Can You Learn a New Language by Watching Movies or TV?

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Among the claims people have made that sound questionable to me is this one: I learned to speak [a foreign language] from watching moves and/or TV.

After all, didn’t film star Mila Kunis learn English by watching “The Price is Right” as a kid?

Ah, no. She told Parade:

I did not learn English from “The Price Is Right.” I made a statement when I was 14 that is going to haunt me the rest of my life about how I used to watch “The Price Is Right” when I was learning English. It just happened to be on TV before I went to school. It wasn’t something I was consciously aware of. But somehow that ended up becoming that I learned English through listening to Bob Barker! God bless him.

Why do I wonder about this? I’ve been watching Italian movies nearly every week for two years in preparation for another trip to Italy. Learning more of the language will increase the pleasure and ease of the trip. Plus, people there will appreciate that I’ve made the effort.

But am I really helping myself by watching so many films? Can this really be effective?

Here’s what others think about this frugal method — free since I already had the Netflix DVD and streaming subscriptions — plus a list of other resources to teach yourself another language free or at least for cheap.

How to learn by watching movies or TV

Many of the people who’ve written about this make an obvious point, so let’s get it out of the way: Don’t watch a version of the foreign film dubbed in English (we’re guessing that’s your native language if you’re reading this website). You want to watch the movie in its native language.

Some writers have said it works best to watch the film first without any subtitles on, then watch it with English subtitles, and then again with subtitles in the film’s native tongue, if they’re available.

It’s also suggested that you watch the film only in small segments of five minutes or so, and then watch each segment over and over again. That does not sound like fun.

“Peter M.,” who blogs at Language Learning Shortcuts, explains why using movies to learn a language has drawbacks:

  • People often speak at a rapid clip. (I watched an episode of “Il Commissario Montalbano” via RAI TV without subtitles and could barely make out a word. Luca Zingaretti was entertaining anyway.)
  • They might speak with a local accent or dialect. Have you watched British movies where you’ve needed to turn the English subtitles on? I know I have.
  • The subtitles may not match the dialogue. Some expressions in the foreign language don’t translate well.

We would add that after a spell of very close listening, your brain gets lazy and focuses on the subtitles, not the words people speak. After all, you do want to enjoy the film.

I would suggest that using movies and TV can enhance your learning by exposing you to how people speak and familiarizing you with basic terms, but only as a supplement to learning by another means. With that in mind, here are some free and cheap sources for learning a new language:

  • Duolingo, a free system that says you can “learn a language while translating the Web.” It teaches you online via a series of quizzes and translating assignments. Did we mention it’s free? “Johnson,” The Economist’s language blogger, makes it sound fun, and particularly enjoys the app. However, Johnson, who has used it to study French and Dutch, added:

It doesn’t really teach conversational skills. If I didn’t already know the basics of French conversation, I’d be helpless in France. The focus is great for serious beginners or long-term learners, but much less useful for casual learners or tourists.

  • Johnson also reviewed Babbel, which focuses more on conversation. It costs from $7.45 to $12.95 a month, which, Johnson notes, is much cheaper than Rosetta Stone.
  • Mark Frost at HackCollege writes about Lingual Media Player, a free, Windows-only application that allows you to see subtitles in your language and your chosen one simultaneously while watching a film.
  • Omniglot provides a directory of an extensive list of languages. Click on one and you’ll be taken to a page that provides links to online courses to learn it. Some are paid and some are free. Another source is Open Culture.
  • You can learn a language and then practice with others through sites like Busuu and Livemocha.
  • Memrise has also been highly recommended. It says, “Bring learning to life with mems — little snippets of imagination and humour that make things easy to remember.”

Don’t limit yourself to these. I used the Oxford Take Off in Italian course free from the local library off and on until it was misplaced or someone stole it. I bought it later on Amazon for about $25.

Not sure how to pronounce a word? You can find websites where native speakers have recorded it.

Have you tried to teach yourself another language? What worked best for you? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

We welcome your opinions, but let’s keep it civil. Like many businesses, we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. In our case, that means those who communicate by name-calling, racism, using words designed to hurt others or generally acting like an uninformed bully. Also, comments that include links to email addresses or commercial websites typically aren't posted. This isn't a place to advertise your business.

  • ruis2002

    Mango Languages is a database offered through public library websites. Check your public library to see if they offer access to Mango. It’s a nicer interface than Rosetta Stone, and has a large variety of languages to choose from.

  • Nonsumdignus

    I watch the Spanish telenovelas with the Spanish subtitles. Has helped me tremendously, but I also have several years of classroom Spanish behind me.