People Are Watching Netflix to Learn a Foreign Language

A few generations ago, people who wanted to learn English often familiarized themselves through America’s greatest export: rock & roll. Today, that role may belong to another great American export: Netflix.

Steve Toy, CEO of language-learning platform Memrise and a longtime education executive, sees it every day. Like his competitors at Duolingo, Babble, and Rosetta Stone, Memrise is built upon what Toy calls “fancy flashcards.” However, Memrise also offers education via YouTube, TikTok videos… and Netflix.

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While a Memrise user learns new words and phrases, the app uses AI to create word banks for popular videos by constantly scrolling YouTube and TikTok. When a student knows 80 percent of the words in a video, it becomes a tool for the user to learn context.

Let’s say you’re learning Spanish and dig Bad Bunny. Search for the music video on Memrise and the language app will create a customized flashcard lesson that gets you to 80 percent comprehension — the threshold, Toy said, to follow a song in context.

And when it comes to testing skills against a scene, a TV episode, or a film, Netflix is the go-to resource. It’s the biggest streamer, of course, but it also has the deepest global penetration and the most international content. According to Toy, 45 percent of Memrise users worldwide cite “media consumption” of some kind as a motivator to learn another language. In the U.S., the rate is significantly higher.

Of the Memrise users who want to learn Korean, 86 percent of them pointed to Netflix’s “Squid Game,” Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” and/or K-pop music as key drivers. Memrise saw a “solid swell” of Korean-language learners with the rise of K-pop groups like BTS and Blackpink, Toy said. The blockbuster performance of “Squid Game” bumped that level up even higher.

Netflix’s foreign-language content can be watched with local-language dubbing, subtitled, or presented entirely in its original language. Toy recommends Memrise students start a foreign-language binge with dubbing, graduate to subtitles, and eventually give it a go in the original language.

English is the most common language studied on Memrise and about 40 percent of those users do so to “make their lives better,” Toy said. Generally, these are immigrants who can earn more money in English-speaking nations by speaking English; for them, “Friends” clips on TikTok and YouTube Shorts are particularly popular.

Before binging all 236 episodes of “Friends,” Toy suggests those users “learn English with the Taylor Swift ‘Eras Tour.'” (Disney CEO Bob Iger emphatically agrees .)

Like Toy, Netflix has studied this subject for years. A 2020 study commissioned by Netflix (and shared with IndieWire) in partnership with the UN World Commission found that 36 percent of people who watch Spanish content have an interest in learning to speak the Spanish language. Only 15 percent of non-viewers of Spanish content reported an interest in learning the language. Additionally, people exposed to Japanese content are six times more likely to express an interest in learning Japanese than those who are not.

“Squid Game 2” comes out later this year; get ahead of the game by leaning into K-pop clips now.

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