The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Do we 'watch TV' anymore?

Recently I've been working on updating some ELT materials for a new edition. One aspect of that is checking for anything that looks dated. It's a process I've gone through many times, especially in my work on dictionaries over the past 20 years. I remember changing examples that talked about records and cassettes to CDs, and videos became DVDs. But now we live in an age of digital media, those simple substitutions have become more difficult to make.  It seems we've shifted away from talking about the medium to focusing instead on the content.

What we watch is a particularly tricky case. For years and years, students have learnt the collocation watch TV from a very early level. It's a stalwart of many a lower level coursebook unit. But in the last few years, I've started to question whether younger people, in particular, really watch TV or more to the point, talk about watching TV. The viewing habits of the contemporary teen might include all kinds of content including feature-length films, drama series split into episodes and seasons, boxsets, YouTube-style videos from professional vloggers or user-generated content on the likes of TikTok. Some of that might be viewed on the family TV, but a lot is on laptops, tablets or phones. Which specific device you watch on though has become secondary to the type of content.

All of which makes it difficult to decide what collocations to teach when it comes to talking about what we watch. Looking back at the original BNC (British National Corpus) compiled back in the 1980s and 90s, the options were pretty straightforward. But if we scroll forward to look at the Timestamped JSI web corpus* that covers the period 2014-2019, we see much more diversity and, I think, much more focus on the specific content:

Photo credit: Chris Panas @ Unsplash

The corpus nerds among you may have spotted that this isn't quite a like-for-like comparison - the BNC was a British-only corpus drawn from a range of sources, whereas the JSI is an international web corpus. So do Brits really now talk about movies and shows and have they stopped watching telly? A quick look at the new Spoken BNC (2012-2016) seems to say yes and no: movies are quite common, but we probably refer to programmes rather than shows and reassuringly, telly is still a thing.

So how does all this translate into what we teach? Should we stop teaching watch TV altogether? Or do we perhaps just need to add a few new options for students to gradually expand their repertoire? Personally, I think we do still, for the moment at least, talk about watching TV, both in terms of those groups (by age or location) who still watch conventional television and also just as a generic term. But there's also lots of scope for opening up to other more specific subjects and there are lots of options above which I think we could easily teach; watch a video/show/film/episode of … etc.

Slightly more problematic for the ELT writer is the set of collocations just creeping in at the bottom of the list above, i.e. specific brand names such as Netflix. In all kinds of areas of life, brand names are becoming part of our vocabulary not just as names (I watched x on Netflix), but as verbs too. We've been googling things for years now, but increasingly we Whatsapp someone, we Skype them or at the moment, we Zoom them, we instagram a photo (if it's instagrammable), we Netflix it (or Netflix and chill in a certain kind of context!) and certainly in my house, we often iplayer something. Brand names though are a bit of a legal minefield for published materials (their owners often being touchy about their usage). What's more, in a global ELT market, they vary a lot from country to country and, of course, they can date very quickly as brands come and go. In terms of watching content, we can talk generically about streaming services, platforms or apps. Of course, we don't say in everyday conversation "I watch streaming services", but perhaps they're useful terms for students at higher levels for more formal essay writing - "People increasingly watch shows via streaming services when it suits them."

So sadly, there isn't an easy update for watch TV, but I think, actually, this new vocab opens up some interesting possibilities for materials writers to come up with new riffs on an old theme.

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