Is it possible to learn a new language through watching TV?

Can you learn a language only from TV?

Learning languages in only in a classroom environment or by using one textbook can be really boring. With the rise in online lessons and multimedia language learning tools during the pandemic, learning a language through TV certainly is a possible method.

A note on methods

Various language learning methods should complement each other. One single method should not be your only way of trying to reach fluency.

If you ONLY try and learn Spanish, for example, by watching movies and TV, you’ll be lacking in-depth grammar knowledge. If you only learn from grammar textbooks, you might not learn useful, native phrases in a natural setting.

Be sure to combine methods when learning a new language! For purposes of this article, I’ll focus on how one can learn a language through watching TV or movies.

A metaphor for language learning

Learning a language is a lot like becoming a skilled tennis player. Tennis requires learning the rules of the game, but to really play you will have to cultivate the muscle memory and reflexes for a bunch of different moves. With a new language, the rules of the game will be grammar – but your main skills will be speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Every time you hear or read a phrase in your target language, or whenever you try to speak it, you are basically performing a free throw with your linguistic muscles.

This is why learning a language is a long-term goal. You are training your brain to recognize new sounds and interpret their meaning. The more you do it, the faster and more automatic will these “linguistic muscles” get.

So, how much are we able to learn from TV?

According to research, you can learn a language through TV to some extent – but it will take longer than if you were using traditional methods. Researchers published a study in Turkey in 2019. A group of people from Kosovo had been consistently watching subtitled Turkish soap operas for 1 to 2 years. None of them had ever attended a Turkish language lesson, but they were able to pass an Intermediate-level listening and reading test. 

They were able to “land” on something that takes most people hundreds of hours of deliberate practice. The fact that they were having fun while doing it was not a coincidence, either – it was kind of the whole point, since it didn’t feel like studying at all.

My experience learning through TV

In my experience, I’ve picked up a few natural phrases and new vocabulary from watching TV, but I always try to combine it with other language learning methods.

For instance, I learnt how to use the future tense in Spanish by watching a LOT of shows in Spanish. But I could only use the future tense in the first and second person. In order to learn other conjugations, I needed to use a grammar textbook or look up the conjugation rules for various verbs. Had I started from a grammar book, the process would have been much more boring and I wouldn’t remember things so vividly compared to learning it from TV.

The key though, is to have the content be understandable – so using subtitles or transcripts and not just listening without understanding anything.

Two ways to learn through TV

1. Complement your language study

The first and easiest one, like I mentioned above, is to use it as a complement to your regular language study.

This method also applies if you took a language in school many years ago, but then gave up on it. 

After you start watching TV in your target language routinely, you will notice how your listening comprehension improves quickly after a few weeks.

2. Start as a beginner by watching subtitled TV

You can start from scratch and use only subtitled shows. This may take you longer while you figure out grammar rules.

If you go this route, the best TV shows to learn a new language with will be children’s shows. I like to watch Boj (image above) in French on Lingopie because it’s too adorable. Rewatch each episode a few times. You can also use flashcards or a notebook to keep track of vocabulary.

Tips to engage with the content you’re watching

If you’re ready to spice things up and want to get a bit of practice, try out any of these tricks:

  • Make sure you go through your flashcard sets periodically to review any new words you’ve learned.
  • Play actor a bit and repeat any sentences that you like. This will help you with your pronunciation.
  • Become a fan on other sites. Many foreign series have dedicated forums or subreddits where you can discuss fan theories or predictions for the next season. Just be mindful of spoilers!
  • Write down entire phrases that you can see yourself using – maybe expressions that people say when they’re startled, or new idioms you can use.

It all starts with getting really into a new series. Why not join Lingopie and check out what they have?

Video clip: My review on Lingopie

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This blog post is kindly sponsored by Lingopie. Some content has been repurposed with permission from the Lingopie blog. I never promote products that I personally don’t use and enjoy.




3 responses to “Is it possible to learn a new language through watching TV?”

  1. Someday Korean Avatar

    I think that some sort of regular input in your TL is absolutely KEY for learning. Do it however you want – podcasts, TV shows, making actual friends who speak it around you – but it really elevates the learning experience.

    You mentioned learning some things through TV and then supplementing that with study, but I’ve noticed it being super helpful mostly the other way around.
    After I would learn a new Korean grammar structure/vocab/phrase in active study, I would often suddenly notice it popping up EVERYWHERE in the dramas/variety shows I was watching, even if I had on English subtitles. This would really help drive home the concept in my brain, and it’s a lot more fun than reviewing notes (which.. I don’t really take anyways lol) or doing a bunch of practice exercises. (Not that either of those things are evil – I just think remembering from repeated exposure in a fun show/podcast is way more entertaining and natural)

  2. […] And yes, I really believe you can learn a language by watching TV! Read more about it here.  […]

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