Language Learning with Netflix: 8 Steps to Make Binge-Watching Worthwhile

“Intention is connected with attention.” – Luca Lampariello

If there’s one specific service that has truly revolutionized the entertainment industry of the 21st century, it’s Netflix. The ability to stream hours and hours of movies, documentaries, and television series instantly to any screen has truly paved the way for an era of customizing and optimizing entertainment to our needs and interests.

One perhaps unexpected way you can customize Netflix to fit your life better is to use it as a language learning tool. Indeed, Netflix’s offerings are not just in English, but in dozens and dozens of languages. If you want to use Netflix to watch and digest content in your language, you can likely do it with incredible ease—you just need to know how.

So today, I’d like to share some strategies that will help you use Netflix to supercharge your language learning.

Let’s check them out!

1. Decide What You Want to Watch

Nowadays, the offering on Netflix is huge. You have all sorts of movies, TV-series, documentaries, you name it. So, if you are using Netflix to learn a foreign language, what show should you watch? 

My take is that you should always watch enjoyable content—in other words, content that you find interesting and entertaining. I for one like watching TV series or documentaries. One of the reasons why I usually watch these instead of movies is because they are easier to watch in short bursts. I watch Netflix on my computer, which can be distracting, so watching shorter-length content is great for staying focused and avoiding the urge to browse the Internet or social media. Movies are usually from one to two hours in length, and with all that time needed to focus, it’s much easier to get distracted.

Ok, let’s say that you have decided that you like to watch TV series for language learning. Let’s say you are learning French. Great! Well, then, a French TV series it is! 

Not so fast!

While watching French TV series might seem like the most natural choice, the types of shows you should watch really depend on your level. If your level is B2 or above, I’d definitely go for an authentic show in that language. Instead, if your level is lower than that, you might opt for something different instead.

What about taking a show you’ve already seen in your native language, and watching a version dubbed in your target language?

This is useful because being already familiar with the show’s content will greatly facilitate your ability to understand it in another language. On top of that, the voice-over artists who dub shows tend to speak very clearly and articulately.

The only downside is that dubbed voices can seem a bit artificial, since on-set actors don’t usually speak like professional dubbers do. However, that’s a price you must be willing to pay if you want to start using Netflix content in your target language, especially if you’re not at an advanced level. 

So, you might want to start watching shows you already know and which are dubbed, and then move to more authentic material when you reach a higher level. The ultimate goal is to watch some authentic content with authentic language, so always keep that in mind as you choose what to watch. 

2. Should You Use Subtitles?

Ok, now you have decided which kinds of shows you want to watch. Let’s say you chose a TV series. 

A common question I get at that point is “should I use subtitles, and if so, which ones?” 

Well, first things first, I will tell you that I’ve had many students confess that they feel like using subtitles is like cheating.

When I hear that, my reaction is always the same: why do you feel that way? 

Subtitles are an amazing tool to help you understand content and reinforce your listening comprehension. They should always be an option for you if you are learning a foreign language.

Now onto the second question: should you put these subtitles in your target language, or native language? Once again, it depends on your level. If you have learned a language before, you might have noticed that sometimes having subtitles in your native language is more beneficial than having them in your target language. This is particularly true when your level is still not that high, let’s say, below B1. But once you get more and more familiar with the language, you might want to use subtitles directly in your target language.

3. Choose What to Watch Well in Advance

Have you ever heard of the paradox of choice?

It’s the paradox that occurs when we’re given a lot of options prior to making a decision. The more options we have, the harder it is to actually make a choice.

It seems like nonsense, but it makes perfect sense when you fire up Netflix for the first time. You might be 100% ready to watch something, but you have so many things you could watch that after spending ages searching through the catalog, you end up watching nothing. Seriously.

This used to happen to me a lot before I came up with this next tip.

I would turn on my computer, pick a show, stop, reconsider, pick another show, go back to the main page, and then do it all again. Pretty soon, I’ve accomplished nothing, and all I feel ready to do is go to sleep. Pretty unproductive, especially when I wanted to use my watching time to get listening practice in one of my languages.

Here’s what you need to do to avoid this trap: decide what you want to watch well in advance of the time you actually sit down to watch it.

It’s that simple. In the morning, when your mind is fresh, maybe at work, take five to ten minutes to pick a movie or show to watch that evening. Once you’ve decided, write it down on a post-it or add it to your Google Calendar (any visual cue or reminder goes) and then stick to your plan. You can even open Netflix and bookmark the url of whatever you’re going to watch so that when the moment comes, you’re ready to get started at a click of your mouse.

Problem solved!

So, in my case, I know that every Friday night (if I’m not going to be out of the house) I’m going to watch something on Netflix. So, I know well in advance that at 9 PM I will watch one 45-minute long TV show that I already have picked out and bookmarked in my web browser. 

4. Choose Between Active or Passive Viewing

A lot of people tend to watch Netflix at night, or at least after the work day is over. It’s what most do to relax, and get the most enjoyment out of their free time. 

Like most forms of relaxation, this means that when people decide to watch Netflix, they are sprawled out on their bed or couch, just passively taking in whatever is appearing on the screen. 

That’s all good if all you’re just using Netflix as a relaxation tool. However, if you’re using Netflix to learn a language, you need to employ different watching strategies depending on the kind of value you want to get from your watching time. 

There are different ways to engage in Netflix watching, ranging from the totally passive to the extremely proactive:

  • When you watch passively, you are just watching the show—letting it wash over you. Just you, and your show. Nothing else
  • When you watch proactively, things are completely different. You’re sitting upright, focused, pen or pencil in hand. When you hear a word you want to remember or look up, you pause the show and write it down. You’re not just watching the show, you’re mining it for new words and sentences to use. 

If you are wondering which one is best, my answer is: both!

Passive immersion is easier and requires less effort, while proactive immersion is rewarding and effective, but it is also tougher to do, especially after a long day at work.

5. Save Words and Phrases

Every time you use Netflix for active watching, you should always be in the habit of writing down words and sentences to save for later learning. This helps focus your attention, and will help integrate those new vocabulary items into your episodic memory. Not only that, but the simple truth is this: the more you focus, the more details you see, and the more details you can absorb, the more you will learn.

There are a number of cool ways in which you can save words and sentences for later, specifically within the context of Netflix:

Take for example a popular Chrome Extension called Learning Languages with Netflix. This extension allows you to organize on-screen subtitles in various different arrangements and language combinations (for example, target language subtitles displayed above native language subtitles). It also has some amazing features that make the experience of saving words ten times more convenient and fun than it would be otherwise.

With this nice piece of software you can quickly save words on the fly and then review them later. I now use Learning Languages with Netflix alongside physical notebooks in which I write down all the new words and phrases I learn.

A bit of advice: No matter what strategy you use to save new vocabulary, make sure to never, EVER write down single words. That’s a capital sin in vocabulary acquisition. Single words have no context, and without context, most words are meaningless. 

That being said, you should also avoid writing down entire sentences, too. If you’re in the middle of watching something, it’s annoying to have to hit pause just to write down a whole sentence. And even if you can save them with a click of your mouse, you might get into the bad habit of saving everything, which can ultimately be overwhelming. 

A simple solution is to aim for something in between: only write down short fragments of sentences as you watch.

A “fragment” can vary in size, but should be the smallest portion of a sentence that is worth remembering. For example, If you stumble upon a noun you don’t know, you might want to at least write down which verb it was used with. If it is a verb, you might want to add the accompanying preposition and/or an object. 

6. Check your Fragments in the Morning and/or at the End of the Week

Getting exposed to words is great, and saving words on the fly is even better, but unfortunately, those simple actions are not enough to commit information to long term memory. I suggest that you review your saved words and fragments within one week of you writing them down. 

You can do this in a text file on your computer, or in a physical notebook. The means through which you record your fragments doesn’t matter, as long as they are in a location that is easily accessible for review. Personally, I like to carry around small notebooks that I can flip through on the fly and review what I’ve recently learned. 

7. Pay Attention to Body Language and Other Visual Cues

If there is one advantage to watching a movie or TV show, it is that you can see the full scope of human communication. With pure audio, you can’t tell how a person is using his face or body to communicate. 

When you use Netflix for language learning, make sure you pay attention to people’s faces, body language, and hand gestures. Facial gestures and co-speech gestures are part of the fundamental communication code of each language. If you pay close attention, you will see how certain emotions are conveyed through recurring gestures, actions and reactions, hand and arm movements and so on.

Speaking a language is not just a matter of uttering sounds, it is a way to live and navigate in this world, and you can learn a lot from observing human beings interact within the rules of their cultural and linguistic code. 

8. Turn On Audio Descriptions

Here’s a little known feature of Netflix that can be extremely helpful for you intermediate-to-advanced learners out there.

Earlier, we talked about dubbing, which is the act of replacing the original audio of a movie or TV show with new audio, usually in a different language.

These “dubs”, if available, can usually be found in the “subtitles and audio” options in the Netflix interface. 

In addition to dubbed audio, you may occasionally find an additional audio track in that menu called “Audio Description”.

An “audio description” file consists of the original audio of the movie or show, but with additional narration that makes the visual content of the show more accessible for the blind.

For example, if you have a scene where a character, John, silently walks across the room and looks out a window, the narrator on the audio descriptions track will literally say “John walks across the room, and gazes longingly out the window”, or something like that.

It may not seem obvious at first, but this additional narration can be extremely useful not only for blind Netflix users, but also language learners (blind or sighted). 

When you watch a Netflix title with audio descriptions on, you suddenly receive a few benefits that you’d be missing otherwise:

  • Most silent portions of your movie/TV show are now filled with authentic, native audio
  • You get to learn exactly how native speakers would describe certain non-verbal actions or traits (like facial expressions, movements, body language, clothing, physical appearance, and so on).

As a learner, having all of this available to you is extremely useful, as you can learn to describe the world in the same manner as a native speaker would, all with the few clicks of a button.

A couple of things to note before you head off to Netflix and look for audio descriptions in your favorite shows:

  • Generally speaking, audio descriptions on Netflix are only available for shows labeled as “Netflix Originals” (normally marked with a red “Netflix N” in one corner of the show’s graphic.
  • If an audio description is available, it is likely only accessible if your Netflix profile language is the same as the original language of the show. (e.g. If you want Spanish audio descriptions of a Spanish show, you need to change your profile language to Spanish). 

Clck here for a list of all Netflix titles with available audio descriptions.

If you’d like to learn more about audio descriptions in action, check out this video by my friend Matt Bonder of Matt vs. Japan. 

Time for Some Language Learning with Netflix

So, there you have it. As a recap, first decide the kind of material you want to consume. Always choose content that is interesting to you, and that works well with the limits of your attention span. Start with dubbed content, and then move gradually towards authentic movies and TV shows as you gain more experience. 

Always make sure that you have subtitles, at least in your target language. Alternate between passive and proactive listening, and when you do the latter, make sure you record or write down words for safekeeping, and keep reviewing them regularly. Pay attention to the holistic style of communication that unfolds in a show, particularly facial features and body language. And if you want to gain more value from your Netflix watching, turn on audio descriptions to pack even more native audio into your content.

Now you’ve got everything you need to start binge-watching target language shows on Netflix!

Written by Luca Lampariello

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