Can You Learn a Language by Watching TV? 10 Techniques, Resources and More!
There are many advantages to learning a new language, one of which is being able to watch a foreign language show or film in its truest natural form.
But did you know that you can actually learn the foreign language using said show or film?
Here’s a list of techniques and resources for improving language skills through movies and TV to get you started.
- 4 Benefits of Using TV Shows, Series and Films to Improve Language
- 4 Stages of Foreign Movies and TV Shows for Language Learners
- 10 Techniques to Learn a Language by Watching Movies and TV
- 1. Watch a Film All in One Go
- 2. Focus on high-frequency words
- 3. Watch Segment by Segment
- 4. Record and Repeat
- 5. Practice Speaking and Pronunciation
- 6. Write down what you hear
- 7. Watch something at your level
- 8. Make your pick based on genre
- 9. Watch with others
- 10. Plan out your watch-and-learn sessions
- Where to Find Foreign Language Movies and TV Series
4 Benefits of Using TV Shows, Series and Films to Improve Language
Do you know what the best thing about learning a language is—something you can’t necessarily say about learning almost anything else?
You can watch all the TV and movies you want and actually learn—no need to feel guilty anymore!
Let’s go over some of the fantastic advantages that your favorite entertainment can provide.
Highly diverse content
TV and movies have something for everyone, whether it’s drama, romance, soap operas, nature documentaries or the news. And all this can help you improve your language skills.
The diversity in narratives, genres and themes will allow you to learn a language from all kinds of angles!
Entertaining and engrossing
It’s what they’re meant to be, after all!
But in terms of learning, the fact that shows and movies can easily grip and maintain your attention means that your educational gains can be pretty substantial.
It’s common for learners to find the act of learning quite dry and uninvolved. This is particularly true when the sole learning resources are less interactive options, such as textbooks or worksheets.
But this won’t be much of a problem with audiovisual resources. You can easily be on a watching spree and improve your language skills without feeling as if you’re carrying out a chore!
Native speech is used
TV shows, series and movies are made for native speakers, so the language that’s used will mostly consist of the lingo used by real folks today.
There are some exceptions, of course—for example, if the content is dated and made decades ago, or if it’s historical or fantastical in genre.
Native and authentic speech is what you yourself want to learn and utilize, and most contemporary work will provide just that.
Context is provided
Some have suggested that, ideally, in order for it to be useful, we should be listening to material where we understand 90% of what’s said. But personally, I don’t think this is useful at all. We would just be reaffirming what we already know.
And what’s the use in that?
Think about medical dramas or action films:
Do you actually listen to all that medical and military spiel?
Or do you just look for context, feel content enough with that and carry on?
I’d say most of us do the second. It’s natural.
We work by context; we don’t need to know every single word. With 70% we get what’s going on. We feel comfortable because we know what’s happening and have time to pick up on a new language at the same time.
Can You Learn a Language by Watching TV? 10 Techniques, Resources and More!
Now, listen up.
The hard part is that a small amount of effort needs to be made to maximize learning potential, meaning you can’t plant your bottom on the couch, stare at the screen, switch off your brain and expect to instantly become a language expert.
Nor is it particularly useful to watch something where you understand only 10% of what’s going on.
That said, let’s talk about the four different stages of movies when it comes to foreign languages.
4 Stages of Foreign Movies and TV Shows for Language Learners
To keep easing yourself in, I recommend following these four stages of foreign movies and TV shows—starting at the top and working your way down as you progress through the language.
Kids’ TV and Films
Start by watching children’s shows.
Think about it, most children’s programs are educational and serve to teach children language and values. They provide simple language along with corresponding images, so it’s easy to understand.
So get in touch with your inner child, or if you have kids, you can sit down with them and watch a show together, like “Dora la Exploradora.“
Kids’ films also have a knack for appealing to older audiences.
Their narratives are often laded with messages that relate to anyone of any age, and that can make language learning all the easier. As an example, here’s a FluentU video showing how to learn Spanish with “Finding Nemo.”
Once you’re used to those, you can start watching light comedy.
American sitcoms and cartoons are great.
The most popular ones are all dubbed into many languages and can be used to great effect. They tend to use easy-to-understand slapstick humor where physical gestures and movement complement the language.
These include shows like “How I Met Your Mother,” “Modern Family,” “The Simpsons,” etc.
You can then move on to thrillers, horror and action series or films. Action films are plot-based and very visual, therefore they’ll often explain the main plot points at various times to make sure the audience is following.
Series such as “CSI” and “Missing,” which exist in their own formats in almost every country, often use familiar templates which follow the same pattern so you get a feel for what’s going on quickly.
When you’re ready to turn up the heat, drama and dark humor are perhaps the most difficult to understand for their use of puns and double-meaning or situation and culture-specific language.
Films and series (think “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire”) rooted in underground or minority cultures can also provide a great challenge, as the accents are thick and a lot of slang is used. They’re a great source of cultural knowledge and provide excellent practice with different accents.
10 Techniques to Learn a Language by Watching Movies and TV
Here are some additional techniques you can employ to maximize your screen time.
Now apply them to each stage!
1. Watch a Film All in One Go
This helps mostly with getting a “feel” for how a language sounds. This is, however, an important step that helps with your general understanding and also speaking and pronunciation.
The best advice someone once gave me was “do not panic.”
When you hear words you do not know, don’t go into panic mode—it will only block your brain’s ability to absorb anything.
So don’t try to understand every single word.
Instead, let your brain relax and let the words flow naturally into your ears. Slowly you’ll find yourself recognizing words. Focus on the images and what’s happening on screen—they can help you gain context.
If you do have a tendency to panic, it can be extremely helpful to watch that same episode or film dubbed or subtitled in your own language first. Then a few days later, watch it again in the original language. That way you know the story and you can relax better.
2. Focus on high-frequency words
Let’s be honest: it can be dreadfully easy to space out or “lose your place” when analyzing a foreign language in shows and movies.
A lot of things are happening all at once, so it’s not your fault if learning matters go astray.
In addition to letting your brain relax, you can hone in on the words you hear most frequently.
Because they occur most often, they’re the words you’ll have the easiest time remembering and learning in the storm of vocabulary happening within whatever you’re watching.
3. Watch Segment by Segment
There’s a bottomless gold pot of words and expressions contained in foreign films and TV series.
As a result, splitting an episode or film into small segments is the best way to focus on vocabulary and specific word sounds.
Watch an episode or film with the subtitles in the original language switched on. As before, relax and enjoy!
As you watch, jot down four or five short sections that you liked or that had some interesting dialogue.
Once you’ve finished, go back and focus on those sections.
Turn off the subtitles and let yourself relax into it the first time. Since you now know the context of the film, you may catch 40-50% of what’s going on, and increasingly more as you practice.
Watch it again, this time aiming to recognize more words or phrases.
Now turn on the subtitles in the original language and watch it again. Listen for what you missed the first two times. Write down any words or phrases you don’t know already. Look them up and put them in your vocabulary notebook.
Check out these great tips to memorize vocabulary, so you don’t forget all those new words you’ve learned!
Finally, turn off the subtitles and watch the segment again. Congratulate yourself on how much more you’re now understanding!
If you’re using a program like FluentU, it can many of these steps for you. FluentU, for instance, has already pre-chunked your content for you. It has short clips from movies and TV shows, trailers, cartoons and other authentic content.
As you watch videos on FluentU, you have the ability to check the meaning of any word in the subtitles, as well as add it to your flashcards. You can also turn on and off subtitles in your target language and in English, so you can focus on listening or reading along.
FluentU also paires each video and flashcard deck with quizzes that reinforce your vocabulary learning. There are 10 languages available on the program, so all you have to do is watch, learn, review and reap the benefits.
And of course, repeat this process with other segments.
4. Record and Repeat
If you’re feeling particularly productive, you can go one step further and use digital recording tools—such as Audacity—to record segments from TV shows or films.
With Audacity, switch to record directly from your computer’s built-in microphone, or simply press the record button on your smartphone, to record the segment. Then, you can play it back anytime—while driving in the car, cleaning or taking a shower.
Sometimes the hardest part of listening is recognizing where the splits are between each word. In the beginning, it sounds like one never-ending mash.
Audacity is very useful because you can save files in various formats and slow down recordings to really focus on recognizing sound combinations.
5. Practice Speaking and Pronunciation
Once you have your recording you can focus on imitating pronunciation.
Repeat the same words and then repeat the phrases, focusing on copying the word sounds.
“Word sounds” are combinations of sounds—how words sound when they’re put together—which isn’t necessarily word-by-word, nor phonetical. English is a great example of this:
“You’re amassing quite a fortune”
If we look at where we place the natural pauses and the sounds we make, it becomes something like:
You | ramassin | quai | ta | forchun
Once you’ve practiced repeating those phrases, you can record yourself and compare it to the original and repeat until you’re satisfied.
Repetition is the key, as always.
It took me a good few months of Mexican soap operas before I really got into the flow of the language, so don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t come at first. It will, and you’ll see and feel the result in your understanding.
6. Write down what you hear
Just because you’re watching something doesn’t mean you can’t work on your writing skills!
If there’s a particular speech segment that interests you, try to write it down in the foreign language. Focus on a relatively short piece of dialogue and dissect the text to the best of your ability.
Make sure to rewind and pause as often as you need! And, of course, try to avoid having subtitles on. You can compare your notes to official subtitles afterward to see how you did.
If you’re not too familiar with the written form of the language, then you can still try to write with English letters. You’ll still be working on your listening comprehension skills this way.
7. Watch something at your level
Earlier I mentioned the four “stages” of TV and films. It’s easy to get excited and immediately jump into your favorite films or shows to start your learning. However, start first with those that better fit your current skill level.
You don’t want to go too easy on yourself, but you do want something that’s just challenging enough to keep you engaged and attentive.
You want to flex your learner brain, but not get overwhelmed or frustrated because you can’t follow the content.
And even if you find yourself feeling at ease with the language used in a certain show or movie, don’t immediately progress to the next level!
Instead, search for and watch other content that would feature roughly the same level of language. You’d be surprised at how advanced language can sneak into material targeted at younger audiences!
As you improve, steadily advance to more difficult movies and shows.
8. Make your pick based on genre
You should also keep in mind that different genres can offer different language content.
If there’s a certain kind of language usage you’re looking to learn directly, then keep an eye on the genre before you make your show or movie pick.
A genre can give you a general idea of what kind of dialogue to expect.
A historical film, for example, would probably involve a lot of dated terminologies. A hospital drama would have a lot of medical vocabulary. A series about the lives of high school kids would focus on what youngsters would be chatting about.
Ultimately, some genres may not be helpful to your current learning purposes, so it’s fine to focus on others.
9. Watch with others
There’s no requirement that said you have to watch alone!
If you better enjoy watching movies and shows as a social activity, then find others who can join in. For many learners, interacting with others or having people around can enhance a learning experience.
Your optimal watch-buddies would be other fellow language learners.
Together, you can all share what you learn and ask each other questions. Of course, feel free to discuss the movie or show itself, whether it’s the compelling plot or intriguing cinematography.
If your friends or family are interested, let them join in! Just make sure that whoever you watch with won’t distract you from your real goal to learn.
10. Plan out your watch-and-learn sessions
It’s easy to plop onto the couch and start a film or show with the intention to learn a language. But it takes a bit more willpower to actually make your viewing into an educational experience, as whatever you watch can easily revert back into mindless entertainment.
To avoid this, choose a designated time to have your language-learning watch sessions and schedule them at a time you know you won’t be easily distracted.
You can also switch up your environment to aid your study efforts.
You can watch with a different device and take a seat someplace that won’t make you overly comfy and drowsy.
You can surround yourself with study material such as flashcards, a dictionary or notes.
Where to Find Foreign Language Movies and TV Series
Netflix and Amazon Prime
These are both fee-based online video streaming sites. You pay monthly and gain access to a huge library of films and TV series, though both offer a free trial.
Netflix offers subtitles in many languages on most movies, whereas Amazon Prime only offers English subtitles on foreign films.
If you haven’t already heard about TEDTalks as a language learner, you’ve been missing out on a gold mine!
Completely free, TEDTalks has over a thousand talks (5-20 minutes in length) from experts and well-known figures on their subject of interest or study—from design issues to philosophy and science.
You can search by language and topic, and choose to add subtitles in a huge number of languages. The transcript is also available in the original language and in the translation.
Don’t forget that there are many—especially older—movies or series available on YouTube.
Type in the name of the film or series, and if you want subtitles you can try to add that to the search box as well. For example, if I want to watch “The IT Crowd” with Italian subtitles I could try searching for “The IT Crowd sub ITA.”
Using YouTube is also great if your internet connection is too slow for other streaming sites.
Beeline TV provides a list of TV channels in many languages, even Uzbek TV! There’s also a wide selection of movies from all around the world. The service is conveniently available for most devices.
As the name suggests, Multilingual Books offers resources for text-based resources. However, it also provides a list of websites and links for watching videos, series and films in English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.
And finally, to watch TV shows or movies from the following foreign languages, here are some awesome guides for you:
- Chinese TV | Chinese movies
- French TV | French movies
- German TV | German movies
- Japanese TV | Japanese movies
- Spanish TV | Spanish movies
- Russian TV | Russian movies
- Italian TV | Italian movies
- Korean TV | Korean movies
This list of resources should be enough to get you started and boost your level quickly.
Learning with movies and TV can give clarity to the “white noise” of a foreign language. No more gibberish or non-sensical sounds!
If you’re ready to fast-forward your language skills, then grab your remote and start watching away!