You can’t learn Spanish just from watching movies

Learning Spanish watching movies seems like a great idea. Instead of suffocating in textbooks you get to lie in bed with a cup of tea and just naturally absorb the language in all its glory.

But in reality, the effectiveness of learning Spanish watching and television depends on two factors: your level of Spanish knowledge, and how hard you are willing to work to try and understand what you’re watching and hearing. That’s right – I said ‘hard’ and ‘work’. Might wanna switch those lights back on.

Don’t get me wrong, Netflix is a great tool for getting better at Spanish. In fact, it’s an essential weapon in your arsenal. Not only are you being exposed to natural speech, colorful vocabulary and emotionally-charged situations, you get to relax a bit more and enjoy the show. But it’s not enough to simply binge on telenovelas and hope for the best.

As I will explain, your brain can work against you when it comes to understanding Spanish movies and television series. But only if you let it. If you approach this activity in the right way, you can force your brain to learn. I’m now going to explain how to use to movies and television to improve your Spanish faster and more effectively.


Your setup depends on your current level

Whether you choose to watch with subtitles or ‘go commando’ depends on your current Spanish ability.

  • English subtitles – you can do this at any level, because with English subtitles you’re going to understand the film even if every single word of Spanish goes over your head. This method allows absolute beginners to get a feel for the sounds of Spanish, but after that it’s very limited. Your brain will latch onto the English subs and almost completely ignore the Spanish.
  • Spanish subtitles – this is great if you have an intermediate knowledge of Spanish or if you tend to find reading easier. You’ll be able to understand what you’re watching without relying on English, which is a great achievement. The problem with this method is that you’re not really listening – you’re just reading.
  • No subtitles – this is a fantastic way to practice Spanish if you already comprehend it fairly well and have a good knowledge of the language. But if your knowledge of Spanish is minimal, your brain is likely to shut off. You will not be engaged enough to continue watching.


Why prior knowledge of Spanish matters

Movies and television are great for practising what you already know. But you can’t learn the meaning of a word or expression simply by hearing it enough times. That’s why the real power of movies and television only gets unlocked when your knowledge of Spanish is upper-intermediate or higher and you know enough words. At this point, it’s great practice because you are hearing words and concepts you know in different ‘real’ scenarios and you learn how to identify them when you’re listening to people speak. You’re also learning how to apply these words and concepts in different situations.

Without that prior knowledge, a lot of words will go over your head regardless of how many times you hear them (or read them, if you’re using subtitles). This doesn’t mean you won’t understand the film. But it does mean you might not be learning anything by watching it.

See, the adult brain has matured in ways that can work against you with languages. Humans have been finding shortcuts for things since the days of neanderthals moulding rocks into cutting tools. And your brain has become adept at figuring things out without a full suite of information. In this case, it’s filling the gaps in your comprehension with educated guesses or, worse, total assumptions in order to give you an understanding of what’s happening. You understand the plot, but crucially, you’re ignoring many words and concepts because your brain has deemed them non-essential. And the adult brain can be very stubborn. Labeling things as non-essential and quickly discarding them is what has helped you to become more efficient over the years. In fact, the more naturally intelligent you are the more your brain will try to do this.


Force your brain to learn

Earlier I wrote about working hard to understand what you’re watching and hearing. And this is what you have to do if you want to watch movies when your Spanish ability is a little premature. Movie night becomes longer and less fun, but you’ll progress faster and quickly reach the point where it’s fun again. I promise.

What you need to do is learn the meanings of the words you don’t recognize, add them to your flashcards and practice using them. There are a few options available to you in doing this.

  • Pause the movie each time there’s a word you don’t recognize. Look it up, write it down, then move on. You don’t have to do this for every word. Sometimes I’ll wait until a word comes up more than once, and write it down the second time I hear or read it.
  • Screenshot each time there’s a word you don’t recognize. This way you don’t interrupt your experience, you simply go back at the end and gather all the words that need learning.
  • Watch once uninterrupted, then repeat with pauses. This takes longer, but you get the benefit of repetition.


And speaking of repetition…

Have you ever noticed how children love to watch the same movies over and over again?

The reason they do this is because they don’t actually understand everything on their first watch, nor their second. The movie becomes better for them each time because they identify more.

It’s the same for you when it comes to learning Spanish watching movies. The more times you watch something, the bigger the benefits will be to you. You’ll come to associate those words with that frowning face, and the expressions will just stick better in your mind. You’ll also pick up on things you didn’t notice before, which helps your brain to make connections and associations.

As adults we often complain that it’s harder to learn languages, but the truth is that repetition is as useful to us as it is to a child. We just don’t have the patience sometimes. And whose fault is that, really?


Enjoy your movie-watching journey

I certainly don’t want you to feel discouraged reading this. Watching a movie in Spanish is more useful to you than watching one in English, even if you don’t have a clue what’s going on.

But you should always be graduating from one thing to the next and increasing the level of challenge as you study Spanish. That means if you’re using English subtitles right now, you should aim to be on the Spanish ones in a few weeks.

Here’s a little tip if you want to jump ahead. You can skip to the final stage – no subtitles – if there’s a movie that you know really, really well. In this case, you already know the plot and even many of the scenes in great detail. Hearing it in Spanish you can make rapid associations without relying on English or even seeing any written words at all. This is a very fun exercise too, but remember it only works with movies you know well.



So what did you learn from this about learning Spanish watching movies? You should have picked up on the following:

  • Your choice of subtitles should match your ability in Spanish
  • You should know a decent amount of words and concepts before you dive into a movie
  • You must force your brain to stay active, by collecting the words you don’t know and learning them
  • Watch the same movie several times for extra benefits
  • Make sure to up the difficulty and keep challenging yourself


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