Back in the day, I went over all ten seasons of Friends in English in the hope that watching TV would help me to learn this language.
Now, you might have concluded that the experiment went well. After all, by this point, I seem more or less fluent, right?
This 84-hours Friends-marathon was only a fraction of time I spent learning English. And watching TV wasn’t the only thing I did to get here. (Preparing for IELTS, moving to Canada and completing half of my university degree in this language were among many others).
But before you unsubscribe from Netflix, let’s take a minute to think whether watching TV can indeed help you to learn another language or whether it would become the biggest waste of time.
Can you learn a language by watching TV?
I remember watching The King’s Speech during one of my English classes in high school. Was it fun? Clearly, especially compared to what we usually did. Was it helpful? Hardly, considering that I didn’t understand 70% of the movie.
This single-time experience didn’t make me abandon the idea of learning a language by watching TV. Just the opposite: I came to believe that it can be a great way to improve your language proficiency… when you already are an advanced learner. However, trying it at home as a beginner is a linguistic analogy of committing suicide.
Don’t get me wrong. I love watching movies but there is a number of reasons why watching TV may impede language learning rather than propel it in any way, especially when you are a beginner.
Pros and cons of watching foreign language movies
According to Stephen Krashen, second language acquisition researcher from UCLA, we learn languages in one single way: by understanding what others say to say to us. For this understanding to occur, you must receive input that is just a bit beyond your current level. The more such comprehensible input you get, the faster you acquire the language.
Here is the logical conclusion, however. If the input you receive is not comprehensible, you are literally putting up roadblocks in your own way to fluency.
Now, let’s consider a typical good movie. Such films tend to have a complicated plotline, witty dialogs, and some good humor. The problem with all this is that a typical good movie is also the worst enemy of a language learner.
An average conversational speech rate is 150 words per minute. In cinema, however, dialogs tend to follow the pace of the movie. As the plot unfolds, the speech rate will accelerate or slow down reflecting the course of events. And in most cases, you won’t be able to catch up with it.
Then, there will be crazy accents. And if, as a learner of Spanish, you come across the Argentine accent, my condolences. Their /sh/, that appears in all unexpected places, will be the only thing you hear. The same goes for learners of French who stumble upon the Quebec accent.
As for humor, that’s a whole new ball game. Good humor is a reflexion of the culture. It often includes wordplay, extensive use of idiomatic expressions and other exemplars of sophisticated word use.
Now, if in 50% of cases you are still having trouble parsing a dialog line into separate words, humor may turn the whole enterprise into a complete disaster. And if your gut tells you that the movie is actually good and you’re missing out a lot simply by watching it in your target language, you’ll get frustrated and give up.
Amount of input
Finally, there’s an opportunity cost. With films, you receive 2 times less input compared to simultaneous reading, for example. So if you want to quickly improve your comprehension, I would actually prioritize books.
High speech rate, complex vocabulary, accents, and humor – all this blends into a cocktail I call a linguistic grenade. Taking it in may be a dangerous idea.
How watching TV can help you to learn a language?
With all my criticism of this method, I do try to maximize watching movies in my target language. However, I don’t expect that I’m going to learn a language by watching TV 24/7. What I look for is fun and exposure to high-frequency vocabulary.
First of all, I believe that language learning must be fun. And although I always choose interesting books and podcasts, I don’t always feel like reading or listening. There are days when all I want is to dump a family pack of Lays in my face and organize a mini version of the Toronto Film Festival in my bedroom. At these days, Netflix with its original content in 20+ languages is my dearest friend.
Second, watching movies does help to pick up high-frequency vocabulary. I still remember a handful of Japanese words (like arigato gozaimasu) from nights spent binge-watching The Blue Exorcist (and I never even started learning Japanese). Similarly, you have a great chance to pick up certain traditions and cultural habits, like how to greet or address people older than you. As human beings, we learn by imitation very well, so watching TV can help you to crack the culture code.
Be careful with that, though. One of the first phrases I picked up after watching several episodes of La Casa De Papel in Spanish was ¿Qué coño? because it had probably the highest distribution all over the season. Very useful, if you know what I mean.
I won’t claim that you can fully learn a language by watching TV. However, I do believe that it provides the most authentic cultural experience you can only get without crossing national borders.
Now, let’s examine how we can maximize the benefits of such TV immersion.
How to learn a language by watching TV: 2 methods
There are two ways to take the maximum advantage of your Netflix binge-watching sessions. Depending on your energy (and language proficiency) level, one can be more effective than another.
Method 1: Nostalgic passive watching
Over the past few years, I watched Fight Club more times than I’m ready to admit. Although some people can’t even stand a thought of watching the same movie twice, most of us can name at least several films we have seen like 10 times.
The good thing about such movies is that we learned the dialogs almost by heart. Plus, at any time, we know exactly what’s going to happen the next minute. And you’d perfectly follow the plot, even if an evil leprechaun played a joke on you and cut off the soundtrack. All this makes such movies a perfect source of comprehensible input – and entertainment.
So if you don’t feel ready for great deeds, here’s your plan of actions:
- Go to Amazon Prime Video and rent your favorite movie
- Select your target language as the language of the movie
- Set up subtitles – also in your target language
- Enjoy the show, while receiving the fully-fledged double input.
Will it be tough? No. You can even slip into the passive watching mode. Your brain will automatically learn new vocabulary even if you don’t make an active effort to understand the movie.
This method can help you to learn a language by watching TV but, of course, it has its limitations. The first and the most important is the number of movies you actually watched multiple times. “Passive watching” won’t do you any good with new films.
Method 2: Active scrutinizing
Here, you abandon your incidental learning “cruise control” and switch back to manual: deliberate learning.
A word of warning: what I am proposing here is not quite what you would ever call “watching a movie”.
This method doesn’t include passive watching of Taxi 4 in French with a bag of popcorn in your hands. Instead, you have to actively engage with the movie: pause it, write down every new expression, and even repeat phrases after actors. Sounds like a lot of pain, huh?
It is a lot of pain. I avoided such practice literally for years, simply because it seemed like too much hassle. However, I changed my mind once I found a Chrome extension called Learning Languages With Netflix. This little thing makes the process of “studying a movie” unbelievably simple.
Learning Languages With Netflix
First of all, Netflix itself already has a good catalog of foreign language movies, so choosing one in your target language is rarely a problem. With Netflix, you can set up the original soundtrack and subtitles. The LLWN extension adds the second row of subtitles, so that you can read them both in your target- and first languages.
Is that it? No.
Learning Language With Netflix also automatically pauses the video after each phrase. So if you have trouble understanding where one sentence ends and another starts, your problem is solved. Once the video is paused, you have an option to replay the phrase or move on to the next one. And, obviously, you have all the time you need to write things down. No need to check the dictionary: remember that bilingual subtitles are on the screen at all times.
Yes, studying a movie takes time. A lot of time. You can literally spend half a day “watching” a single episode of White Collar. But if you want to learn a language by watching TV you have no other choice as to prioritize the “learning part”.
Watching TV to learn a language
In the perfect world, we would be able to upload languages to our brain the “Matrix-style”. Unfortunately, the reality is a little bit more complex, and plugging your hemispheres to Netflix Originals won’t make you fluent even years after.
It doesn’t mean that watching foreign language movies is a waste of time. Completely the opposite! Films can teach you culture, vocabulary, and pronunciation, but only if you are ready to learn and put your time into it. And, as with everything else in language learning, you shouldn’t rely on TV alone on your way to fluency.
Read things, space-learn new vocabulary, annoy natives from HelloTalk, listen to podcasts, watch movies… The only magic trick that can make you fluent is constant exposure to your target language. So make sure to get enough.
Image Credits: Photo by Charles 🇵🇭 on Unsplash