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Some people say that watching TV series can be very helpful in learning foreign languages. However, I am skeptical about it as I think that this kind of activity is just too passive.

My biggest concern is that you are probably too much focused on TV series itself rather than improving your language skills. Certainly, you can exercise your listening skills by that and maybe you can even pick up some words and phrases if they are being repeated frequently enough but still I wouldn't call it an effective way of learning foreign language.

What is your opinion about it? Maybe you could recommend some techniques that could improve that process and make it more effective?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by AsheeshR, Rory Alsop Dec 7 '13 at 0:21

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Not an answer to the direct question, so I'll leave a comment: An important thing to consider with TV shows and movies is that the shows might have a narrow vocabulary because of their setting (crime shows will talk about violence, laws, etc, and sports shows will talk about sports, and so on), so if you want to use TV shows and movies to learn a language, it is very advisable to use material with a wide range of subject matter and style, so that you don't get all your learning from a subculture. – asfallows Jul 3 '12 at 13:40
I believe watching TV, especially in the language that you're learning helps a lot in improving your listening and conversation skills. – user3919 Oct 5 '12 at 22:32
My first sentence was "He's dead, Jim" (subs were "Hij is dood, Jim" in Dutch). I was 8-9 at the time and ecstatic I could understand it. Now I'm ecstatic that my first English sentence was from Star Trek :-). – w00t May 21 '13 at 20:05
I did learn quite a bit of English from watching American movies and series on television. But I probably learned more from playing computer games! :-) – THelper Dec 5 '13 at 13:08

10 Answers 10

I will speak about my personal experience.

I improved my English skills by watching TV series and films, but I was already at some stage in my English learning. I had a good knowledge of English Grammar and some vocabulary.

But this way of learning is not going to give good results until it is given enough time, for example weeks, and in a continuous way, for example (6 times per week , 1 hour or even more time per session).

What helped me that I watched the series I like such as Lost, Chuck, and others, this let me get involved much better. The frequently repeated words will be remembered automatically.

I will summarize my experience :

  1. This way works better if you have reached to a level of the language and you are not a new to the language.
  2. It needs time to give results, it is not gonna give good results quickly.
  3. You need to listen for a certain amount of time per session, for example 30 minutes or more, it depends on how much you can concentrate.
  4. It will give much better results if it is supported by other activities such as reading or writing, you may read web pages, books, magazines.
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+1. I also recommend watching foreign TV/Movies with subtitles in your native language. Don't focus on just read the subtitles but try to connect them with what you're hearing. Either way, this should be more supplementary to your main education. It also probably would work best if you re-watch something multiple times, since you can anticipate what will happen and connect it with dialog. – mike Jul 4 '12 at 17:40

It's definitely possible - my brother learned English mostly through cartoons. (Though it's definitely better supplemented by some formal learning.)

As for whether it's effective... Depends on what you're comparing it to and what the circumstances are. Certainly it's less effective than full-immersion interactive learning such as listening/talking to native speakers in that language and having them explain when you didn't get something - but where are you going to find the opportunity to do that for two hours every evening? Probably it's less effective than focused learning from a textbook with audio material, too - but after you get home from a long day at work, you might not have two hours of focused study in you, either.

If the goal is to learn the language as well as possible in a given amount of time regardless of the necessary physical and mental resources spent, then it's almost certainly not the best method. If the goal is to learn the language without expending extra resources or feeling more tired, then it quite possibly may be.

Either way, I imagine it works better for some people and worse for others, depending on preferred learning style. Some people are better at listening, others at reading; some at structured learning, others at picking things up as they go along.

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+1 for the point about effectiveness. – 0x6d64 Jul 4 '12 at 6:44

To put simply YES. The best to learn any language is to hear it and to then associate what you have learned with your native language. It's very important to keep a few things in mind though.

  1. Do not watch a show that use lots of slang. This will not help you increase your vocab.
  2. Pick a few television shows that are rich in vocab. You want to make sure that there is a diversification in the language you are hearing.
  3. SUBS SUBS SUBS! You have to make sure you have subtitles when you are watching your television show. Try to pick out words and then match them with your subtitles but by no means take them as a direct translation. Use them as a guide.
  4. If you feel comfortable with the language, turn off the subtitles and then try to follow along and figure what everyone is saying in the show. After the show is done, write a paragraph about what happened in the show. Then find a review of the show and compare what you thought was happening and what was actually happening.

These are steps that you can use if you are already (somewhat) comfortable with language. By no means will you just learn the language by watching a show, for it will not teach grammar or punctuation. Therefore you must learn those things on the side while getting your pronunciation and edict from the show.

Good luck!

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Very good point about remembering to turn off the subtitles after a while. I'd say it might be good to even do that periodically early on, to try to push yourself and not let your brain get used to getting all the information on a platter. – weronika Jul 4 '12 at 18:42
+1 for using subs – w00t May 21 '13 at 20:01

From my own personal experience, watching TV has greatly improved my listening skills in German. However, I've found it has had only a limited impact on my usage of the language.

Like anything in life, the key is Practice Practice Practice. If you want to improve your listening skills in a language by all means, watch a TV series in that language! If you want to improve your conversation abilities, go out and talk to people in that language.

Returning to the subject of watching TV Series in a foreign language, I would suggest the following tips:

  • Don't try to translate every word you hear. Just watch and try to get into the plot (it's usually not too hard to figure out). Eventually, you'll find yourself just understanding.
  • If you use subtitles, only use those of the language you are learning. In my experience, using English subtitles with German audio is bad for a couple of reasons: 1) the translation is usually quite "liberal" and 2) I usually end up just reading instead of listening.
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I'm a Spanish native speaker and I have been learning English for 6 years up to now. I usually watch TV Series or Movies in English, sometimes I watch them with subtitles and sometimes without them, but always subs in English. The reason I use the subtitles just only for these situations when they say some word that I can't understand or I don't know how to write it. I consider that you don't train yourself if you put the subtitles in your native language, maybe yes if you are at a basic level of learning, but if you are in a medium or high level, you don't need translated subtitles.

And regarding your main question, I consider that watching TV/Movies are just extra tools but aren't a replace of the traditional ways of learning (books, listening&speaking exercises, etc). Like another user answered, what you mainly get from watching TV Series/Movies are expressions, some words you don't normally use or aren't accustomed to and maybe you improve your listening skills because of the different accents of the actors.

So, no, isn't an effective way to learn a language but yes, is a great complementary tool.

And like I said, is better if you have both audio and subtitles in the language your are learning.

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Watching television/films in your target language is great, especially if you don't get many other oppotunities to hear it used in a normal setting. But don't just start learning a new language through this medium. Without knowing the language well enough it will just be too many hours of mainly babble, which is not effective. However, if you know the language well enough through other means, tv/film/auditory presentations are the best method to learn how to hear a language spoken fluently with understanding, assuming you will not be moving to a different country.

To learn a language, I recommend you learn the sounds and basic grammar, with just enough vocabulary to allow those activities. Just the basics here, like where adjectives go, how to form tenses, plurals, very common things. Do this online, or through books, and pick materials that appeal to you. If you stick to the basics like I recommend, this may take you only about a week. Just long enough to recognize the constructs, you don't need to be comfortable using them yet. Once you are comfortable with that, I recommend reading novels with a dictionary. Look up every word you do not know, don't worry about complex grammar or perfect understanding in the early stage, focus more on the vocabulary you can extract. Do this regularly as your primary language learning activity. Once you get to a point where you are reading with nearly full comprehension and only looking up rare or specialty words, switch to an auditory presentation, such as tv. Then engage in that medium regularly until you are understanding the vast majority of what it said. Both stages will take a large investment of time. It is a good idea to involve auditory from the beginning, but only make it your focus at the appropriate time.

This has worked for me. I adore language, expect to be fluent in a few before I die, and will continue to use this method. I am not yet fluent in Spanish, but I have read upwards of 5000 pages in it. Doing so gave me a mental feel for the language. I got to the point where my reading was smooth, nearly fluent, but my ability to process spoken Spanish was completely meager in comparison. I switched my primary language learning activity to television watching, and now I feel my ability to process spoken spanish is nearly as good as my reading. I simply cannot imagine what else would have improved my listening comprehension as well, save for a trip to a spanish speaking country where I then took up permanent residence.

So do I think it's effective? Yes, and without using something comparable, I believe it's necessary. Just don't focus on it too soon. And, a text book is only going to teach you so much. All language learning texts use a very narrow selection of vocabulary. You could read every textbook teaching your target language, master them all, and still be missing so very very much. So if you've covered a couple texts (or even much sooner), switch to reading with a dictionary. After all, grammar is a tiny tiny tiny matter compared to the almost never ending nature of vocabulary, and reading with a dictionary will generally expose you to even more grammar than a text. But even with all that, to learn to hear a language you have to expose yourself to it spoken. In that regard, tv is a perfect fulfiller of that experience, so, yes, tv in a foreign language is extremely effective. Just watch a variety of shows, including nature, medical, cooking, and more.


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My very first English sentence was "He's dead, Jim." which was translated to "Hij is dood, Jim." in Dutch and was therefore super-simple to decode when I was 8. I ran downstairs and explained to my befuddled mother that I understood English. Proud to be a Trekkie ;-)

I believe that I learned a lot of English and French from simply watching shows and reading the subtitles. I must say that I do have a bit of a knack with languages and when I hear phrases I like I'll repeat them to myself, so I'm practicing the language. I'm not sure if I have a knack with languages because I like hearing them or vice versa.

So my advice would be, watch subtitled shows in the language of choice and when you hear something cool repeat it a few times. It won't teach you the language but it will create a solid subconcious base to fill up with additional training.

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Well, it would be very hard to learn foreign language by only watching TV series, with exception when you have special gift for languages or the language is very similar to one you already know (for example, learn Ukrainian when you already know Russian).

But, as the help for learning languages, watching TV series is the great help. It means the contact with the living language, and each contact with foreign language will improve your language skill a bit.

As weronika has stated, there are more effective ways of learning language. You'd benefit greater watching some documentary film because there's more spoken text in the same time. At most you'd benefit from interaction with native speaker.

However, watching TV series can be a form of relax. You want to relax, so instead as watching something in your native language, you watch it in the language you learn, and so you have the same pleasure, and you've learned something for free.

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Improving your listening skills? Certainly (better with subtitles off).
Helping with your language study? Again yes.
Learning a whole language? No.

Watching a TV series or many movies, will help you increase your listening skills, but being fluent in a foreign language is a much more complex matter.

When you're fluent, you should have these abilities (I might forget something):

  • Read most medium-high level material;
  • Speak about topics that might not be familiar or not frequent;
  • Interaction (it's a different skill from just speaking/listening);
  • Ability to understand some audio/person even if it's not standard (full of pauses, cut sentences, mistakes, etc).

    One thing is to understand "The pen is on the table", another one is to understand "Err, well, when she- no wait, when I was going, uhm, descending, stop interrupting me! When I was descending the mount-hill, sorry, hill!"

    There's a difference.

Not considering also that a TV series might have a too much narrow vocabulary (topic specific) for you to learn a whole language.

Always study the grammar and do proper exercises (depending on your own way to study) but don't just rely on TV series/movies for learning a whole language, because that's like watching Anime for learning Japanese: it's not really the way.

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I wrote this quite quickly, I'll make sure to improve it later. :) – Alenanno Jan 10 '13 at 12:44

Watching TV shows or consuming any media in a foreign language does provide a number of advantages over more formal study methods. For instance:

  • It provides the opportunity to passively consume a language whilst actively doing other things. This can be vital if you don't get much chance to be around native speakers.
  • Since you're likely to choose shows that you find engaging they will help you to remain motivated to learn.
  • Whatever the language lots of native speakers watch TV and like to talk about it. This gives you something new to talk about and can be less forced than a lot of the conversations you initially have when learning a new language.
  • TV shows are made for native speakers and aren't stiff than learning materials designed for foreigners. Let's face it murders and improbable love triangles are more fun to hear about than the hobbies of Mr John Smith the lawyer who has just moved from America!

However there are also drawbacks to television as the only method of language learning.

  • If you're watching with subtitles the act of reading diverts some of your attention from the words being spoken, plus it's difficult to keep track of just how much you're understanding. In the initial phases this won't be too much of a problem and subtitles will help you to pick up quite a few individual words but it'll become more of an issue as your comprehension grows. It may be worth watching things twice when you start out. Once with subs and once without.
  • The dialogue you will hear will depend on the genres you watch. The worst things that can happen from this are that you pick up certain ways of speaking that sound strange to native speakers when used in real life, or you focus exclusively on a small number of genres and your vocabulary remains limited. You may also learn context specific vocabulary that you'll never need but I don't really see that as a drawback as long as it's interesting.
  • You won't develop literacy skills, especially in languages that don't use the roman alphabet.
  • Nor will you necessarily develop speaking skills.

I think the best way to learn any language is to use that language to do things you enjoy from the earliest possible moment. Television has helped me a lot in learning Japanese, in fact it was what exposed me to the language in the first place. It shouldn't be the only thing you do but it'll certainly be more of an asset than a disadvantage.

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