learn languages ​​from TV
➡  How to learn 📆 12 October 2020 ✍️  Konrad Jerzak vel Dobosz

Are you spending long hours watching TV series and movies? Is it often that you stay up all night just to find out what happened to your favorite characters? Are you passionate about interesting stories, cinema, movies and TV series? Has it occurred to you that maybe you can learn languages from TV and movies? Isn’t that a great idea? But do you know exactly where to start?

Exactly! How do you do it? How do you work with your favorite series or movie? Do you just watch it? Or maybe you sit with a dictionary, jotting down words and constantly rewinding back each scene to understand as much as possible?

If you’re asking yourself these kinds of questions, you’ve come to the right place. I hope this article will help you choose the right strategy for learning languages from TV series. Before you begin, however, you need to answer a simple question.

What level are you currently on?

Perhaps you do not know a particular language yet and are just planning to learn it, hoping that watching TV series will help you with that. Or maybe you’ve been learning it for some time and are looking for new ideas to improve it?

Regardless of your level, this article has something for you. It will present various strategies depending on the level at which you find yourself.

For the purposes of this article, we will refer to the well-known division of language levels proposed by the European System for the Description of Language Education. There are six levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2. A detailed description of these levels can be found on the Wikipedia page here. First of all, I would like to focus on what you’re able to understand at each of these levels when you listen to natural speech, e.g. when you watch a series or a movie.

Here’s what you’re able to understand at each of these levels:

  • A1 – I am able to recognize that someone is speaking this language, e.g. I recognize single words or phrases.
  • A2 – I recognize a lot of words and phrases, but it’s hard to understand what is being said; I often only understand a phrase a few seconds after hearing it.
  • B1 – I can understand more or less what is being said, but I still miss a lot.
  • B2 – I can understand 90% of what is being said, but it’s hard for me to understand some actors, especially when they speak very quickly or with a specific accent, even though they say words that I know.
  • C1 – I am able to watch a movie freely, but I miss some words and expressions. When I watch a comedy, not everything makes me laugh, because I do not understand many cultural references.
  • C2 – I can understand virtually everything including cultural references and hidden meanings.

Do you already know what level you are at?

Which of the above descriptions is closest to you? Remember that we are only talking about understanding the language from listening to movies. At lower levels you will be much better at talking to a foreigner and understanding dialogues in a textbook. Working with movies, however, is the most complicated and requires a good amount of language, so for a long time it will be difficult for you to understand any part of them.

Okay. You already know your level. So depending on where you are, I will suggest one of three methods. The first will work at the beginning of learning, i.e. at the A1-A2 level, the second at the intermediate level B1-B2, and the third at the advanced level C1-C2.

How to learn languages from TV series and movies at the beginner level

Let’s start with what you need to remember when you are just starting to learn a language:

  • You have the right to still only understand a little. You are just starting to learn a language, so you often don’t know all the structures of the language, or even key words. So it’s perfectly normal to be a bit lost. So don’t be stressed by the fact that you have trouble watching movies in their original language.
  • Set yourself a goal for two things: a) getting familiar with the language, b) expanding the linguistic foundations, that is, most importantly, learning the vocabulary and expressions typical of a given language.

What is the biggest mistake people make at this stage?

Beginners avoid contact with the language because they don’t understand a lot. Young children can watch cartoons for several hours in a language they do not know, and adults avoid situations like fire. Have you ever watched a movie in a language you don’t know? Certainly not. It is just boring. And it’s no wonder that you’ve never succeeded in something like this (unless there’s a bit of madness in you).

But what can you do to make watching a movie easier? Firstly, you can support yourself with subtitles, and secondly, you can watch the same movie or the same episode of a series multiple times, which will make it easier for you.

So here’s a quick tutorial on how to learn languages from movies and series at the beginning of your learning


  • Choose a movie or series in the language you are learning. You can choose one that will interest you or one that you already know. At this stage still avoid comedy series as they may not be humorous yet. The best at this stage are for example, series with short episodes that you can watch many times.


  • Watch an episode of the series with English subtitles. Don’t use a voiceover here as it will drown out the original sound. At this stage, you can try to catch familiar words or phrases. You will be able to understand maybe just 5% of what you hear, but don’t worry about it. It should get better with time.


  • When you’ve watched an episode of a show and know more or less what it was about, watch it again (that’s why we suggest shorter episodes here), but this time with subtitles in the language you’re learning. So if you are watching a German series, turn on German subtitles. Thanks to the subtitles and the fact that you already know the episode, you should be able to now understand 10-20%.
  • Sometimes it can happen that you do not understand certain words, but you will know what the person is saying because, for example, you remember the translation of the dialogue. Do not worry about this. Don’t judge yourself at this stage or break down if you understand less. The important thing is not just understanding, but going through the step.


  • Watch the episode a third time, this time without subtitles. Of course, you will understand much less here than in step 3, but you will feel much more comfortable watching a movie without subtitles and in the original language, which is an important element of success.


  • Go to step 1 and start working with the next episode.

Questions & Answers

You probably have a lot of questions here, because you naturally want to perform certain activities with confidence. So I will try to read these questions in your mind and give you the answers to them:

Should I check unknown words?

No. Your goal at this stage is not to build up your vocabulary. If you had to check every unknown word, one episode would take you many days. So it doesn’t make sense. Of course, if a word intrigues you, there is nothing to prevent you from searching for it in a dictionary, but treat such a situation as an exception rather than a rule.

How long should each episode be?

Try to make it no longer than 20-30 minutes. Breaking a movie or episode of a series into smaller parts, e.g. 10 minutes long, also works well here.

Should I repeat what the actors say?

No. Until you get familiar with the language, your pronunciation will sound terrible. So at the beginning of your learning, try to just listen.

Can I only learn this way?

No. Watching TV series complements the learning process in which you will learn new words and structures. Therefore, work in parallel with your materials, and treat learning from the series as complementary or fun.

Can I skip any steps?

If you are bored with watching a given episode multiple times, only do steps 1 and 2, i.e. watch the series with English subtitles.

Should I memorize vocabulary?

If you know me a bit, you know that I’m probably the world’s biggest opponent of learning vocabulary. So don’t do that. Remember that developing your vocabulary is not your goal at this stage in your film or series work. You just have to listen to the language.

It is crucial at this stage that you spend as much contact with the language you are learning as possible. This will allow you to help yourself in a situation where you do not understand something. You will not panic then. You will find that your listening comprehension will improve over time, and your pronunciation will also benefit from it, as you unconsciously begin to imitate correct patterns.

How to learn languages from TV series and movies at an intermediate level

How do you work when you already know the language enough to be able to have a conversation in it? Of course, it is not easy and it can be stressful, but you already have the right vocabulary, you know the most important times, you can talk about the past and the future, etc.

Here’s what you need to keep in mind at this stage:

  • Don’t count on understanding everything. There may be times when you don’t understand not only individual words, but whole sentences and phrases. Often you will have to fill in gaps in information based on context.
  • Your goal at this stage is to: a) automate the structures and words you already know; b) expanding vocabulary and structures with new ones.

What is automation about?

Our brain is very lazy and it works in a simple way. If it transmits any information, it does so with the least possible effort. When a given piece of information is needed every hundred years, there’s no need to bother too much, right? It probably sometimes happens to you that it takes a few seconds to remember a word or fact, right?

This is what happens when the brain rarely transmits information. We have routes in the brain, the paths along which this information runs. If they are sent infrequently, you hit a roadblock. But if you need this information every now and then, your brain will build a highway where the information will be transmitted in the blink of an eye.

When you listen to a foreign language, your brain becomes lazy at first. It takes you seconds to catch individual words, what’s more to understand whole sentences. However, when you start using these skills frequently, your brain transmits information faster so you can understand what you hear almost immediately.

Do you ever have situations where when you read a text you understand everything, and when someone speaks to you in a foreign language you do not understand much, although you know all the words used? If this happens to you sometimes, you need to automate the skills you already have.

So at an intermediate level, you will firstly train your brain to run faster and secondly you will add new linguistic elements to your current knowledge.

Here’s how you can work with movies and series at this level:


  • Choose a series or movie. Similar to the beginner level, look for something shorter as you’ll be spending a bit more time with each episode.


  • Watch the episode without subtitles. If you understand 90-95%, you can move on to the next episode or start working according to the strategy for the advanced level. However, your understanding will probably fluctuate around 30-70% (depending on whether you are at the B1 or B2 level)


  • 3.1 – Now the most laborious part will begin. You can divide it into several sessions. It may take you 40-60 minutes to process 10 minutes of video. What should you do? Turn on the movie and try to understand what the actors are saying in each scene. You can pause the recording here to think about it. If you want, rewind the recording as well and listen to the dialogue 2-3 times. There is no point in doing it more often here. If you still do not understand after 2-3 listening’s, it means that without further explanation or checking the words, it may be difficult for you to understand more.
  • 3.2 – Once you have heard the sentence, rewind the scene again and turn on the subtitles in the language you are learning, e.g. German subtitles for a German movie. Of course, they do not always correspond 100% to what the actors say, but they will help you see if you managed to correctly understand what the protagonist of the series or movie was saying. If you do not know a word here, you can check it in the dictionary, and if you have trouble with the whole sentence, check its English translation (e.g. including subtitles). Optionally, you can also try to repeat the sentence aloud here, imitating the actor’s intonation. Once you understand what you’re saying, go to the next scene and follow step 3.1.


  • Once you’ve gone through steps 3.1-3.2 for the entire episode or movie, watch it again with no subtitles or pauses. How much did you understand this time? Certainly much more than at the beginning.

STEP 5 (optional)

  • If you are doing some work that does not require concentration, you can turn on the episode you completed your work on in the background. You don’t have to pay attention to it just let your brain listen to the melody of the language. Don’t try to understand anything, catch words, etc. Just play the recording in the background and do something else. It is important to work in this way only with recordings that you have already processed.

Time to address your questions telepathically:

Do I need to understand everything 100% to move on?

No. There is no need. You just need to understand 80-90%.

Do I need to write down new words?

No. Just check them, try to understand how they are used and move on. There is no need to jot down new words or to learn them in other ways.

Can I only learn from series?

No. Here, too, it’s good to support yourself either with a teacher, or some other type of course that will give you material in a more structured way. Remember that the main goal of working with series and movies is to improve your listening comprehension. You will not develop, for example, literacy skills, etc. You have to work on them using other methods.

What if I don’t have time to complete all the steps?

In this situation, you can try to watch a series with subtitles in the original language. Then you only need to watch the episode once. You can also, for example, go through all the steps for episode 1, and in the case of the next episodes, take the fast track.

Remember that at this stage it is very important to focus not only on listening to the language, but also on increasing the level of your understanding. That is, developing vocabulary and practicing grammatical structures.

How to learn languages from TV series and movies at the advanced level

How do you work with movies and series when you already know the language at a really high level? 

  • At this stage, you already know the key vocabulary, but you may be still missing some rarer words, idiomatic expressions and, above all, cultural references. You should already be able to understand the show or movie enough to understand what it is about without subtitles.
  • Your goal at this stage is to: a) maintain contact with the language; b) fill gaps, whether in terms of vocabulary or language automation.
  • To achieve linguistic proficiency, you must have constant contact with the language. Watching movies and TV series is a great way to simulate a trip abroad without leaving your own home. Every hour spent with the language counts here.

Working with TV series is therefore very simple:

  • Focus on quantity. Don’t watch one episode over and over again. Watch it once and go to the next one. The more sentences and examples you deliver to your brain, the better.
  • Don’t count on going up a language level after watching just one TV series. You will only see the effects after watching TV series for many months.
  • If you are still having a little trouble understanding and it’s bothering you, try watching a series with original language subtitles (e.g. a French series with French subtitles). When that doesn’t help, use the intermediate strategy.
  • If you understand 90-95% well without subtitles, just watch the original movie and enjoy it.
  • Regardless of whether you are watching a movie with or without subtitles, check for new words only as a last resort. Perhaps it will also be necessary to check the names and surnames of the characters, i.e. cultural references. However, only do this when misunderstanding a word or term is essential to understanding the key content. So don’t check the words every now and then, 1-2 times maximum for the entire movie. If you understand too little, go back to intermediate strategy.
  • In the advanced stage, it is crucial that you enjoy contact with the language. So forget about studying. Make learning new words and phrases come naturally. Nothing by force. Remember to watch as much and as varied material as possible.

Okay. But you can ask yourself:

Where do I find TV series and movies to learn from?

Here, the best way to watch movies and TV series is online, because it is easiest to display subtitles on them, rewind and repeat. Of course, you can also buy, for example, your favorite DVD movies and work with them, but it will be difficult for you to obtain, for example, a sufficient number of them for the effects to become visible, especially at advanced levels.

Therefore, I recommend using one of the several online websites where you can easily find movies and TV series in many languages. I am only listing those that I was able to check myself.

  • NETFLIX – probably one of the most popular websites in the world. Its great advantage is a large database of movies and series in many languages. Whether you’re learning Icelandic, Finnish, Japanese or German, there is something for you.
  • HBO GO – you will also find here a large database of movies in various languages, but there are slightly less non-English-language series than on Netflix. The advantage, however, is that some cable TV subscribers can use this service at no extra charge.
  • AMAZON PRIME – this is the least popular website and has the smallest movie database. Its great advantage is the possibility to choose dubbing in e.g. Spanish or French. You can always choose from all versions of the audio tracks and subtitles available on Amazon, which is a huge advantage. I would recommend it mainly to people who are learning English, as it is harder to find non-English language movies there, unless you want to watch your favorite American movies and series dubbed in the language you are learning.

Finally, I would like to answer a few questions that may be on your mind.

Can I use this method to work with movies shown on TV?

It is quite difficult. First of all, only some channels (Canal+, HBO) allow you to turn off the voiceover and turn on the subtitles. Secondly, such films are difficult to rewind and thirdly, subtitles in the original language are not available. For this reason, only people at an advanced level can work with such videos.

Can I use this method with podcasts and other recordings?

Yes, as long as there is a transcription to them. Podcasts and interviews are good enough that they are easier to understand as there is no background music or other sounds. People also speak much more naturally in them than in the movies. Therefore, you can easily use them for learning with one of the three methods described above.

Should I watch movies for children?

Movies for children aren’t that much easier than adult movies. Of course, you can watch movies like Peppa Pig at the very beginning, which have a lot of repetition and are prepared for the youngest children. However, only watch feature films if you enjoy watching them. There is no need to torture yourself watching movies about princesses or ninja warriors, because they are not that much easier than adult movies and series.

Is there anything else I should remember?

Yes. First of all, don’t be stressed by the fact that you don’t understand something. It is completely natural, even after many months (or years) of study. Accept it as a fact and just work regularly. Listening is one of the most difficult language skills to practice, but thanks to persistent work and patience you will certainly be able to master it. And even if it will be difficult, thanks to our method of working with series, it will certainly be enjoyable.

Finally, I wish you many linguistic successes and luck in finding a series or film that you will be happy (and nostalgic) to come back to many times.

Konrad Jerzak vel Dobosz

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