Man Watching TV

Learn A Language By Watching TV

I am not a big watcher of television. In fact, for the past ten years I haven’t even had a television connected to an antenna in the house. However, I do watch media entertainment. My main source has been through YouTube, and I have fairly narrow interest areas. Mostly I listen to motivational clips, family-friendly comedy, language learning tips, and occasionally I listen to actual language learning resources. I avoid news and current affairs programs at all costs, and lifestyle programs, while I can sit and watch them, are not something I think to actively seek out.

However, sometimes I just don’t feel like actively working on a language, but I do want to make sure I am spending some time in my target language each day. I also like to “keep my finger in the pie” with established languages, without actively spending time learning. For that, it is useful to find channels that are in my target language AND have subject matter that interests me.

You may feel like this is a bit of a cheat’s way to say you are spending time learning, but it is absolutely not the case. This type of listening is called “extensive listening“, and it is an invaluable part of becoming accustomed to the language. It helps to create an environment of immersion. You can either select programs that are mostly comprehensible, or simply watch to get the feel of the language – become accustomed to the musicality of the language, the rhythm and cadence, listen for conversational “fillers” that you won’t find in language learning resources, and just absorb some of the cultural mannerisms.

It can be tricky to find foreign language television shows, particularly when you don’t live in the target language and are not familiar with their offerings. You may have read about using Netflix and similar services and searching for programs or movies in your target language. It is also possible to watch programs originally recorded in English (or other language) and switch the audio and/or subtitles to your language. That is one option, and perfectly valid if you are able to access them. However, I encountered a couple of problems.

Firstly, on the Australian Netflix service there are only about 21 options originally filmed in French, all but 4 are movies, and of course one has to find a genre one enjoys. Unfortunately many are also M15+, which I tend not to watch as I don’t like watching graphic movies or listening to a lot of swearing. Of the 4 series, 3 are M15+.

So I turned to option number 2: listening to English shows that have been dubbed into French. And was surprised to run into another wall… I depend heavily on lip reading, which doesn’t work when lips are doing different things!

I have noticed this about myself over the past twenty years. Although my hearing of sounds is still exceedingly good, my ability to discern speech seems to have declined over the years. My right ear seems to be quite useless in a noisy environment, and not having lip patterns to rely on really throws me off. I actually had to tell a friend to move her hand the other day, as she held it in front of her mouth while talking and I couldn’t tell what she was saying… as soon as I could read her lips, I was all good again.

This all is exacerbated when trying to discern a language with which I am not overly familiar. I am at the point with French that if I can read French subtitles AND listen to French audio, I probably get 80% of the gist. If I am reading French subtitles only, I still get about 70%, but if I am listening to audio/watching speech patterns I get about 60%, listening to audio only (like in documentaries) I get about 50%… and if I am watching something where the lips are completely out of sync with the audio… only maybe 30%. And then there is a second issue with English programs… usually the dubbed track in French doesn’t line up with the French subtitles! For some reason they have had one group do the dubbing, and another group simply translate the original subtitles, and as interpreting and translating is art more than science, the two versions do not correspond!

Sometimes that doesn’t matter – I quite enjoyed watching old episodes of “That 70s Show” in French, because I am so familiar with the content that I don’t need to get full comprehension from the French. I however had to choose EITHER dubbing OR subtitles… having to work out both at the same time meant I absorbed nothing, and was just too hard for this little duck!

A better solution for me has been to source programs originally filmed in French. Recently I searched on wikipedia and found a list of French television shows – travel shows and some light soap opera series. Now, on the occasion that I feel like working on my language but don’t feel like sitting at a desk, I can still improve my comprehension and listening skills (arguably an area that we often need to spend time on and don’t!). I’m looking forward to listening to Échappées Belles, a French travel show. On YouTube the shows are 90 mins long, and that might be a bit long for me to sit and watch the whole thing, so on the other end of the scale, I also enjoy watching two – five minute videos of National Geographic Documentary clips in French. Of course the offering on YouTube is usually limited, but when I run out of clips I will watch them again maybe! 🙂

I did try to create an account with a French television website, but of course it told me “This program is not available in your region.” It is possible to fool the websites of your location, if you have a great connection and you purchase or source apps that can reroute you to a local server, but that takes time and money. Of course, you can purchase DVDs online as well, although my only DVD player is on my computer and I’m unlikely to use that. (Maybe I should purchase a smart phone in France, download the apps for the televisions stations, and have them sent to me here in Australia!)

Do you have any handy hints for sourcing television programs in your target language? What languages have you managed to find, and where? Let me know in the comments below!

Cate is a language enthusiast sharing her language learning journey here. Apart from her native English (albeit 'Strine'*!), as an adult she has also learned Auslan (Australian Sign Language) to approximately a C1 level, Dutch to around B1/2, French to around A2, and has a smattering of other languages.

B.A. (Anthropology/Marketing), Grad. Dip. Arts (Linguistics), Grad. Cert. Entrepreneurship & Venture Development, (CELTA).

Auslan Interpreter (NAATI), and general Language Nut.

*For more information on 'Strine', visit