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Memes as Learning Material for the Language Learner

Memes as Learning Material for the Language Learner | ITTT | TEFL Blog

There are many tools a teacher of language can use to impart important aspects of the target language like grammar and vocabulary to their students. For example, writing keywords on the board from a text may be a useful way to highlight important words or key information for learners. Furthermore, worksheets can be particularly helpful with grammar exercises, allowing students a lot of repetition and free-hand practice with the language point.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Levi L. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Memes as a Tool

However, every tool has a varying degree of success, and even more so, has a varying degree of practical application. In this essay, an unusual ‘tool’ in particular will be examined to determine if its use merits classroom time. Specifically, the social media phenomena are known simply as “memes”--that is, the photos with funny or relatable captions often shared on the internet--will be examined within the lens of the language learner. In so doing, it may be found that memes are a worthwhile tool at a teacher’s (or even a student’s) disposal.

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What are Memes?

First and foremost, it should be recognized that ‘memes’ are very informal and often employ a lot of hidden grammar rules, slang vocabulary, and even at times cultural attitudes. However, therein lies their potential as language teaching tools. This is because there are particular meme formats that nearly anyone who has Facebook would recognize. An early example might be what is called the “Awkward penguin” meme, in which the caption describes a relatable faux pas with a photo of a penguin.

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Showing students an awkward penguin meme in the target language would, therefore, provide an interesting space for a learner, because assuming they recognize the meme format, they will already have an intuitive understanding of its context. This will allow a learning mind to use context clues to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words or particular grammar patterns. Furthermore, memes tend to have short captions, with most being a single sentence, perfect for quick analysis and group discussion.

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Who to Teach With Memes?

Memes have some obvious shortcomings, however, when it comes to teaching language in the classroom. The biggest being age group, as social media is much more popular among younger generations. This means younger to mid-age students will be much more likely to recognize and understand memes than older students, who may not be familiar with memes or their particular formats. Furthermore, memes shared on the internet do not always exhibit the best grammar or ideal vocabulary and could potentially impart some bad grammar or spelling habits to the students. Therefore, the teacher should focus on making their memes (following their regularly used format) with the appropriate or desired language.

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Useful or Not?

Based on the points covered above, memes prove to have some potential in regards to imparting language points like grammar or vocabulary. This is mainly due to their social prevalence, receptibility, and consistency in regards to particular meme formats. Therefore, memes should be something the modern language teacher uses occasionally in the classroom. For example, memes would be a perfect fit for almost any Engage-phase for a lesson, as they are often humorous or relatable, while also potentially conveying the desired language point.

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Another example of a useful application of memes could be a “Meme of the week”, in which a particular meme format is highlighted, shown in different iterations and analyzed for its structure throughout the week, with a weekly assignment where the students create their meme from that particular format and present them to the class.

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