Looking Back on Growing up with English through Media
By Tricia Okada
When people ask me how I learned English, I would catch myself saying, "I learned it watching Sesame Street." Growing up as a kid during the analog age without cable TV, I remember getting up early Saturday mornings just to watch the animation, Super Friends. It never occurred to me that I was naturally picking up English expressions when I mimicked my favorite characters. I also thought, that just like Maria who spoke both Spanish and English in Sesame Street, English-speaking people could have more than one language and code-switch.
Then Music Television, also known as MTV, was launched. My older siblings introduced me to all kinds of music, particularly New Wave, a genre of rock music in the late 1970s until the 1980s. We were listening to, singing, and watching videos of Duran Duran, The Police, and Culture Club, to name a few. At first, I did not know where they were from until I listened to their interviews and realized that I was not familiar with the varieties of English. This did not bother me at all because I was obviously into their music. Singing along to their music at any speed led me to listen attentively to the lyrics.
We did not grow up with just watching TV but were also encouraged to read. My mother has been a long-time subscriber of Reader’s Digest. While the cover page suggested that the contents only catered to adults, the wide range of topics from science, health, lifestyle to survival and inspiring stories were short and easy-to-read even for adolescents. There were sections for famous quotations, funny jokes with illustrations, and even a vocabulary quiz on English words. The old and new subscriptions of Reader’s Digest were just usually lying around our house, so we took turns reading them in our spare time and exchanged notes.
Watching movies at the theater was also a favorite family pastime. We watched popular movies such as E.T., Back to the Future, and Stand By Me. But one of the unforgettable films my parents took me to see was The Last Emperor. It was a beautifully-made historical film based on the autobiography of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. I was in awe of the production design and setting of the Forbidden City in Beijing. I was also intrigued to see actors on screen using varieties of English and code-switching.
Learning English came naturally because English was deeply rooted in our interests: film, music, and literature. Growing up as a child without Internet had made us more resourceful in pursuing our interests and making the most of what we had because everything took more time to obtain, unlike now when almost everything is just a click away. As a witness of the shift from analog to digital and the Internet revolution, I can say that it's possible to learn almost anything these days, while being wise about the information we choose to believe in.