How Streaming Services Are Breathing New Life Into Language Learning


Brushing aside age-old practices in the television industry, streaming services like Netflix are embracing a global content strategy which aims to tell the stories of voices from all around the world. Local-language shows, now elevated to our screens for the first time, are providing English speakers with new opportunities for intercultural immersion.

Breaking the content mould

The groundwork for the diverse catalogue of content we now have at our fingertips was laid around ten years ago. Netflix decided to shift its focus from the acquisition of pre-existing content to the creation of its own, original shows. Others would soon follow suit. With this move came greater creative license and the flexibility to target specific markets. 

These providers enjoyed steady growth, but as the streaming market matured in the US and UK, continued gains depended upon looking further afield. The old model of exporting blockbuster English-language productions around the world had become outdated and out of touch; streaming companies recognised that they had to offer international audiences stories they could engage with on a more intimate level.

Huge money began to be invested in the construction of overseas production studios and the commissioning of original local-language content. Over the last five years, Netflix has opened a number of new hubs across mainland Europe, Central America and Asia, and has plans to lay down further roots in Sweden and South Korea this year.

It is estimated that between 2017 and 2020, the company released over 700 original local-language titles across 29 different non-English languages. Plenty more are in the pipeline, with Asian content an area to watch in the coming years. The breadth of this investment is a signal of Netflix’s intent to become the go-to entertainment service for viewers all around the globe.

In a bid to keep pace with Netflix and claim their own share of international markets, other services have also pivoted towards a global strategy. Prime Video has doubled its volume of original, local-language content year on year since 2017. By 2024, Disney+ will have 50 new international projects.

New consumer tastes 

Although the surge in differentiated content has been aimed principally at international audiences, English speakers have also profited. For the first time, Anglophones have easy access to foreign-language television. What’s more: these notoriously stubborn monoglots actually seem to enjoy it.

On Netflix’s UK service, Spanish smash hit Money Heist set the bar, with over half of all subscribers pressing play since its release in 2017. The show’s popularity is a testament to Netflix’s ability to capture stories which resonate with viewers in spite of cultural or linguistic barriers, and has since opened the door for more local-language content. 

Elsewhere, Germany’s Dark and Denmark’s The Rain have achieved impressive results—both attracting over 1.5 million UK viewers at their peak. This year, French action drama Lupin has made further inroads, and represents one of the company’s most successful ever efforts across all languages.

Read our review of Lupin here.

As Netflix’s Chief Product Officer Greg Peters observed in 2018, “it doesn’t matter where you live or what languages you speak, this is about great storytelling”. His comments speak to a new appetite among consumers to engage with television outside of their daily experience, as subscribers seek “a perspective from a passionate creator that’s grounded in local culture”. 

Learning through streaming 

For many of these users, foreign shows are not just a form of escapism, but a medium to learn about the cultures they represent. Linguists have long lauded television as a valuable learning resource, as it helps viewers soak up the sounds of other languages. The increasing quality and accessibility of international shows means we can now be entertained and educated at the same time. 

Streaming offers opportunities for both passive and active learning. Binging a show like Money Heist with your feet up is still beneficial, as viewers can listen to correct pronunciation, pick up common phrases and also learn a bit about the places being depicted. The more studious consumer may pause and rewind as they watch to check their understanding, and make a note of any new vocabulary. 

Language Learning with Netflix, a Google Chrome extension launched in 2019, taps into the service’s educational potential. The software displays subtitles in both the programme’s original script and the viewer’s native language, so that users can compare the two. The extension’s popularity, already with over a million downloads, underlines the growing number of people turning to streaming to develop their language skills.  

This is just one example of how the internet is providing a fresh approach to language learning. Dynamic online tools like streaming, as well as educational apps like Duolingo, offer much-needed supplements to a system of formal language education in the UK that is faltering.

The number of GCSE language students has fallen steadily since the scrapping of compulsory requirements in 2004, and even with current plans to restore languages to the centre of the curriculum, there is little evidence to suggest that the UK will shake its status as Europe’s most monolingual country anytime soon. 

In spite of this, English speakers are now better equipped than ever to expand their horizons. By bringing international content to the main stage, streaming services like Netflix are bridging cultural gaps and spearheading a new era of foreign language engagement.

Words by Tom Morris

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