This is a concrete step-by-step guide through which beginners can learn to understand the majority of what is being said in their favourite foreign TV series in just 30 days, spending 1 hour a day (or more slowly with less time per day). Moreover, all the required tools are available for free online, no need to buy any expensive course or software.
Know what you’re asking for
Understanding a TV series after just 30 days of study is an amazing feat, something that none of your friends would consider possible. However, note that it comes at a price: while you’ll be set to watch that TV series, you will still have more difficulty with other TV series, and you will suck big time at having conversations or reading books. For 30 days, you will pursue one goal only and temporarily set aside anything that isn’t immediately relevant to the goal, so your skill is one-sided. Still, one might say that being able to understand TV episodes will be a good preparation for learning to have conversations as well, since it will train your listening comprehension.
You will learn to understand the TV series by getting a very cursory understanding of grammar and then quizzing yourself on audio snippets from the TV series, starting with easy ones of just one or two words and gradually moving on to more and more difficult sentences.
A video explaining the concept:
You will need:
- at least 500 minutes’ worth of your favourite TV show with target-language audio, in digital format (if you own it as DVDs, most countries allow you to have a digital copy). I recommend using a show about everyday life in the modern world rather than a war drama set 1000 years ago, because you’ll learn modern, relevant language.
- target-language subtitles for the above, as well as subtitles in your native language / a language that you know well. You can find them on sites like OpenSubtitles.org or Shooter.cn. Double-check that both subtitles match the video you have, i. e. that they show the text corresponding to what you hear.
- Anki, a great flashcard (spaced repetition) system
- Subs2Srs, a program to convert videos into flashcards
- This Anki deck that contains the basic layout
Repeat the following steps for each episode (you don’t have to do this for all episodes immediately, 3 or so is good for a start and you can do more whenever you run out of material).
- Open Subs2Srs.
- Click on “Subs1…” and point it at your target-language subtitle file for this episode. Click on “Output…” and point it to a new, empty folder that you will easily find again. Click on “Subs2…” and point it at your native-language subtitle file (typically English).
- Click on “Video…” and point it at the video file of the episode.
- The settings should be perfect already, but double-check that “Generate audio clips” and “Generate snapshots” each have a checkmark next to them and “Generate video clips” does not. Enter a name and click “Go!”.
- This will take several minutes. When it’s done, switch to Anki. If the first episode, download and unzip the basic anki deck from above and rename it. All episodes will go in this one deck. Open the deck in Anki.
- Click “File > Import”. Choose the .tsv file that Subs2Srs generated for you. Then, change the fields, as follows:
- Field 1 = Tags
- Field 2 = sequence marker
- Field 3 = Audio
- Field 4 = Image
- Field 5 = “Japanese” (you can rename this to your target language)
- Field 6 = English
Click “Import” and wait for it to go through. You may get a message that some cards weren’t imported because they’re duplicate. That’s normal.
- Go to the folder that Subs2Srs generated for you and copy all the audio and images to the .media folder of your Anki deck.
- In Anki, open the Browse view of your cards and look for easy cards (by looking at the English text). At the beginning, go for cards that are only one or two words in English, or a name with some extra words. Later, you can go for full sentences and then longer sentences, especially if they involve words you already learned. Whenever you find a suitable card, go into the Tags field and enter “learn” as an additional tag. You will only study cards tagged as such.
How to study
Open the deck in Anki. On the Study Options page, click on “Change” (next to “Show Chosen Categories”) and make sure that “Show only cards with any of these tags” is checked and that “learn” is the only tag marked in that list. This is the setting for both new cards and reviews.
Aim to do at least 15 minute sessions. I believe that doing two 30-minute sessions (one in the morning and one in the evening) is best, for a total of 60 minutes per day.
When studying, listen carefully to the audio. Even if you know you cannot understand everything, try to catch at least a few words of whatever sentence is playing. You will gradually understand more. If you see the solution and it’s not a “doh!” moment, copy-paste the target-language text into Google Translate in order to see a more literal translation. Cut out some words, see what Google Translate says then and aim to get a full understanding of what each word of the sentence means. If the result is a jumble, either remove the “learn” tag from that card or delete it outright – you have enough material that you can afford to be picky about what you’ll study.
If you notice that the audio is cut off (for languages like Japanese, Google Translate gives you a phonetic transcription of what you copy-pasted underneath the text field on the left), delete the card. If it is hard to make out the words, for example because people are talking over each other or mumbling, delete the card. If the translation doesn’t match the target-language text (sometimes they have to swap the order of statements), either delete the card or adjust the translation, if you can. If the translation is something like “Arrrgh” or other sounds, delete the card. Be bold in deleting cards that don’t help you, that are duplicates of what you had before or that you don’t consider useful.
Study your cards as described above.
The first few days are special in that you’ll also do some grammar study. Your goal is to discover the following:
- How is the plural formed?
- Do verbs change depending on the person (I, you, he, she…)?
- How is tense indicated?
- What is the typical word order?
Look for broad knowledge only. Don’t memorize conjugation tables, only simple patterns that are good investments. If -shita comes up a lot in past tense endings, that’s probably good to memorize. Don’t memorize all the possible variations; you’ll pick them up naturally. The best place to get a quick and useful overview like this are the Kauderwelsch phrasebooks, but unfortunately they’re only available in German. Alternatively, look at the grammar summaries of every lesson in a textbook of your choice. Online grammar references or (gasp) Wikipedia can also help, but they likely provide too much detail that isn’t useful to you at this point. You’re only looking for an overview. Make a note of the most useful endings and review them a few times over the course of the first few days.
Day 4 to 15
Spend one hour a day studying the Anki deck as described above. If you have time to watch TV, watch some episodes of your favourite series in addition to the Anki. Watch the episodes in the original language with English subtitles. You will find that you notice more and more words and phrases that you learned, even while only half paying attention (part of your attention is caught reading the subtitles). You couldn’t learn a language just by watching the episodes, but it is a good way to consolidate what you learned in Anki.
Day 16 to 30
Continue studying the Anki deck, adding more cards as needed. If you run out of episodes, you can also go back to the beginning and tag some of the cards that used to be too difficult.
Do an experiment sometime: watch an episode in the target language without subtitles, or with target-language subtitles only. See how much you understand, maybe using a clicker-counter to count the number of sentences. If you followed the program faithfully, you probably already understand half of all sentences, albeit the easy ones. Since a lot of important communication is done in longer sentences, you may still find it difficult to follow the plot. However, you’ll see steady improvement in your comprehension, and by day 30 you should be able to follow the plot easily, even if some sentences continue to elude you.
Congratulations, you went from zero language knowledge to understanding your favourite foreign TV series in just 30 days!
I wouldn’t recommend this method if I hadn’t used it myself. In this case, I studied the Japanese anime “Hikaru no Go”, which is about the ancient Asian board game Go. I hadn’t studied any Japanese before. Some examples of what I was able to understand ON FIRST HEARING, without having seen these exact phrases before:
450 cards in
お前 知ってたの？- You knew?
黒六十八目 – Black has 68 points.
800 cards in
もしかして強い奴？ – Could he be someone really strong?
お前ならできるだろう – You can do it, right?
速く打てよ お前の番だぜ – Hurry up and move! It’s your turn.
1200 cards in
なぜ囲碁部に入った？ – Why did you enter the Go club?
私は最近ぜんぜん打ってないですよ～ – But I haven’t played at all lately!
海王の三将ってどんな奴かな – I wonder who Kaio’s third board is.
1500 cards in
俺は 海王の岸本と打ちたい だから 負けるなよ あんた – I want to play against Kishimoto of Kaio, so don’t you lose.
佐為にも時々打たせてやりたいけど – I want to let Sai play every now and then
英語なんかできなくだっていいんだよ 碁を打つだけだから – I don’t have to speak English, all I’m doing is playing Go.
普通の君がインターネットで世界中の人と碁を打つの？ – You’re only okay and your playing people from all over the world through the internet?
Clearly understanding more and more complex stuff.