How to teach Media Language

Every medium has its own ‘language’ – or combination of languages – that it uses to communicate meaning. Television, for example, uses verbal and written language as well as the languages of moving images and sound. We call these ‘languages’ because they use familiar codes and conventions that are generally understood. Particular kinds of music or camera angles may be used to signal particular emotions, for example; a page of a newspaper or a sequence of shots in a film will be put together using a certain kind of ‘grammar’. By analysing these languages, we can come to a better understanding of how media make meaning.

Examples for Students:

Example 1: Images in Advertising
Advertisers use images and graphic design to say what is unique and valuable about their product. For example, they use colours and lighting to create a mood; unusual camera angles to add drama; and typefaces to give a sense of style. The people in the ads are carefully dressed and posed in order to show how the product makes them more powerful, more sexy or more intelligent. Compare a selection of ads for a particular type of product. How do advertisers create the idea that the product is classic or modern, natural or hightech, sophisticated or down-to-earth?

Example 2: The Codes of TV News
TV news generally has very strict rules and conventions. The newsreaders are smartly dressed; they generally sit behind a desk, shot in medium close-up; they rarely show emotion; and they look straight into the camera - although nobody else is allowed to dothis. News begins with ‘serious’ stories, and ends with light-hearted ones; it often focuses on dramatic or unusual events; and it tends to show politicians and celebrities rather than ordinary people. Why do some things become ‘news’ and others do not? Why do news programmes all tend to look very similar?

Example 3: The Language of Editing
Film-makers take great care to select and combine shots in order to tell a story, and to create the effects they want. Most feature films use ‘continuity editing’, which has definite rules. For instance, when we see a shot of a character looking out of the frame, and then we cut to another shot of an object or a person, we automatically assume that this is what they are looking at. Many pop videos and some experimental films use montage editing, which combines shots to convey feelings and ideas. Watch a sequence of film and try to concentrate just on the editing. Is it fast or slow, smooth or jarring? How does it help to tell the story or create the mood?
Key Questions

Looking at media languages means looking at:

Meanings. How do media use different forms of language to convey ideas or meanings?

Conventions. How do these uses of language become familiar and generally accepted?

Codes. How are the grammatical ‘rules’ of media established? What happens when they are broken?

Genres. How do these conventions and codes operate in different types of media texts – such as news or horror?

Choices. What are the effects of choosing certain forms of language – such as a particular type of camera shot?

Combinations. How is meaning conveyed through the combination or sequencing of images, sounds or words?

Technologies. How do technologies affect the meanings that can be created?
Source: 2003 Center for Media Literacy Literacy for the 21st Century / Orientation & Overview
Source: Buckingham, David: Questioning the Media: A Guide for Students.