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Do You Think You Can Learn a Language through Watching TV Shows?

I've been watching Turkish shows in Turkish (with Arabic subtitles) for about 6 months now, and I glad to say I can hold a basic conversation in Turkish, I've learned a few expressions and phrases, and have figured out some grammar. Sometimes, I'd even stop reading the subtitles and try to see if I can understand what they're saying. I've had thrilling moments where I could understand everything, and some moments where I could understand what they're talking about, but not necessarily the whole thing.

So that got me thinking, if I were to continue watching shows in Turkish, would I somehow be able to speak Turkish in, say, a few years?

I don't really remember the name, but there was a discussion posted around a year ago where someone said that he became fluent in German through watching German movies/shows in German without subtitles. It took him 2 years.

What do you think?

October 30, 2016



A few years back, an American teenager named Tim Doner became famous in his achievement in successfully studying over 20 languages (which included French, Russian, Arabic, Turkish, Mandarin, Hebrew, German and Yiddish). He said that he learnt many things from watching movies and shows; in fact, much of the Arabic he learnt was from watching movies, and he started studying Japanese by watching original non-subtitled anime shows. So it's very much possible, but you have to be very dedicated. I have watched movies in Spanish without the subs before and to be honest it's a great study tool. You just have to be willing to take some notes (physically or mentally) and think in that language as you're watching, and of course enjoy the movie or show. :)


Although it is possible he hadn't necessarily learned from watching, but in fact watched while he was learning. He said it helps a whole lot in learning the language and how people speak it.


Yeah, I took a look and Tim Doner has clearly used many different resources in addition to watching TV. He also says now that he used to have a romanticized view of what fluency meant. I do agree that watching TV shows can be very helpful, but it probably shouldn't be the only thing you do - at least for most people.

Many people here recommend watching without subtitles, which is great if you enjoy it. Some might find it frustrating or conclude they are terrible at languages and give up.

I have enjoyed watching soap operas in Chinese and cartoons in Irish, or listening to the radio in Dutch even though I didn't understand any of it. I've watched a news program in Catalan and picked up a few words.

On the other hand, I remember being very frustrating a few years ago when trying to watch a movie in French with no subtitles. Now, it's hit and miss with Spanish or French whether I need the subtitles in those languages. I can watch Kiki's Delivery Service in Spanish without the subtitles (there are none in Spanish), but understanding Maria La Del Barrio without the Spanish CC would be impossible for me at this time. There is a lot of slang.

No doubt, some people will think that watching with subtitles or CC is cheating or just not efficient. However, there have been many studies that show that subtitles in the target language can help your listening comprehension. Others worry that you can become dependent on the subtitles, which is a valid concern. For me, they currently help me access materials that might otherwise be a bit out of reach without them, but I won't be using them forever.

This books talks about how to use subtitles (even in English!) to learn, and then explains how to wean yourself off them.



The best way to learn a language in my opinion is to do as much as possible in the target language what you normally would do in your own language. So if you like reading, read books and newspapers in the target language. If you like watching TV or movies, do it in the target language. I followed this year's Tour de France entirely in French and I enjoyed it more than ever^^

I also believe that your progress gets faster if you do a lot of different activities and not just one.


I can't agree more. When I just started learning English, I focused primarily on words memorization and learning english grammar. It helped me pick up a lot of vocabulary fairly quickly, but in terms of language fluency I was near zero level. What really speeded the learning process up was the act of talking/chatting to other people, watching tv serries and reading. It was very hard at the beginning, especially with speech comprehension skill, but I am glad that I did it. Now I enjoy taking courses on Coursera and other platforms, watching documentaries, TED talks on youtube and superb lectures, watching tv serries without translation. I don't always understand everything that characters say in the movies/serries (e.g. when they speak too fast), but when I do understand them, I enjoy every bit of it..

Also as far as I remember, the same part of a brain that participates in generating speech also helps you in language comprehension. That means if you improve your pronunciation, you automatically improve your speech comprehension and vice versa.


It is definitely an interesting idea to think about. Because if you think about the way you learn your native language it's basically a ton of listening and then you start to form things on your own. It would take a very long time to do but I think it is possible to learn it.


Exactly. That's what I was thinking. Maybe we should all just watch some Telenovelas and we'll become fluent in Spanish in a few years ;)


Instead of, or after, potentially silly telenovelas, I can recommend Cuéntame como pasó, a seemingly never-ending series about the lives and times of a family in Madrid from the late 1960s onwards: http://www.rtve.es/television/cuentame/temporada-1/.

It teaches you a lot about Spanish modern history, and I really enjoy the storyline. There are literally hundreds of episodes available online with Spanish subtitles. The characters talk quite fast, but it's often enough to just have an idea of what is going on, as opposed to being able to follow every single sentence.


Couldn't agree more, such a great show. I just finished season 3 and I'm really loving it. Also, I stopped using subtitles after season 1, just because the show taught me so much, to the point that I don't need them anymore.


These are some really inspiring words. I'll start watching it =)


¿Está en castillano?


Sí, la serie narra la vida de una familia madrileña :) Además, durante la dictadura franquista el catalán estaba prohibido, una de las muchas cosas que aprendí mirando esta serie...


I'd really like to watch that show, but haven't found it available on Netflix.

Sadly, the link you provided doesn't work either as the "contents are not available in your country."


Another great show that teaches a lot about Spain's history is called El Ministerio del Tiempo and it was about to get canceled after two seasons, but Netflix saved it. Hopefully they'll start streaming all the previous episodes, too, for those who can't get access to RTVE's streaming service :)


I've thought about that one. It looks good. Is it violent at all? I'm very sensitive to that and avoid any violence, which unfortunately eliminates a lot of material.


Oh darn... I assumed it was, since it's available to me here in Finland. I wonder if it can be found cheaply on DVDs somewhere online where Spanish films and books are sold. It probably wouldn't be expensive since the first seasons are so old already...


Seasons one and two are almost $100. As they are region 2 DVDs, you'd have to have a region-free DVD player if you live in North America.


I've thought about that one. It looks good. Is it violent at all? I'm very sensitive to that and avoid any violence, which unfortunately eliminates a lot of material.

No, it's not violent at all! It's more of an adventure comedy-drama for the whole family :) I do remember one violent scene with someone getting shot, but that was about one second long, hopefully it won't be that bad for you.


Great. Thank you. I may start watching that right away. I've heard it's also a good way to learn about Spanish history.


Random episodes and lots of clips seem to be available on YouTube (again, at least here)...


Great idea!:) I actually really want to try it now........


Yeah, I am agreed with you :)

when I was about 4 years old, my mom had an Arabic friend. so she taught my mother how to connect Arabic channels from our TV and my mother was interested in watching Arabic shows and I liked them too!exactly the cartoons :) now that's why I know the Arabic alphabets and I can speak a little :D


I have heard stories about people learning Japanese from anime. As a (beginning) Japanese learner, I would say for me it would be nearly impossible. For someone else? Maybe not so. It depends mainly on the person and how best they learn. I require audio to learn best, so television fulfills that. Unfortunately, in television, the speakers are native to the language, so the speed flies past my head. To someone else that is able to keep up, I can definitely believe a person could pick up the basics of a language if they were actually trying.


You know, after listening to a language for a long time, you just get used to the speed. So I don't think it's "nearly impossible". I used to think that Turkish speakers spoke really fast too, but I got used to it, and now I think their speed is normal. Natural, even.


Listening to Japanese while watching animes helps in learning languages. I usually read the comments after watching an anime. They are not always recommended, no one likes reading spoilers; but here is something I have discovered: Some users have learned Japanese and can understand Japanese completely just by watching the anime.

Before, I would mute my speakers and watch the anime, the subtitles were what I always depended on for understanding the anime. I always keep my speakers on when I watch animes, hoping that I will learn Japanese like many others just by watching animes. :P

It does help, I can understand several Japanese words while listening to animes and relating them with mnemonics. Animes are the best way to learn Japanese fast, with pre-made mnemonics. :)

At least if a language can't be learned by listening to the language, it makes learning it easier, we have a base in the language due to the extensive listening, learning it is a few steps away. :)


I've recently tried this method and seen two episodes of 僕だけがいない街, which took me roughly an hour and a half simply because I searched every damn word up and made sure that I understand. I might read the manga (if it has one, I don't know), I hope to understand most of it by then.


The Japanese audio tracks are always better than any dubs. I've picked up a few words here and there from anime, tv shows, or Japanese restaurants. However, I think I'd need to study it to learn it properly (aka read and write).


I think that learning a language can be done through watching movies and tv shows, but the process can be sped up if you look at the writing and gramtical side of it as well. Watching tv can help greatly with pronunciation and is a great tool for being becoming fluent.


I think it is possible to learn another language through watching TV series/shows but you'll probably need to do more than that to understand the grammar and everything about that language, I started watching Japanese anime for like 3 years now and i understand mostly everything they say, but i still can't make my own sentences in Japanese cause i need lessons in Japanese grammar, currently i'm trying to learn french, unfortunately i can't find any good French series with English subtitles :(


Marseille is good if you like gang wars and politics hahah :D


I watch anime in Japanese with subtitles and I've picked up a few phrases so I think it's definitely possible!


It may not help if you're learning a language completely from scratch, but if you're looking to strengthen your translation skills, then yes. My dad used to go on business trips all over the world and would watch something like "Sesame Street" in whatever country he was going to so that he could understand his native colleagues who didn't understand English that well. My best friend also called out of school once in high school when she was sick. She was taking Spanish at the time and randomly decided to watch "Sesame Street" on the Spanish Channel. She picked up a lot more there than she did in class!

If you can, try and speak in your new language with a few natives. I did that with American Sign Language. When I was studying it in school, we had to go to these events where ASL was used heavily. One of the events was a supper hosted by my teachers in a local restaurant. It's not just open to the students, but anyone who is d/Deaf, hard of hearing, interpreters, students learning ASL (regardless of where they go to school), or anyone in the d/Deaf community. I've been there a few times since my graduation from the program, helping new students. My teachers usually get bombarded with questions from them on how to form signs, so I often jump in and answer whatever questions I can.

When I first started going to these suppers, I felt like a fish out of water. I didn't want to offend anyone, but I thought to myself "Well, I'm here to learn ASL, I don't have many people to practice with, so I'm going to start a conversation with a d/Deaf person!" I actually picked up some ASL that wasn't taught in our class, especially when I went to one supper, hosted by another teacher (but I went for the same class) in a neighboring state.

Now I've taught it to children and seniors, and one day got to use it on the fly. I was having lunch with my dad and niece (she's 4 now but was 2 at the time). My dad noticed the people behind us were signing. When he came back with our food, he turned to me and said "Now's your time to use your ASL, the people behind us are signing!" I turned around, introduced myself, and signed with them for 45 min. One of the ladies was hearing, the other was d/Deaf. I was excited to use my ASL skills, and they were excited that a hearing person actually knew ASL really well and could converse with them! Turns out they had the opposite problem I did: they didn't know many hearing people that could sign and often needed an interpreter, so it was a nice change of pace to find someone randomly who could sign with them and not need an interpreter!

Nowadays, I still go to the ASL suppers whenever I can, but I've also got back into watching news reports in ASL I don't have much of an opportunity to practice my skills anymore (I see my cousin and my aunt, both of whom know ASL too, once in a blue moon and yes we converse in ASL as well). I like watching http://www.ideafnews.com and http://www.dailymoth.com. News Hook is also a great app if you're looking to get the news in ASL on the go.


"It may not help if you're learning a language completely from scratch, but if you're looking to strengthen your translation skills, then yes."

Actually, I actually was learning Turkish from scratch. Well, I didn't actually intend to learn it, but it just . . . happened. So, yeah, I don't think it has anything to do with your level. Plus, everyone learned their own native language by listening to native speakers, which is basically the same thing as watching TV Shows.

Anyway, I'm also really interested in learning ASL, especially since I'm planning on becoming a translator/interpreter. Props to you for signing with the ladies, that must have taken a lot of courage =)


everyone learned their own native language by listening to native speakers, which is basically the same thing as watching TV Shows

I know what you're getting at, but that's a huge oversimplification of how one learns one's native language.

There's a big interactive element to learning a language natively, which you don't get when it's just media consumption like TV or music. Think about all the times you asked something, and your parent, friend, or teacher replied or rephrased your question or went on to say something connected to your question.

Children who hear a lot of a language tend to pick up the correct pronunciation pretty easily, which gives the sometimes false impression that they learned the language "automatically", but language learning actually takes a lot of effort even for a child and requires support.

Which isn't to say that watching TV can't help you a lot with learning a language -- that's how many people have picked up a lot of English...


It works great alongside learning a language on duolingo. I watch youtube videos in German, Swedish, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Turkish and Polish. I do not mind understanding everything. I just watch it.


I personally love reading the news on my mobile phone whilst on the move; especially in Spanish or German! The news apps have short 2-3 minute video clips of what's going on in their country; I find it fascinating as well as helping to improve my language skills :)


Definitely, I've picked up a couple of additional words or phrases from watching anime in Japanese. Even if you don't pick up some things, you will get a better sense of how to use the words and the grammar you already know, and in my experience watching TV in a language you're learning is an exceptional motivator to learn more.

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Yes, it's possible. I learned English by watching cartoons when I was little.


I think that you can totally learn a language through watching TV shows. I suppose you pick up some words and grammar rules from it. It makes sense, because when we are kids we are constantly around out native language, so we learn it quickly.


I was starting to enjoy Arabic and Turkish films from the 60's and 70's, and was even understanding some. Guess I need to revisit that strategy. Plenty of stuff on youtube. Simply watching the news gets redundant.


Let's not forget that the news is in MSA and that movies are in dialects, :) I'm curious though, you're learning the Iraqi dialect, right? Did you find movies in Iraqi?


I never watched any Iraqi movies. I think the movie was Egyptian, but I am not sure. My class already exposed us to the Egyptian quite a bit, so I am getting used to it. I may end up studying the Egyptian dialect in the near future.


That's good to know =D


I believe so, I watch a French show about politics named after the city Marseille, its helped me a lot, I've only just started using Duolingo and I've gotten off to a great start because of it! :)


I'm debating if I want to watch this. Is it violent? Depardieu is a very good actor, but he's such a jerk in real life, that I have mixed feelings about watching him. On the other hand, this show is supposed to be very good.


I, too, am looking for something like Cuéntame (or a radio series like The Archers), in French. Something that will be captivating enough to follow for a long time not just as a language practice tool but actual entertainment.

The series that have been suggested here before have all been reportedly very good detective series, but way too violent for me. I also tried watching Un village français, but the whole wartime thing made it too depressing for me -- that was at least my first impression.


I've had better luck with French movies than TV shows so far.


it's not overly violent, i'm afraid i'm not very far into it however, but its worth checking out.


Well of course! That's the best way to learn.


yep. i think so with english :))


Yes, it just takes time.


this a controversial topic many people have diferent answers about this i think if your native language is very close in structure to the one your learning it certainly is easier like portuguese and spanish .i've known portuguese people who learn spanish like this in six months the same thing with swedish and norwegian.i believe exposure is the most important thing regardless of the language and watching tv and listening to music is good exposure to get your ears accustom to the language


It could be possible, but it would be hard for me without looking at subtitles. Most games I play during my free time, I turn subtitles into Spanish so I could practice, but have fun at the same time.


I think you can because I have been watching a korean drama and I have learned a little korean and my mom has to but it can take a while if you have the time then I would suggest descendants of the sun if you want to learn korean it has subtitles I really like it so I hope you could like it to so it is on netflix. Oh and my name is Emmalouise


I've learnt English almost entirely because of watching movies / series. My English voc is at least as wide as my native language.


my mom learned hindi by watching bollywood movies as a kid( bollywood is the equivalent of hollywood in india)


but you should try new things that suit you better than others


I learned English in school ,and by watching movies ,and tv shows as a child.

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