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Can you learn a language by watching TV?

Can You Learn a Language by Watching TV
(Image credit: Getty Images)

From Netflix's hit Spanish crime drama La Casa de Papel, aka Money Heist, to French crime thriller Lupin and Oscar-winning Korean film Parasite, foreign language television shows and movies are becoming more mainstream. But can they actually help you learn a new language?

A 2019 study suggests that they can. This study followed 44 citizens of the Republic of Kosovo over 2 years to examine whether they could learn Turkish by watching a series. Initially the participants activated subtitles in their native language, but within a year, over half of the participants no longer needed subtitles. On average, at the end of the study the biggest language skills gained were in listening, followed by speaking, reading, then writing – writing being the most difficult to learn through television. 

So foreign language TV can no doubt be a great tool to help you better understand and speak another language, especially if you pair it with some good quality lessons from platforms like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone.

James Edwards is a UK-based language teacher who has been teaching French, Spanish and German for 10 years. He says that approximately 10% of the students at his school are learning English as an additional language and come to the UK with “little to no confidence in speaking English”. But after a short period of time living and studying in the country, they become strong language users and often cite watching TV programmes in English as one of their main sources of learning, which clearly demonstrates the benefits. 

How to learn languages by watching TV: Quick Tips

  • Start by watching with subtitles in your native language, then switch the subtitles to the show’s language when you’re comfortable.
  • Watch specific types of TV shows, like cooking shows, to improve your vocabulary in a particular area.
  • Search for a summary of the show after watching it, to check that you’ve accurately understood what you’ve seen. 
  • Listen to short extracts from the show and write down what you hear. 

Can You Learn a Language by Watching TV

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Where to start with foreign language shows

1. Play around with subtitles
As outlined above, it’s a good idea to start off by watching a TV series with subtitles in your native language. Once you feel you have the basics in hand, you can switch to subtitles in the native language of the show “to get a better understanding of how it’s written”, says Daniela Osorio, a Spanish tutor and founder of Hola Spanish UK.  

2. Make sure you pick an episode length that suits you
If you’re a beginner, find a series with episodes of 20-30 minutes so you can start small and not lose motivation. For intermediate and advanced levels, a series with episodes of 40-60 minutes is better, or even a movie.

3. Try different types of TV shows
Watching a wider variety of shows could help you adopt a staggered approach to language learning. “Begin by watching specific types of TV shows, with vocabulary for specific purposes (such as cooking shows, the weather, etc), before building up to programmes with a broader range of vocabulary (such as the news),” says Edwards

4. Repeat shows and test yourself
You could watch an episode more than once so you can catch more information each time you watch it, or search for a summary of the episode after it’s finished to test your comprehension skills.

5. Write down what you hear
Another strategy to learn a language in this way is to listen to short extracts and attempt to write down exactly what you hear. “This is a great way of distinguishing between how words sound and how they are written. Be sure to look up any new words,” adds Edwards.  

If you're struggling to find shows, check our guide to the best TV streaming services. These platforms often have a range of foreign language shows available, along with plenty of subtitle options to help your learning process.

Can You Learn a Language By Watching TV

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Advantages and disadvantages

Learning through TV will improve your listening and speaking skills, as you’ll be able to pick up the accent and get to grips with colloquial phrases and words. It’s also a much more authentic way of learning. 

That said, the exposure to multiple regional dialects/accents at once may be confusing, particularly in the early days. The other downside of learning in this way is that you won’t get corrected on pronunciation, adds Osorio, who has been teaching English and Spanish for more than 10 years.

Is learning a language through TV a good substitute for classroom teaching? When comparing data from the Kosovan study, learning through TV is less effective than a systematic learning environment, so you may want to top up your learning with some top-rated Spanish lessons or good quality French classes.

But watching TV does significantly contribute to language skills. What’s more, the timetabled nature of TV schedules ensures regular time is dedicated to the learning process – and by watching programmes such as series, the importance of understanding what has happened before in the story may add an extra dimension. 

Active versus passive listening

If you are actively listening you are likely to progress at a faster rate than someone who isn’t. “The speed at which people speak, and the accents, mean that learners could struggle if they aren’t paying proper attention. By actively listening, you are training your ear to understand better every time,” says Osario.

But by having the TV on in the background, and listening passively, you could still acquire skills in pronunciation, intonation and developing an authentic accent, which are all important aspects of learning a language. “Vocabulary can still enter a learner's brain, although the specific meaning of certain words may require research,” notes Edwards.

Improving speech, spelling and grammar

Foreign language television shows will mainly help to improve your speech and vocabulary, as hearing authentic pronunciation, intonation, accent and dialect on a regular basis will allow you to mimic, and develop these skills yourself. 

“It will give you an insight into the grammar without thinking too much about the rules,” says Osorio. But, Edwards warns: “As grammar rules may not be as explicit, grammatical knowledge over time may not be as secure as knowledge of vocabulary.

“Watching foreign shows can improve spelling too, if some work is done on distinguishing between how words sound and how they are actually spelt on subtitles,” he says. 

Are some TV shows better than others?

If you are looking to learn a language for a specific topic, like sport, TV is great as you can really tailor what you watch. If you want to develop vocabulary in more general terms, programs such as the news or chat shows are ideal in that they would expose the learner to a broader range of vocabulary and offer a more varied experience. Soap operas may also be useful, as storylines often link to real life situations.

“Programs with lots of visual input and gestures can support a language learner well – so cookery shows, for example, may be beneficial” says Edwards.

How can you supplement this learning?

To fully immerse yourself in the target language you can change the language on your smartphone and social media to the one which is being learned. 

Participants in the Kosovan study used Google Translate, search engines, YouTube and online dictionaries to better the language, plus note-taking. “Taking notes contributes to grammar learning” and helps to memorise a word or sentence, the researchers stated. 

“Online dictionaries can give you synonyms, which can help increase your vocabulary,” adds Osorio.

Another way to support language learning is to communicate and interact with people who know and use the target language, or listen to music in the target language.

If you're already an advanced speaker, you may benefit from one-on-one tuition from a dedicated online tutor.