No plane ticket? No problem!
All the cool kids are learning French with video immersion.
Watching a variety of French-language videos is a guaranteed way to nourish your brain’s language center and learn French fast.
Want to start French video learning with an intensive, streamlined approach?
This approach involves using a French TV series to create a mindbogglingly effective immersion experience for yourself.
And I’m ready to bet that you’re just gonna love it.
Why Watching a French TV Series Is the Ultimate At-home Immersion Experience
To be clear, I’m talking about watching a genuine French language TV series with recurring characters. Not movies or talk shows.
You’ll watch without subtitles (more on this later), for at least an hour a day. You’ll also be watching episodes chronologically (without going back if you miss something).
While this is clearly different from walking out in the street and talking to people in French, it produces many of the same situations and challenges. You’ll familiarize yourself with the characters the same way you would with people in real life, and you’ll be motivated to understand the language to make it from one plot point to the next.
You might feel that a TV show is a less valuable learning experience for not being “real,” but consider this: it’s written and produced by real people who are trying to communicate and interact with you as a viewer. And, hey, you can always talk back to the screen when the story gets good.
Not to mention, TV is a vital part of modern culture. By exposing yourself to the same shows as a French-speaking audience, you’re learning something about that audience and experiencing a piece of their reality.
For continuous access to the best in this kind of authentic content, be sure to check out FluentU.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the French language and culture over time. You’ll learn French as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive subtitles.
You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used.
For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:
Practice and reinforce all the vocabulary you've learned in a given video with FluentU's adaptive quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning and play the mini-games found in the dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."
As you study, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a 100% personalized experience.
It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.
To get started on this track, I’ve compiled a list of do’s and don’ts to give you the lowdown on using French TV shows for immersion. But first, a quick word on how to go about finding a series.
Places to Find and Watch a French Series
Believe it or not, this is the trickiest part.
It can be a challenge to find an entire French-language television series on the web when you’re outside of the country where it was originally broadcast. Plus, a large part of the television available to French-speaking audiences isn’t even in French!
Not to worry, though, we’ll get through this together! This blog post provides excellent advice on accessing all kinds of French TV online, and this one gives a rundown of some great French shows that might interest you. Below is a quick overview of the most painless places to start, along with a few show suggestions.
The greatest number of options will be available to you if you’re willing to purchase DVDs online.
But don’t worry, you can easily get started even if you have no money to spend!
YouTube is a great place to find free video content. Finding an entire TV series is often tricky due to copyright issues, but it’s still a handy platform to browse and preview before finding more reliable access elsewhere. And you may find that whole seasons of some older shows are in fact available.
On Hulu, you can watch a lot of television (including some French shows) without paying a dime. You can upgrade to HuluPlus for more content, but in terms of French content you’ll mostly be gaining more access to films (highly recommended for Criterion fans). You might have to sit through some commercials, but it’s still a pretty sweet deal!
Engrenages (Spiral) and Braquo are two gritty, intense, high-quality crime dramas that currently have complete seasons available on Hulu. You can sign up for a free account (if you don’t already have one) and start watching them anytime.
By searching or browsing, you can sometimes find free legal content streaming on French sites. Access may be unreliable due to region restrictions depending on exactly where you live, but it’s always worth checking! For example, I’m using this site to watch Caméra Café in the U.S. right now.
Netflix asks a monthly fee for unlimited online streaming. It provides great access to French television and quite a few movies. It doesn’t have to be all online either—you can access an ever wider collection of foreign shows and movies if you order physical DVDs from them.
Netflix carries the fourth season of Engrenages, which is where Hulu leaves off.
Amazon Instant Video allows you to make separate purchases or rentals. Purchase or rent these whenever you’re ready to watch. Amazon is a great place to be anyway if you’d like to buy some cheap French series DVDs on the internet so you can own physical copies.
The new show Les Revenants currently has one season available on Netflix and can also be watched on Amazon Instant Video. Based on the 2004 movie of the same name, this is a beautiful, cerebral drama about dead people coming back to life. It’s not your typical zombie story, or even your typical ghost story, and it has the potential to appeal even to those who don’t normally like speculative weirdness. Canal+ has created a neat interactive page that you can use to preview and explore the show.
Another series you can watch on Amazon Instant Video, Le Sang de la vigne (Blood of the Vine), is a mystery show that features a wine expert turned crime investigator. It doesn’t get more French than that, does it?
Amazon.fr will give you access to the same DVD purchasing options as the French public, but you’ve got to pay. You’ll want to first familiarize yourself with browsing online in French and how French Amazon works, but this only takes a little study and practice. Another big advantage is that some series won’t come with English subtitles, so you won’t be tempted to turn them on! Just make sure you take device compatibility and shipping into account. Also make sure you’ve sampled whatever you’re buying somewhere online before plunking down the big bucks for it.
International audiences seem to be digging French crime right now so, if that’s your cup of thé, you’re in luck. French TV in general seems to be on the up-and-up, so future prospects for finding it available in English speaking countries are looking good!
Total French Immersion TV: 10 Do’s and Don’ts for Learning Episode-to-episode
1. Don’t pick something that doesn’t interest you.
Picking a show goes beyond your skill level, the amount of dialogue, or the amount of critical acclaim a series has gotten. It’s most important to pick something you’ll stick with. Of course, it might be difficult to know how you’re going to feel about something before you really start watching it. For this reason, I’d recommend starting with a show that’s either free or part of a paid service that you’re already using. If you’re using a video-on-demand service now, you can start by just purchasing a single episode. Later, if you find you love watching French TV, you’ll become more of an expert on actors and directors and be able to make more informed buying decisions. To begin with, just find something you enjoy.
2. Do commit to watching at least one entire season.
You can always stop within the first couple of episodes and choose something else if your show is really a snooze, but in general you should aim to make it through about one season. Now, this is somewhat arbitrary because television seasons in France (as well as the UK) tend to be shorter than in the US, and some shows don’t follow any kind of standard format. For example, Caméra Café and Kaamelott both featured entire seasons of 3-minute episodes!
So, I’ll clarify: as a general rule, aim for at least 8 hours of any show. It might not sound like much, but a full 8 hours of quality time watching a story unroll entirely in French will not go to waste.
I’m not suggesting that you should stop after 8 hours, though! Just consider that the minimum amount of time you need to watch a consecutive block of TV before moving on to something else. The more 8-hour blocks, the better!
3. Don’t underestimate yourself.
If you’ve never used a TV series to learn French before, your expectations are probably split. On the one hand, you hope that it’ll work so well that you’ll never have to open a grammar book again. On the other hand, you don’t really believe that it’ll work at all — it sounds too good (and too simple) to be true.
If you give it a fair shot, your progress will likely end up somewhere between these two expectations. It’s quite possible that things will go much better than you really believe! So when starting a show, realize that it might take a while before it really starts to make a difference in your language skills. You may experience moments of doubt or even panic as to whether or not this method is really legit. That might interfere with your concentration. Even if this happens, it’s okay — just remember that your brain will start working in its own sweet time, probably around the same time you start to relax.
4. Do consider your level and limitations.
To use a series for immersion, you don’t have to be catching every word that’s said. In fact, if you’re catching everything, you’ve chosen something far too easy and probably already have a very advanced level of French that needs specific challenges in order to be improved upon.
On the other hand, if you’re really not understanding anything other than very basic words and phrases, it might be better to pick something easier.
It’s important to understand that no immersion experience will hurt your French. As long as you’re following along, learning some phrases and enjoying yourself, immersion with a series will benefit you.
To give an example of what I mean, I might not think to suggest Caméra Café to a beginner, because there are long strings of very fast speech and there isn’t much obvious visual story outside of the physical appearance and actions of the characters. But some beginners might find it quite engaging and prefer its intimate, sparse format. So if you find you’re enjoying a show despite understanding very little, there’s absolutely no reason to stop. But if you feel you’re getting discouraged and just being reminded of all the French you don’t know, look elsewhere for a show that doesn’t make you feel that way.
5. Don’t use subtitles.
Easier said than done. Depending on the service you’re using, the age of the series and other factors, you might be able to turn off subtitles or you might be stuck with them. DVDs will usually allow more options than streaming services, but it really just depends.
If you’re unable to turn them off, you’ll have to resort to a low-tech fix. On a computer screen, you can minimize another window (such as a blank word-processing document) to size and move it in front of the area where the subtitles appear. If you’re watching on an actual TV screen, you can use a stack of books, a piece of cardboard, etc.
Subtitles may still appear in unexpected places, like the top of the screen, particularly when opening credits are rolling. You may have no choice but to ignore them until they go away. Try to focus on people’s faces and their lips moving when they talk rather than the words appearing around them.
If you’ve chosen a series you enjoy, there will be a point when you feel like it’s really important to let yourself read along. Fighting that urge is crucial. When you resist temptation, you’re making the language an absolute priority.
This is a large part of how immersion works. It’s not just having the language around you all the time, it’s being in situations where you need it to get the things you want.
Remember that subtitles can be great learning tools in other situations. But you have to commit to immersion in order to reap its full benefits.
6. Do pay attention to dialogue.
Because television is primarily a visual medium, you’ll have to struggle sometimes to pay attention to what’s being said, particularly if the scene you’re watching has a lot of action or striking visual elements. You’ll probably find that your mind wanders at times even when you’re watching English-language TV.
It’s easy to be distracted by beautiful cinematography, interesting scenery or a good-looking cast member. Those same distractions will exist while you’re watching TV in French, and you’ll have to work extra hard to make sure they aren’t interfering with your ability to listen!
7. Don’t get hung up on understanding every little word or plot point.
It’s important to remember that serial TV is made for continuous audience engagement, and for people to start watching at any time. This means certain plot points and details will be repeated later on. There’ll also be further high-drama moments that’ll have you right on the edge of your seat again. If you can get used to these patterns, you’ll have less anxiety about missing details and you’ll find you understand more and more as the series progresses.
8. Do follow along closely and actively.
There’s a certain happy medium between relaxation and alertness that makes for the ideal immersion mindset. Try not to burn yourself out by watching for too long at one time. Take breaks. Go make yourself some popcorn, and then stay totally engaged when you return to your self-scheduled programming!
Think of it this way: you already know that you’re going to miss a certain amount of language. There are going to be things that you just don’t understand, or don’t catch immediately. What you want to do is to pay attention broadly enough to allow the bits of language you can recognize to lodge in your consciousness. You want to listen to each string of words, but you don’t want to hold on to a particular phrase to the point where you’re distracted from what’s coming after it. So try to give equal attention to everything that’s being said, and try to acknowledge to yourself when you do understand something.
9. Don’t get complacent.
Watching TV is a leisure activity, and it might be difficult to put yourself into a learning mindset while watching, especially when you’re not writing anything down and you know there’s not going to be a test. If you’re finding it difficult to stay present, you may need to implement a little more structure.
You can pause every so often and jot down a few sentences (in French) about what you just saw and what you think is happening, even if you aren’t certain. If you have a pen pal or language exchange partner, you may even want to plan to watch a particular series together and discuss it in French with them. You can ask them for recommendations, too!
Another thing you can try is talking out loud when no one onscreen is talking. Be like one of those annoying people in a movie theater who tries to narrate the plot as it’s moving along, or shout advice to the characters. This makes things more interactive while still keeping them natural.
10. Do have fun.
At its best, language learning is like a healthy, beneficial addiction. You know, like taking up daily jogging and getting that regular “runner’s high.” Once you get hooked, it’s hard to stop. If you can find ways to enjoy it, you may find yourself loving everything about it. TV is one of the easiest routes to making French a part of your daily routine, so it’s imperative to keep it a fun, relaxed experience. It’s worth the time, it’s worth the money and it’s worth the effort. Just make sure your effort is geared towards developing a relationship with the French language as well as working hard.
Once French becomes a natural part of your life, reaching fluency is only a matter of time!
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