Are You Wasting Your Time Watching Foreign Language Movies?

watching tv learn languages

I’ve watched hundreds of movies over the years to help me to learn one language or another.

I bet you have too. Who doesn’t like a good movie? And even better if it’s in your target language!

The thing is, I don’t do it much any more.

At a certain point, I grew a bit suspicious of that stock language-learning advice that every man in the street will give you: “Oh, you want to learn [language in question]? Well, you should watch movies! You’ll get to hear how people really speak!”

I think I’ve got a fairly good perspective on this topic, having watched a lot of movies in numerous languages, and, importantly, at different stages of proficiency in those languages. Whether you can learn a language from watching foreign films is a question that Anne Billson posed recently in an article for The Telegraph, and actually suggested a few good ideas, but ended the article without drawing any clear conclusions.

In the last 6 months, whilst learning Cantonese, I’ve had the opportunity to take a fresh look at the role movies actually play in my learning, from the zero beginner level onwards. This little project changed my perspective about the role of movies in language learning for beginners.

By the end of this post, you will have a much clearer idea of the true benefits of watching movies in a foreign language. (Warning – it’s probably not what you’re expecting!)

You’ll be able to make a more informed decision about how much of your time you spend in front of the TV screen, and what I think you should be doing instead.

I’ll also give you 10 ways to really make the most out of the movies you do watch, and make sure you’re not wasting your time!

Meet Rob – He’s Learning French

Rob has been learning French for the last year. Although he’s still a beginner, he’s passionate about the language and wants to become fluent. Like many other people, he loves French cinema, and often watches movies to help him learn the language.

People always say that you should watch movies to help you learn a foreign language. I think it’s useful because you get to hear lots of slang and cool expressions – it’s how people really talk. I love cinema as well, and French cinema, in particular, is awesome.

Watching all these movies is definitely going to improve my French and will make it much easier next time I go to France!

Or will it?

I’m going to confront Rob head-on about his movie-watching habits. I’m going to show him exactly what’s going on inside his head whilst he’s watching all those movies, and why he’ll be disappointed if he thinks he’ll become fluent in French any time soon.

Fun Or Fluency – What’s It To Be?

So, you’re going to tell me I shouldn’t be watching movies? Are you nuts?

Not exactly. (On the first count, at least! 🙂 )

Let’s start by taking a step back and getting clear on what we’re talking about.

Is it relaxing to kick back in front of a movie after a day at the office? Yes. Is French cinema cool? Sure. Can your girlfriend enjoy the movie with you? Absolutely.

But that’s not the issue here.

You want to learn French, right? This is a question of language learning.

Having enough time is the most commonly cited excuse reason for not learning a language. So if you’re serious about becoming fluent in French, what we’ve got to do here is to be brutal about separating how you use your free time and your study time.

If you enjoy watching movies, that fine. Who doesn’t?

But let’s not convince ourselves that watching movies is any more of a sensible study strategy than playing with Lego, until we’ve thought about exactly how it’s helping us.

If you want to chill out, sign up to Netflix. If you want to get a language learnt, read on.


What actually happens when you’re watching a movie?

I’m going to need some convincing.

Let’s dive in.

How Movies Can Help

There are some good reasons for watching movies in French as a beginner in the language. Here are some of them:

  • You can get used to the sounds and rhythms of the language, and certain cultural idiosyncrasies as well.
  • You might notice certain words and phrases that crop up often.
  • It helps to consolidate language that you have been learning elsewhere. For example, if you’ve learnt a word in a textbook and hear it later in a movie, that might help it to stick.
  • Motivation is key to learning a language. You love French cinema, so that passion for the culture is going to motivate you to keep learning.
  • Not only that, but you will probably continue to watch movies, which will increase your exposure to the language. That’s a great thing.
  • If you’re creating a French immersion environment at home (one of the most powerful things you can do), watching movies would be a good part of that.
  • If you’re going to spend your evening watching a movie anyway, better for it to be in French than English.

Exactly! I told you it was a good thing to do!

Take another look at the list. Notice that all of these things, as useful and supportive as they are, are peripheral to actually learning the language.

Why Movies Don’t Help

Now let’s look at the other side of the coin and see if a different picture starts to emerge.

  • The language level is way too high for you to understand most of what goes on. Improving in a language requires you to be able to notice interesting features of the language from the things people are saying. For that to happen you need to listen to language that’s slightly above your current level (this is known as comprehensible input)
  • Watching a movie is a passive experience, with no interaction. Patricia Kuhl’s fascinating study of young children’s learning showed that those who learned passively (through watching TV) improved far slower than those who interacted with a real person. OK, you’re not a child, but you get the point!
  • You’re not really listening. Don’t be under the impression that you’re really listening to the language. If you’ve got subtitles on, what you’re actually doing is reading. And you’re reading in English. OK, you can still hear the French being spoken, but it’s not the focused listening you thought it was.
  • Movies are long! What other learning activity would you spend 2 hours on, without varying it, or trying other things?
  • You can’t focus. And during those 2 hours, how much are you really focusing on the language? You’re probably trying to enjoy the movie at the same time, which means inevitably you’re going to spend a lot of the time more focused on the subtitles and the story line than the French that’s being spoken.
  • It’s impractical to look up words in the dictionary. OK, you can look up the odd word, but no more than that if you actually want to reach the end of the movie!
  • There’s no accompanying text/transcript to help you. Even if there was, it’d be too long. Compare that to a short dialogue in a textbook which you can rip apart and learn from, go back over and analyze when you want to understand something. (Even if you have subtitles in French, it’s not the same – it’s usually paraphrased, and you only get one line on screen at the time.)
  • You can’t listen multiple times (without a huge time commitment). Really improving your listening skills in a language means listening to a recording multiple times, listening intently and trying to notice new things each time. Try doing that with a 2-hour movie!

It’s All About The Balance

But nothing’s perfect, right? I still think if I spend hours listening to French I’m going to improve!


But don’t you want to have a smarter approach than that?

This is the point where you have to think about what a good language learning strategy for beginners looks like, and see where watching movies fits into that.

At any stage in learning a language it’s important spend time working on a good balance of the four skills.

But when you’re still low-level, you have specific concerns. You have to focus first and foremost on building your vocabulary. In order to do that, you need to spend time on activities that give you lots of high-frequency (i.e. the most commonly used) words and phrases.

And for this, you need materials that are not only at a level you can understand, but that give you the chance to explore the language in intimate detail. This means using fairly short texts that you can go over multiple times, and ideally with the option of both reading and listening.

You then need to start producing the language, which means speaking with native speakers and ideally doing some writing too.

And then keep repeating all of the above for some time as you vocabulary grows and your knowledge of how to use it improves. This is what will lead you towards becoming fluent.

Put Yourself In Control Of Your Study Time

So what you’re saying is…


Watching movies is great fun, and will help you in some ways to learn French too. But smart language learning means making conscious choices about how you use your time.

What makes some language learners more successful than others?

Ultimately, how you use your time is what will lead you to fluency or not.

If you’ve been using movie-watching as your default activity for learning French, and that’s been the lion’s share of your “study time”…

…time to think again.

10 Ways To Exploit Foreign Movies

I get it. So I need to be honest with myself about how I’m using my time. I probably watch six hours of movies a week, but maybe only an hour or two of actual study, and hardly any speaking.

I need to remember that that time spent watching movies isn’t really getting me anywhere quickly, and I just need to rebalance.

But I’ll still keep watching French movies, especially during my free time, because I love it after all!

So, how can you make the most of the time you do spend in front of the TV?

  1. Try to find movies that you’ve already seen, but dubbed in French. The fact that you know the story will help you understand what’s going on.
  2. Watch the same movie over and over, rather than a new one each time. The repetition will help you notice language and help words and phrases to sink in.
  3. Turn off the subtitles! They distract you from noticing new things in the language. A good trick is to watch a movie once with subtitles, so you understand exactly what’s going on, and then watch it lots more times with the subtitles turned off.
  4. Don’t stop and start the movie to look things up in the dictionary. Probably the biggest value in watching movies is exposure, rather than specifically learning new things. Just let it roll.
  5. Instead, you can keep a notebook next to you and jot down words and phrases that catch your attention. Don’t look anything up in the dictionary (you can do that later), just jot down things you want to remember.
  6. Whatever you do, watch things you enjoy!
  7. If you can find the script for a movie you like, move heaven and earth to get it! It will be one of the most valuable resources you can find.
  8. Whilst watching, try to engage with the story line. Ask yourself consciously: “What did he just say?” “What’s happening now?”
  9. If you do understand something that’s said, repeat it aloud…essentially try to find ways to make the viewing experience interactive rather than passive.

But I’ve left the biggest hack of all till last.

10. Watch TV series rather than movies.

Episodes of TV series are shorter, and the language used can be simpler than in a lot of movies. Best of all, you can harness the power of repetition.

From episode to episode (which can add up to 20+ hours over the course of the series), there’s a lot of repetition in the language that’s being used. This is because the topic/theme of the drama will usually stay constant, and each character tends to have a well-defined personality, talking in a specific way and using the same words and expressions over and over.

This repetition is incredibly valuable for you as a learner and will help you notice things much more easily than one stand-alone 2-hour movie.

Feel The Force, Use It Wisely

In this post I’ve talked to Rob about his love of French cinema and his movie-watching habits. I’ve asked him to think objectively about the role that they play in his mission to learn French. I’ve talked about some benefits of watching movies for language learning, and then some drawbacks.

Finally, I’ve suggested to Rob that what he’s really been doing is using movies to learn French more out of habit that of choice, without really considering how his valuable study time might be rebalanced to achieve a better mix of skills and approaches to learning.

Rob shouldn’t stop watching movies, but with becoming fluent in French as his dream, he should understand what role they really play in his learning, and make an informed choice about how to use his time.

When he reaches an intermediate level in his French, we might be having a different conversation. I might be suggesting that watching movies can help him a lot more than before, since he’ll be able to understand a lot more of what’s gong on, allowing him to notice a lot more, and benefit accordingly.

Rob, of course, is fictional.

But how about you?

How have movies been working for you in your language learning ambitions?


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Disagree with what I say? Be sure to leave a comment below.

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  • Hey Olly,

    Fantastic post! I just recently got into watching Russian movies (Animated to start out, they seem easier to find dubbed) and I TOTALLY started using watching movies as “studying” because I didn’t feel like doing Memrise that particular time or whatever.

    I totally agree that watching movies or even tv shows in your target language if you are still a novice in the language is not a good use of study time. It’s a great use of free time.

    The subtitle thing is the only grey area for me…a part of me says that I should watch without (like you suggest) but another part of me likes the subtitles in that they explain the meaning of sentences as they happen and it might make the movie slightly more interesting. If I couldn’t follow the action in a movie, I doubt I would finish it in a foreign language. Maybe one should do a bit of both?

    I’m also aware that there is a Russian ripoff of scrubs, which I enjoyed, so I’ll try and find that for a TV Show 🙂

    • Hey Chris,

      Sure, I mean ultimately a bit of both is the most likely scenario, right? But what if the “might make the movie slightly more interesting” bit is the start of a slippery slope? 🙂

      • Hey Olly,

        That’s very true, but then I remember how I learnt English and a biiiig part of that was watching television shows with subtitles. Of course I cant really know if I would have been worse in English today, had the subs not been there, but still….would be interesting to do some serious research on which is better.

        • Sure, and millions of kids in Northern Europe (where TV is broadcast in English) have got to an incredible level of English by doing that! But, how many years of TV did you have to watch for that to work? How long would it take an adult learner to replicate that? Would you recommend it as a effective use of study time for an adult?

          • I would not recommend as effective use of study time (I believe I agreed with you on that point earlier) but we are discussing whether having the subtitles on hinders or helps language learning to which I can only say I am not sure, more study is needed 🙂

          • The interesting thing about subtitles is that, especially when watching movies online, you don’t actually get to choose whether they’re on or off! If you had the choice, you could experiment, have them on/off depending on what you preferred. All of the Cantonese/Japanese stuff I’ve watched recently, for example, just has English subs embedded in the video, so you’re stuck either way! 🙂

  • David Feigelson

    The other problem with using movies to learn is that the dialogue is not natural. It is meant to be dramatic, not like everyday language. One problem I have with TV dramas is the laugh track. Extremely annoying. I have movies that I love in Mandarin but it is hard to watch them over and over because my comprehension is low and the actors talk very fast. I was able to find the script of Eat, Drink, Man, Woman on but it is not at all easy to learn dialogue from breaking down sentences in a movie for adult native speakers. The most helpful thing (for me) is doing something that is enjoyable. What that is varies from person to person.

    • Hi David. Great point about unnatural dialogues. In fact, that was in my original list of negatives, but I took it out in the end when I thought of some of the more slice-of-life type European movies that I’ve seen recently. However, Asian cinema in particular is full of the type of dialogues you’re talking about, so thanks for making the point for me! 🙂

  • こんにちは オリーさん。最近、僕の日本語勉強を変わりましたので小さな言語プロジェクト をします。1ヶ月がスカイプで日本人先生と友達と日本語だけを話します。も、日本語本がたくさん勉強しました。実は、毎日、最初本を読んだあとがスカイプで練習しました。もちろん、とてもうれしいので少しずつ上手になりました。たくさんの日本語テレビドラマを見て前、日本語をほんとにゆっくり習いました。テレビドラマを見過ぎましたね。来週、プロジェクトおわりけど日本語話すのほうが英語より好きです。とにかく、行かなきゃ。ケビン。

    • Hey! Forgive me not replying in Japanese, but it’s late 🙂 Great to hear from you, and also great to see how your progress shot up once you moved on to reading and speaking. Long may it continue!

  • SB

    I agree, films are often far too long and being in the B1 stage means that quite a bit may go over your head (as it has done mine!) I’ve found TV shows INVALUABLE for learning Italian though as they mimic real life far more than films and I’m able to word for word copy sentence structures, learn slang and other phrases that wouldn’t be in a textbook. Even if you are immersed in the language, chances are that not every possible language scenario has come up, but at least watching TV shows can help you prepare for some of this.

    • Absolutely! I’ve done this for Cantonese too and it’s helped… even at beginner stage.

  • What a thorough explanation!

    I agree that films are really not an efficient way of learning, especially at lower levels. They can have some role to play but films or dramas alone aren’t going to get you anywhere. Sometimes I feel like I should watch more things, but this a nice reminder that it’s not the best use of my time right now.

    • Thanks for your comment Ruth, and for the link from your site. I agree with your summary – it’s about smart use of time! 80/20 🙂

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  • Hello Olly,

    I’m going to defend here TV as a way to learn languages. I never liked to study English and I’m only learned it after countless hours watching TV series. Audio in English, subtitled in Portuguese. I was not trying to learn English, I was seventeen and was not studying or working, so I was watching A LOT of TV. One day I stopped in the CNN channel (not subtitled)and I understood the program. For me, was like magic, hehehehe. Of course, after that I started to read a lot and I had the opportunity to lived abroad for a few months. But everything started with my beloved TV series….

    • Hi Nathalia, thanks for speaking up for the other side! 🙂 Great to hear your story!

      I must say, I love watching Japanese and Cantonese TV dramas. They have fuelled my love of the languages. Inspiration and motivation are so important!

  • NelleBennett

    I subscribe to TV5 Monde and watch a variety of shows. Newscasters enunciate really clearly, so I can understand chunks of what they are saying. I especially like shows subtitled in French and can often pick out what was really said vs. what was subtitled. There are also documentaries that are easier to understand.

    • Hi Nelle, that’s great to hear! Have you been learning French for a long time?

  • Saim Dušan Inayatullah

    I also find TV shows better because they’re more low-maintenence – they’re easier to find online (you just go through the episodes of a series you like instead of having to figure out a new movie every time), and because they’re shorter than movies it’s easier to integrate into your daily schedule and rotate between languages.

    To be honest though, I usually prefer comedies to dramas. I might not understand all the humour, but drama can range between boring me to death and stressing me out. I might try dramas though off of your recommendation – we’ll see how it goes.

    • Hi Saim. I think I’m using the word “drama” in the Asian sense of the word, which is any kind of fictional TV series. (I lived in Japan too long!! 🙂

      • Saim Dušan Inayatullah

        Ah! I had no idea, thanks for clearing that up. XD

        • No worries – I’ve changed it to “TV series” in the article to make it clearer! Thanks for the tip 🙂

  • Michelle AnneMarie

    when you are a beginner and watch movies in a foreign language and you can´t understand more than 3 words in the whole movie… well…. this IS a waste of time…
    but when you already are fluent in that language, watching movies is a funny way to improve your knowledge 😉

  • msupp

    For me, in the early stages I used watching Russian, Spanish, etc films as a free time activity that provided unprecedented motivation (save travelling to the country of the target language). But you make a good point that it should not count as ‘study time’. With that said, watching the same films a year or two later and understanding nearly everything is very rewarding indeed.

    • Hey, that’s great, isn’t it, that feeling of watching something that used to cause you trouble and being able to understand it! I hope that happens to me in Cantonese before long… 🙂

  • Argyris

    When I first started Spanish I tried watching movies and all it did was frustrate me. I didn’t know what was going on, I couldn’t follow a story – it was essentially trying to differentiate words. Useful but not worth two hours that could be used for something else. However, as I’ve entered the intermediate level I’ve found movies (and to a much higher degree TV shows, like Vecinos, for example) to be rather useful. It helps me tune my ear to catch more of what people say, and it provides actual entertainment now that I can follow along, so it doesn’t feel like drudgery like a lot of studying can after a while.

    • Hi Argyris, that’s exactly what I’ve found too. It’s also great to go back to watching things that used to be too hard for you and see how much easier they are now 🙂

  • okjhum

    Thanks for this nice article! I agree to most of it. As for numerous repetitions: that’s indeed the only way to building up long-term memory. It’s the neurophysiological truth. You may like to read my perspective on it, and on second-language learning/acquisition in general, here:

    Best regards,

    Olle Kjellin, MD, PhD, Speech physiologist, and language nerd 🙂

    • Hi Olle, thanks! I’ve printed it off and it’s my bedtime reading for tonight 🙂

  • Lisbeth Richard

    Another great hack that I discovered while learning English (I was already B2) is to watch English speaking films or TV shows with the ENGLISH subtitles on. Lots of websites offer subtitle files for many movies and tv shows in many languages. Depending on your target language, you may not always find what you want, but it’s worth taking a look. It’s helpful, because if you can’t understand what’s being said, you can rely on reading, while still being in your target language.

    And I’d like to add a drawback to watching films or TV shows. While you may think you get to hear how people really talk, it’s really not an authentic language (Someone definitely wrote it, and depending on their skills, and on the actors’ skills, it can either sound authentic or really not…) As a native French speaker I can say I am often very annoyed with some French films and most TV dramas (comedies are ok) because the language seems extremely off. It’s like hearing written language which doesn’t make any sense, and doesn’t provide much added value for learners.

    • Hi Lisbeth, thanks for your detailed comment. In fact, your point about unusual language was going to make it into my list a one stage. It’s a great point. I often watch Hollywood movies and think to myself: “Do people really talk like that?!” Scripts, by their nature, remove all the ums and ahs from speech, along with hesitations, false starts, miscommunication and so on. But that stuff is important if you want to speak like a native!

    • Laura G. Nistor

      Hello Lisbeth, I’m glad you brought this up. I’m polishing my French now and my professor encouraged me to watch the TED Talks with the French substitles and it is truely working.

  • HMS

    1. Another great alternative would be to watch the TV shows and films that you watch anyways with subtitles in the new language.

    This has worked wonders for my American, C1 level Arabic friends.

    2. How about language karaoke? You’re instilling vocabulary, grammar, culture, and most difficult of all, the rhythm of the language. Add some great beer, friends (native speakers and learners alike), and give it a shot.

    • Hi,
      1. Yes, I’ve done that before and it’s cool! It’s just important to remember that you’re no longer practising listening at that point. It’s more of a vocabulary/reading activity.
      2. Great suggestion! I remember quite a few booze-fuelled evenings/early mornings in Tokyo when I, err.. “instilled vocabulary and grammar” 😉

  • Jodie Thomson

    I started trying to watch high end Italian movies and ended up watching Peppa pig. I totally recommend Peppa pig for beginners!

  • igiregi

    Yes I tried to learn English but I haven´t learnt anything !,but I know two girls who learnt spanish with mouvies!

    • Like your experience, it’s different for everyone. More importantly, though, it’s different depending on your current level in the language you’re learning.

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  • Spanish Sab Ibs Groningen Hanz

    My tip (as a senior Foreign Language Teacher): Turn on the subtitles for the hearing impaired. Great to extend your vocab!

    • That’s an interesting one! What’s special about subtitles for the hearing impaired?

    • Si Mamat

      hey lo

    • Si Mamat

      Sherlock Gnomes ѕтreaмιng onlιne or download

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  • Thiago Amaro

    Yep, I totally agree with it, Movies on the target language is really really good, for getting used to the sounds and rhythm, some expressions and listenings skills, but of course it’s not everything. Many brazilians for example can understand and read English, but cannot speak due the fact that original audio and subtitles in portuguese is very common on cable TV and Cinema, that helps a lot and that was the way that I first started to learn English too. What I do nowadays is watch movies on the target language wth the subs on the target language too, that helps a lot on comprehension of the language and also vocabulary. Thanks for Article.

    • Hi Thiago. Yes, I like to do that too – turn on the subtitles in the target language. Except that it doesn’t always work. Cantonese movies, for example, have subtitles in standard Chinese, which is different to Cantonese. But for most languages it’s definitely possible, and a good idea too!

  • Jonathan Shai Jacobs

    If you want to watch a great french série I suggest you to go to “Engrenage” (Spiral in english)! A bit violent but the best french show ever…

    • Hi Jonathan. Yes, I watched series 1 of that – it’s great!

  • Laura G. Nistor

    Hey, I’ve also learned Spanish by watching movies, but let’s face it, I’m a Romanian native, so Spanish and Romanian are pretty similar, and it wasn’t too hard for me to catch the words and learn the structure of the language. so, it probably depends on the person as well, how fast they can figure a language out and how hard they are willing to learn.

    • Hi Laura, yes I think you’re spot on. The closer the language is to a language you’re already familiar with, the easier it’s going to be. Similarly, the more distant that language is, the less useful the time spent will be. Having learnt a bunch of both European and Asian languages. the difference in utility is huge!

  • Alexis Nicolas Luethi

    I don’t agree with this article. It all depends on your skill level. I watch movies (that I already watched in german) in spanish without any subtitule, and I get 90% of what they say. So almost none of these arguments mentioned against watching movies applies in my case. Of course you can’t count watching movies as studying time, nobody is going to watch a french movie when he’s about to have an exam …

    • Hi Alexis, you might want to read the article again, as you’ve missed the point somewhat.

    • E_

      Yeah I agree with you. I’m an advanced level Spanish speaker and I’ve
      lived in Spanish speaking countries for over 4 years so I can watch
      without subtitles and understand nearly everything. My main issue was
      that even though I have a high proficiency, I always preferred to watch
      TV in English, my native language (I’m lazy!). So I decided to challenge
      myself, no TV (or books for that matter!) in English for 3 months
      (apart from Game of Thrones of course!) but I can watch as much TV in Spanish as I
      like and read as many Spanish books as I want.. In this case I’m
      making my normal chill out time vaguely beneficial. I know I’m not going
      to learn as many new words as studying vocabulary lists but my
      objective here isn’t necessarily communicating, because I already do
      that pretty well, it’s to try and become as comfortable with Spanish
      language media as a native speaker would…

      • Brilliant – that’s exactly the right way to think! “What are my objectives? What am I trying to get out of it?”

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  • NewWorldPress

    I learned English by watching episodes of Friends, I aced my English test without any prior study. Never opened a book on studying English prior to that, never knew any grammar rules.

    • Good job! How much time would you estimate that took, and over how long? Did you have any other exposure to English when growing up?

      • NewWorldPress

        2 or 3 years, I watched reruns several times, never with the intention of learning English, I was 12 years old or so

        Friends was also subtitled with Dutch, they never dub anything for us, I don’t think I would have learned anything if it wasn’t subtitled

        shows like friends are also simple, they deal with simple subjects and it’s always about a simple setting with lots of body language, I think that helps

        never really had exposure to English before that

        • Thanks for the info. I think there are two things that I would point out.

          Firstly, Dutch and English are quite close languages, meaning that you will certainly learn more from all that TV than if you were learning Chinese, for example.

          Secondly, 3 years is a long time. If you were to seriously set out to learn another language, you could do it in far less time.

          So the point is not so much that you can’t learn another language by watching TV, more that it’s not an efficient way of doing it (and many people rely on it).

          • Pickley

            I disagree… because of personal experience as well as friends. He, my friend who learned English, speaks and writes excellently. I speak Italian and Spanish nearly perfectly. I think it’s funny that you try to discredit him just because he’s speaking dutch, though. Lol. Just to prove your belief – which isn’t fact but opinon.

          • Not a question of discrediting, simply pointing out that some languages are closer than others, and spending 3 years learning a language that is close to your mother tongue is a long time and can be done quicker.

            Nothing in language learning is fact. It’s all opinion. That’s why we’re debating it.

        • Dany

          So you are saying you even learned how to write from Friends. You sure are kidding
          Read Michelle’s comment below

    • Dany

      I don’t believe it – that you learned only by watching Friends

  • ivan ggm

    I don’t know about you guys but i learned my English by watching movies completely without consciously doing anything so… i don’t know how true all that stuff above is.

    • Good job, Ivan! How long is the time-frame you’re talking about?

      • ivan ggm

        i don’t know, but when i was twelve my new at the time step mom from America showed up, and i just magically knew English, it wasn’t a checking if i have improved every day thing. it was more of a one day I’m normal, and the next day boom, i can speak fluent English, but I most certainly didn’t put effort into it…
        I don’t know how it worked, but it did.

  • gnagyusa .

    Not at all. Growing up in Hungary, I learned English from watching American movies.
    I regularly correct native English speakers’ grammar now…

    • Congrats! How many years did you spend watching English movies?

  • I just watched an A.J. Hogg video on English and he makes a good point that if you’re going to watch content, you should be able to understand 90% of what’s being said. At first I was surprised that he chose such a high percent but more and more I’m beginning to see it’s true. As you improve, you then look for more challenging material but still at 90% comprehension. I’ve noticed that my self-esteem has stopped taking hits since I’ve done this haha 😉 and I find myself thinking, “OMG I can understand German!” It’s a great feeling even though it’s basic vocab and sentence structure.
    Daniel Léo Simpson
    San Francisco

    • Yes, it’s known as the principle of “Comprehensible Input” and works really well because you’ve got tonnes of pre-existing knowledge (the 90%) to bring to bear on understanding the unknown stuff (the 10%).

  • tonhogg

    I took 2 years of French in college. Then I had a couple of French cable channels so I started watching them for some 5 years off and on, but did put a lot of time in on it. I also did study like reading and such out side of this. I really got nowhere. The French was just going by me and I wasn’t getting it. I now see the problem was we never really spent time looking at vowel combinations written out and their sounds, so I never really put it all together very well.

    Then fast forward to 2 years ago. I decided to just start all over again. This time I got paper, and started using the internet, a place now getting lots of resources you couldn’t get before. List’s of words being pronounced as you followed along on youtube and other sites like ielanguages. Kind of tedious, but I did it, for about a year. Learning words but also learning how to put sounds to the spellings. Huge difference. Cartoons like Caillou in french stated really making sense, then more recently something like Disney’s “Frozen”, without subtitles in French, started making sense 75% to 80% of the time. Adult movies are still a little to advance right now. Anyway, my point is watching films, where you understand less than 50% of it, especially if you are only understanding 30% or less, is a waste of time. The words are just flying by you, and you are really getting no where. For some it might work, but for most I say probably not. Anyway, that has worked for me.

  • Laurie Heer

    The easiest way I’ve found to obtain movie “scripts” is to download the subtitles for the languages you need and then view them Subtitle Edit (free). I’ve been using this site for downloading subtitles . You will end up with a file like this Open it in Subtitle Edit ( and go to File – Export – Plain Text. This will strip out all the time stamps and characters. You can also use your preferred text reader (I’ve tried it in Notepad ++ which is free and Sublime 2 which isn’t). It’s really fun to copy the subtitles to something like MS Word in a 2-column table so you can see the subtitles side-by-side.

    Thanks for the great article!

  • Brian

    Watching foreign films and studying different languages changes the way you think and act.

    In English, anytime you think about the future you must change your verb. For example, it snowed… it is snowing… it will snow. In Chinese you would hear… yesterday it snowed… today it snowed… tomorrow it snowed.

    English forces you to think about time differently. Changing the verb constantly distances you from the future. It makes the future feel different than the present. This makes it harder to save.

  • Jeffrey Faust

    I disagree. I have been studying Russian for four years, and when I first started learning, I watched movies. However, I made it so the movie took up half the screen and an online dictionary took up the other half. When I heard a word I didn’t understand, I thought of the sound it made and tried to phonetically type it into the dictionary. Most of the time I was correct, and the first couple of times I learned about 30-40 new words per movie. I have a couple of study techniques to remember words easily without repeating them a lot, so I was able to learn a lot. Now I know so many words in Russian, when I hear a word that sounds similar to a Russian word, I can find out the meaning (like how холодилник/refrigerator is similar to холодно/cold.) After a while I new so many more words than that that I could just use the context to learn most of the new words I heard.

    • Sounds like a great technique. “Whenever I heard a word I didn’t understand, I’d look it up” – wasn’t that virtually every word?

  • Fabio Schembri

    great….the tips you gave is more or less what i’ve been doing to learn english when i was 16….i was really motiveted to learn eng, but lazy as well….so i was really into watching movies in order to learn the language…..i love the lord of the rings and i have watched all the 3 movies few times in italian before ……and while i was studing english i started to watch them consecutively , first in italian with eng sub, then in english with ita sub and at last in eng without sub. and it helped a lot even because the lord of the rings is practically a 9 hours movie

    • That’s so cool, congrats!

      • Fabio Schembri

        nice you reply too….so maybe i can askyou if you have any tips for a website where i can watch tv series in spanish with sub as well?? i mean in spanish with spanish sub

  • Walter Bellante

    I have learnt English by watching movies on Netflix!
    I also use a chrome extension to help me translating the subtitles.
    This is what I have used

  • Birgit Häde

    Hhhm very interesting. What would you say about my learning routine? I reached level B2, maybe lowest C1. I read English books out loud almost every day.Also I watch at least one episode of an American series, with English subtitles.Every evening I listen to a podcast.Once a week I have a talk with an American teacher. Goal:correct pronunciation.Once a week I have a conversation with wether native speakers or other students. Wow…sounds great:-) When I’m too tired I try to watch at least one episode. I always think that is something that helps me. Please let me know what you think about this method. I don’t want to waste my time!

    • Hi Birgit. Well, it really depends on your aims. Overall, it looks great! My only comment would be that you don’t seem to be speaking very much, so you might think about looking for more opportunities to speak. But it’s only a guess, as it depends on many things.

      • Birgit Häde

        Thanks! I guess you’re right. But often it is difficult to find good language partners.Some of them don’t show up at the time we agreed to talk.The time difference can be problem too, depending on the country, of course. I’ll. try to speak more. By the way , what do you think about talking in the target language to ourselves? Kind of :Thinking in English and speak the thoughts (out loud or in our head )

  • Andy Davies

    Watch a film that you know every line (Monty Python’s Life of Brian for me) in a foreign language. You already know what they’re going to say in your own language, and so every line is instantly translatable

    • Can you imagine trying to translate LoB into a foreign language? Must be one hell of a task!, trying to convey all that Python humour.

      Great tip!

  • Dave2222

    Hmmmm.Not sure why this long winded post is really necessary other than to simply promote a product. As a Business English Trainer of some twenty years now, the techniques and advice you propose are well known, and while you make some interesting points, you simply make the case for A/V input, in whatever form..OF COURSE watching a movie in an undirected way can be simple diversion, but..

    • Well that’s a rather cynical comment, especially given the post promotes no product. What may be well-known to an English trainer of 20 years is usually unfamiliar to those who have never had any foreign language training, and this blog is aimed at such people.

      • Dave2222

        More to the point then…’undirected’ was the term I used, and I contend that watching a movie in another language is never a waste of time. Cynical?? Rather cynical to assume that having fun watching a film is just that,..For those who want to really use films as a learning tool, practice of phonemes, linking,gap fills based on the text, the study of context, idioms, accents , all can be used to study the movie as culture relating to language. So a competent well trained ESL teacher will use these tools . So why say this is simply wasting time, in ANY context??

        • Dave, of course there are tonnes of great ways to use films as a learning tool, but to point that out is to miss the point of the article.

          This article is a reaction to the reality that many people who struggle with language learning find themselves spending a lot of time watching movies at the expense of other (more productive) activities, because it’s a rather “easy choice”, so to speak – watching a movie is more appealing than hitting the books at the end of a day at work.

          There is a persistent myth that watching movies is the best way to learn a language, and this is simply not borne out in reality at beginner level, where the main task is to build a lexical foundation in the language. (From an intermediate level, where comprehension is more realistic, I think it’s a different story.)

          Is watching movies therefore a waste of time? No, unless of course it distracts you from the real study you should be doing in order to get the progress you desire, in which case, yes, it most definitely is.

          Granted, too, that the most dedicated learners will use techniques such as those you mentioned to successfully forge their own path regardless.

          I write for independent learners who want to develop their awareness of the language learning process.

          • Dave2222

            Dear Olly, first

            Since I am replying on a site that says ‘iwillteachyoulanguage’ I believe you are being a little disingenuous..I suspect there is product motive lurking somewhere..
            2nd. Even more disingenuous, the provocative title. ‘Are you wasting?’etc.
            3rd. If i have missed the point, then perhaps the point should be better stated, since i have written pretty extensively about and for ESL/EFL learners I don’t believe I would misunderstand any scholarly article intended to elucidate
            4th.From my perspective as a teacher , who is this article aimed at? It is FAR above the levels of most language learners..

          • If you want to have a discussion about blogging, we can do that.

            Otherwise, it’s up to you if you want to discuss my previous reply on topic.

  • adam

    You make some good points, however there are a few things that I would recommend to improve this post:
    1. First and foremost, you really need to read up on some of the new literature on ESL and language acquisition and update this post with it. Comprehensible input, while still applicable, has seen a lot of opposition in the past 10-15 years that put it into question how effective it is, and what also needs to be considered in terms of what % comprehensible input is needed to guarantee it’s efficacy. To put it briefly, the level of comprehensible input for improvement has been proven to be a lot lower than the “you need a very high level of language to reap the benefits that the average movie offers.”
    2. On that note, you might want to change that last statement for another reason, namely that there is a great range of movies in terms of the difficulty of the vocabulary it contains. A great deal of movies use vocabulary that even a lower-intermediate student would find easy to understand. Therefore, your over-generalisation is devaluing the potential benefits of a large amount of movies available.
    3. You seem to believe that watching movies doesn’t constitute “actual study” and will therefore not aid to the overall progress of one’s language acquisition/learning process (compared with hitting the books and studying language step by step). I do agree with this to an extent, but you also mention that holding a conversation with a native speaker would help improve your language ability far more than just leisurely watching movies. Do you know why a lot of (I daresay most) young Koreans, Japanese and Chinese students spend most of their lives learning English but can’t speak it at all? Contrary to what you might think, thanks to the abundance of English academies and conversation classes hosted by native speakers, it isn’t because of the lack of opportunities to hold conversations with native speakers. It’s because when they finally get the chance to speak in English, most of them don’t have anything to talk about. What do you usually speak about with your friends? Perhaps politics, musicals, concerts, the latest TV shows, movies? Exactly. Watching movies and TV shows, in particular, gives you a great deal of contents with which to hold conversations with people. Yes, people need to balance book-work and media consumption, but you should never devalue the potential of media to not only inspire and motivate second language learners, but also to give them something with which they can utilise on a daily basis to improve their language ability.
    4. One last point, and i’ll make it brief: yes, language learning is structured… it is a step-by-step process, and for that text-books are infinitely helpful. However, more importantly, it is a cyclical process. You did indeed mention that it is useful to view movies over and over once you know the meaning. But, what you didn’t mention was the true value that emerges from that: the repeated exposure of words that should be considered take-aways for students that they should also use on a daily basis. It is quite useless to only consider the input and not even mention the output!

  • max white

    Movies and series have been a “staple” for me when learning English in the past and now other languages. The way I do it is I DISECT a whole episode by turning on the subtitles in the target language and writing down everything I don’t know (except maybe a few words here and there that are way out there) and make sure I study the words and idioms thoroughly..
    When I am done with a season after a week or so I usually watch it again, with less stop n’ goes. At that time I am usually able to understand almost everything pretty comfortably. I might watch it a 3rd or 4th time until I can understand everything without subtitles and without having to think or translate too much.
    I wouldn’t exactly call it “entertaining”, but doing it that way has helped me tremendously with acquiring fluency in several languages.

  • Harriet Guest

    I had the complete opposite experience. I found watching films and tv shows one of my best tools when I was learning German.

    I watched cartoons at first and I watched them repeatedly. The same episode over and over again. The plot was easy to follow so I had a lot of context to work with and that meant even if I’d never come across a word before it was often obvious what it meant.

    Everytime I watched an episode again I picked up more language, I started to learn phrases off by heart without even trying. At a certain point I could talk along to the cartoon. And this was when I was still working through A2 language books. It was immeasurably useful to me – if you’re willing to repeatedly watch the same film / episode you’ll get more out of it.

    Since then I have watched numerous German films and series. I agree series are more helpful than films and I never watch anything with English subtitles as it’s too distracting (German subtitles however, are useful). I would make flash cards (with a flashcard app) of phrases that were new or I liked from tv shows / films otherwise I’d just relax and watch stuff that I enjoyed.

    I don’t want any learners reading this blog to think that watching films and tv shows in their chosen language isn’t helpful. I cannot stress how much it helped my understanding and my ability to understand native speakers if they spoke without slowing down. My pronunciation improved, I learnt a lot of colloquial vocabulary, discovered a lot of cultural and historical references and it also gives me something to talk about with German speakers when I meet them – a lot of the time we’ve watched the same shows.

    And the best thing is it was all almost completely free, you can stream a tonne of stuff online or on network channel players (For German speakers das Erste Mediathek is the best one). I’d say A2 is a good time to start – and start with kids stuff or stories you already know so that you have the most amount of context.

    • U Joe Lee

      For me it’s the SOKO drama series on ZDF. Best because it comes with German subtitles. On the same website you can get so many other series: Die Rosenheim-Cops, Letzte Spur Berlin, Bergretter, Bettys Diagnose, Notruf Hafenkante etc.

  • Adele

    I’m learning Japanese and found a TV series which has allowed me enjoy “bite-size” material in the original language. The TV series “Massan” is a 125-episode series, with each episode lasting a mere 15 minutes. It’s short and sweet, and because it deals with a topic which is one of my personal passions (whisky!), I really enjoy watching it. The fact that the episodes are so short allows me to hear Japanese spoken at natural speed and to pick up a few words and expressions, without feeling that I’m wasting too much time watching subtitled films instead of working on other aspects of the language. It’s also a good motivator as I watch one episode a day as a “reward” after working on a texbook, for instance. I agree with you regarding choosing TV series rather than film, and I’d also recommend watching short episodes (if available), or breaking down episodes into 15-minute chunks.

  • Luke smith

    The way I see it as long as I am studying the language actively, when it comes time to kick back and watch TV, watching an episode in my target language can only help compared to doing nothing and watching something in english. Thanks for another interesting blog olly!

  • Nuria Nemterbach

    Other idea: Watch youtube videos. They’re even simpler and I basically learned English with them (also by watching short cartoons etc.)
    It’s also always good to watch funny stuff, because jokes tend to stick in your head much more than other types of communication, as they move you on a positive emotional level and as they are often based on misunderstandings, which shows you how the same word can be used differently or how two words sound very alike, but mean different things.
    Generally watch/read stuff that gets you emotionally invested. If you’re really attached to characters or a setting, you’ll remember the words connected to them very easily.

  • If not now, when?

    Thanx a lot, it’s really great post, I was motivated by it a lot

  • Peter Miles

    I find using subtitles for language learning very beneficial. There is even a website that quizes you on subtitle translates in 62 languages.

  • Eloya

    Great post and really detailed. Thanks for sharing

  • Ahmed Salah

    such a very informative article thank you very much Laura! but how can i know if i am a beginner or intermediate in a language such as English? do you recommend any kind of test or something?
    Thanks in advance 🙂

  • loselightlive

    I’m also pro watching to understand.
    I’m actively learning how to speak korean, however I’ve watched anime & japanese programmes for years with no real desire to learn it. I ended up watching a korean programme managing pick out the odd word and feeling proud. They then brought out some Japanese guests and I understood every word they said, although there were no subs for those sections. So passive listening still gets retained over time.

  • verbify

    My first thought was that not every contact with a language has to be an all out study session. Watch the movie. Enjoy it. Use in-language or English subtitles if you like. It isn’t going to set you back and, if my experience means anything, you WILL begin to notice an increase in comprehension….not because you’ve watched movies but because your study is paying off. Enjoy the popcorn.