What to Consider When Choosing Shows to Watch For Language Learning

I’ve been watching Japanese dubs for the last few weeks, and I’ve found them super helpful in my process of active listening. My How to Watch Japanese Dubs on Netflix to Practice Listening Comprehension article gives detailed instructions on how to change your language settings, but how do you decide what shows and movies to watch in your target language?

If you’re interested in focusing on listening while you learn a new language, here are some factors to consider.

Familiar shows aren’t necessarily better practice.

I started with Cardcaptor Sakura because I have seen the show many times in Japanese with English subtitles and assumed having a good idea of the overall plot, each episode, and the dialogue would speed up my learning process.

That didn’t turn out to be the case. I actually remembered what characters were saying rather than having to figure it out. Instead of being engaged while watching, I actually became a little complacent because I was so familiar with the show. This was the opposite effect I was going for, so I had to stop watching it and avoided shows I had this level of familiarity with.

Also, as I mentioned in another post, watching a show you’re heavily invested in might be too frustrating if you’re pretty new to your target language. That “what happens next” drive is strong, and it could override the desire to learn. To avoid frustration or impatience from this, I purposely choose shows and movies I wouldn’t likely watch in English.

Evaluate the show based on topic and intended audience.

People always say fantasy or sci-fi anime, like Cardcaptor Sakura, are not as good for learning Japanese. I’m just starting out, but based on my experience, I would say this situation is like everything else: It’s on a spectrum.

For example, Cardcaptor Sakura is a magic girl show, but it’s also meant for kids. That means the dialogue may be a little easier to follow even if they talk about magic. Also, a lot of the show takes place at school, so you the audience also gets to see some everyday life conversations.

On the other hand, I tried to watch The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf the other day. I thought it would be great to watch in Japanese before we watched it in English to see how much I understood, but it was too difficult to follow at my level for a variety of reasons: 1) The movie is made for a mature audience, 2) the characters speak a certain way because of the setting, and 3) a lot of the dialogue is about folklore, which means what they’re saying isn’t necessarily related to what’s happening on screen.

I agree that shows about everyday life or relationships are generally more useful for language learning, but I wouldn’t rule out a show solely because it involves magic, just like I wouldn’t choose a show simply because it was for an older or younger audience.

I look at multiple factors when choosing a show, but most importantly, I’d watch a few minutes (or even a few episodes) before making the final decision.

Culture is part of every cast.

A Japanese dub of an American TV show and a Japanese show are totally different animals. When I first started this activity, I didn’t realize how much culture would matter, but now I realize it matters a lot. 

Culture permeates our entertainment. I might be missing nuance and context in Japanese shows because they contain customs and phrases that don’t have an English or American equivalent. I’m interested in learning more about Japanese culture, so I like to watch Japanese shows for this reason, but since I’m just starting out, cultural differences might make a Japanese show more difficult to understand than a similar American show.

Watching a show created for American audiences dubbed in Japanese eliminates that extra layer of complexity that culture adds, which is beneficial for listening exercises. So I’ve found myself watching more shows made for an American audience because they’re easier to understand in context. Once I’m more advanced, I’ll definitely want to watch more Japanese television specifically to learn those nuances, but at my level, Japanese dubs of American shows are good for me.

In closing

Your personal preferences will play a huge part in choosing what to watch. I thought I would be able to watch anything just for practice, but I discovered the show or movie still has to be somewhat interesting and at a certain quality level, otherwise it’s a chore, and that defeats the purpose of this exercise.

Thankfully, Netflix has plenty of Japanese content, so I don’t feel obligated to stick with a show just for the practice. I also discovered Ted Lasso has a Japanese dub, so I’m excited to have an excuse to watch season 1 again.

Happy studying!

Photo of author in Kyōto, Japan by Anthony Nielsen