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Learning a language by watching TV: how to get the most out of it?

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

Learning a language by watching TV has become so popular nowadays with all the streaming services available like Netflix, or Hulu. It is indeed a fun way of immersing yourself into a language and it allows you to kill two birds at once: learning and entertainment. If you are not sure how watching movies or TV shows can help you learn a language, or if learning through TV is already one of your strategies, then keep on reading, because I will be sharing with you how watching TV has helped me improve my English, as well as 5 tips that you can implement to get the most out of it.

Learning a language by watching TV: How to get the  most out of it

How does watching TV improve language learning?

The benefits of binge-watching TV for a language learner are huge. I have experimented with it as part of my learning strategies and this is how it has helped me level up my English.

I am a native French speaker and have been learning English since middle school but I really noticed a great improvement in my level when I started watching movies and series in English. How was that useful to me?

  • By regularly watching TV, I gradually got used to the way English native speakers speak; I was able to understand better what they were saying, even though I am still struggling with some particular accents;

  • I naturally picked up frequently used expressions and I sometimes find myself using some of these idioms in my conversations;

  • I also improved my writing skills; by reading the subtitles, I unconsciously remember how the words are written. The subtitles in English help me make a link between what I have heard and what is written, so this visual aspect helps a lot in knowing how to write words that are new.

  • My pronunciation also leveled up and I hesitate less when pronouncing some words because I have been exposed to them and learned to pronounce them through regular repetition.

Watching TV in my target language (English) not only helps me develop my listening and pronunciation skills but also my writing skills. For me, it is a very useful learning strategy. However, it is obvious that I did not become totally fluent by watching only TV. I was also trying to read books, and news, listen to songs in English and speak for real. I think it is a combination of all these that gives me that B2 to C1 level that I am having today. I still consider myself not totally fluent and working towards this objective.

Now, how can you really benefit from watching movies and TV series when you are learning a language like French? Here are some tips that will help you boost your learning progress.

Tip #1: Choose the right films or TV shows

What do I mean by this? You don't want to choose a movie you're not interested in. Choose the genre that you like or that matches your learning objectives. If you are a lawyer for instance, you will likely be interested in the lawsuit series, and a doctor in medical series, ... Luckily, with streaming services like Netflix, you can find all kinds of programs you might be looking for: anime, drama, documentaries, comedy, ...

Also, not all movies are good for you. If you are a beginner, you might end up blowing up your motivation if you keep watching movies too hard for you. That's why it s important for you to choose films of your level. For beginners, it will be preferable to start with movies you have already seen in your native language. That will help you understand better the dialogues. You can also start with Kids' movies or anime that are generally in an easy-to-digest language.

Tip#2: Focus on the keywords, high-frequency words

Don't try to understand every word that you hear in the show. That will get you lost as there will certainly be tons of words you can't understand. Concentrate on listening to words with high frequency, those that are often repeated. These are the words that you will hear in real-life conversations. Try as much as possible to get a global understanding. Don't panic, just chill! It is normal to be exposed to a flood of new words so don't worry. Remember that after all, it's not your native language.

Tip #3: Pause, replay, repeat and write

When exploring the TV strategy for improving your listening skills, remember to pause the video whenever you need to. Listen again and again. If you still don't understand, you can use subtitles. Once you have identified some essential expressions and words, repeat them as much as you can, and please write them down. Writing is another way to memorize things and you can review a few words later when you need it. You can use tools like Quizlet to review your words or if you are learning from Lingopie's platform, your new words will be set aside as flashcards and you can review them whenever you want and this makes your learning so easy.

If you have a learning journal, that would even be better. You can keep a track of what you are learning in it. You can even try to summarize each movie or episode you have been watching daily or weekly, as you wish.

Tip# 4: Use subtitles as you feel the need

You can learn with subtitles in your native language, in the target language or without. Which one is the best? Well, that depends on lots of factors: your language level, the way you learn, and your conception of languages. Each of them has its advantages and disadvantages. The debate about using subtitles will always be on. Personally, I will recommend if you are a beginner, to put the subtitles in your own language. You will then be able to make connections with your mother tongue, and when you become a little more comfortable, you can switch to your target language. If you are an intermediate learner, it would be better to watch your movies and TV series directly in your target language. Your language skills will then be reinforced. You can suppress the subtitles when you become an advanced learner and use them only when you can't really guess what has been said. In that case, you will turn them on for that specific purpose and immediately turn them off after you picked up what you needed to understand.

Nowadays, most TV streaming services allow you to binge-watch movies with subtitles in your target language. You can do so on Netflix, Hulu, and even on Youtube, subtitles can be turned on. Another great tool is Lingopie, which allows you to read the subtitles or the script, and gives you the option of clicking on words you don't know to get their definition. With their flashcard feature, which automatically save your new words, you can review them later and improve your vocabulary. Lingopie does not have the same level of movies as Netflix but I am still a fan of it as it has been designed for language learners. With the available movies, I think anyone can find something interesting. They offer a 7 day free trial that I can refrain from recommending to whoever love fun language learning.

Tip #5. Don't just watch TV, practise speaking

It is common to see on discussion forums like Reddit, people asking the following question: Can you learn a language by Watching TV?

To this question, my reply would be yes. You can learn new vocabulary, common slang, and idioms, refine your pronunciation and upscale your listening skills. However, the purpose of learning a language is to communicate and interact with other people. There is no point in learning a language without any possibility to put into real-life practice what you have been learning. Yes, watching TV is incontestably a great and fun way of learning a language, but it is good to combine this tool with conversation practice.

Find a moment to get away from your screen and surround yourself with some good friends, or partners, with whom you can speak and sharpen your language skills. If you can't find someone to talk to for free, then head to Italki, a platform where you can find affordable language tutors. You can get a 30 minutes conversation class for less than about 5$. For this duration, you can discuss subjects of your choice and get feedback on your pronunciation and sentence building.

In my opinion, practicing your oral skills is what will make all your efforts watching TV become effective.

To sum up

Watching TV incontestably affects positively your language learning and should be part of the techniques you use to learn a language. It is important to follow the tips listed above to be able to get out the most of it as they are some of the best ways to learn a language by watching.

If you would like to explore more this topic, I will recommend reading Franck Andrade's article which gives some statistical data that will interest those learning English.

To continue learning French, head over to our free grammar and vocabulary lessons.


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