conversational salvos in recent years is to ask about the television programs you’ve watched or are currently watching. Part of this stems from the changing times: There was a moment in history, at least in the United States, when practically everyone watched the same television shows – partly due to a pre-cable TV situation where there were only a few channels to choose from – and thus universally shared experiences were common. When 106 million people watched the series finale of M*A*S*H in 1983, that was more than half the adult population of the country!
These days, the ‘nichefication’ of televisions means that there’s no program that could possibly pull in those kinds of numbers. The highest rated shows on the air today might grab 12 million viewers now and then – the difference is stark. So all this talk about the shows you’re watching is a way of finding common ground for small talk. And because I am a language translation worker, I always bring up The Amazing Race, because it’s one of the best shows on TV right now that really demonstrate the importance of language skills.
The Amazing Race
The Amazing Race is an example of ‘Reality TV,’ a program that doesn’t employ actors but rather redcruits ‘regular people’ and places them in extreme situations, filming how they respond. While a lot of Reality TV is rather crude and boring, The Amazing Race has one distinct advantage: The premise of the show is that teams of couples have to race around the world, following clues and engaging in challenges in order to win $1 million dollars. The ‘around the world’ aspect of the show places Americans in some situations that are very educational, and often point out the weakness that not speaking any foreign language can be.
One of the great things about The Amazing Race is how quickly the contestants find themselves in over their heads, and the frustrations tend to wear them down, and you get to see their real selves. In a recent episode, a contestant, frustrated and unable to communicate a destination to a cab driver in Shanghai and lacking any translation services, hissed the most remarkable statement of ignorance I’ve ever heard: ‘They don't even understand their own language!’
Let that sink in.
Lessons of TAR
My hope is that the millions of people who watch TAR on a regular basis are absorbing some of this and perhaps realizing that the world is largely filled with people who do not speak English and in fact have little or no motivation to learn. And that perhaps learning at least one language aside from English might be a smart and advantageous thing to do. That’s why I enjoy the show so much – it’s one of the few that question the natural hegemony of English.
Image courtesy fledglingwriter.blogspot.com