Binge-watching Narcos a few weeks ago taught me two things: (1) to become a Colombian drug lord, you must be willing to smuggle cocaine in just about everything, including airplane tires, and (2) I’ve been pronouncing at least half of the Spanish words I know incorrectly. I couldn’t tell the difference myself, of course. An app did.
It didn’t come as a surprise to me that my Spanish skills were far from decent. Learning a new language was one of the hobbies I picked up when the pandemic hit, and naturally, like most people, I turned to Duolingo. But its gamified goals were tedious. Barring a handful of sentences, I soon realized I still couldn’t actually speak Spanish. Luckily, I stumbled upon a service that lets me practice while doing what I already spend hours doing every day: watching movies and TV shows online.
Called Language Reactor, it allows you to capitalize on the treasure trove of streaming catalogues at your fingertips to exercise any new language you may be learning. It plugs into the Netflix website through a Google Chrome extension and lets you watch shows and movies with two sets of captions at the same time, one in the dialogue’s native language and the other translated into the tongue you’re familiar with. It lets you hover over an individual word in the subtitles to understand its phonetic transcription, pronunciation, usage, and more. You also have the option to browse through all the new vocabulary you’ve read in an episode, broken up by Language Reactor’s grade levels, and bookmark any words or phrases to refer to later.
Language Reactor isn’t the only such app. Another Chrome add-on called eJOY has a nearly identical collection of features, but in addition to Netflix and YouTube, it’s compatible with Amazon Prime Video, Coursera, Udemy, and TED. A similar service, Mate Translate, shows you a dual-caption layout on Netflix’s desktop site on a bunch of browsers, including Safari and Mozilla Firefox, and lets you access your saved words or lines from your iPhone. Another extension, Dualsub, offers dual-language captioning and currently supports 23 services, including HBO Max, Hulu, and Disney+, at varying levels of support. Rakuten Viki, a streaming platform exclusively for Asian TV shows and movies, has these language-learning features built into its interface.
Research shows that watching even one hour of foreign TV shows and movies per day can help effectively immerse learners into a new language. Thanks to their vast global catalogues, streaming sites such as Netflix have made this more approachable than ever, and these add-on apps let you take advantage of that to master the language you’re learning.
Even more specific studies have already dug into some of the benefits of these tools. In his research, Gilbert Dizon, an associate professor at the Himeji Dokkyo University in Japan, found that the use of dual subtitles through Language Reactor improved vocabulary learning and listening comprehension in learners. Even if a person watches a foreign-language TV show and/or movie every day for at least a month, Dizon told Vulture, the “gains could be substantial.” Professor Antonie Alm of the University of Otago in New Zealand discovered similar results in her research and argues that it’s easier for language learners to dive into a foreign TV series instead of a movie. Once you’re familiar with the show’s characters, their vocabularies, and their accents, you develop cognitive and emotional benefits that better equip you to pick up the intricacies of the language.
At the same time, these apps are no magic bullet. Although tuning in to foreign content is an engaging technique for boosting your language skills, Suzanne Graham, a language and education professor at the University of Reading in the U.K., says you’ll gain more from it if you’re already a bit advanced in the language you’re learning.
After trying them myself, I came to the same conclusion. Tools like Language Reactor work best for someone who already has a preliminary understanding of the language as well as its grammar. Duolingo taught me the words, but watching foreign-language shows helped me understand how to put them together and construct sentences. Listening to pronunciations in Duolingo’s robotic voice was, for instance, remarkably different from the way the actors talked in shows, and it took me a while to even recognize basic words.
That was the motivation behind Mate Translate, which has about 800,000 active users. Its Ukrainian founders struggled with learning English, as it’s not well taught in their country, and decided to develop an app that would allow people to bridge the gap between textbook knowledge and real-world speech, co-founder Andrii Liakh told Vulture.
A 33-year-old developer who identifies only as “Max” made a Language Reactor–like platform called Language Learning With Netflix and YouTube after having a similar experience with German-language courses. He moved to Germany from the Middle East and turned to YouTube to polish his speech. The pandemic sparked a wave of downloads for Max’s and Liakh’s tools, and any time new foreign content, like, say, Squid Game, goes viral on Netflix, they said in emails with Vulture, they witness a surge in users.
Graham also suggests that you switch off your first language’s captions entirely and follow only the foreign ones after a while. If you don’t know any words, you can always look them up. This promotes a sense of self-efficacy and progress, she said. If learners believe they can be successful in a challenging activity, like following a foreign TV show, they’re less likely to give up.
There are other ways to get the most out of language-learning extensions. Netflix has secret categories where you can browse all the shows and movies made in a particular language. And investing in a VPN (virtual private network) subscription to unlock country-specific content will give you more options to practice whatever language you’re learning.
More important, according to Dizon, is the fun factor. “Many of the participants in my research have remarked that watching authentic videos is much more interesting,” he said. Most foreign-language courses don’t assign watching something like Squid Game’s murderous robot doll as homework.
A Few Browser Tools to Help You Become a Better Polyglot
Not all of these translation apps are created equal. Some are free, some are paid, and one is a streaming service unto itself.
Works with: Netflix, YouTube
Special features: A tool to save and review words for later, an on-site catalogue of supported titles by service, a “TurtleTV” beta option that feeds users automated content by language, a video-upload beta.
Languages: A range of options from Scottish Gaelic and Xhosa to Dutch and simplified Chinese.
Language Learning With Netflix and YouTube
Works with: Netflix, YouTube
Special features: Quick-translation options for single words, dual subtitling.
Languages: In the free version, those offered by Netflix or YouTube; machine translation to multiple languages for the paid version.
Cost: Free extension, $5/month for expanded features.
Works with: Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Coursera, Ted, and others.
Special features: The ability to control speed, create and track goals, save vocabulary, and define words through a full dictionary.
Languages: Many various quick-translation options, including Estonian, German, Urdu, French, and Korean.
Cost: Free browser add-on with various other paid product options.
Works with: YouTube, Netflix, Peacock, and many other sites at varying support levels.
Special features: No-frills layout with a toggle between different theme options.
Languages: The subtitles available for a given service based on the on-page menu data, plus 18 machine-translated language options.
Cost: Free with paid options for developers.
Works with: Netflix
Special features: Allows you to click on words in subtitles for direct translation.
Languages: At least 103 supported, per its website.
Cost: Free browser extension; $4/month for expanded features like saving words for later.
Works with: Titles on its own platform.
Special features: A full-featured streaming service for primarily Asian TV and films.
Languages: Varies by title (offerings on the service are often subtitled by a volunteer community).
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