How Netflix Can Help You Learn Another Language

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You might escape everyday life by re-watching your favorite shows, whether it’s to drown the monotony of your 9-to-5 job or laugh at something all over again. In fact, science says indulging in, say, all eight episodes of Queer Eye season two in one day produces dopamine, a chemical that makes us feel excited and happy — a nice remedy for daily drudgery. Not-so surprisingly, however, binge watching has also been linked to poor lifestyle choices and a laundry list of physical and mental conditions.

But what you might not know is that binge watching your go-to streaming service originals can also teach you something (even if you watch them repeatedly). Yes, Netflix can be a powerful educational tool, especially when it comes to learning a new language.

Learning a new language can be intimidating, but you don’t always have to get out of your comfort zone

Using your favorite shows can be a great place to start, as the familiarity can help you link images and words together in a more efficient manner. This is especially true if you already have some base knowledge of your target language. Using Netflix alone might be more difficult for those who are beginners, according to Robert Sheppard, founder of Ginseng English. But research shows that watching television in another language helps viewers learn new vocabulary in their target language, and that the dialogue’s corresponding images (specifically in documentaries) can help people understand words in their target language that don’t have direct translations in their native language.

“Don’t feel that you need to be watching a new movie to get something out of it,” Sheppard said, in a statement to Reviews.com. “There is a lot of value in watching a movie that is already very familiar to you again in your target language. The fact that you already know the story and maybe some snatches of dialogue will free up some cognitive bandwidth so that you can focus on the language rather than the plot.”

Change your language subtitles and audio

Not only can you listen to some of your favorite Netflix shows in your target language, you can also change your Netflix experience by signing into your account via desktop or mobile browser and modifying your overall language settings. This will change the headers and descriptions, which can help bring you a slightly more immersive experience. You can then change the audio and subtitles of individual shows as you watch them. And if you don’t see your subtitles or audio languages listed as an option this way, you can download them manually in your account under “My Profile” and “Language.” (Note: Text and audio translations vary by program.)

Netflix has a Chrome extension called “Language Learning with Netflix” that allows two language subtitles to appear on the screen at once while you watch. This can help you compare your target and native languages, while helping you gain a better understanding of sentence structure and individual words. The extension’s built-in dictionary lets you look up the more confusing words and conjugations in your target language. Having both subtitles can be important for drawing phonetic conclusions. English, as Sheppard puts it, “isn’t as phonetic as a learner would like it to be!”

Key nuances lie in the unfamiliar

Yes — that familiar ‘90s sitcom Friends (which actually won’t be available on Netflix for much longer), has helped some people learn English. But in order to contextualize your experience and begin to understand verbal cues in your target language (English or not), watching shows written and produced in your target language might help you better comprehend things like basic sentence structure, dialogue speed, and even help you pick up on some cultural nuances. In fact, one study involving Catalan speakers found that physical gestures and varying speech pitches helped the participants learn new Russian words.

“One of the key characteristics of successful language learning is, very simply, exposure. But the exposure has to be in context,” Jean Marie Carey, training resources editor at the Humanities and Social Sciences Online Material Culture and Vernacular Landscapes and Artifact Preservation, said in a statement to Reviews.com. Carey, whose research centers on the German Bavarian dialect, says a lot of lab-based language tutorials are still rooted in the “listening model” and lack visual or body language cues to supplement the dialogue.

In learning and teaching German and working as a translator, Carey says Netflix shows like “Babylon Berlin” and “Dark” are “fantastic” for helping learners understand the natural cadence of the German language, which then helps aid in forming contextual memory cues for further understanding. Carey says “Babylon Berlin” is “structured like a play,” and that the dialogue is clear but the narrative is complex, whereas “Dark” has less of a linear plot with regional dialects and references from 1980s German pop culture. According to Carey, “Babylon Berlin” is a perfect example of how visuals give life to the dialogue. “People can follow along with the subtitles, but a lot of meaning is conveyed simply through the visuals, so just by watching and listening even without the subtitles, I think people could pick up a lot.”

Pick up on cultural cues

The same way that the words in your native language won’t be directly translatable in some cases, your cultural habits won’t always carry over into another’s, either. In order to grasp another language, you also need to become aware of your own cultural biases and “programming,” as Annalisa Nash Fernandez, intercultural strategist at Because Culture, calls it. “Just as important as speaking another language is cultural intelligence, which is about recognizing your own cultural context, and understanding the lens through which you see other cultures,” Fernandez said, in a statement to Reviews.com. “It’s about taking emotional intelligence a step further to be empathetic to other cultures.”

Fernandez told us watching a series from your host country can help you pick up on cultural cues quickly, so that you can better relate to those in the host country or of your target language. “Watching how people greet each other, buy things, sit down and eat together, is excellent preparation which can mitigate the initial culture shock upon arrival in the host country,” Fernandez said.

It’s going to take more than Netflix to become fluent

Technically, watching a Netflix show in a different language isn’t considered “immersion.” According to Sheppard, immersion generally entails being in a country or setting where only the target language is used or spoken. Children acquire language largely through physical, verbal interaction, and the same is generally true for adults. But the entire process is a lot more involved.

“Purely listening to a language, and observing the contextual and paraverbal cues, is considered by linguists to be ‘consuming’ a language,” Fernandez said. “Speaking (and writing) is ‘producing’ a language. You need both to process language and be fluent.”

If you want to do more than learn to speak the language casually, you might want to consider formal instruction to learn proper grammar and spelling. You can apply the 10,000 hour rule of mastery, but fully grasping a language might be more complex than devoting a certain amount of time to studying the language per week, depending on your needs. Netflix might be a good tool, but it certainly isn’t the only one.

Of course, the best way to learn a language is to surround yourself with it. “I never would have become fluent if I had not lived in Germany,” Carey said. “I would say that the day-to-day experience of really putting yourself out there is incomparable…The very best thing I did to get quickly up to speaking speed was to take a Bavarian dance class.” But if you’re not ready for Bavarian dance classes, Netflix can be a helpful tool in learning new languages.