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Learning Languages with TV Shows at the Advanced Level: Setting the Stage

Hey! Lauren here. I wanted to share some recent research that I discovered while preparing for my presentation at the New Year New Language Summit. The presentation was all about learning languages with TV shows at the advanced level. What can we do to improve our language skills in listening, speaking, reading and writing using TV series? Let’s dive in!

screenshot of Lauren doing language presentation online

First, we're talking about picking the right show.

Okay, now this is not a do or die moment because if you've picked the wrong show you can just go back and pick a different show. It's not the end of the world, right? But if you want to get all of your resources settled in the beginning and feel like you'll do preparation work before you watch the show, then you'll probably want to take a couple steps to make sure that you are choosing the right show in the first place.

The first thing to keep in mind is the entertainment factor. And I would say this is one of the most important pieces. You want to pick a show that you enjoy. That's the gist of it. 

Make sure that it's something that you want to come back to. This will make sure that your motivation is up and that you're attending to it fully as well.

Next, you want to look at what kind of vocabulary will be in the show. So this can relate to niche topics. For example, if you're watching a crime series, you're probably going to hear a lot of vocabulary related to solving crimes, evidence, clues, trials, things like that, whereas if you're watching a cooking show, you're going to hear a lot of cooking vocabulary. 

So make sure you choose something that Is related to your goals, like what kind of vocabulary do you actually want to be using with people in real life?

Some shows will contain other dialects in it. Keep that in mind as well. You may be intentionally looking for that at the advanced level. So instead of choosing the most popular show that everyone's talking about, maybe digging a little bit deeper and finding something that is about this certain town in this certain region of the country would be helpful for you if you’re planning to spend time there.

Another thing to keep in mind is slang. Some of these teenage shows will have a lot more slang in it than a show with older characters in it. And so if you feel like you don't want to know all that slang and you're not going to use it, it may be best to skip the show about teenagers.

screenshot of Lauren with slide showing show choice with 4 main factors: entertainment, vocabulary, difficulty and other

Next, you'll want to look at the difficulty level of the show. There are a couple of ways that you can do this. There is a resource for English text called TextInspector.

You can download the subtitles to the show, for example, with Language Reactor (I know you can definitely do that on Netflix. I'm not sure about YouTube.) into a text file or an Excel file and then upload the text to this difficulty checker and see what level it is.

Now, if you're at the advanced level, this probably won't make too much of a difference for you, but if you can preview the subtitles of a show, then you'll get an idea of how many words you are understanding versus not understanding. The general rule of thumb is for reading. The rule is that you should understand about 90 percent of a text for it to be at your level. If you don't understand that much, it might be too difficult for you. Now, the fact that in the case of TV, it's an audio-visual media, means that you may understand more because you're getting that visual context as well. So you have a little bit more leeway, because even if you didn't know that word while reading, if you see somebody gesturing or pointing to that thing, you could figure out the meaning that way and it's not as much of a big deal as it is while reading.

Other factors to consider when choosing a show are costs and length.

Cost will come into play if you have to pay for a streaming service, for example, or pay to access the show.

When considering length, think about the number of episodes there are. Do you want to be tied into a series that has 70 episodes in it? That’s something to consider, and additionally, the length of the episodes. If you're at an advanced level, an hour-long episode shouldn't be too much for you, but if you're not quite there, you might want to start with shows that are closer to 20-30 minutes long, or shorter, if you can break it up, at beginner levels, so you don't have as much input coming at you. But if you're already at an advanced level, hour-long shows are great because you get more of that immersion factor.

So those are some things to keep in mind when choosing your show. But remember, make sure it's something you enjoy. That's rule numero uno.

woman watching tv on laptop with overlaying text dual subtitles

Next, we can talk about using subtitles

There are quite a few studies out there that have studied the use of subtitles and whether or not it brings you benefit. Most of them do say yes, it does bring you benefit.

A study by Bird and Williams (2002) states that bimodal presentation, meaning audio plus visual, can improve novel word learning and retention as well.

In a study by Tajgozari (2019), they used two subtitle groups, one was native subtitles, one was target subtitles, and they had a third group with no subtitles. The groups with subtitles had better accuracy in speaking compared to the no subtitles group. Most of the research is pointing towards the use of target language subtitles.

And nowadays, there is all this cool software and stuff where you can use dual subtitles. You can use augmented subtitles and interactive subtitles, that’s where you hover over the word and it shows you the definition. A study by Gonzales Ortega (who's actually a member and host of the TV club!) and Manas (2020) found that there wasn't a significant difference between those different kinds of subtitles. I thank her for doing that study before the Language TV Club even existed. It's pretty cool!

If you're feeling like, “Oh, I'm advanced. I don't need to use subtitles," you can totally choose to watch without them, especially if they take your attention away from the show, but they can be very helpful to be able to see the spelling of any new words that come up.

Also, if you are a visual learner, being able to see a word might help you remember it as well, so they can be good for learning new words in real time. Now if you're trying to test your comprehension, then try doing it without the subtitles first, then go back and watch with the subtitles and see how much you understand.


Next, we'll get into my favorite part, which is turning passive learning into active learning. This will be a whole new blog post because it will be pretty in-depth. Stay tuned!

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  1. Bird, S. A., & Williams, J. N. (2002). The effect of bimodal input on implicit and explicit memory: An investigation into the benefits of within-language subtitling. Applied Psycholinguistics, 23(4), 509–533.

  2. González Ortega, Bianca & Manas, Iban. (2020). Efectos de los subtítulos intralingüísticos y los subtítulos bilingües aumentados sobre el aprendizaje incidental de vocabulario en español como lengua extranjera. RILEX. Revista sobre investigaciones léxicas. 3. 125-163. 10.17561/rilex.3.2.5808.

  3. Tajgozari,  M. (2019). The  effect  of  watching  captioned  TV  series  on  speaking  accuracy  of  Iranian  advanced  EFL learners. Global Journal of Foreign Language Teaching.9(3), 157-166.


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