Tips for Learning a Foreign Language Using Netflix and TV Shows

July 03, 2020

I started watching the German Netflix series Dark recently. Not only is it a gripping thriller and a fantastic show, but a fantastic resource to improve my German as well. When done right, foreign language TV shows and movies can be a real boost and add a lot of fun to your language learning.

When I was in high school, it was a lot tougher to find good, interesting foreign language content to watch. Back in the day, I actually bought a special, European-format portable DVD player so that I could watch Italian DVDs of Lost. Now, it’s a lot easier to find high quality content online, and a lot of it is on Netflix or Youtube.

1. Find Something Interesting

In my mind, picking something interesting is the most important consideration. If you prioritize your level, you’ll end up watching a potentially very boring kids show or something you just don’t care about. Remember, this is supposed to be fun! Even if you understand less initially, choosing something interesting will keep you coming back to using TV as a tool for language learning. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

I can’t fully understand what’s happening when I watch the German crime show Tatort, but it is interesting enough that I keep coming back to it.

A secondary concern you should have when choosing what to watch is the language of original production. When possible, opt for content originally produced in your target language. You’ll get better audio with native speakers using the language naturally and you’ll be able to pick up on cultural tidbits as well.

2. Watch Something Familiar or at Your Level

My rule of thumb is to try and pick a show where I understand 80-90% of the spoken dialog. I think this is the sweet spot in terms of comprehension - any higher and you aren’t challenging yourself enough, any lower and it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant. Watching something too difficult will make you frustrated, bored, and less motivated to learn.

I do believe you need to build up a decent base in the language before jumping into TV, though. If you only understand 20-30%, you are probably better off learning more vocabulary words.

One thing I like to do when I first watch TV or movies in a new language is look for dubbed animated movies. The dub isn’t as noticeable in animated movies, and they usually strike a good balance between being easy enough to understand (their primary audience is children, after all) and entertaining enough to watch.

Pixar movies are great for this! Especially if you’ve watched the movie in English before, the familiar plot and characters can help you with unknown words and phrases.

3. Don’t Use English Subtitles

If your goal is to learn a language, turning on English subtitles is a guaranteed waste of your time. When you’re hearing a foreign language being spoken, it’s really easy to default to reading subtitles that you can understand without processing the audio. It’s there in the background, but you aren’t learning from it.

Your brain needs to be actively working to parse new sounds, syllables, phrases, and changes in tones; this becomes much harder when you give yourself an easy out by displaying English subtitles.

Instead, I recommend turning on foreign language subs. When you aren’t as familiar with the language, it helps you strengthen your ability to hear new sounds and words while still forcing you to actively listen.

4. Don’t try to Understand Everything

When I was watching those old DVDs of Lost on my special DVD player, I would pause the show every 3-4 seconds to read the Italian subtitles and make sure I understood everything that was just said.

Understanding everything sounds good in theory, but this gets old really fast. Eventually it’s not even fun anymore and you just give up.

Depending on how challenging the content is, I’d suggest pausing to write down new words and phrases every 1 to 2 minutes. I like to keep these phrases stored in Anki or in a physical notebook, but to each their own.

5. Memorize New Words in Context

I find it a lot easier to memorize a new word in the context of a sentence rather than on its own. If I can remember a character saying that phrase in a scene, it’s much easier to make the new word stick.

This fits well with memorization tricks used by “super memorizers” who are able to do things like memorize a deck of cards in only a minute.

6. Rewatch

It’s almost always helpful to rewatch episodes of the TV shows you watch. First, you can help solidify the words and phrases you learned the first time around. Also, you will be more familiar with the context and flow of the story so you’ll be able to pick up more new phrases the second or third time around.

The first time around, I’ll watch with non-English subtitles. The second time, I’ll try to turn them off and watch with only the foreign language audio.

I send updates on my progress every Saturday.