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Learn new words and phrases from videos

Passively listening to music or watching TV isn’t going to make you speak Vietnamese overnight but by actively engaging with the content, both music and movies can be a useful learning tool.

Today we’re going to look at one way of using films or TV shows to improve your vocabulary.

The basic premise of this technique is that you use the video to find authentic, interesting phrases or words that you want to learn. After watching the show you use Anki to learn (or ‘internalise’) those new expressions.

What’s needed?

You need a video or film with Vietnamese subtitles.

I tend to prefer TV series over full-length films because of the continued storyline and repetitive vocabulary. Also because they’re shorter than full length films. It’s much easier to find time to occasionally watch a 30-60 episode of something or a 5 minute short story like Qùa Tặng Cuộc Sống.

Step 1: Find new words

You watch the video on your computer, with subtitles. When a new word or interesting phrase you want to learn comes up, pause and take a screencap. I usually quickly look it up in a dictionary or online to get approximate understanding of the meaning, then hit play and continue watching.

Work on your question form by learning phrases from a film.

Work on your question form by learning phrases from a film.

Top tip: Don’t spend too much time looking up words while you’re watching or you’ll spend 2h+ watching an 1 hour long show (or give up part way through). I usually have google translate open on my phone to get the gist of new vocab and take a screencap so I can look into it in detail later.

Step 2: Fully understand the new words

After the whole show, I go through my screencaps with a dictionary to accurately understand the meaning. Even if you think you know what it means, it’s really important to check so you’re certain.

For example, when using this method with French I assumed sans doute meant without a doubt but actually it’s more like maybe (sans aucun doute is without a doubt). That’s a big, fundamental difference!

Step 3: Make your flashcards

Put the sentences and screencaps into Anki or another customisable flashcard program.

An example recall flashcard

A recall flashcard for the video method

The flashcard contains the sentence translated loosely into English and this is what prompts me to recall the sentence.

Top tip: I usually do this in batches to break up Step 2. While working through the phrases with a dictionary I take a break every 5-10 minutes and put the cards into Anki.


How to Learn Spanish have a detailed video showing how this method works. It’s 90% what I do, though I differ from Andrew in that I keep the information displayed on my cards to a minimum and I use both Learn and Recall cards in Anki.

Advantages and disadvantages of this method

The advantages of this method are that it’s really enjoyable because you’re watching something you’re interested in and it’s authentic because you’re learning words and phrases in natural spoken contexts.

The context is very strong because you have visual and audio to go with the new vocabulary. You don’t just learn new vocab, you feel it. Often when prompted to recall a card, I imagine the scene where the line was said which helps me to remember it.

Disadvantages are that it can be hard to find enjoyable subtitled materials, the language can be very informal or even vulgar (a good dictionary should alert you of this) and you have to be careful when looking up and translating new words you learn this way. If you make a mistake and learn the wrong use of a word, it will be hard to relearn.

This last potential problem is one reason why I recommend this for intermediate learners or above, because at that stage you have a better feel for the language, you’re able to discern things about the language and better judge what is and isn’t useful to learn. Alternatively you could go through your sentences with a tutor or bilingual friend to ensure you’re correct.

However if there are also subtitles in your native language, you can use them to make your cards.

Over to you: Have you ever tried to ‘study’ a film or TV programme?

How do I choose materials suitable for my level?

Golden leaves, golden shoes, golden nuggets of information. I do like autumn!

Golden leaves, golden shoes, golden nuggets of information. I do like autumn!

A new type of post on the blog, I’ll periodically be featuring short posts with little golden nuggets of knowledge or advice about language learning.

Thảo ơi, how do I choose reading and listening materials suitable for my level?

A good rule of thumb is to read material that’s a little harder than your level and listen to material that’s a little easier.

This can make a huge difference between being able to understand something and feeling so confused that you give up.

To read easily, you don’t want to be looking up more than a few words per page or article. If you’re studying rather than reading for pleasure, you can increase that figure. But even then, if you find yourself stopping every few words then consider putting that article or story aside for a few weeks and trying again when you’re a bit further along in your studies.

As for listening, even if you’re naturally good at it it’s harder than reading. Ever struggled to understand something and put subtitles on to help? Yeah, that’s it. At that point you’re reading the subtitles rather than listening to the dialogue because you can’t actually do both at the same time. Like the situation with struggling to read an article that’s above your level, if you find yourself needing subtitles then you need to find something easier to practice your listening skills for the time being.

Now you know how to tell if your materials are the right level for you, you’re ready to choose some new ones! Vietnamese learners can start here.