When learning French, people always hear that they can learn French by watching TV and movies in the French language. It seems like an easy and enjoyable way of learning the French language. Sit back and enjoy yourself!
You can get a lot out of watching French TV, but you need to consider it a study activity rather than a pastime. Passively bingeing a tv-show with English subtitles won’t do you very much. In this article I’ll run through a few things that you’ll need to take into account, if you want to learn French from TV.
What should you watch?
First of all, pick something out that you find enjoyable to watch. If you sit down to watch something that you find unbearable, you won’t get very far.
There are many French movies and television series available on a wide range of platforms. But which should you choose?
I recommend that you pick a TV-series over movies. Series gradually introduce you to characters, their way of speaking and a plot that evolves. You’ll be able to focus on the language, because you don’t need to figure out who is who and what’s going on every time you start over.
TV-series are also shorter than movies, allowing for manageable bite-sized chunks to study.
Pick a TV-series that’s engaging, enjoyable to watch and simple. The Simpsons have all been dubbed in French, so if you like watching that series, go check it out on Amazon.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was very popular in French too, under the name of “Buffy Contre Les Vampires” if you liked watching this one 20 years ago, it might be fun to re-watch it in French. (The English DVD’s have dubbed French sound as well – check prices on Amazon)
And then there are obviously many other options. Search a little around, and you’ll be sure to find something you like.
Just keep it simple. The series should be something that’s easy to follow in French. If you’d have to think a lot to understand the plot in English, you’ve better save the French version for when you’re really advanced.
How to study French through TV-series?
First of all, if you want to get anything out of watching TV in French, you need to consider it a learning exercise. You need to put in some work, or it won’t really benefit your learning.
What I recommend is to sit down an familiarize yourself with the script before you watch it. There are several ways you could go about doing this.
If you’re watching another series, you can make a search for the subtitles online. There are numerous sites out there who offer multilingual subtitles for television series.
There are several ways you can go about studying the vocabulary. If you’re already an advanced French Learner, it might suffice simply to read through the transcript, and you’re good to go.
I’ve written an article on different reading strategies that can be used for studying scripts beforehand.
Read the transcript in parallel with an English version
One method for studying the script before watching the episode is reading it side by side with an English version. First read a sentence in English, to understand what the sentence means, then read it in French.
I often use this method as a way to read novels and longer texts extensively. (And I have an article about learning French through reading that you might find useful) For studying a script before watching the French language TV-episode, you need to focus a bit more than you would when only reading extensively.
To get a hold of a an English equivalent of the French transcript, you can look for an English subtitle file online. But what’s even easier is to simply run the French text through Google Translate. It won’t be the best translation, but it’ll do the job.
Try noticing the keywords when reading in English. Which words are the most important for each sentence? Then compare how these things are expressed in the French version. Focus on the transcript word for word and try reading out loud.
When you’ve finished studying the transcript, watch the episode or the movie immediately afterwards so everything remains fresh in your mind. Try watching without subtitles and without following along in the script. You should have an idea what’s going on at this point, but you need to connect the dots, so focus!
Use LingQ to study the French transcript.
Another approach for studying the French text before watching the TV-episode or movie is to study it through LingQ (Scroll down for a link to their site). LingQ is a language learning website and app that I’ve used a lot for studying several languages in the past. It offers a lot of different tools, but what I find most effective is it’s reader.
You import your French text into LingQ and read it in their study interface. When first opening the reader, you’ll be faced with a page full of blue words. Blue words are words that are unknown to you. (Or that you haven’t encountered on LingQ yet anyway)
When you click a word, you hear the pronunciation. A popup shows you a few of the most popular translations. Pick one. The word has now turned yellow. A yellow word is a word that you’re in the process of learning. When you study other texts, LingQ will remember this, and the words will stay yellow until you comfortably remember them.
You also have the option of choosing “ignore” (I use this for names and other info that’s not really vocabulary). Or you can choose “I know this word” if you already know what it means.
Using “hints” rather than direct translations with LingQ
After you’ve worked your way through an episode with LingQ (and maybe watched the episode in French as well) It’s time to go back and look at your yellow words. LingQ will show you a list of these along with the translations you’ve picked.
At this point, go through them one by one and think of the translations. Can you come up with something better? Putting in a “hint” that is personal to you is much more effective than an instant online dictionary lookup.
If you can write an explanation or a synonym in French, great. Otherwise you might explain it in English. The key here is that you should make your brain work for you. When you create an association to the word yourself, you’re much better off when it comes to actually learning and consolidating vocabulary.
So instead of just writing “christmas” as a translation for Noël, write something that you remember from the episode. Like “The Simpsons can’t afford to celebrate “noël” because of Bart’s tattoo removal”. Or something like that. This establishes a lot of connections in your brain and makes the word so much harder to forget.
If you want to read more about the subject of remembering words, go read the article I wrote about it.
Learning French by watching TV is work
And that’s basically it. You can indeed learn French by watching TV. But it’s not what people make it out to be. You can’t just sit down with your popcorn and become fluent in French without making an effort. It takes time and dedication to get there.
When you’ve put in the work, however, there is a rich variety of TV, movies and interesting content in French. If you keep at it, you’ll eventually get to the point where you can benefit from French TV without making much of an effort. This is, however the end result, not the means!