How I Started Making Use of My “Wasted” Time

A few months ago, I made a switch which has helped me improve my Russian. The switch was simple and it didn’t really require me to dedicate Russian any extra time for learning at all. It is quite common sense, really, but many people still don’t do it. What did I do? Well, the TV shows(!) and the movies that I watch anyway… I started watching them in Russian instead.

You presumably watch some TV shows and movies anyway. I, for example, watch Lost (such an interesting show), Dexter. I have also watched shorter shows like The Lost Room, Day Break, The IT Crowd. I also watch movies from time to time (for example, I think I’ve nearly got the IMDB Top 30 down save for Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and perhaps a few others). Whenever I had a choice, I used to watch them in English because that is the original. I was trying to catch up with all the episodes of Dexter a few months ago then I got an idea: why not just try watching it in Russian instead? I did and soon enough I didn’t quite feel much difference. Then I started searching for Russian versions of movies I was going to watch in English anyway. That helped.

But… it’s not so interesting in the original, is it?

This is the main objection I usually get when I tell that to somebody. They would say something like: “How can you watch such an interesting show like Dexter in Russian: you’re missing out on so much.”

Well, for one, I agree there is a tradeoff. It is in some ways “more arty” to watch things in the original language. The thing is, I think it’s a tradeoff that is worth it.

First of all, I don’t think that there is something about the language making it that much more different. We operate in trying to comprehend the sense of what’s going on. That’s what catches our attention. That’s why we need language. If we can understand the sense in a different language, and if the show is interesting, I don’t see how it would be less interesting than it would have been originally. Sure, you might miss one or a few occasional puns in the show. Who cares! You will get new puns and new expressions in the language that you are watching it in. Content is the most important, presentation is just secondary.

Talking about presentation, the trick is finding good translations as well. Sure, I don’t mind it not being the original but I would still rather listen to professional dubbing. Good shows do have professionals who do a good job at translating and dubbing the text and those are the ones you should be looking for.

I get the “not interesting” objections pretty often but often those are from the same people who watch dubbed TV in their national language and somehow don’t mind that not only it is not the original, they aren’t even learning anything because they are fluent in their mother tongue already.

Sure, people might be telling me the “you don’t know what you’re losing”, etc. kind of stuff but even watching it dubbed, I will still enjoy the show if the show itself is good and at the end of the day I’m the one speaking Russian and not they.

But… subtitles work just as well without overriding the experience, don’t they?

No, they don’t. Well, for me, they don’t.

If I can understand what’s going on well, I would just feel lazy to read the subtitles in a foreign language. I might force myself to but that’s forcing yourself to do something and that’s not healthy. And even if you do, the incentive to stop is still there, thus it might result in you stopping altogether or you reading the subtitles but not really registering them: you know, like the times you read something but have no idea what you have just read.

Second of all, if you truly read the subtitles, one could argue that it does take away from the experience because you are focusing on the text rather on what’s going on on the screen.

In general, I would probably favor subtitles over dubbed speech granted they are in a language I don’t need to learn or I don’t know the original language the show is made in. In practice, however, where I usually know the original language (usually English), it is just so much easier to just go dub.

Of course, this is not general. Rather, the general rule is: whatever floats your boat.

TV shows are where it’s at

Watching movies is nice but it will only get you so far. Movies are usually a few hours long and you’re done. It is also pretty hard to make yourself watch movies for that reason: they are long. On the other hand, TV shows often have many episodes over many seasons. It is not so hard to give it 40 minutes of your time even if at the end of the day you get into it too much and watch way more than one episode. Moreover, they are especially good for learning since you can rely on the context and on your knowledge of other episodes.

Finally, getting a TV show will provide you with hours and hours of learning and you only need to find one show with a captivating story to keep yourself at it while you would have to spend your time continuously looking for new and new movies to keep the same rate of learning.

Switch to watching the TV shows you watch in a foreign language and see what happens!

This is not for everybody but at least it seems to work for me. I would encourage you to find out if it works for you. Just take the shows and perhaps movies you already watch (whatever you do) and stop watching them in English. Start watching them in the language you want to learn (you can get dubbed versions for most big languages if you search well). You will be able to make use of the time you were “wasting” for non learning-related activities to learn the language. Not only will you be able to watch what you like watching, you will feel better about it because you will be learning stuff at the same time. That’s like having ice cream gustation as a profession!

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  1. Great post! I really like any idea that turns English habits into L2 habits. I think it's time to hunt down Dexter in Spanish and Japanese :)

  2. Here's a trick that I read on a forum somewhere at some point and found useful for a while: once you've watched the show and gotten the context, follow it up by ripping the audio from the show and listening to it in the background while you're doing other things.

    What's good about this is that you can drill the same bits of language over and over, allowing them to seep further into your subconscious. But it takes a lot less of your active mental time (time that I find really scarce and precious) than sitting down to watch the same show over and over again.
    The interesting & powerful thing about the technique described in this post, as well as what I just suggested, is that they're leveraging previous information (the context of a TV show you already know the basic milieu of, or have already watched more actively) to be able to comprehend more high-level language than you'd be able to otherwise.

  3. I started to learn Chinese 2 months ago and went the wrong way.
    I am Russian, and this language is very difficult for me.
    Now I found your very interesting and useful blog, and I’m sure everything will be much better.)

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