Now that we know what to watch, here is what the research says about how to watch.
1. Use the Spaced Repetition Technique with Your Favorite Shows
Research on language acquisition like this study in the Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior supports a popular language learning technique called “spaced repetition.”
In a nutshell (just a few words), spaced repetition involves reviewing new material (like a vocabulary list, for example) at regular intervals over a period of time. Typically, the intervals between reviews get longer and longer each time.
And in fact, the study above found that language learning is directly tied to both repetitive practice and the space between repetitions. More space between repetitions led to better retention (remembering) of the language concepts.
So instead of cramming (memorizing all at once) 100 new words every day, learners should space out their training sessions across a week or even a month.
For example, if you see a phrase you do not know today, look it up in the dictionary and make a flashcard to review again at the end of the day. Afterwards, you should review the phrase within the following three days, six days, etc. As the above-mentioned research indicates, this process helps to embed (fix) the phrase into your long-term memory, which means you learn more efficiently.
How to watch TV with the spaced repetition technique:
Step 1: Pick an episode (or a scene) in your favorite show.
Step 2: Watch it once and write down new words or expressions.
Step 3: Watch it again after one day, three days and six days, until the new phrases and their sounds stick. It is best to have the subtitles on each time, so you see the words in repetition while recalling their sounds.
Step 4: If you are looking to take your spaced repetition viewing to the next level, try out a tool like FluentU. Available as a website or mobile app, FluentU transforms authentic German content, such as TV shows and movie trailers, into language learning experiences.
There are interactive captions that provide in-context definitions, so you can boost your vocabulary while getting exposure to real-world, entertaining TV and videos. Plus, with FluentU’s “learn mode” feature, you can practice what you learned through activities and quizzes. FluentU also remembers what you have learned and suggests new, relevant clips, creating a truly personalized learning experience. It is like watching English TV with super learning powers.
2. Schedule Listening Practice with TV Before Bedtime or Naps
Research carried out at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that an hour nap can significantly boost and restore brain power.
The research involved two groups of people who were given a difficult learning task. One of the groups was permitted to take an hour nap in the middle of the day; the other group had no nap. Researchers found that people in the nap group did much better on the learning task and actually improved their ability to learn.
These results support the hypothesis (idea or guess) that sleep helps clear our short-term memory storage to make room for new information.
The implication of this study goes beyond the advice that we should get enough sleep at night and take naps during the day. English learners can actually adjust their studying habits to be more efficient based on this study. Specifically, you can schedule listening practice with German TV around your bedtime or naps.
Here is how you can do it:
Step 1: Half an hour before you plan to go to bed or take a nap, turn on an English-language TV show that you find interesting.
Step 2: Listen actively, taking notes or repeating what you hear out loud.
Step 3: Write a brief summary of the content as well as new things you have learned in German.
Step 4: Set the note aside and get to sleep. Let sleep work its magic.
Step 5: Review your notes the next day. Pay attention to your ability to recall new words. Keep a record of the new information you successfully recall and make flashcards or notes for the information you do not remember.
3. Use Subtitles While Watching TV
According to this study published in PLOS ONE, watching subtitled German-language content has a positive impact on German listening skills.
In the experiment, a group of intermediate Spanish-speaking English learners watched a one-hour TV drama with subtitles, while another group watched it without subtitles. After watching, they all took a listening test, and the results from the first group were significantly higher than those of the second group.
The study shows the benefits of reading subtitles as a tool to improve listening skills.
Thus, you can benefit from watching subtitled TV in the following steps:
Step 1: Find a TV show that is suitable for your German level. If you are a beginner student, start with recorded shows that you can pause and rewind with ease. Choose something that is short with relatively slow speaking or narration. Children’s TV can be particularly useful.
If you are an intermediate speaker, you can watch longer programs like a movie or a documentary.
As an advanced learner, you can enjoy learning from the news with in-depth reports on a particular topic like the economy or politics. For something a little more entertaining, you can try the fast-talking, slang-filled drama of reality TV.
Step 2: Make sure subtitles are available for the chosen material..
If you use a streaming service such as Netflix, German subtitles are available for many shows. You just need to go to “options” or “settings” and turn them on.
Step 3: Time to watch the show! Read along with the subtitles even when you think you understand exactly what is being said. Pause the video and take notes when needed.
Step 4: Review your notes. Do this repeatedly and regularly until you commit the new information to your long-term memory.
4. Watch Educational Content (on Any Subject!)
According to a study published in Cambridge University’s Studies in Second Language Acquisition journal, language students can learn faster when they are learning in the target language, rather than about the target language.
In other words, if you enjoy history, you might learn German faster by taking a history course in German, as opposed to taking a formal German language course.
The study compared two groups of French language students: one group was in a traditional French class and the other was in a non-language course that was taught in French. Researchers found that not only did the first group become much better at speaking French, they also had a much more positive attitude about learning French.
What the research means to you, as a German learner, is that you can improve your speaking abilities faster if you opt to learn a subject in German. I am not saying you should totally abandon traditional study methods—in fact, the research indicates that traditional language courses are crucial for writing skills. However, learning outside subjects in German can be awesome additional practice for your German speech, as well as for your motivation to keep learning.
Consider this the next time you choose something to watch on TV! Putting on educational material in German will get you engaged with the language and boosting your speaking skills without even realizing it.
Here is how to do it:
Step 1: Pick an educational TV program that interests you. Again, it can be on any subject, as long as the show itself is in German. If you like cooking, watch “MasterChef.” If you are interested in the outside world and looking for ideas for your next vacation, consider a travel show. If you like cars, try “Top Gear.”
There are many other subjects you can learn from TV, such as natural science, economics, politics, art and more. What matters most is that the show has something to teach that you are interested in learning.
Step 2: Watch and learn! Pay close attention to the vocabulary. Learning the jargon first will help you build the foundation to converse more fluently and understand the content when it gets more complicated.
However, as the above study indicates, the simple act of learning about a new topic in German will help boost your German skills without you even consciously realizing it.
5. Turn on the TV as Often as Possible
According to a study by researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center and the University of Illinois, you can learn a language more quickly—and think more like a native speaker—through immersion training, rather than classroom exposure.
Researchers invented a small language and tested a group of adults on their ability to speak and understand it. Some learned the language in a classroom and others learned through immersion (constant/informal exposure to a new language).
The group that had undergone immersion training showed a more “native-like processing” of grammar in the brain, compared to the other group that learned the language in the classroom.
The study’s result implies that you do not need to always sit at your desk to learn German. Just surround yourself with the German sound (e.g., turning on the TV).
If the sound of German, be it a report or a song, is always in the background, your brain absorbs it, learns the patterns, rhythms and even words and grammar rules that you do not know. It is just like a child learning to speak their mother tongue in their early years.
So, listen to German as much as possible!
Here is how to do it:
Step 1: Turn on the TV while you are cooking, cleaning, doing laundry or exercising. You do not need to stop what you are doing if you miss a word or some information. Let the sound wash over you while you get on with your chores.
You can also stream online music shows in the background while working or studying other subjects. That helps, too!