Open Sidebar

How to use TV and Movies (well) to study a foreign language

Click the image for a look at this episode!
Click the image for a look at this episode!

I’ve already given the advice that in order to study a foreign language well using TV or movies, you should watch those videos in the target language and with subtitles in the target language. Here’s why:

1. Your brain sucks at multi-tasking.

Josh Kaufman writes about this in The Personal MBA in the section called “Cognitive Switching Penalty”:

Neurologically, multitasking is impossible. You are not really doing two things, you’re switching your attention from one thing to the other. Productive multitasking is a myth…

Every time you switch your attention from one subject to another, you incur the Cognitive Switching Penalty. Your brain spends time and energy thrashing, loading and reloading contexts.

You mean like trying to watch Korean TV/movies with English subtitles? 
Korean with English subs
Korean with English subs

Exactly! You just have to ask yourself, which is your brain more likely to focus on?

I, for one, have a hard time multi-tasking, particularly with language. Either my brain concentrates on (1) the Korean speaking (which is difficult), or (2) the English subtitles (which is easy and comfortable). It’s hard to make a connection between the two, though it is occasionally possible.

Still, I feel that using this method only gives me 50% (at best) the concentration and productivity I would have had if I turned off the English.

What about English movies with Korean subtitles?

This is generally much worse because your reading ability is likely too low at this point to do you any good. You’ll notice (if you try this) that your eyes automatically read the subs for the Korean translations of the shortest English phrases. That generally means you’ll pick up a lot of curse words quickly. I know I learned most of the Korean curse words I know from watching Wedding Crashers on TV with Korean subs.

English with Korean subs
English with Korean subs
Well, what about using Korean AND English subtitles together?

This method is slightly better – because then you can not only (1) match up the spoken words with the subtitles, but you can also (2) compare it to the English subtitles as well. But, in this case you’re not just double-tasking, your TRIPLE-tasking (asking your brain to focus on THREE unique things at the same time).

I think this method would work much better if you could slow down the speed of the video to allow yourself more time to focus and concentrate on each individual part. But of course then you’d lose the enjoyment of the show. However, I currently do this with Running Man downloads with English subtitles from

Korean with Eng & Kor subs
Korean with Eng & Kor subs

Still, I’d say that this method gives me about 70% concentration and focus than if I turned off the English. (Of course, I also get about 85-90% understanding, compared with 30-40% understanding with Korean subs, or 20% understanding with no subs.)

2. Your first goal should be to increase your listening ability, not your vocabulary.

Yes, there will be lots of vocabulary on TV that you don’t know. However, TV is not a textbook and shouldn’t be treated as such. TV is not a good place to expand your vocabulary. But it is a great place to get:

  1. A feel for the natural flow and rhythm of the language
  2. Cultural and physical cues that match the words
  3. Phonetic reading practice that matches what you hear (provided there are subtitles in the target language)
But still, how are Korean subs useful for vocab you don’t know?

First off, you can’t look at using Korean subs as a simple one-time deal. It has to be a habit. The power of Korean subs is cumulative, over time, rather than in a single sitting. It’s best to choose the SAME show (with different episodes) to watch over and over again to start getting a feel for how the show is put together and the common idioms and expressions they use there.

However, on your FIRST viewing of a new show, I can understand how Korean subs would be difficult. But again, initially, don’t think about the Korean subs as a method to study vocabulary. It honestly doesn’t matter if you know the vocab or not.

The fact that you can read subs that follow along with standard (or non-standard) pronunciation of the language will greatly improve your listening and spelling skills even if it doesn’t directly improve your understanding.

To improve my understanding, I usually:

  1. Focus long enough until I hear and see something I recognize but don’t know
  2. Then I write that down.
  3. And I usually write it down with a context so that I can recall how the word was used later if when I look it up.
  4. Or, I immediately mentally tune out the program completely until I look up the word or phrase in my dictionary and try to immediately understand the content.
  5. Then, I go back to focusing on the program.

This method usually affords me 90% good concentration on the Korean being used and about 50% understanding of what’s going on. So overall, I prefer this method for using video to study Korean.

3. Your brain will automatically increase your vocab when its ready.

Korean with Korean subs
Korean with Korean subs

As I mentioned above, TV and movie-viewing should be seen as cumulative (and supplementary) tasks. They are no replacement for textbook or classroom study, but they can aid faster language acquisition than mere textbook or classroom study for a few reasons:

  1. You’ll be focused on the language longer (instead of just a one-hour class twice a week).
  2. Your brain will be able to guess at the meaning of words based on context (as long as you’ve already learned enough surrounding context).
  3. You’ll enjoy concentrating on the language. (Have you ever successfully understood new vocabulary words that your brain guessed at during a program? The feeling is incredible! You literally feel like a genius.)

I currently find myself able to pick up at least 50% of a discussion on TV based on context alone. I can usually ascertain 3-4 new words or phrases per hour-long show based on context. But I still only have a vocabulary understanding of about 30% of the grammar and words being used. Still, with all the listening practice, it makes “real-world” listening much simpler.

(And if you want a big bonus to help your pronunciation practice, try repeating the phrases you hear out loud as you hear them.)

My analysis

The following table shows each available option for foreign language TV, what I usually focus on with each, and my personal concentration level and understanding.

TypeConcentration area% of focus% of understanding
Korean TV with no subsI try to focus on the words, but my mind wanders as I can't understand much.20-30%10-20%
Korean TV with English subsI try to focus on the Korean speaking, but my mind easily and lazily relies on the English.50%100%
Korean TV with Korean subsPrimary focus on matching the subtitles with what I hear.90%50%
Korean TV with English AND Korean subsFocus is divided (I can feel it). Should I focus on the Korean subs or the English?70%85-90%
English TV with Korean subsI focus on the English, unless there are short phrases. This generally aids me in picking up Korean curse words easily.10%100%

So, do you watch TV or movies in a foreign language? How is that helping you learn the language?

Liked it? Take a second to support Aaron on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Written by




4 thoughts

  1. So after going through a few shows I picked Flower Boy Next Door (이웃집 꽃미남) and started watching it. It had English subs on the version I was watching and after 15min I realized that I am understanding much more than I did last time I tried to watch a drama (6 Mona ago when I just decided I wanted to learn Korean)… And I yeah, I would much rather have the Korean subtitles there than the English. So I went searching to the subtitles in Korean and along the way I found that the TV show is actually based on a webtoon from 2011 – 나는 매일 그를 훔쳐본다 (I peak at him every day). So now I have the webtoon to read and look at pictures for context, and the TV show… So it’s the same story in a few different consumption methods. And I think it’s going to go pretty well, even if I only understand 30% of the webtoon (looking up every word has already become too tedious).

    I just can’t find Korean subtitles for the show anywhere! I’m sure that they use Korean subs and pipe them through a translator program and then get moderators to correct that to get the English subtitles – so the Korean subtitles must exist. Anyone know where I can get Korean subtitles for “웃집 꽃미남”?

    1. I don’t know where you might look for those, but I do know:

      1. 자막 = “subtitles”
      2. 한국어 자막 = “Korean subtitles”
      3. GomTV is usually where I can find subtitles for movies

      Hopefully that will give you a start. I honestly don’t know (and don’t really expect) that they’ll subtitle Korean dramas in Korean, unfortunately. Most of the Korean subtitled programs I’ve found are “entertainment” programs.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

schedule <