- RM had the Friends DVD set—you’ve got a more potent tool
- Won’t learning a language from a TV show be too frustrating?
- Step 1—Choosing your subject material from the LLN catalogue
- Step 2—Setting up and using LLN
- Step 3—Break things into manageable chunks
- Step 4—How to use LLN for language learning
- Bonus tip —Use the auto-pause feature
- There’s a Pro version—do I need it?
- A final note about learning languages with this method
(Taking a break from copywriting / proofreading to focus on language learning this week. Seeing as that’s what I’ve been teaching for the past 25 years, it seemed like a good idea. This post is written for Korean speakers wanting to learn English, but of course the methods described here can be used to study any language.)
K-Pop superstar RM (formerly known as Rap Monster) from super-group BTS has stated he learned English from the TV sitcom Friends. Friends ran from 1994–2004, so RM’s mother had to buy the DVD collection. Though Netflix started in 1997, it didn’t start streaming until 2007. As a language teacher of 25 years, I don’t believe it’s possible to learn a language solely from a TV show. But there are definite benefits to be gained from watching authentic material like this.
A lot of ESL (English as a Second Language) and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) material suffers from one recurring problem: it’s unnatural and inauthentic. It’s grammatically correct, but it sounds like it was made for a language learner. Though a TV show is still scripted, it’s much closer to the real, actual English you’d experience in the wild. But trying to watch English TV shows and movies can be daunting and frustrating.
You need to approach using TV shows to learn language the right way. It’s not as simple as just watching a show and waiting to absorb the language through osmosis—if only! On the other hand, studying every word and expression, aiming for 100% understanding, will be boring and tedious.
RM had the Friends DVD set—you’ve got a more potent tool
RM claims he learned English through the Friends DVD collection. I’m going to share a tool and a method with you that will supercharge your learning. You don’t need a DVD collection (do those even exist anymore?)—you just need Netflix. Oh, and one more tool—Language Learning with Netflix (LLN)—coupled with the right strategy.
Watching shows on Netflix is the same as using a DVD collection. And while that seems to have worked for RM, it likely won’t work for everyone. After all, there aren’t thousands of people claiming to have learned English simply from watching TV shows.
Won’t learning a language from a TV show be too frustrating?
Not with the right approach. Choosing the right material is essential. When choosing a show to learn with, keep these tips in mind:
- Choose a series, not a movie—you’ll get to know the characters better. The storyline usually develops at a slower pace. This will allow you to understand more and more with each episode.
- Sitcoms are fun, but the jokes can be hard to understand, leading to frustration. Many jokes rely on a ‘play on words,’ which can be very difficult to understand and don’t translate well.
- Use popular shows as a guide, but choose something you’ll enjoy. If you don’t like the subject matter, it won’t be enjoyable and you’ll give up.
- Police and courtroom shows use a lot of jargon (specialized vocabulary). This will be difficult to understand, especially when starting out.
- Medical and political dramas will pose the same challenges. Think about how difficult it is to discuss political ideas in a second language. It’s tough.
Step 1—Choosing your subject material from the LLN catalogue
Unfortunately, you can’t choose from the entire Netflix catalogue. You’ll have to choose from the LLN Catalogue. Setting ‘language you study’ to ‘English’ and your Netflix country to ‘South Korea’ yields over 400 titles. I’m sure you can find something.
I can’t tell you which series to choose, but if you’re not enjoying your choice after a few episodes, try another one. Choose something that is interesting but with simple subject matter. The more advanced the main topic, the harder it’ll be to understand.
Step 2—Setting up and using LLN
You’ll need to install the LLN extension in Chrome (or any browser that allows Chrome extensions). After you’ve installed LLN in Chrome, make sure it’s enabled. When you navigate to Netflix and click on a title, LLN should automatically load. If you load a title that isn’t in the LLN catalogue, you’ll just see subtitles at the bottom of the screen like you usually do in Netflix. If your title is in the LLN catalogue, you’ll see the subtitles in your chosen language in a box on the right.
The first thing you should do is set the subtitles to your target language, English. Then, in the top right corner of your screen, next to settings, you can click on a button to export the subtitles. You shouldn’t need to change any settings and you can export an .xlsx file which you can view in Excel or Google Sheets. Now you’ll have the script in Korean and English for reference, as well as a place to make notes.
Step 3—Break things into manageable chunks
It might be tempting to hit play and watch the whole episode. To begin with, I would suggest breaking the show into 10–15 minute chunks. If you watch the entire episode and miss key plot points, you will be lost and confused. If you go line by line, it’ll be hard to establish the context and improve your understanding.
I like to look at the script and the time codes to see where scenes start and finish. I then break the episode up into digestible 10–15 minute chunks. If you decide to do this, don’t start studying the script. I’ll explain what you can do with the script shortly.
Step 4—How to use LLN for language learning
So what’s the big secret? How do you use LLN to help you learn a language?
Watch each chunk 4 times, using this format:
- 1st Viewing—Turn off all subtitles. See how much you can understand and listen for familiar words and phrases. When you start out, this phase will be incredibly difficult. Don’t get discouraged.
- 2nd Viewing—Turn on the Korean subtitles. This will allow you to understand what’s going on and to get the main story. Be warned—though subtitles on Netflix are usually pretty good, they aren’t always 100% accurate. For the purpose of flow, translators may also take some liberties, so each line may not always be a direct translation.
- 3rd Viewing—Turn on the English subtitles. This time, see how much you can understand by listening and reading along with the English subtitles.
- 4th Viewing—Turn off the subtitles again. You should notice you understand a lot more this time than on your first viewing. And that, ladies and gentleman, is what we call progress!
As your ability to follow the main story and overall comprehension increases, you may wish to watch longer chunks at a time. Just don’t fall into the trap of sitting back and watching episodes with Korean subtitles—that won’t help you improve.
Bonus tip—Use the auto-pause feature
Here are a couple of extra tips. The first one is related to your 3rd viewing with English subtitles. Turn on the auto-pause feature. You can either click the slider button or press the ‘q’ key. This will pause the video after each line. You can then press either the ‘d’ key or the ‘→’ key to advance to the next subtitle. LLN has a list of keyboard shortcuts and general instructions in English and Korean.
Viewing this way will give you a chance to absorb each line fully in English. If you like, you can also choose to repeat interesting phrases or new vocabulary. This will help cement what you’re learning and help you wrap your tongue around the sounds and flow of the language.
The second tip is to use the script you saved earlier to make notes and learn vocabulary. When you come across an expression you think might be useful, make a note in the script spreadsheet. You can also make notes about new vocabulary you encounter. You can also look up word definitions or meanings of idioms. You can even make notes about things you want to check into later (i.e. word usage or cultural differences).
There’s a Pro version—do I need it?
There is a paid Pro version of LLN (₩6,195/month) that offers benefits like the ability to save words and phrases. If you prefer to use the free version, you can do that yourself in the script you saved. The main functionality is still available in the free version of the extension. There’s also an LLN Facebook page for the LLN community. Check it out if you’d like to use your newly acquired language skills in the ‘real world.’
A final note about learning languages with this method
Over the years, many students have asked me for my best language learning tip. I’ve always given the exact same answer—practice, practice, practice. You’re not going to become fluent using this method. You need to practice actually speaking English—you know, with real people—to improve your conversation ability. But using LLN is a great way to improve your listening skills. It’s also a very useful method of expanding your vocabulary, as you see the words and phrases used in context. It’ll also dramatically help you understand spoken English. And that’s half the battle—if you don’t understand what’s been said, you can’t join the conversation.
Have fun using LLN to learn English—or any other language. I use this method to study Korean. Just don’t forget to find opportunities to actually talk to people if you want to see real improvements. Who knows? You may just surprise yourself by how much more you understand the next time you’re part of an English conversation.
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Update (Sept. 14, 2021): Language Learning with Netflix has changed to Language Reactor. Along with integration with Netflix, it now supports other platforms, such as YouTube. The interface and settings described in this post should still apply to Language Reactor. If you need help or have questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch!