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

What's Hot

2 Types of Black Marks Might Vanish From Your Credit File SoonBorrow

6 Ways the Obamacare Overhaul Might Impact Your WalletInsurance

7 Dumb and Costly Moves Homebuyers MakeBorrow

This Free Software Brings Old Laptops Back to LifeMore

Obamacare Replacement Plan Gets ‘F’ Rating from Consumer ReportsFamily

Beware These 12 Common Money MistakesCredit & Debt

21 Restaurants Offering Free Food Right NowSaving Money

17 Ways to Have More Fun for Less MoneySave

House Hunters: Beware of These 6 Mortgage MistakesBorrow

30 Household Uses for Baby OilSave

25 Ways to Spend Less on FoodMore

Nearly Half of Heart-Related Deaths Linked to These 10 Foods and IngredientsFamily

5 Surprising Benefits of Exercising Outdoors in WinterFamily

10 Ways to Save When You’re Making Minimum WageSave

Boost Your Credit Score Fast With These 7 MovesCredit & Debt

7 Painless Ways to Pay Off Your Mortgage Years EarlierBorrow

The Most Sinful City in the U.S. Is … (Hint: It’s Not Vegas)Family

The True Cost of Bad CreditCredit & Debt

10 Companies With the Best 401(k) PlansGrow

This Scam Now Tops ID Theft as the No. 2 Consumer ComplaintFamily

6 Stores With Awesome Reward ProgramsFamily

6 Ways to Save More at Lowe’s and The Home DepotSave

6 Healthful Treats for Your DogFamily

New Study Ranks the Best States in the U.S.Family

Thousands of Millionaires Moving to 1 Country — and Leaving AnotherGrow

Strapped for College Costs? How to Get the Most From FAFSABorrow

6 Overlooked Ways to Save at Chick-fil-AFamily

Ask Stacy: What’s the Fastest Way to Pay Off My Mortgage?Borrow

Where to Sell Your Stuff for Top DollarAround The House

8 Ways to Get a Good Price on a Shiny New AutoCars

Ask Stacy: How Do I Start Over?Credit & Debt

Secret Cell Plans: Savings Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint Don’t Want You to Know AboutFamily

30 Awesome Things to Do in RetirementCollege

14 Super Smart Ways to Save on TravelSave

The Rich Prefer Modest Cars — Should You Join Them?Cars

You’ll Soon Pay More to Shop at CostcoSave

10 Ways to Save When Your Teen Starts DrivingFamily

Watching TV or films in a language you'd like to learn is far from the only free or frugal method widely available to you.

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.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

I know... every site you visit wants you to subscribe to their newsletter. But our news and advice is actually worth reading! For 25 years, I've been making people richer without making their eyes glaze over. You'll be glad you did. I guarantee it!


Read Next: Lookin’ Good! How to Get a Killer Deal on Eyeglasses

Check Out Our Hottest Deals!

We're always adding new deals and coupons that'll save you big bucks. See the deals to the right and hundreds more in our Deals section.

Click here to explore 1,983 more deals!