The rise of globalization, the widespread use of technical devices, such as computers and smartphones, and the emergence of the internet have undoubtedly changed the media landscape and transformed our way of communication in all sectors of life. Today, the internet serves as a source for information and allows people to communicate on various platforms. In addition, it not only allows easy access to written material, but has also made it possible to access audio and audio-visual media content such as music, movies, or TV series. As a result, the internet not only connects us to people from all over the world, but also brings international media content into our everyday life. By doing so, the internet has opened new ways to get into contact with other languages, particularly with the English language.

Since World War II, the English language has played a dominant role in the entertainment and media industry. The majority of the most famous music pieces, movies, TV productions, and books have been produced in the United States (and the United Kingdom) (Berns et al., 2007). In addition, the English language has also dominated the internet from the start: in 2001, it was estimated that 50% of the content online was in English (Berns et al., 2007). While other languages have since increased in frequency and importance, English still serves as the lingua franca for people from different corners of the world to communicate online (Web Technology Survey, 2020).

Despite this domination, authentic English-language media content was only sparsely accessible in some of the bigger European countries until the turn of the millennium: While music sung in English was already common on the radio, most foreign media content, such as movies or books, was usually translated before being released in countries such as Germany, France and Italy. As a result, most people in these countries only came into contact with the English language through music or while traveling abroad (Hasebrink et al., 1997; Hasebrink, 2001).

In recent years, however, modern technological equipment and the internet have increasingly allowed people easy access to a wide range of authentic international media content. In addition, people worldwide post, upload, interact and communicate in English on websites, blogs, message boards, and social media platforms (R. Ellis, 2008; Medrano, 2014; OECD 2001-01-01, 2001; Thorne & Black, 2007). All that is needed is internet access and a smartphone/computer. This creates new opportunities for contact with the English language for non-English speaking countries, such as Germany and Switzerland.

Such a voluntary and informal form of contact can be distinguished from language contact motivated or initiated by the educational system (e.g., in-class instructions, homework) and is most likely strongly defined by an appreciation for the media content or a desire to communicate with others, rather than by the goal to learn the language (Sundqvist, 2009a, 2009b, 2011). The Swedish researcher Pia Sundqvist calls this extramural contact (Sundqvist, 2009a).

Media Studies from Germany and Switzerland could already show that young people have regular contact with the internet and a variety of media channels (Medienpädagogischer Forschungsbund Südwest [MPFS], 2017; Waller et al., 2016), yet there has been only limited empirical evidence on if and how much young people might engage in media-related extramural English contact through these channels. The first research question for the present study was, therefore:

  1. 1)

    Which forms and frequencies of media-related extramural English contacts do German and Swiss adolescents have?

Even though the use of technological devices has become more widespread in society and international media content more accessible, research has also repeatedly shown the existence of social disparities in technology use and media preferences. Drawing on Bourdieu’s theory of class distinction and social habitus, it can be argued that the socio-economic background shapes the cultural and monetary conditions under which people are socialized. These conditions, in turn, influence people’s aesthetic taste and preferences, creating a system of long-lasting dispositions, including their taste for aesthetic products, such as music, art, and movies. Thus, media preferences might be shaped by a person’s class-specific media habitus (Biermann, 2009, 2013; Bourdieu, 1979, 1983, 1987, 2001 [1966]). At the same time, media habits and preferences most likely also serve as a way of producing and reproducing one’s gender identity (doing gender) (Straub, 2006; West & Zimmerman, 1987). As a result, media use should not be investigated outside of the social norms and patterns it is embedded in.

While there is a growing body of research concerning the effect of socio-economic background and gender on the use of media content in general, there is little empirical research concerning the use of media-related extramural English contact in Germany and Switzerland and these two social factors. The present study aims to help close this research gap. The second research question is, therefore:

  1. 2)

    How do socio-economic background and gender influence the pattern and frequency of media-related extramural English contacts?

The lack of research concerning the frequency of media-related extramural English contacts in German-speaking countries is surprising, given the importance of the English language as a lingua franca in politics, economics, and science. As a result, English competences are an important form of transnational human capital in a modern globalized world (Carlson et al., 2014, 2016; Medrano, 2014). For most residents in Germany and Switzerland, English is a foreign language, i.e., a language that is not the official language in their country of residence, nor a mother tongue. As such, the first contact with English as a foreign language in both Germany and Switzerland is usually through formal classroom instruction within the educational system (Hasebrink et al., 1997; Olsson, 2016; Sundqvist, 2009a). Given the importance of the English language in todays world, increased attention has been paid to English as a foreign language (EFL) in the educational system in both countries.

In Germany, students are expected to reach B2 in English by the end of upper secondary education. More advanced students are even expected to reach level C1 (Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs in the Federal Republic of Germany [KMK], 2014). While Switzerland currently has no official standards for all cantons, students are usually expected to attain B2 in English in most cantons (Educational Department of Basel-Stadt [EDBS], 2017; Educational Department of Berne [EDB], 2017). To achieve these standards, both countries place great emphasis on a rich and compulsory English education, often starting in primary school. Thereby, most students in Germany and Switzerland have regular contact with English as a foreign language within the educational setting and continue their language studies until they graduate.

However, apart from these in-school learning opportunities, media-related contact with English as a foreign language might offer important additional language learning opportunities. Multiple empirical studies have found evidence for a positive relationship between media-related extramural English contacts and learners’ language competences in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands (e.g., Black, 2005; e.g.,Black, 2009; Kuppens, 2010; Olsson, 2011, 2016; Olsson & Sylvén, 2015; Piirainen-Marsh & Tainio, 2009; Sundqvist, 2008, 2009a, 2009b, 2011, 2012, 2013; Sundqvist & Sylvén, 2012a, 2012b, 2014; Sylvén, 2006, 2007, 2019; Sylvén & Sundqvist, 2012a, 2012b, 2015, 2017; Thorne, 2008; Thorne & Black, 2007; Thorne et al., 2009; Verspoor et al., 2011). According to these findings, a high level of authentic media input and the opportunity to interact with members of a language community in a natural setting can lead to informal, unplanned, and unprompted incidental learning processes. Learning benefits could be demonstrated for traditional media forms, such as reading books or watching movies, as well as for newer or online-based forms such as playing computer games or reading online content on blogs or fan fiction boards.

The third research question for the present dissertation is, therefore:

  1. 1)

    How do media-related extramural English contacts influence students’ English competences?

Of course, results from international studies, regarding the positive relationship of extramural English contacts and language learning, do not negate the importance and effectiveness of in-classroom instructions, which have long been proven to have a positive effect on language learning (e.g., d'Ydewalle, 2002; d'Ydewalle & van de Poel, 1999; R. Ellis, 1999). However, as there already is a substantial body of research dedicated to formal in-classroom instruction, the present study will not focus on this factor. For the same reason the study will therefore also not investigate educational media use, such as educational games or media content that teachers might introduce as homework or additional reading material. The study will also not focus on any other form of media content developed or adapted with the foreign language learner in mind. Instead, the study will focus on authentic media content in natural media settings.

At the same time, the results of this study might in turn have implications for the educational system and in-classroom instructions. As learners might engage in frequent out-of-school English contacts, the classroom might no longer be the only contact with EFL for young learners in Germany and Switzerland. This might lead to increasingly heterogeneous language backgrounds, as some students might have been exposed to highly specialized and advanced vocabulary and topics, while others might not. Understanding the challenges as well as the educational benefits from media-related extramural English contacts can therefore help teachers, and parents, to better navigate an increasingly heterogenous student body, as well as to integrate students’ individual interest in the curriculum and find ways to motivate students to engage in out-of-school language practice.

The present study is based on a sample of 2,847 upper secondary students in their penultimate year of baccalaureate school (Gymnasium) from Germany and the German-speaking part of Switzerland (hereinafter referred to as Switzerland). The study thus investigates the media-related extramural English contacts for German-speaking adolescents in two of the largest German-speaking populations. Differences between the two countries will be discussed where they are relevant.

It should be noted, however, that the sample is not representative of all adolescents in the two countries, since upper secondary education has traditionally been a highly selective educational track in both Germany and Switzerland, with the entrance being even more restrictive in Switzerland than in Germany (Keller et al., 2020).

The data was gathered as part of the project Measuring English Writing at Secondary Level (MEWS). The project was co-founded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) and the German Research Foundation (DFG). Data collection took place in 2016/2017. Students were tested on their reading, listening, and writing skills in a longitudinal design with two measurement points. In addition to the language assessment, students were given an extensive background questionnaire, including questions concerning their media-related extramural English contacts. Media categories ranged from more traditional media categories, such as books and television, to newer online-based activities, such as social media or gaming.

This book is organized in the following way: Chapter 2 will discuss the role of English as a dominant language within the entertainment industry and show how the media landscape in Germany and Switzerland has changed over the last few years and how this might lead to increased extramural contact with EFL. Chapter 3 will then discuss gender and socio-economic background as two important social factors, which might influence media-related extramural English contacts. Chapter 4 will introduce the concept of incidental language learning from extramural language contacts. Chapter 5 will give an overview of the dataset and the operationalization of key variables. The empirical findings are presented in Chapter 6. In the interest of readability, the empirical results have been divided into three parts, one for each research question. Section 6.1 will discuss findings related to the overall frequency of media-related extramural English contact among students and highlight differences between the countries. Section 6.2 will discuss the influence of gender and socio-economic background on those contacts. Section 6.3 will discuss the effect of these extramural contacts on students’ language competences and integrate them with the influence of gender and socio-economic background by employing structural equation modeling. Chapter 7 will summarize and discuss the results. Again, the discussion for the three research questions has been organized into separate subchapters. In addition, limitations of the present study and suggestions for future research will be discussed. Chapter 8 will conclude and summarize the present study.