It’s one of your best friends.
It’s always there when you need it.
But can it really help you learn a language?
Well, if your TV is your best friend, it might as well also become your best learning buddy. With the right approach, you can totally learn a language by watching TV.
While it’s a fun way to learn a language, it can also be super useful. That’s because it offers great listening practice, provides a good way to learn new vocabulary and creates an immersive learning experience.
If you can’t resist a good TV show, just read on to find out how TV can become your new favorite language-learning tool!
Can You Really Learn a Language by Watching TV Shows?
You sure can! Here are some reasons why learning a language by watching TV is an effective method for internalizing the language.
- TV shows feature authentic language. Since TV shows are intended to entertain native speakers, they use the sort of real-life, everyday language that native speakers use.
This makes them more authentic than most resources designed specifically for language students.
- They provide valuable context. Since the words and phrases are always presented in relevant situations, you can get a clear idea of how certain vocabulary might be used.
Plus, since TV shows offer context, you might even be able to deduce the meaning of unfamiliar words and phrases based on what you see happening.
- They frequently use common vocabulary. Many TV shows are intended to appeal to broad audiences, so they usually feature common vocabulary that most native speakers will know.
This focus on common vocabulary can help reinforce some of the most important words you’ll need to know in your target language.
- They provide you with more learning content than movies. If you find a great movie to learn with, you might get two to three hours of content. However, with TV shows, you can enjoy hour after hour of language learning!
Now that you know why you should learn a language by watching TV, let’s talk about how to do it.
Get ready to watch and learn!
Learn a Language by Watching TV in 8 Simple Steps
1. Interact with What You Watch
Watching a TV show is good language practice. Interacting with that TV show is great language practice.
While watching a TV show can help you practice your listening skills, interacting with it will improve multiple skills at once. Plus, if you interact with the show you’re watching, you’ll be more actively engaged with it, which can aid in learning.
- Recreate the scene you’ve just watched.
Once you’ve finished watching a key scene, rewind to the beginning of the scene and mute the sound. Watch what’s happening on the screen and try to recreate the dialogue in your target language. You don’t have to match it word for word, just aim to get a general idea.
This’ll give you valuable speaking practice while reinforcing what you just watched.
- Give characters advice.
Characters in TV shows live complicated lives. They could use a little advice, and you’re just the person to give it to them.
Whenever there’s a moment without dialogue, tell your favorite characters what they should do next.
Not only can this give you speaking practice, but it’s also a good way to engage more actively in the program you’re watching.
- Write episode summaries.
After you finish an episode, write a summary of that episode in your target language.
This is excellent writing practice, but it can also provide you with reference material for the future. If you ever want to rewatch something, you can just use your episode summaries to figure out which episode you need to go back to.
2. Choose Materials at an Appropriate Level
To optimize your learning with TV shows, you need to find the sweet spot with a perfectly level-appropriate show. Too advanced of a show may make you feel overwhelmed. Too easy of a show may not lead to the quick progress you’re hoping for.
It’s a real Goldilocks situation and you need to choose an option that’s just right for you.
- Pay attention to genre.
Genre can play a big role in how difficult the language used is. For example, children’s shows usually use basic vocabulary. On the other hand, police procedurals and courtroom dramas will generally use more advanced vocabulary.
Paying attention to the genre of a TV show can give you a hint about its language difficulty level.
- Watch a show for three minutes to test out the level.
For most shows, three minutes should be more than enough time to determine whether that show is level appropriate.
Ignore any subtitles and focus on the audio. How much did you understand? If you understood nearly all of what you heard, that show is probably too easy. If you understood almost nothing, it’s too hard.
However, if you got the overall idea of what happened in the first three minutes but didn’t quite understand all the words, that’s pretty close to a perfect level of difficulty.
3. Use Subtitles Judiciously
Subtitles can help you understand TV shows you might not otherwise be able to follow. However, they can also be a crutch that prevents you from using your language skills as much as you could.
That’s why you need to be careful when using subtitles with your TV viewing. You can have them on for when you need them, but try not to look at them unless you absolutely must.
- Use FluentU.
FluentU offers captions that can help you learn from TV commercials, news, inspirational talks and other great videos. That’s because FluentU offers real-world content captioned in the language used, allowing you to read along as you listen.
These captions are annotated, giving you easy access to any word’s definition, example sentences and an associated image. If you want to see a word in a different context, FluentU can even show you other videos on the site that use it. Want to study a word at a later time? Just add it to your vocabulary list!
FluentU will even help you learn new vocabulary through the uses of quizzes, which fuse example sentences, images and videos into engaging activities and interactive exercises.
- Watch the same show repeatedly, changing the subtitling options.
If you’re using a resource like Netflix that allows you to change your subtitling options, watch the same show a few times while varying what kinds of subtitles you use.
For example, the first time you watch, you might use subtitles in your native language to get a clear idea of what’s happening. The second time, you might use subtitles in your target language so that you can read along and focus on the language. Finally, you could remove the subtitles altogether to focus exclusively on the spoken language.
Varying your approach can help you use the subtitling options to their maximum advantage.
4. Break Down Episodes into Shorter Chunks
Binge-watching TV is certainly fun, but it isn’t great for language learners. After all, watching in your target language is a lot of work! Trying to binge-watch all at once is likely to be overwhelming.
Especially if you’re a beginning student, breaking down episodes into small chunks can make them much easier to process. This can give you the time you need to fully process each section before you move on.
- Rewatch the same five minutes a few times.
Just set a timer and watch until your time is up. Five minutes isn’t too daunting and it’s short enough that you should be able to maintain your focus on the language.
Once the five minutes is up, rewind and watch the same five minutes again, trying to understand more than you did the first time.
While it can take a while to finish a TV episode by using this method, it’ll allow you to maintain your focus on the language while understanding more of the show than you might if you try to watch an episode straight through.
- Spread out your viewings.
Rather than trying to watch an entire episode in one sitting, watch a little bit at a time.
Sitting down and listening to your target language for one hour may seem like a lot. However, watching for 10 minutes six times is much more approachable and will allow you to focus more fully on the language.
5. Don’t Try to Translate Everything
Trying to translate every word into your native language takes a lot of time and brainpower.
Plus, it could put your focus on individual words rather than general comprehension. It’s great to learn new words, but it’s also important to see the new picture, or you won’t know what’s going on in your show!
- Think in your target language.
Instead of trying to translate everything you hear, think about it in the target language. This’ll shift your thinking from the meanings of the individual words to the overall meaning of what you’re watching.
It’s not easy to do initially and it’ll take some practice before you can pull it off, but keep at it and you’ll see some great results. You can start simple, even by just thinking “I wonder what that word means” in your target language.
This is a practice you can continue when you’re not watching TV. Cooking dinner? Driving to work? Looking for the remote? Try to shift your thoughts into your target language. The more you do this, the more natural it’ll become and the less translating you’ll have to do.
6. Look Up Unfamiliar Commonly Used Words
While you certainly shouldn’t bother looking up every word you hear, looking up a few key words can help you expand your vocabulary.
TV shows often use the same words repeatedly. If you hear a certain word over and over again and you don’t know what it means, it’s probably time to look it up.
- Keep a notebook nearby to jot down occasional vocabulary words.
It may seem simple and old school, but a notebook can be super handy.
Try not to have it out the whole time. Instead, just write the word you want to look up later, then jump back into watching.
This notebook can become a wonderful source of vocabulary words that you might not have otherwise encountered in your regular language study.
7. Get Your Friends in on It
Watching as a group is much more fun! Watching with fellow language learners can make your TV show viewing more enjoyable and give you someone to discuss the show with.
Plus, if you talk about the show in your target language, you’ll be getting some valuable speaking practice, too.
- Host a weekly viewing party.
Since TV shows have multiple episodes, you can host a weekly viewing party of your favorite show until you run out of episodes.
To learn together, just watch an episode with your friends, then discuss it in your target language afterward.
For even more fun, consider making it a potluck. Everyone can bring a dish from a region where your target language is spoken, broadening your cultural understanding as you practice your language skills.
8. Use the Right Resources
To watch TV in your target language, you’ll need to find the right resource, first.
Luckily, there’s a wide variety of resources available. Some offer a lot of different language options, while others focus on specific regions. Similarly, some resources offer different subtitle options, while some have no subtitles at all.
You can watch already-aired TV, or you might select to watch live depending on the resource. But regardless of what you choose, it’s important to find the right option for your learning level and language goals.
Beginning students may require a resource with more subtitling options so that they can better understand what they’re watching. They should also probably steer clear of live TV, which rarely offers subtitles and can be much less predictable when it comes to the difficulty level.
Advanced students have even more options available to them. Ideally, you should avoid using subtitles if possible, so watching live TV can prove a terrific challenge that tests your abilities.
Netflix offers a wide array of languages and some of the most flexible subtitling options available. You can find TV series in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and so many more.
You can always select whether or not to include English subtitles. For some programs, you can also select captions in the target language.
Sling offers live international television options in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and more. Each package costs extra, but you can try a free trial to see if you like it.
If you already subscribe to Dish, you might consider adding international TV to your package. Dish offers live TV in 28 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish and more.
Streema can help you find TV stations you can stream for free online.
Browse by region, country or genre to find appropriate options for you. Since you can find channels all over the world, there are many options for students.
You can find TV shows in a huge array of languages on YouTube. To see your options, try searching for the name of your language and “TV” in your target language. You might find TV shows, clips or live-streams from international TV channels.
If you’re looking for another way to find live TV broadcasts online, wwiTV.com can help. This site features hundreds of channels from around the world, so you can find options in countless languages.
JadooTV offers both live and on-demand TV in Arabic, Persian, Punjabi and other languages common in South Asia and the Middle East.
Asian Crush offers popular TV shows from Asia, including options in Chinese, Japanese and Korean and more.
There’s a variety of apps available on Roku devices that can help you access TV programs in foreign languages. Some of those options are even on this list already.
However, there are some other great language-specific options we haven’t included here, so if you have a Roku, you might want to look through the channel offerings to see if there’s a good app for you.
Learning a language with TV shows is a fun and easy way to improve your skills. With the right TV series and some good strategies, language learning may become your new favorite binge-worthy activity.
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