Think over this familiar scenario:
You finally put together a great and useful phrase which will enable you to get around in another country or communicate with a foreign colleague. Something along the lines of, “Excuse me, could you tell me where the bank is?”
As you hear the reply, “Dkniw neiwn einkcn,” you realize it’s a non-sensical mass of white noise, and it hits you:
Oh god! I have no clue what they’re saying to me! Now what do I do? Ask again and after the third time give up, nod thankfully and walk away hoping they didn’t realize?
You were so focused on your own pronunciation and putting together the correct phrase that you completely forgot about whether or not you’d understand the response!
I have forgotten the number of times I have found myself smiling and nodding along to a kind stranger who is giving me an exact answer I can’t understand. I have all but perfected my I-have-no-idea-what-you-are-saying-but-thank-you-so-much-for-your-time face. It is so good, no one has ever suspected I am clueless.
Fed up of having to pull out my “no clue” face every two seconds, I decided I needed to find out how to make sense of this all. I stumbled at the beginning but over the years, and thanks to my students and their ideas, I have put together a raft of techniques and resources for improving language skills through movies and TV.
More good news: It’s a fun way to learn a language!
You can watch whatever it is you’re interested in, and learn at the same time!
What’s even better is that with the internet, we absolutely do not have to be in a country where the language is spoken to do it, plus we have endless options available to us (evident in the resources section at the end of this post).
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Using TV Shows, Series and Films to Improve Language
Do you know what the best thing about learning a language is—something you cannot 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!
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.
Now, listen up. The hard part is that a small amount of effort needs to be made in order to maximize learning potential, meaning you cannot 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.
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?
I have have always thought we should give our brains some credit. 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 do not 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 new language at the same time.
So where do we go from here? It can be daunting at first, but once you have a basic bank of words, you can start using TV, Netflix or online streaming to your advantage.
To both ease you in at the start, and to support you as you advance through your target language, I recommend balancing your TV/movie time with FluentU time. What’s FluentU?
Learn from Real-world Videos on FluentU
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
With FluentU, you hear languages in real-world contexts—the way that native speakers actually use them. Just a quick look will give you an idea of the variety of FluentU videos on offer:
FluentU really takes the grunt work out of learning languages, leaving you with nothing but engaging, effective and efficient learning. It’s already hand-picked the best videos for you and organized them by level and topic. All you have to do is choose any video that strikes your fancy to get started!
Each word in the interactive captions comes with a definition, audio, image, example sentences and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and easily review words and phrases from the video under Vocab.
You can use FluentU’s unique adaptive quizzes to learn the vocabulary and phrases from the video through fun questions and exercises. Just swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you're studying.
The program even keeps track of what you’re learning and tells you exactly when it’s time for review, giving you a 100% personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store or Google Play store.
Whether you use it to warm up and get your mind thinking in your target language, to select a film by watching movie trailers, or to learn from TV show clips, FluentU is a must-have tool for any language learner.
The Essential Guide on How to Learn a Language by Watching Movies and TV
4 Stages of Foreign Movies/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.”
Once you are 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 will often explain the main plot points 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 are 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 are a great source of cultural knowledge and provide excellent practice with different accents.
Now apply the following techniques to each stage.
4 Techniques to Learn a Language by Watching Movies and TV
Here some additional techniques you can employ to maximize your screen time.
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 which helps with 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, do not 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 will 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.
Watch Segment by Segment
There is a bottomless gold pot of words and expressions contained in films and series. 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 1-2 minute sections that you liked or that had some interesting dialogue.
Once you’ve finished you can 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 forgot all those new words you’ve learned!
Finally, turn off the subtitles and watch the segment again. Congratulate yourself on how much more you are now understanding!
Repeat this process with other segments.
Record and Repeat
If are 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. At 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.
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 are put together—which is not 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 are 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.
Where to Find Foreign Language Movies and TV Series
Apart from all the great resources on FluentU and in your local public library, with the internet we now have easier access to a huge variety of films and series, wherever in the world you may be. Now you have no excuse!
Here are just a few site to check out first:
- 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.
- TED: If you haven’t already heard about TEDTalks and are a language learner, you have 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.
- YouTube: Don’t forget that there are many—especially older—movies or series available on YouTube, so remember to check. Type in the name of the film or series, and if you want subtitles you can try to add that in to the search box as well. For example, if I want to watch The IT Crowd with Italia 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!
- Multilingual Books has a list of websites and links for watching videos, series and films in English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.
- SnagFilms offers free online streaming of foreign films with English subtitles
- SubsMovies offers free online streaming of English language films with foreign language subtitles.
- LosMovies provides online streaming of English language TV series with English subtitles.
And finally, to watch TV shows or movies from the following foreign languages, we’ve put together some awesome guides for you:
This list of resources should be enough to get you started and boosting your level quickly. Have fun watching and learning!
This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you
can take anywhere.
Click here to get a copy. (Download)
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