How To Learn a Language by Watching TV and Movies
There are many advantages to learning a new language, one of which is being able to watch a foreign language show or movie in its truest natural form.
But did you know that you can actually learn the foreign language using that show or movie?
Here’s a guide for improving your language skills through movies and TV to get you started. Read on for 15 practical learning techniques, the top streaming platforms and our show recommendations based on your level!
- Why Learn a Language by Watching TV Shows and Movies?
- 4 Stages of Foreign Movies and TV Shows for Language Learners
- Essential TV Series and Movie Guides for Language Learners
- 15 Techniques to Learn a Language by Watching Movies and TV
- 1. Watch Something at Your Level
- 2. Make Your Pick Based on Genre
- 3. Read the Show Summary
- 4. Watch All in One Go
- 5. Focus on High-Frequency Words
- 6. Watch Segment by Segment
- 7. Record Segments and Repeat
- 8. Practice Imitating Pronunciation
- 9. Write Down What You Hear
- 10. If You Can Find a Script, Use It
- 11. Change Up Your Subtitling Options
- 12. Talk Back to the Characters
- 13. Plan Out Your Watch-and-Learn Sessions
- 14. Watch with Others
- 15. Interact with Other Fans Online
- Where to Find Foreign Language Movies and TV Series
Why Learn a Language by Watching TV Shows and Movies?
Regardless of what language you want to learn, there’s probably a TV show or movie in that language that you’ll love.
Here’s why watching TV shows and movies is well-loved among language learners:
- It familiarizes you with native speech. Sometimes, historical or fantasy shows might not be accurate reflections of current speech norms, but most contemporary shows use common language.
- It puts vocabulary in context. If you don’t understand a word, you can often guess based on what’s happening and visual cues, like characters’ facial expressions. Plus, you can see how vocabulary might be used in different situations.
- It’s addictive and fun. Once you get on a roll, you’ll just want to keep watching them. And when you’re watching in your target language, the addictive nature of shows can lead to massive improvements in your language skills.
However, some language learners don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to learning with movies and TV shows. It can be tempting to just watch and hope the language will start to sink in, but being unprepared means you won’t get as much out of watching something as you could.
Not to worry—we’re here to help!
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. Start at the top and work your way down as you progress through the language.
1. Kids’ TV Shows and Movies
Start by watching children’s shows.
Think about it: most children’s programs are educational and serve to teach children basic values and linguistic rules. They provide simple language along with corresponding images, so they’re easy to understand.
Get in touch with your inner child! If you have kids, you can also sit down with them and watch a show together, like “Dora la Exploradora” (Dora the Explorer).
Kids’ movies are full of messages that relate to anyone of any age, which can make language learning much easier. As an example, here’s a video showing how to learn Spanish with “Finding Nemo.”
Once you’re used to kids’ movies and shows, you can start watching light comedy.
American sitcoms and cartoons are great.
The most popular ones are all dubbed into many languages. 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.
Comedies are more likely to feature wordplay than other genres, which can be helpful for advanced learners to really test out their skills. After all, wordplay in your target language often doesn’t translate directly or literally, so understanding it is a strong sign that your skills are very advanced.
You can then move on to thrillers, horror and action series or movies. Action movies are plot-based and very visual, so they’ll often reiterate major plot points to make sure the audience is following.
While movies in this genre may feature more specialized, challenging vocabulary, they tend to have more breaks in dialogue to give you time to think about what you’ve heard.
Series such as “CSI” and “Missing” that exist in their own formats in almost every country often use familiar templates. These follow a repeating pattern, helping you get a feel for what’s going on quickly.
4. Drama/Dark Humor
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, double-meanings and situation- or culture-specific language.
Movies and series rooted in underground or minority cultures (think “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire”) can also provide a great challenge, as they tend to feature thick accents and lots of slang. They’re a great source of cultural knowledge and provide excellent practice with different accents.
Essential TV Series and Movie Guides for Language Learners
Now that you have a sense of which genres will work best for your level, here are some awesome TV series and movie guides in different languages you can explore:
- Arabic TV | Arabic movies
- Chinese TV | Chinese movies
- English TV | English movies
- French TV | French movies
- German TV | German movies
- Italian TV | Italian movies
- Japanese TV | Japanese movies
- Korean TV | Korean movies
- Portuguese TV | Portuguese movies
- Spanish TV | Spanish movies
- Russian TV | Russian movies
This list should be more than enough to get you started!
15 Techniques to Learn a Language by Watching Movies and TV
Here are some additional techniques you can employ to maximize your screen time. Apply them to each stage!
1. Watch Something at Your Level
It’s easy to get excited and immediately jump into your favorite movies or shows, but you’ll usually learn more by starting with those that match your current skill level.
Try to find a movie or show that’s just challenging enough to keep you engaged and attentive. You want to flex your learner brain, but not get overwhelmed or frustrated.
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 how often advanced language can sneak into material targeted at younger audiences!
As you improve, steadily advance to more difficult movies and shows.
2. 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.
Historical movies, for example, may use some dated terminology. Hospital dramas are full of medical vocabulary, and shows about high school often contain newer slang terms and topics that young people tend to chat about.
3. Read the Show Summary
Once you’ve selected a show to watch, try to find a summary to familiarize yourself with the plot.
If you already understand what the show is about, you’ll be able to focus more on the language and less on the storyline.
Reading a summary also gives you a preview of the show’s vocabulary, allowing you to look up related words ahead of time. You can even look up the actors and characters to make it easier to remember who’s who while you watch.
IMDb has all kinds of TV summaries and reviews, so you’ll have no trouble finding the essential details of some of the most popular foreign language movies.
4. Watch All in One Go
This mostly helps with getting a “feel” for how a language sounds, but it’s also important for understanding the language in general and how its pronunciation works.
When you’re bombarded with many unfamiliar words, don’t try to understand each and every one.
Instead, 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.
For a more relaxing approach, try watching something dubbed or subtitled in your own language, then again in the original language a few days later. When you already know the story, it’s easier to focus on how the language is being used.
5. Focus on High-Frequency Words
Let’s be honest: it’s easy to space out or “lose your place” when analyzing a foreign language in shows and movies.
A lot is happening all at once, so it’s not your fault! To refocus yourself, try to hone in on the words you hear most frequently.
These are the words you’ll have the easiest time remembering in the storm of vocabulary happening within whatever you’re watching.
6. Watch Segment by Segment
There’s a bottomless gold pot of words and expressions contained in foreign movies and TV series.
That’s why splitting an episode or movie into small segments is the best way to focus on vocabulary. Check out these great tips for memorizing vocabulary, so you don’t forget all those new words you’ve learned!
Here’s how you can watch by segment:
- Watch an episode or movie with subtitles in its original language. As you watch, jot down four or five short sections you liked or that had some interesting dialogue.
- Once you’ve finished, go back and focus on one segment. Turn off the subtitles this time. Since you know the context of the movie, you might catch 40-50% of what’s going on (and increasingly more as you practice).
- Now, watch it with the original language subtitles again. Listen for what you missed the first two times. Look up any words or phrases you don’t know and add them to your vocabulary notebook.
- Finally, turn off the subtitles and watch the segment again. Congratulate yourself on how much more you’re now understanding!
- Repeat with other segments.
To speed up the process, you can use a program like FluentU to automatically do many of the steps for you and watch the videos in segments and clips.
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.
7. Record Segments 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 movies in various formats.
With Audacity, you can either record the segment directly using your computer’s built-in microphone or press the record button on your smartphone. Then, you can play it back whenever you want.
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.
Helpfully, Audacity also allows you to slow down recordings to really focus on recognizing sound combinations.
8. Practice Imitating Pronunciation
Once you have your recording, you can focus on imitating pronunciation.
Repeat the same words and then repeat full phrases, focusing on copying the word sounds.
“Word sounds” are combinations of sounds—how words sound when they’re put together—which don’t necessarily go word-by-word, nor phonetical. English is a great example of this:
“You’re amassing quite a fortune.”
If we consider how we would naturally pause and place stress on different syllables while speaking, it becomes something like:
You | ramassin | quai | ta | forchun
Once you’ve practiced reciting those phrases, you can record yourself and compare it to the original, then repeat until you’re satisfied.
9. Write Down What You Hear
Just because you’re watching something, doesn’t mean you can’t work on your writing skills!
Find a particularly interesting short speech segment and try to write it down in the foreign language. Dissect the text to the best of your ability.
Make sure to rewind and pause as often as you need! Try to avoid using subtitles—you can compare your notes to the official subtitles afterward.
For an added challenge, try summarizing a scene in your target language after you watch it.
If you get confused with transcribing or can’t access the subtitles, you can even get help from a translator app with a voice translation option, like Google Translate.
Conveniently, Google Translate has both a browser and mobile app version (Android or iOS). Try activating the voice recognition feature while a movie’s playing—it can even detect the language!
10. If You Can Find a Script, Use It
Movie scripts can be tremendously useful for language learners.
Try reading it before you watch the movie to get a clearer understanding of the story and characters. This also gives you the chance to look up any unfamiliar words before you ever hear them in context.
Another way to use scripts is to keep them handy as you watch the movie and read along. To find scripts, you can use a script database or search for the movie’s title along with the word “script” in your target language.
Simply Scripts might not have tons of international movie scripts, but it does have a few very popular options, such as “El Laberinto del Fauno” (Pan’s Labyrinth) and “Cidade de Deus” (City of God).
Alternatively, you can pick a movie that you’ve watched before in English and practice with the dubbed version. Harry Potter is a great choice because it’s been dubbed in many languages:
11. Change Up Your Subtitling Options
Subtitles can be a great tool to help you understand what’s happening even if you miss a few words. However, if you’re not careful, you might find yourself inadvertently reading and not listening at all.
Try alternating watching segments with the subtitles on and off:
- Listen to the scene in your target language and try to understand what’s happening.
- Turn on the subtitles to check how much you caught.
- Switch the subtitles back off to see if you understand more than before.
If you don’t want to repeat segments this often, you can also focus on the dialogue and only skim the subtitles when you don’t understand something.
Always remember that subtitles are just a tool to help prop you up until you refine your skills. Your goal should be to wean yourself off of them.
12. Talk Back to the Characters
Movie watching is usually a one-way street: it talks, you listen. When you’re learning a language, you need to engage more!
Luckily, you can interact with the movie you’re watching to get both listening and speaking practice.
During dialogue scenes, pause and guess what the next character will say. You can also repeat lines you enjoy, or even shout advice to the characters. The key here is to speak your target language.
If you’re watching a movie with action sequences, try narrating it in your target language. No need to waste those precious seconds when you could be improving your language skills!
13. Plan Out Your Watch-and-Learn Sessions
It’s easy to start watching a movie or show with the intention of learning a language, but actually making it an educational experience takes a bit more willpower.
It’s easy to revert to just watching something for entertainment. To avoid this, schedule your language-learning watch sessions at a time when you know you won’t be easily distracted.
You can also switch up your environment to aid in your study efforts. Try watching with a different device and sitting someplace that won’t make you overly comfy and drowsy.
You can also surround yourself with study materials, such as flashcards, notes or a dictionary.
14. Watch with Others
Nobody said you have to watch alone!
Finding others to watch movies and TV shows with is a fun way to enhance the learning experience. The optimal watch-buddies are your fellow language learners.
Together, you can all share what you learn and ask each other questions. Of course, feel free to discuss the compelling plot or intriguing cinematography.
If your friends or family are interested, let them join in! Just make sure they don’t distract you from your learning goals.
15. Interact with Other Fans Online
Reaching out to other movie fans online is a great way to add both reading and writing practice to your experience learning through movies.
There are forums, chat rooms and fan pages in virtually any language you can imagine. To find fan groups, try searching “movie fans,” “movie forum” or “movie chat” in your target language.
Reddit is a great resource for interacting with people from all over the world, but many people don’t realize that there are subreddits in other languages.
If you love Spanish-language movies, you might enjoy the Cine (Cinema) subreddit. While most posts are about American movies, there’s nothing stopping you from starting a new thread about your favorite international movies!
Where to Find Foreign Language Movies and TV Series
These are the top websites where you can find hundreds or even thousands of shows in different languages:
Netflix is one of the most popular movie resources out there. Luckily, your subscription also grants you access to tons of foreign language movies–most of which have English subtitles available.
For even more flexible subtitling, try to find Netflix Originals, which also offer captions in the language of the movie. That means you can watch a movie in a foreign language while also reading along in that language.
Hulu is another streaming service where language students can find some international content. It isn’t quite the fount of international content that Netflix is, but it offers up some strong options.
Most of Hulu’s international content is Asian. Specifically, Hulu offers a good deal of Korean content.
Hulu’s offerings seems to change pretty frequently, so if you don’t find something to watch now, check back in a few days!
Amazon has a unique mixture of shows you can stream via Prime and shows you can purchase on DVD.
It’s particularly good for finding familiar movies dubbed in a variety of languages. You might also be able to find movies in your target language that you’ve already seen in English, making it easier to follow along.
It’s also one of the best resources for finding children’s movies in foreign languages, which are ideal for beginning students.
If you haven’t already heard about TED Talks as a language learner, you’ve been missing out on a gold mine!
Completely free, TED Talks 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 movie or series (and “subtitles,” if you prefer). For example, if I want to watch “The IT Crowd” with Italian subtitles, I can search for “The IT Crowd sub ITA.”
One huge benefit of YouTube is that it features a comments section, which is often quite active. For language learners, this can provide both reading and writing practice.
AsianCrush is a streaming service that focuses exclusively on Asian movies and TV, so it’s perfect for anyone learning Asian languages like Chinese, Japanese or Korean.
You can filter by country, genre and theme. If you’re searching for Chinese movies, just note that the China region mainly includes movies from Hong Kong, which are generally in Cantonese. If you’re looking for movies in Mandarin, perusing options from Taiwan is more likely to yield results.
AsianCrush has premium options, but it also offers lots of free material supported by ads. This makes AsianCrush a good choice for learners looking to save money.
Viki is another streaming service that focuses on Asian content. You can find plenty of great movies and TV shows out of China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and more.
Viki offers more subtitle options than other sources, so you can find movies subtitled in Arabic, Chinese, English, French and a huge array of other languages. This is especially useful if English isn’t your first language! You can even filter by subtitle language.
Beeline TV provides a list of TV channels in many languages, even including Uzbek TV!
It also has a wide selection of movies from all around the world. The service is conveniently available on most devices.
As the name suggests, Multilingual Books offers a variety of text-based resources in multiple languages.
However, it also provides a list of websites and links for watching videos, series and movies in English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese.
Learning with movies and TV can give clarity to the “white noise” of a foreign language. No more gibberish or nonsensical sounds!
If you’re ready to fast-forward your language skills, then grab your remote and start watching!