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

Photo (cc) by Fooding Around

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.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
Why Half of Retirees Now Owe Taxes on Social Security
Why Half of Retirees Now Owe Taxes on Social Security

Growing numbers of seniors are paying taxes on their Social Security benefits, but you might be able to avoid this fate.

7 Deadly Health Mistakes People Make After Age 50
7 Deadly Health Mistakes People Make After Age 50

Simply avoiding these actions, or lack thereof, can improve the odds of a longer, more healthful life.

6 Reasons Hiding Cash at Home Is a Terrible Idea
6 Reasons Hiding Cash at Home Is a Terrible Idea

Stashing cash around the house is anything but harmless.

Not Asking About This in the Hospital Can Cost You Thousands
Not Asking About This in the Hospital Can Cost You Thousands

Medicare recipients who fail to clarify their hospital status can pay a high price.

This Is the Best Time of Day to Take Blood Pressure Meds
This Is the Best Time of Day to Take Blood Pressure Meds

The right timing can help you prevent a big — and possibly fatal — mistake.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
10 Things Frugal People Never Buy
10 Things Frugal People Never Buy

If you’re a true tightwad, the mere thought of spending money on these items gives you the willies.

10 Useless Purchases You Need to Stop Making
10 Useless Purchases You Need to Stop Making

You might as well flush your money down the loo if you spend it on these things.

7 Social Security Benefits You May Be Overlooking
7 Social Security Benefits You May Be Overlooking

There’s more to Social Security than retirement benefits.

7 Social Security Rules Everyone Should Know by Now
7 Social Security Rules Everyone Should Know by Now

Confusion over Social Security is a shame, considering how many of us will need this money badly.

If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It
If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It

They don’t make coffee makers like this anymore.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

14 Things You Should Stop Buying in 2021
14 Things You Should Stop Buying in 2021

These convenient household products come with hidden costs that you might not have considered.

The 6 Best Investing Apps for Beginners
The 6 Best Investing Apps for Beginners

If you’re looking to ease into investing in the coronavirus economy with just a little money, check out these easy-to-use tools.

Is Writing a Check Still Safe?
Is Writing a Check Still Safe?

Every time you pay by check, you hand your bank account numbers to a stranger.

8 Things You Should Replace to Improve Your Life Today
8 Things You Should Replace to Improve Your Life Today

Being frugal isn’t smart if you put off replacing these items.

9 Mistakes People Make When Cleaning With Vinegar
9 Mistakes People Make When Cleaning With Vinegar

Cleaning with vinegar can save you a lot of money, but using it like this can cost you.

13 Amazon Purchases We Are Loving Right Now
13 Amazon Purchases We Are Loving Right Now

These practical products make everyday life a little easier.

7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco

Even if it seems you save a bundle buying Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products, they may not be the bargain they appear to be.

6 Ways to Protect Your Retirement Accounts From Hackers
6 Ways to Protect Your Retirement Accounts From Hackers

Imagine having $245,000 stolen from your retirement account — and not being reimbursed.

7 Income Tax Breaks That Retirees Often Overlook
7 Income Tax Breaks That Retirees Often Overlook

Did you realize all these tax credits and deductions exist — or that they apply to retirees?

10 Things Successful Retirees Do Differently
10 Things Successful Retirees Do Differently

These habits and characteristics can help put you on the track to success.

7 Costly Health Problems That Strike After Age 50
7 Costly Health Problems That Strike After Age 50

As we age, our bodies wear down. Here is how to cut costs associated with some common ailments.

7 Hidden Sections of Amazon Every Shopper Should Know
7 Hidden Sections of Amazon Every Shopper Should Know

These little-known departments of Amazon are gold mines for deal-seekers and impulse shoppers alike.

4 States Where Taxes on Social Security May Fall Soon
4 States Where Taxes on Social Security May Fall Soon

These states are considering reducing — or even eliminating — income taxes on Social Security benefits.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.