Jump-start your language skills by watching TV: a 4-step guide 3


language skills - active listening

Image: Paul Townsend

The following post is from Paul Martin, an English teacher who lives in Argentina. Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language teaching service which offers foreign language level tests as well as other free language learning resources on its website. 

Over to you Paul!

They say that TV rots your brain, but for the foreign language learner, your television (or computer!) is an invaluable asset that you can use to put your language skills into high gear. Apart from being entertaining, TV shows contain an enormous amount of dialogue which will introduce you to how native speakers really use the language. But don’t be a couch potato: there are some steps you can take to actively watch TV shows, which will allow you to truly take advantage of this useful (and fun) resource. If you want to improve your language skills and you’re sick of staring at a textbook, read on.

Step 1: Find a series that you really like

This may seem obvious, but I can’t emphasize it enough: make sure you’re watching a series that you REALLY like, because you’re going to get to know it very, very well. You’ll also be taking a lot of notes, so it’s important that you can start and stop the program at a moment’s notice. Therefore, unless your TV can pause live broadcasts, try to make sure that this series is either available on DVD, can be found on Netflix, or can be downloaded somewhere else online.

Step 2: Watch and write

language skills - note taking

Image: Chung Ho Leung

Start watching your foreign language series! But don’t be a passive observer. Actively follow the dialogue. Every time you don’t understand something, rewind it until you do – sometimes you may have to listen to the same line several times before getting all the words (but when you do, it’ll be worth it). Most importantly, write down the dialogue. For beginners, try your hardest to reproduce the script and write down everything you hear; more advanced learners can simply write down phrases that they had to listen to more than once in order to fully understand. This will be important later.

Note that, with so much pausing and rewinding, this process will last significantly longer than the actual episode. Depending on your level, be prepared to spend 45 minutes to 90 minutes on each 30-minute episode.

Step 3: Study your notes

Here comes the real hard work. Unfortunately, this is also the most boring part (well, fun for language nerds, but not as fun as watching TV!): it’s time to scrutinize the notes that you’ve so diligently compiled. Feel free to use the dictionary, the internet (the WordReference forums are particularly useful for tricky phrases), or your friends – as long as you end up with a solid understanding of what all of this means.

Here’s an example of what this might look like, pulled from my own notes on the Argentine series ‘En Terapia’:

GUILLERMO: Vos lo llevaste algo específico: casarse o terminar. Vos pusiste el plazo de uno o dos días para contestar.

You made it specific: get married or break up. You set the deadline of one or two days to answer.

In just the first line of dialogue, we already encounter several learning opportunities. First, we see the use of ‘vos’ instead of ‘tú’, which is distinct to the Rioplatense Spanish dialect. Second, Guillermo uses the phrase ‘poner un plazo’, a useful phrase which translates to ‘set a deadline’.

MARINA: No. Él dio el ultimátum. O sea . . . Bueno, está bien . . . Yo di el ultimátum. Pero él aprovechó y me dijo que si no le contestaba en uno o dos días, se iba. Y después se puso a llorar. Como si se hubiese asustado de lo que dijo.

No. He gave the ultimatum. Like … well, okay … I gave the ultimatum. But he took advantage of it and told me that if I didn’t answer him in one or two days, he’d leave. And then he burst into tears. As if what he said scared him.

In Marina’s response, there’s plenty to analyze. First of all, we see excellent examples of some Spanish filler words (‘muletillas’ in Spanish), such as ‘o sea’ and ‘bueno’. Marina says that her boyfriend ‘se puso a llorar’ – started crying (or, more poetically, burst into tears). Finally, when she talks about a hypothetical situation, she uses the past subjunctive of the verb ‘haber’ – ‘hubiese’ – which often presents a challenge even to advanced learners.

Soon, the two start talking about the fight that Marina had recently with her boyfriend:

MARINA: Yo no empecé la pelea.

I didn’t start the fight.

GUILLERMO: Quizás no te diste cuenta, pero sí, la empezaste vos. Como si quisieras llevar la relación al límite. A lo mejor, Andrés le puso palabra, pero la que no puede vivir en ese indecisión sos vos. ¿Por qué te parece tan importante tener una definición en este momento en particular?

Maybe you don’t realize it, but yes, you started it. It’s as if you wanted to push the relationship to its limit. Sure, Andrés put it into words, but you’re the one who can’t live with that indecision. Why does it seem so important to you to have a definition in this particular moment?

Again, there’s an excellent use of the past subjunctive in an ‘as if’ construction – ‘querer’ becomes ‘quisiera’. We see our third example of an expression with the verb ‘poner’ – this time, it’s ‘poner palabra’, which means to verbalize or put something into words. We also see two other expressions of note: ‘llevar (algo) al límite’ (take something to the limit) and ‘a lo mejor’ (probably, most likely).

MARINA: Porque Andrés tiene razón. Lo estoy engañando.

Because Andrés is right. I am being unfaithful to him.

Finally, Marina turns the tables when she dramatically claims that she is ‘engañando’ – being unfaithful – to her boyfriend. (What does she mean by this? You’ll have to watch to find out! Hint: it’s related to Guillermo.)

In barely fifteen seconds of dialogue, we’ve already learned several new words and phrases, and we’ve seen great examples of grammar (that we’ve worked so hard to memorize!) in action. If we can learn so much from 15 seconds, imagine how much you can learn in an entire episode – or an entire series! But we’re not done yet: there’s one more important step to help solidify what you’ve learned.

Step 4: Talk about it with a friend

language skills - friends

Image: Pepe Pont

If you have friends who’ve watched the same series, now is a great time to talk about it with them (in the target language, of course!). Not only will you be able to utilize the vocabulary that you’ve learned in the show, but you’ll also get in some valuable speaking practice.

What if you don’t have friends nearby who’ve seen the same show? What if your friends are like mine and say ‘Basta de En Terapia!’ (‘Enough En Terapia already!’) when you try to broach the subject with them? Well, dear reader, that is what conversation exchanges are for. Websites like Speaky and apps like Tandem allow you to chat with native speakers from all over the world. You can even filter them by interests and create your own discussion topics, so you’re sure to find somebody else who’s a fan of your TV show of choice.

When you’re done watching, taking notes, and chatting with friends, it’s time to move on to the next episode! If you repeat this process, you’ll end up with an impressively long (and extremely useful) repository of notes about the show, which is sure to be chock-full of useful words and expressions. You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn from just one TV series!

For more language learning advice, check out Language Trainers’ Facebook page, and feel free to email paul@languagetrainers.com for more information.


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  • Meredith Cicerchia

    Great post– I live in Spain and keep Spanish subtitles on my tv so I end up picking up on so much more language I would have missed just listening. It’s also a great method for reinforcing grapheme-phoneme mapping and improving your spelling.

    • Paul M

      Totally agree. Glad you liked the post!

  • jhg

    How would I find a show in German that has easy dialog? I am a beginner.