Learning a language through music, film and TV
April 18, 2017 2:13 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious on how doable it is to learn a language (to basic listening/reading/speaking ability) primarily through music, and other media like film and TV.

Something I'm not thrilled to do: sit down and study a language in the traditional way.

Something I am thrilled to do: listen to new music, watch movies or TV shows, and dig deep into the culture and media of a country.

What would be really neat is if I could slowly become fluent in the media of a country whose language I want to learn, and learn the language in the process. I think this might be most doable with music. For example, pull up a song (on youtube or spotify), a page with the lyrics in the original language, and then an English translation of those lyrics. Enjoy and learn the song, study the lyrics and their meaning, and listen to the song enough that you can sing it and understand it with no difficulty. Then move on to another song and repeat the process. And keep doing this and keep getting better while having fun.

Then once you do this enough and get better, you can move on to TV or movies. With the subtitle scene being what it is, you could now download a movie or TV show and then download a subtitle track for the language, a subtitle track for English, and have them both on screen at the same time. Pause and study as you go. Learn while enjoying something interesting.

At the moment I'm interested in learning Polish, and have access to a native speaker who is willing to practice with me, explain things, and recommend good music/film/TV. If all goes well I could be interested in other languages like French or Japanese as well. I realize some languages are easier to do this with than others. I also realize I might benefit from this approach being supplemented with other methods like Duolingo, and I'm not opposed to that.

What do you think about this being a valid way to learn a language?
posted by naju to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I would think that starting with music would make it harder. Sung words don't always sound the same as spoken words, songwriters use slang and idioms, and they truncate words to force rhymes.

With TV or movies you have visual cues. If the detective picks up the gun and says "this is the murder weapon!" it's going to be easier to associate the word "weapon" in your mind with an image of a gun.

I learned French the traditional way but I can understand movies and TV much better than songs, even when reading the lyrics. You may want to learn slang, but as a beginner it's going to be hard to know when to use it appropriately.
posted by AFABulous at 2:42 PM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I know some people that learned rudimentary English from videogames, between localised manual and a dictionary at hand. It helps with words, but forget about any solid grammar. Maybe adventure games would help more with that.
posted by lmfsilva at 2:58 PM on April 18, 2017

Seconding that music is harder to start with. TV shows and movies are the way to go.

However, the downside of learning through popular culture is that your vocabulary and accent might be limited to what you choose to consume. Imagine if someone learned to speak English solely through noir detective films or cowboy Westerns, because that's what they like to watch, not knowing that they were confining themselves to that stereotypical accent. Or ask anyone whose knowledge of Japanese comes from watching shounen anime, and they'll be able to tell you - possibly with perfect inflection and intonation - how to say "I need to become stronger!" Or "I'll kill you!!!" in Japanese. But tell them to order something in a restaurant, or ask directions, and they might be tongue-tied.

This is all to say, sure, watch movies and TV, but make sure you vary the genres so that you broaden your exposure, and shore up your learning with more traditional basic vocabulary and grammar sources.
posted by satoshi at 2:58 PM on April 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

In high school, I took a beginning German class and my teacher thought I was lying about being new to it, but it was just that I was really into New German Cinema.

I couldn't really speak it or anything, though. I needed the classes to tie things together and to fill in all the stuff I needed to know that hadn't popped up in dialog yet, but hearing people speak the language that much really helped. So it didn't eliminate the need for formal instruction, but it minimized it some.

And! Martin Scorsese did a retrospective called Masterpieces of Polish Cinema a few years ago, so if you want to watch Polish movies, these would be a good place to start. (Scroll down to "The films" slideshow, which contains a small amount of nudity.)
posted by ernielundquist at 3:16 PM on April 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

You might be interested in this Ask a Korean post describing how a native Korean speaker became fluent in English, partially by watching TV shows. His method was pretty hardcore, but there are some useful hints here regardless of how serious you are.

Anecdotally, my dad credits his excellent English to watching lots of Seinfeld- so it's probably at the very least a useful supplement!
posted by perplexion at 3:22 PM on April 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have a cousin who basically learned Korean by binge-watching Korean dramas. ... So I guess it can be done. But... I imagine that having almost zero foundation of any language and then trying to learn it through listening to music and watching television would be akin to trying to thread an impossible needle-- you need a starting point. Oftentimes this means getting a sense of how different letters are read, some basic/most-common vocabulary, a sense of whether there are genders, conjugations, etc. I think Polish in particular would be a little easier if you learned the basics of the alphabet, so that if you did end up listening to the music, you'd be more able to look up the lyrics and read with somewhat-correct pronunciation. Learning some Polish children's poems was also helpful for me.

In general, I think watching TV and listening to music are very helpful for developing pronunciation and for getting a broader sense of the culture you are interacting with. I think it is less helpful if you have no foundation to build on.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 4:14 PM on April 18, 2017

I've met quite a few people who swear they've become fluent in English this way, but most of them had a foundation in the basics to start. I'd recommend at least a beginner's course to get you started, and then using your method to get to the intermediate level and above.
posted by rpfields at 4:19 PM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I supplemented my high school French lessons by reading Tin Tin comics and I'm a firm believer that children's books and cartoons are a nice way to ease into language learning. At some point you do have to put in the work with a proper syllabus, of course.
posted by Dragonness at 4:22 PM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I should add that I'm not starting completely from scratch. I've already learned some common words and phrases and studied a basic Polish phrasebook for traveling, spent a few weeks in Poland immersed in the language, and my partner has been teaching me how to pronounce and read words correctly, etc. It's not much, but I think it qualifies as a basic foundation. I am still completely in the dark about things like conjugations, and I recognize that I'll have to do some actual studying of that stuff if I want to understand.
posted by naju at 4:26 PM on April 18, 2017

I actually did this. The major problem with music is that the vocabulary misses out on a big chunk of what you need for conversation, but you have your partner and books for that. Otherwise it worked more or less okay. I'm not fluent like I am with languages I studied in school but I can follow conversations fine.
posted by karbonokapi at 6:34 PM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I wondered that myself a couple months ago--turns out that someone has actually created a subscription site for this kind of thing. It's kind of pricey, but I might try out the Mandarin language stuff (they have several different major languages), and if it works, I might fork over for it.

(On preview of your later comment, looks like they don't have Polish. Yet. But maybe they will, at some point.)
posted by tully_monster at 6:56 PM on April 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

In Finland, children commonly learn to read Finnish and speak English by watching English TV with Finnish subtitles. It's a completely legit way to learn!

Another traditional method is to take a book (most traditionally the Bible) and work through it in side-by-side languages; with a kindle you can download some children's books and YA novels and just CLICK ON WORDS YOU DON'T KNOW to get a translation. I have a friend from Norway who ramped his English vocab way up merely by reading fun novels on his kindle where he could click to get translations instead of having to stop and go look up words every page.

Another really good modern offshoot of these methods is to download a Polish news app and read the day's headlines/top stories in Polish. You're probably generally aware of them from English-language media and you can more-or-less follow along and pick up new vocabulary because you know you're reading about a trade agreement failure and so can guess words from context. This is extra helpful (IMO) if it's the app for a TV or radio station and you can read the articles AND listen/watch as desired. Being able to piece together the written pieces helps you work up to listening to the high-speed newsreaders.

(I learned about three dozen Chinese words by watching ST:TNG episodes with Chinese subtitles on the regular English track ... even if you're not paying particular attention you start to notice when a certain character shows up every time a particular word is said!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:11 PM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Lots of interesting and encouraging ideas here! The video game route seems intriguing too. This FluentU blog post talks about it a bit. Looks like The Witcher 3 might not be bad for Polish, considering it's made by a Polish game developer.

EM - I've got a Kindle and that sounds like a great way to learn! Wow, I'll have to look into it.
posted by naju at 7:42 PM on April 18, 2017

As a language learner, I've gained some vocabulary from this method. And as a second language teacher I've encountered several students who attribute their skill and lack-of-accent to this method. However, speaking as a student, I give the most credit for second language acquisition to regular classroom attendance, and the requirements of a class -- the tests and assignment deadlines force you to study and do the homework, which IME doesn't happen otherwise.

Also, I took a class on how to teach ESL with popular music, which mostly involves distributing lyrics for songs played during class. Some teachers even make their students sing along, this is maybe acceptable with kids but I would never require it of my adult sudents. And identifying music that is known and appealing to everybody in an adult class, young and old, is quite difficult.
posted by Rash at 9:07 PM on April 18, 2017

How far you get with the approach you want depends on a lot of things, including how good your memory is and how much you even notice in what you're listening to. It's very easy for a speaker of a language without a given feature or nuance to just flat out never notice it when it appears in another language. (A lot of times brains will see and hear what they expect to see and hear.)

So for that, I would recommend looking through actual grammar books at some point in order to get a sense of what you might not be noticing in your input. For example, in Polish verbs aren't the only words with many forms; you also have case endings all over the place, which could be really easy to either miss or underestimate the importance of. So maybe you don't need this right at the beginning, but at some point I think it would help to know what you need to be listening for.

If you can, find some films or tv episodes that you like enough to watch over and over again, to the point where you know a lot of lines by heart. Every so often, look through a grammar book and learn about one grammatical feature. Then rewatch your movies or shows and specifically keep an ear out for that feature and how it's used. When you've gotten to the point where you find yourself noticing that feature consistently even in new input, go back to the grammar book, learn a new one, and repeat.
posted by trig at 11:26 PM on April 18, 2017

Like most language learning it really depends upon how motivated you are to do it. As others have pointed out above what you are describing may be really good for accent and general comprehension, but you will need some interaction with your friend to get the production going. One suggestion: actually just memorizing some vocabulary up front with a system like Memrise or Quizlet will help. It doesn't take that long to just hammer away at the first 400-500 most frequently used words and doing that early on (or even more) will likely be well worth your time and effort. But, try your plan. You can't do yourself any harm. The main thing with foreign language study is maintaining motivation, so you're on the right track.

One other weird trick. Sometimes subtitles and the actual audio differ and can conflict. And, decoding text and listening at the same time can be hard. Seems odd but watching a show in a language you don't know with subtitles in the language you want to learn can work. For example, I'm trying to learn Indonesian so I watched some Korean dramas with Indonesian subtitles. I don't know Korean at all but the visuals tell the story and I can concentrate on reading quickly. I've had some Japanese students watch Spanish language telenovelas with English subtitles. It works.
posted by Gotanda at 12:27 AM on April 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

Here is a blog by Andrew, who claims to be able to learn any language by watching TV and movies. I subscribed, but I haven't followed up. The blog is specifically about spanish, but I think the principles can be applied to any language.
posted by CathyG at 10:40 AM on April 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

One suggestion: actually just memorizing some vocabulary up front with a system like Memrise or Quizlet will help.

I've been impressed with Quizlet! Yesterday I went about listening to a Polish song I like and studying the lyrics. I downloaded Quizlet for this, to make some virtual flashcards for every word and phrase I didn't know (inspired by the post perplexion linked to). One nice, non-obvious thing about Quizlet is its built-in language learning features. It auto-detected that my flashcards were Polish vocabulary, and it automatically included Polish-specific audio pronunciations for them as I made the cards. Super useful.

It's slow progress - just getting through two lines of a song word-by-word and being able to understand, type, and repeat them is an accomplishment - but so far this is a really cool way of learning.
posted by naju at 3:45 PM on April 19, 2017

Side-note: the two songs I've chosen so far are kinda emo in nature, it turns out, so I'm learning phrases like "I've got a headache", "I can't sleep", "whiskey is my wife", "I don't want to be lonely anymore", etc. Slightly different from the sorts of phrases you typically learn like "where is the library" and "thank you for the coffee."
posted by naju at 3:52 PM on April 19, 2017

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