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Can You Learn a Language by Watching TV?

by Madeleine Lee
smiling man and woman watching television to learn a language

It’s 9pm. You’re swaddled in a blanket on the couch. You’re brushing up on your Spanish, but there’s not a textbook in sight. Instead, the TV is blaring. It’s a shoot-out. It’s a rom-com. It’s perfection. 

And when you text your friend to let them know you can’t make it because you’re busy “studying”—they might not believe you, but we do. 

Because whether you’re sitting down to a movie or a Youtube series, consuming visual media in another language can significantly boost your conversation skills. It’s an important part of the learning process, and most experts agree, it’s on par with what you would learn through reading. So good for you on getting a leg up. 

The best part? TV is entertaining. Staying motivated while learning a language can be difficult. Learning Spanish while 20 episodes deep into the greatest TV drama you’ve ever seen might be just what you need to stay on track. 

Learn more about what makes TV such an effective language learning tool below. Plus, get tips on how you can maximize your binge-watching—sorry, study time—to get the most out of every episode. 

Why is watching TV so effective for language learning? 

You’re likely no stranger to TV, so we don’t need to over explain ourselves when we say that good television is immersive. The Shire feels real. The Office feels like family. A single viewing of either can make you feel at home in both worlds, without ever stepping foot in Middle Earth or Scranton, Pennsylvania. 

Feeling at home with a new language is more difficult, of course. But TV is the perfect vehicle. Unlike flashcards and textbooks, TV keeps you interested and it puts you right in the thick of it. It’s this level of natural immersion that complements language learning so well. 

With audio and subtitles, here’s what TV can help you accomplish: 

  • Watch real-world dialogue unfold
  • Expose yourself to a variety of accents by native speakers 
  • Learn new vocabulary through context, not just repetition 

And while conversation is a necessary part of your learning experience, watching movies helps you prepare for dialogue in a low-pressure environment. 

Scientists have a wealth of data that supports the link between TV-watching and effective language learning. From increased motivation to an uptick in retaining new vocabulary, TV can be an effective learning tool on its own, and an even better supplement to learning in the classroom or with online platforms. 

Do I need subtitles, audio, or both? 

Some learners are strictly visual learners—they consume and retain information best when they can pair it with images. Some learners are auditory learners. If this is you, you might find it easier to recall what was said in a conversation than what you read in a book. TV is the perfect medium for learning; with subtitles and audio, it appeals to both! 

Learning a language by watching television also allows you to tailor the experience to your learning level (beginner, intermediate, advanced) and language learning goals. 

Let’s say you’re a beginner learner who wants to feel comfortable having casual conversations. If you’ve never heard the language you’re learning before—German, for example—you may want to pair subtitles in your native language with German audio to train your ear and keep up on the plot. 

When you’re ready, you can embrace the full immersion experience and change those subtitles to German. It’s tricky at first, but you’ll get the hang of it quicker than you think. If you choose this approach, challenge yourself to recap the plot at the end of the movie or episode! 

If you’re an advanced learner, we recommend shedding the subtitles entirely. Audio on its own is a challenge, but it mimics the way you would pick up information from a conversation in the real world. 

Immersion is all about diving in head first, so beginner learners can still find TV watching effective with audio only. To make the most of it, though, it may take a little more written exercise. See the section on making the most of your TV-watching for tips to help you retain what you’ve learned and keep track of the plot. 

Will some shows or movies help me learn more than others? 

Any exposure you have to the language you’re learning is worthwhile, but it never hurts to tailor what you’re watching to your difficulty level. Whether you’re just starting out or want to brush up on more advanced conversation, here’s an easy guide that can help you choose your difficulty level by genre. 

TV and movies for kids 

The shows that might drive you crazy in your native language can be fun and educational in a new language. Kids’ television is simple and designed to be highly repetitive, which means beginner learners can easily pick up basic vocabulary and sentence structures. 

Short bite-sized episodes with easy-to-follow plots can also help you contextualize what you hear. Kids’ shows and movies might feel predictable, but you can use that to your advantage when learning a new language. 

Comedy and Action

Want to get comfortable having a conversation with anyone? The comedy world can help you get there. Sitcoms have tight, easy-to-follow plots that help you focus on dialogue. You’ll find conversation in these shows to be a bit more fast-paced than kids’ television, but watching them is an awesome way to pick up on everyday vocabulary and cultural nuances. 

Action films come in at a similar difficulty level. They’re fast-paced and upbeat, and they rarely put on airs, so you can easily get a sense of what casual conversation sounds like in your new language. 

Thrillers, Drama, and Fantasy

Advanced learners can feel right at home with complex plots and lofty vocabulary. Dramas may lean more towards complex, poetic phrasing, while differentiating dictionary vocab from made-up words can be tricky in a fantasy series. While intricate, a beginner learner with an interest in these genres can still glean quite a bit. 

How can I make the most of my TV-watching? 

You can train your ear and pick up new vocabulary as a casual watcher, or treat your TV-watching time as a more formal lesson. There’s no wrong way to expose yourself to a new language. If you choose to go the more formal route, here’s a couple low-effort tips that can help you retain more. 

Pause, slow it down, replay

Missed a word? Wondering if that sentence was even in the same language? It’s time to embrace the pause and replay buttons. Some streaming services—like Youtube—allow you to slow a video down to .75x speed, which can help you break down fast-paced dialogue or words that feel like they’re running together. 

Don’t be afraid to replay a portion of the show as many times as you need. This is one of the many perks of learning while watching TV, as opposed to learning in the middle of a conversation—there’s no need to worry about how many times you’ve asked your conversation partner to repeat themselves. 

Write down notable words

If you paused to hear a word, it’s probably worth writing down. If you don’t know the exact meaning, feel free to look it up. The words you learn on flashcards are useful, but going the extra mile to write and research a word can boost your ability to remember it for the long run. 

We also recommend writing down words or sentence structures that appear multiple times. These are probably words you’ll encounter frequently in everyday conversation, and it can help to create a word bank to pull from when practicing. 

If you choose this approach, subtitles are especially helpful. You’ll want to make sure the spelling and accent marks are correct! 

Practice speaking 

Talking to your TV might feel like…an odd way to practice. But the more speaking time you get, the better. With the ability to pause and replay, you can work on perfecting your accent to sound just like the native speakers on screen. If you’re nervous about having conversations, this allows you as much time as you need to prepare and build your confidence. 

Where can I go to learn more?   

Pair the immersive experience of TV-watching with the best approach to learning a language, and you’ve got an easy, fun way to boost your conversation skills in any language. 

Learning a language without the aid of your native language significantly boosts how quickly you learn, how much you learn, and how much you’re able to remember over time. 

While TV-watching is an effective language learning tool, it’s not as effective for language learning as a primary medium. That’s where online platforms like Rosetta Stone can help. With scaffolded lessons tailored to your learning level, you’ll continue your immersive learning journey with a curriculum that helps you reach your goals. Plus, it’s available in 25 languages. 

Get serious about language learning. See what Rosetta Stone has to offer

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