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How to learn a language by watching TV

Watching TV or movies is often one of the first ways that people try to learn a new language. But is watching TV the best way to improve your language skills?

TV and movies are the pinnacle of authentic native speech—they combine slang, fast back-and-forth dialogues, idiomatic expressions, and poor enunciation. If you’re at a high enough level to deal with these challenges, foreign TV can really take you to the next level—it’s perfect for applying active learning techniques like audio dissection, shadowing, substitution, and prediction (see below). Most people, though, will use foreign TV for passive language learning, which, while not as effective as active learning for making major progress, can be a really enjoyable way to gain exposure to the language.

What is passive vs. active language learning?

Passive learning is anything that you do to increase your exposure to the target language without expending much effort to study, learn, or practice. Active learning is when you make a deliberate effort to build knowledge or skills through study or practice.

For example, if you’re reading a Spanish novel and carefully paying attention to verb conjugations and sentence structure, looking up every word you don’t know, writing down the definitions, and making flashcards for later study—that’s active learning. If you’re reading a Spanish novel simply to enjoy the story, and you’re not paying particular attention to sentence structure and you don’t bother looking up words you don’t know—that’s passive learning.

Imagine you’re a basketball player. Which is better, watching a three-hour basketball game (passive), or doing shooting drills and conditioning for three hours (active)? Obviously, passive learning is easier, less taxing, and maybe even more enjoyable. But if you want to make real progress, active learning is the way to go—but you have to be prepared to put in the work.

I just want to watch foreign TV for fun. Will that help my language learning?

Let’s talk about the benefits of watching TV for passive learning. These apply to any student at any level.

1. What you hear on TV is truly native-like speech

If you’re watching a program where the actors are native speakers of the language, then you can be pretty sure that what you’re hearing is native-like speech. There are some important qualities of TV language that you may not get from a native language instructor or other language learning resources:

a) Pronunciation changes: In American English, most native speakers rarely say “want to”—they almost always say, “wanna”. Every language has these sorts of pronunciation changes, but in a controlled language learning setting, we don’t usually encounter them, because the audio we hear is often slowed down or deliberately made easier to understand. The downside of this is that we never learn how natives actually speak, so when we hear native speakers for the first time, they’re impossible to understand! When you’re watching TV, you’re being exposed to all the “wanna”s and “gonna”s of your target language, which will help you get used to the sound of native speech

b) Speed: Many language learning resources slow down speech so that it’s easier to understand. On TV, no one is trying to slow down the speech to make it more understandable for language learners, so you get to hear the true cadence of native speakers

c) Accent: As a language learner, we may only be exposed to one or two accents of the target language. For example, if your Spanish teacher is from Argentina, most of what you hear may be the Argentinian accent. That means when you hear a Chilean or a Spanish person speak for the first time, you may have some difficulties picking up certain sounds (Chilean Spanish is notoriously tough to understand). If you watch foreign TV, you can easily gain passive exposure to several different accents in an entertaining way.

d) Localisms: I say “localisms” to refer to vocabulary or other speech patterns common to the region. For example, in Bolivia, a highly common form of public transportation is a minivan called a trufi, which is a shortened form of saying taxi de ruta fija (fixed-route taxi). In the 6 years I had studied Spanish in middle and high school, I never once encountered the word trufi, even though it’s a word most Bolivians may encounter every day of their lives. The good thing about TV is that it gives you a glimpse of the local life, and thus exposes you to all these localisms that you otherwise may not come across.

2. TV gives you exposure to the culture

If you’re trying to learn Chinese while living in the middle of Nebraska, it can be easy to feel like your language learning is disconnected from Chinese culture. Language books and instructional videos, and even a native teacher can’t fully portray an entire culture. TV can be a great way to get exposure to cultural values, customs, and trends.

3. It can make your language learning experience enjoyable and sustainable

Language learning, like any long-term goal, is only possible if you stay motivated. Many forms of learning can be intense, stressful, and boring. If you’re spending day after day poring through language textbooks and flashcard decks (which I generally don’t recommend anyway), it can be really easy to give up. Watching TV is a great way to introduce entertaining and fun content into your language routine. Whether you’re using it for passive or active learning, watching TV can make your language learning journey more sustainable over the long term by providing content that you’re genuinely interested in.

4. Subtitles can help you learn speech patterns and new vocabulary

Even if you’re watching TV as a form of passive language learning, subtitles can be a great resource for improving your listening comprehension and vocabulary. The next time you watch foreign TV with subtitles, try these two really simple mental exercises:

1) If the subtitles are in English (or your native language), try figuring out which words they correspond to in the target language dialogue. For example, if you hear necesito más información, and the subtitles say, “I need more information”, go through the process of deducing: “Oh, información is probably ‘information’, so ‘more information’ is probably más información”. This quick mental exercise can help concretize new words in your mind.

2) If the subtitles are in the target language (which means you can probably already read at a high level), try paying attention to the pronunciation and accent. For example, if the subtitles say necesito más información, but what you hear is necesito ma información, pay attention to the fact that they’re not pronouncing the final “s” in más. This is actually a very common pronunciation change for native Spanish speakers. Then, the next time you hear someone say ma información, or ma dinero or ma comida, it will be easier for you to understand that they’re saying más.

I’m at an advanced level and I want to use TV for active language learning. What should I do?

If you want to use TV for active language learning, you have to accept that you are not going to be actually “watching” TV. TV is now a resource that you will use to enhance your language learning. You'll have to pause rewind and repeat over and over again, and you may find it difficult to get through an entire movie or show. Even though this may seem less enjoyable than just watching TV for fun, it's going to be much more valuable in terms of improving your language learning.

1. Substitution

One great thing about TV is that the spoken language is very authentic. This means that TV dialogues can be a better source of native-like speech than the dialogues you may find in your language textbook, which are often simplified for language learners. How can we take advantage of this? Substitution is a way for you to practice useful sentence structures that you hear when you watch TV.

Imagine you hear a sentence like the following:

Try to wrap it up in a couple of hours, I gotta go pick up my kids.

This sentence has so much juicy practice material for language learners! Here’s how we can use substitution to extract all the utility out of this sentence and improve our fluency.

Let’s pick a part of the sentence that we want to practice. “Wrap it up” is a neat phrase that most language learners may not encounter too often. Now, we’re going to try to master this phrase by using it over and over in many different ways. It’s kind of like we’re trying to master the jump shot in basketball—we’re going to take shots over and over again from different parts of the court so that we can get comfortable using our jump shot in different settings.

Let’s create some sentences for ourselves, and practice each one until we can say it fluently.

Wrap it up.

Try to wrap it up.

Try to wrap it up, guys.

Please wrap it up.

Please wrap it up, guys.

Can you wrap it up?

Can you guys wrap it up?

Can you guys wrap it up soon?