Can you really learn a second language from watching television? Yes. Will you develop full fluency in just a few seasons? Probably not. Diving into a thrilling TV series allows you to focus on language comprehension in a motivating context. But what you pick up from those episodes depends on your level of familiarity with the target language. Let me offer three examples from my own experience.
High Language Familiarity and Pragmatics
Spanish was the second language I learned. While my speaking proficiency is limited, I can follow simple conversations and easily recognize common words. This level of familiarity allows me to focus on pragmatics or how context influences the meaning of language.
A few months ago, I discovered two Spanish-language shows that helped me learn various ways to handle leave-taking, or what you say when you want to exit a conversation. If you asked me how to say ‘excuse me, I’m leaving’ before watching these shows, I would suggest perdón. But after following the 80-episode telenovela based on the life of salsa queen Celia Cruz, I quickly learned that con permiso was a better choice. I stored that phrase in my mind until I discovered Alta Mar (The High Seas), a drama about passengers from Spain headed to Brazil in the 1940s on a luxury cruise ship. In the middle of the second season, I noticed the characters said disculpen when preparing to walk out of a room. While I’m still unclear of when to use con permiso or disculpen, I’m now aware that different situations might require one term or the other.
Low Language Familiarity and Vocabulary
Arabic is a language I never studied, but that I have occasionally heard and seen in my daily life. I can recognize when others are speaking Arabic and identify Arabic writing. This level of familiarity allows me to focus on learning high-frequency vocabulary.
Last year I watched the series Jinn, a story about high schoolers in Jordan who become ensnared in a battle between good and bad genies. The show focuses on a group of teenagers and their teacher. During their interactions, I noticed myself focusing on the referents they used to identify each other. For example, frequent scenes at one character’s home helped me learn baba (بابا ; father). Another word I picked up was habibi (حبيبي), a term of endearment. Sometimes it was used platonically between adults and youth and other times it was used romantically between the teenagers. Habibi reminds me of how we sometimes say honey or sweetie in English.
No Language Familiarity and Phonology
Korean is a language with which I have almost no familiarity. I rarely hear the language or see it written. I have not lived in any communities where Korean is commonly used. You may think this level of familiarity would not allow me to learn anything from watching a Korean drama, but it actually helped me focus on phonology or the sounds used to form a language.
A friend recommended I watch Vagabond, an international spy thriller where a stunt man and a National Intelligence Service officer work together to uncover the true motive behind a plane crash. Unlike the previous series I watched, I found my ear attending to the prosody of the actors’ dialogue. Just like different genres of music vary in their typical rhythms, so too do different languages. Take for example questions. In English, when we pose a yes-no question, our intonation usually rises at the end of the phrase. I of course did not know the rhythm of questions in Korean before starting the series. But, halfway through the season, I noticed that when questions appeared in the subtitles the speaker often ended them in ne or de. A quick internet search helped me learn that I was hearing the word yes (네). Yes is pronounced like ne but can sound like de because of the way Koreans sometimes pronounce the beginning sound (similar to how the t in ninety might sound more like a d as in ninedy).
Media can motivate language learning because it keeps you engaged over extended periods of time providing an immersive experience. Whether you have high or low familiarity with a language, turn on the subtitles, follow along, and you can pick up some aspect of the language. Enjoy the show!
Want to learn more? Dive into a new drama. Here are a few others I recommend: