Can You Learn a Language by Watching the News?
“I'd like to read the news in my new language” is a goal I often hear when I ask people what fluency would mean for them.
Perhaps you dream of reading Le Monde in a quirky cafe in Paris. Or maybe you'd to open up the Spiegel Online app while travelling on the S-Bahn in Berlin.
Even if reading the news isn't your end goal, it's still a great way to learn a language.
When I learn a new language though, I do it because I want to connect with people.
I don’t want to stop once I’ve learned how to order food or ask for directions. These are important to know, but they’re just one step in language learning. I wish to truly get to know people. That way, I can get an inside view of their country, culture, ideals and beliefs.
Plus, once you get to know people, you’ll likely start talking about common topics of conversation: current events, sports, celebrities, business. Maybe even politics, religion and life goals.
This is one reason – among many – why I recommend that language students watch the news. Doing this gives you insight into your target language that’s rarely available through other learning tools.
You won’t only be learning about current affairs. Watching the news can teach you new words and phrases and educate you in proper pronunciation. Reading the news will increase your vocabulary and improve your grammar skills. And that’s not all…
The Benefits of Using the News to Learn a Foreign Language
I recommend the news as a language tool for students for many reasons.
- The news is a never-ending resource. Most news sites are updated throughout the day. TV news runs around the clock. And so do talk radio stations. You’ll never run out of fresh content, which you can continually use to build upon your learning.
- Journalists are required to write in a standardised way. With the news there’s no slang or colloquialisms. You get the topics of the day, delivered straight, in language you can easily understand.
- TV news is read in standard dialect. This is particularly important for beginners, who need to know they’re learning the correct form of the language.
- Anchors and journalists tend to enunciate clearly, which is ideal for both beginners and intermediate students. Similarly, print news tends to be well-written, with appropriate and correct use of grammar.
- The news enriches your mind culturally. As you learn the language, you’re also learning important details about the countries in which the language is spoken. From current affairs, to entertainment, economy and sport, your knowledge of this particular culture is only going to broaden.
- As news is available via many resources, you can use it to strengthen your reading, listening and speaking skills. That’s a triple win.
- The news is easily accessible. Thanks to the Internet, you can access the news from wherever you are, in whichever country of your choice. All it takes is a few clicks of your mouse and you have hours of language learning material at your disposal.
Keeping all this in mind, it’s pretty easy to see how anyone learning a language would benefit from incorporating the news into their study tools.
Yet before we move on, there’s one more question that needs answering.
How can you ensure that you’re using news to learn a language… and not falling into the black hole of passive learning?
The Wrong Way to Watch the News
You can’t expect to sit in front of your computer and find you’re fluent in German after watching one half-hour news broadcast, even if you did that every day for months or years.
I mean, good luck to you, but I’d be pretty surprised if that actually worked!
As with using movies for language learning, you can’t switch off when watching the news. You need to be alert, you need to be present and you must be in study mode.
Let’s look at how to make sure you do that.
How to Use News as a Language Learning Tool (5 Steps)
1. Select a News Site that Works For Your Level
Your first task is to find a news source that matches your current learning level. For example, if you’re a beginner learning Mandarin Chinese, and you’re still learning the script, you won’t benefit from attempting to read a newspaper written entirely using Chinese characters. You’d be better off listening to a podcast or live-streaming a television news channel, ideally one suited to learners of the language.
To take another example, tabloid newspapers tend to be written in simpler language than broadsheets.
The resource you pick should also cater to the skills you wish to target. News is a predominantly helpful tool for those wanting to improve either their listening or reading skills (or both!). Decide which skill has higher priority and go from there.
There are also news sites specifically designed for language learners. More on those in a moment.
2. Pay Attention
When you’re listening to the news, you can just sit there letting the words wash over you. This will help you get familiar with the sounds of the language. As there’s a nonstop supply of news, this is worth doing from time to time.
However, you’ll learn faster (and find the stories you’re reading or listening to more interesting) if you focus on what’s being said. Sure, you might not understand everything, but you will be able to pick out words. The more you practise this, the better you’ll get.
3. Keep it Small and Simple
If you’re a beginner, don’t overwhelm yourself with a half-hour news programme. Instead, listen to the news in bite-sized pieces. Focus on one story at a time, making sure you fully understand every aspect of the story and any new vocabulary. Look up any words that are new to you, and if you want to add them to your vocabulary, create flashcards for those word.
Only then should you move onto the next news story.
4. Don’t Beat Yourself Up – the News Can be Complex
If there are news stories you struggle to understand, give yourself a break. Move onto another story. The news can be complicated, and when you’re starting out it’s best to get easy wins.
5. Become a “News Lyrebird”
A Lyrebird is an Australian animal that is famous for being able to mimic the sounds of other birds.
When you watch the news, I recommend you be a News Lyrebird. Mimic what the newscaster says. This will help the sounds of the language feel familiar in your mouth.
News Resources: Where to Find the News in Your Target Language
Itching to get started? Never fear – I’ve collected some of the best news websites for French, German, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.
French News Websites
- News in Slow French is the perfect resource for beginner and intermediate learners. The news is read out slowly and clearly, making it easy to follow along.
- Radio France International (RFI) offers a daily world news digest in simplified written French, which is perfect for students wishing to practise their reading skills.
- France 24 is, as the name suggests, a 24-hour news channel, which streams much of its content online. Compare French segments to English equivalents to test your knowledge of the language and your listening skills.
- 20 minutes is a newspaper that is distributed around France via Metro stops and train stations, country-wide. The newspapers are designed to be read across an average commute and the stories tend to be short and in a lot of cases, sensationalised. The website features plenty of articles, making it a good resource for students both in and outside of France.
German News Websites
- Das Erste is Germany’s public news channel, and streams news and current affairs shows online.
- Slowly Spoken News is an audio programme from the German television channel Deutsche Welle. You can download an mp3 audio file of DW’s news, with an accompanying script to read as you listen. It’s freshly updated each afternoon from Monday to Saturday.
- Deutschlandfunk is a news radio station, which streams content online.
- News Easily publishes the most important content from the past week every Friday afternoon, in the plainest language possible. This makes it perfect for beginners.
- Der Spiegel is Germany’s most widely circulated news magazine, which posts many articles on its online site.
Spanish News Websites
- News in Slow Spanish features news broadcasts you can download, where the newscasters speak slowly and clearly. There are two programmes offered: Spanish as spoken in Spain, and Spanish as spoken in Latin America.
- SBS has a useful list of Spanish news broadcasters.
- About.com has a directory of Spanish news sources. These include Spanish audio and print news.
- RTVE. Spain’s national public broadcaster has a big selection of news broadcasts that can be downloaded as podcasts.
- Spanish News Bites has small chunks of news in Spanish. Perfect for beginners.
- Spanish newspapers, as compiled by M.I.T. This list is sure to have something to your taste.
Mandarin Chinese News Websites
- The Chairman’s Bao is a simplified Chinese newspaper, designed for Mandarin learners. There are news stories on many topics, such as sports and business. On top of that, you can select your learning level, so it’s easy to find articles that match your abilities.
- The Taipei Times is bilingual, with articles in English and Traditional Chinese side by side. It covers stories in Taiwan and beyond.
- CNTV is a Chinese news station that streams its shows online. The website is in Mandarin, so if you’re not yet all that advanced, you can use the English channel to find a program to watch.
- BBC中文网播客 is a BBC news podcast, delivered in Chinese.
How Will You Use the News in Your Language Learning?
Remember to approach the news as you would any other language learning resource. It can be an exceptionally handy tool for study, as long as that is exactly what you do: take the time and effort to study these resources.
Don’t lose heart and don’t give up. As your knowledge of the language grows, your ability to understand what is being said will develop with it. And you’ll become even more informed about this world we inhabit along the way.