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Learning Languages with TV Shows at the Advanced Level: Passive to Active

Hey! Lauren here again for part two of this series where I am sharing 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. In part one of this series, we discussed how to set the stage for success by choosing the right show and subtitles. In this post, we'll discuss how to turn the passive activity of watching TV into an active learning experience.

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

Watching TV by itself is generally a pretty passive activity. Usually, you're just sitting back, watching, listening, maybe you're eating a snack, you know, petting your cat, so sometimes your attention is not fully on. So in order to turn that attention on and turn your retention mechanisms on in your brain so that you start wanting to hold on to those new words, here are some suggestions based on a few studies and our own experience at the Language TV Club.

The first strategy is using note taking (Vanderplank, 1990). You can take notes on new vocabulary, maybe on specific phrases that you heard, or even grammar concepts. For example, you heard somebody use the subjunctive, so you write that down and you can remember that very original context of when you heard it.

The second strategy is to discuss the show with a teacher, mediator, or someone else you trust to support you (Vanderplank, 1990). The other person will help you reproduce some of that information that you gained and will help you work a little bit harder to use some of those new words or use your language to explain what happened, practice your narration skills, things like that. 

The next strategy is using prior linguistic preparation (Caimi, 2006). What this means is having something like a handout before you actually watch the show that has information on it about the show. It could have specific vocabulary or comprehension questions, even knowing the topic of the show could be helpful.

Writing some notes about what vocabulary words might come up and knowing their meanings before you even watch the show or having comprehension questions made out so you can be prepared to answer them and be looking for those answers while you're watching, can be very useful activities. You can find related vocabulary by listing words related to the topic. For example, when watching a crime drama, I will probably want to know words such as evidence, case, investigation, fingerprints, crime scene, clue, suspect, etc. I can look those words up beforehand to save me time while watching and prime my brain.

On that note, answering questions afterwards is helpful too. This is a post-watch activity (Gutierrez & Molina, 2018). Oral or written questions can be used (Caimi, 2006). This means answering questions about what happened or even your thoughts about what happened. What might have you done differently? How did you think about how these characters related to each other? What do you think was the purpose of using this specific song during the scene? Get creative with it or ask a teacher, a tutor or a friend to prepare questions for you. You can also do an exchange and create questions for them too. At the advanced level, this is helpful for trying out different types of verb tenses, such as the conditional or subjective. For example, to practice the conditional, try something like, "what would you have done/said in this situation?"

Then finally, a good psychological state (Caimi, 2006). So in that study, they're saying that if you are in a good psychological state, you have a better chance of learning new things. So that kind of goes towards the entertainment factor of choosing the show. You want to bring something that brings you joy and this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a show that makes you happy, but more so that it makes you feel intrigued, curious, interested.

When you are feeling calm and relaxed and you're not feeling like you're trying to get out of this activity as soon as possible, that will have a positive effect. Also, if you're watching or discussing with friends, that can contribute to a good psychological state as well.

four people in video call discussing tv series in french

Next, I’d like to present to you a project that is pretty interesting and uses other strategies for learning with TV series and films. It's called the Tradilex project (Fernandez-Costales, Talavan & Tinedo, 2023). It's about Traducción Audiovisual Didáctica, which in English is didactic audiovisual translation. They use translation in subtitling and dubbing, and other activities, as a means for learning. In this specific study, they had three lessons for each of these 5 modalities: Subtitling, dubbing, subtitling for the Deaf and hard of hearing, audio description, and voiceovers. They did those modalities in that sequence of three lessons each. The results of this study showed there were improvements in all four of the linguistic character categories, the speaking, listening, writing, and reading.

This is really interesting. It's something I want to look more into. They have a whole project on this and several universities working on finding more research about it. So I definitely want to learn more about this project and see more of the results

Let’s look at the activity for each modality. For subtitling, you would hear the words spoken and you would write down the dialogue in the same language, then take it a step further by translating it. Dubbing is when you are recording yourself out loud with the translation of what's being said. This requires you to dig into the emotion of the characters and helps you practice using the language in a more natural way (if the series is a realistic one that is). Subtitling for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing includes more of the other sounds that are going on, so it’s more of a written narration of the sounds as well as the speech. Audio description would be describing what is happening in the scene, so not just what people are saying, but the activities and visual aspects as well. I can see this being very helpful to improve your descriptive skills in a new language. Finally, voiceover would be kind of like dubbing, but without all of the emotion attached to it. It's like reading the script out loud, but it can involve more creative storytelling. Here is a great article by BunnyStudio about the differences between dubbing and voiceover.

So those were the five different activities that they did to improve their language skills. And it seems like they've been getting really good results, so I'm very interested to try it. Please leave a comment below and let me know if you’ve tried any of those 5 Tradilex activities, or one of the 5 strategies mentioned prior (note-taking, discussion, prior linguistic preparation, post-watch activity and good psychological state).

With these 10 different strategies to use while learning languages with TV shows, I hope that you will find at least 1 or 2 that you enjoy and start using to turn this passive activity into an active learning experience. Let us know in the comments how this worked for you!


In our next post, we’ll talk about a few different resources. Some of these are more popular resources that you might have heard of or might have tried. And some of these you may not have heard of before, so keep an eye out for the next one!

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  1. Caimi, A. (2006). Audiovisual translation and language learning: The promotion of intralingual subtitles. The Journal of Specialised Translation, 6, 85-98.

  2. Fernández-Costales, A., Talaván, N., & Tinedo, A.J. (2023). Didactic audiovisual translation in language teaching: Results from TRADILEX. [Traducción audiovisual didáctica en enseñanza de lenguas: Resultados del proyecto TRADILEX]. Comunicar, 77.

  3. Vanderplank, R. (1990). Paying attention to the words: Practical and theoretical problems in watching television programmes with uni-lingual (CEEFAX) sub-titles. System, 18(2), 221-234.


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