Updated: Jan 15
Are you learning a language through TV shows? We want to help you do it better.
Here we'll outline 8 easy strategies you can use to learn a language with your favorite T.V. shows.
1. Pick a show you enjoy
This is so important. If you don’t pick a show that you enjoy, your fun learning now turns into WORK. This may lead to decreased motivation. If this happens, chances are you will give up this activity sooner and not be as consistent. Without consistency, your likelihood of recalling words and concepts learned in a previous episode will definitely drop. Also, if you’re enjoying the show, you’ll want to watch it MORE, which means more time with your target language and more repetition of the words related to that show’s subject.
With a preferred topic, you may also learn more vocabulary. Studies have found that students learning vocabulary with preferred topics acquire greater vocabulary. So pick a show that you enjoy. Do you usually like to watch fantasy, sports, cooking, romance? Start there. Then you’ll be able to talk about these topics with greater confidence too.
(Learning Spanish? See our show recommendations here.)
2. Use subtitles, or don’t?
This is always up for debate. Your use of subtitles should depend on your goal and your level.
If you are working towards improving your listening comprehension, using subtitles may still be the best route. One study found that using target language subtitles resulted in better listening comprehension as compared to native subtitles or no subtitles. Although, watching the episode first with no subtitles, then watching the episode again with subtitles (native or target) may give you an even greater benefit.
If you are working towards vocabulary acquisition, use subtitles in your target language. Then write down the words you don’t recognize. You can look them up later or at the time of viewing. See strategy #3 for more details. Using target subtitles can also lead to gains in speaking and writing performance, as well as other areas.
If you are looking for passive learning, cultural understanding, and more time with your target language, use native, target, or both! With the Language Reactor Chrome extension, you can add both native and target language subtitles to your show. Either way, you’ll still receive input and be able to enjoy the show, while learning more about the culture.
3. Note new words
This is important for retaining new vocabulary. You may be able to passively recognize the meaning of new words based on context, for example, if you were given a multiple-choice option of their meanings, but it would be hard to ever use these words expressively.
How should you note new words? This depends on your language level. If your language level is relatively high, it is likely you won’t come across too many unknown words throughout each episode of a show, so jotting down each word is a great idea. If your language level is relatively low, you will probably encounter many new words and jotting them all down may take away from the enjoyment and understanding of the show. In this case, you should write down the words that are most important to the storyline.
When you come across one of these words, pause the show, write down the word (this is why target subtitles are helpful here), and write down the time the word was shown. If you’d like, you can also do a quick translation. This will help you better understand what’s happening in the scene.
After you finish the episode, look back at your words. Write down their definitions in your native language and your target language. Then go back to the times that these words were shown and see how they were used in a sentence. (This is why we don’t recommend jotting down every single new word, as this would then take a really long time.) Finally, to switch to an expressive learning goal, create 1 or 2 sentences with your new vocabulary words.
This is a strategy that has been proven to improve both speaking and listening abilities in language learning. To use this strategy, you will repeat what the speaker says as quickly as you hear it. This will also help with your pronunciation. This may not be a great strategy to use throughout the whole show, as it might be hard to listen to what the next person says, but could be very helpful if used during specific scenes or while watching it through again.
5. Reproduce the content (not in a piracy kind of way)
“Use it or lose it” they say. This also applies to new language words and concepts. If you want to retain them and improve on expressive skills, such as writing and speaking, you will have to use them.
Great ways to do this are by telling/writing a summary of what you saw in each episode, talking with a friend about what happened, making sentences with your new vocabulary words, and thinking about what might happen next. These will all need to be done in your target language.
As simple as this sounds, you may find it’s a lot harder than you expected. Turning our receptive understanding into expressive communication actually takes a bit of mental work. So be patient and persevere, and you will definitely see the benefits.
6. Watch with Language TV Club
Remember strategies #1-5? Well, we like to incorporate almost all of them into the Language TV Club. You get the definitions of useful words, so you don’t have to stop the show. You get a list of practice questions and a chance to talk about the show afterwards, turning your receptive understanding into expressive use. You also get to share this experience with like-minded, awesome people which makes your show-watching that much more enjoyable. Additionally, your new TV club friends may help you learn new concepts or better understand what happened. At the time of writing this post, 100% of Language TV Club attendees have reported overall satisfaction with the experience, and 88% have reported that they made new friends. Give it a try! See which languages are currently available by clicking here.
7. Review with a teacher or tutor
This can be a great way to solidify what you’ve learned, get extra practice, and get professional feedback on your pronunciation, understanding, and speaking skills. Your teacher may also be able to help you with conjugation of new vocabulary and introduction of related vocabulary terms.
It’s advisable to meet with your teacher/tutor after every 1-2 episodes. Bring practice questions and vocabulary or grammar concepts you’d like to practice. You can find teachers and tutors for great rates on iTalki. If this will be your first lesson with them, you can get a $5 credit by using this link.
8. Watch it twice
Many of the strategies above recommend watching the show through twice. This could work by watching each episode again or by watching the whole season a second time.
After you’ve used your learning strategies the first time around, your second time watching the show will be much easier and you’ll find you are picking up on more details. This will also solidify concepts you’ve learned along the way. You may find it’s even more enjoyable the second time!
Grab your favorite non-crunchy snack, a nice notebook or our Episode Guide template and start watching!
1. Heilman, M., Juffs, A., & Eskenazi, M. (2007). Choosing reading passages for vocabulary learning by topic to increase intrinsic motivation. Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence and Applications, 158, 566.
2. Rezaei, O., & Dezhara, S. (2011). An Investigation of the Possible Effects of Favored Contexts in Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. English Language Teaching, 4(4), 97-114.
3. Hayati, A., & Mohmedi, F. (2011). The effect of films with and without subtitles on listening comprehension of EFL learners. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(1), 181-192.
4. Kim, N. Y. (2019). Native Language or Target Language? Effects of Different Types of Subtitles on Productive Skills. Studies in English Education, 24(3), 337-363.
5. Sumiyoshi, H., & Svetanant, C. (2017). Motivation and attitude towards shadowing: learners perspectives in Japanese as a foreign language. Asian-Pacific Journal of Second and Foreign Language Education, 2(1), 1-21.