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Learnt English from Watching Television

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"How are you able to speak our language?" asked Proton.
"I have been monitoring your electronic wave-signals," said the alien. "10,000 channels of reality TV is enough to convince anyone you're worthy of extermination."

When a writer wants to acknowledge that some foreigner or alien would not speak English, rather than just having Aliens Speaking English or not having the sort of setting with Translator Microbes, they'll have the character pick up the language from, of all things, TV and radio transmissions.

Often this gets done too quickly to be realistic with Instant Expert maybe used to indicate a super-intellect but depending on the medium, it may fare better depending on how much TV/radio/books the character has watched/heard/read. Part of the importance of the historical Rosetta Stone was that it provided a way to connect Egyptian hieroglyphics to languages we already could translate and provided a starting point. Generally any other first encounter would have to start with the basics (e.g. the "rock" and "tree" scene in The Iron Giant) so probably radio and books aren't that useful but television, with an audio-visual combination, could perhaps provide enough reference points. There are many foreign students who learned their most basic English knowledge in elementary school, but improved it to fluency through the media. After all, the best way to learn a language is immersion, like a baby.

May make the character liable to Speak In Shout Outs. It's also easier when Aliens Steal Cable which in turn makes it easier to handwave Aliens Speaking English. See also Taught by Television.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In one episode of Seven of Seven, Nana is tutored in English by Funny Foreigner Melody Honey, who speaks Japanese with a bad Kansai accent. At the end of the episode, Nana asks her how she learned Japanese, and she mentions watching videos of manzai comedy routines.
  • In Lucky Star, Patricia Martin learned all her Japanese vocabulary from watching anime and manga.
  • In Dragon Crisis!, Rose can only speak one or two words at first, but a full night of watching TV makes her very fluent in Japanese.
  • In Super Dreadnought Girl 4946, Isaac Montana claims to have learned Japanese from watching anime. She was good enough to pass the Level 1 JLPT (which basically means she's as good as a native speaker), leading her classmates to wonder how much anime she had watched. However, she might have been lying, since she was The Mole before her Heel–Face Turn.
  • In Parasyte, while Migi learned Japanese from reading books and hence speaks quite politely, Shaba learned Japanese from TV and therefore speaks crudely. When Shinji and Uda meet, he compliments Migi for being so polite while lamenting that Shaba is a bit rude.
  • Parodied in Peepo Choo. The African-American fanboy Milton thinks he learned Japanese from his favourite anime, Peepo Choo. Unfortunately the anime was a deranged, dada Mind Screw that was subbed in English with completely different dialogue to turn it into an orthodox kids' show. Hilarity Ensues.
  • Invoked in Kaguya-sama: Love Is War when Kaguya is helping Ishigami study for the end of year exams. In a stark contrast to their previous study sessions (where she confiscated all of his consoles and handhelds), she allows him to play video games during his free time in the student council room, but he's only allowed to play dialogue heavy games with the language set to English.

    Comic Books 
  • Blue Devil once met aliens who learned English from watching reruns of I Love Lucy beamed into space. "Little Ricky" was an exclamation along the lines of taking the Lord's name in vain.
  • Some backstories of DC Comics' Martian Manhunter has him learning English by watching TV in his apartment during his free time.
  • The all-ages version of Power Pack has Whitemane learning English this way. It helps that he gets to be something of a movie buff.
  • Horidus, a side character from Savage Dragon, learned English mostly by watching TV while chained in a basement. Keep in mind she is an American citizen and spent her life in the Mid-West. Since she was a genetic Lizard Folk mutant, her parents locked her up downstairs, never letting her out.

    Fan Works 
  • The Next Frontier: The Kerbals employ a fairly well-justified version of this when their first interstellar expedition taps into a local satellite TV broadcast. Kurt notes that they're specifically looking for educational programming aimed at preschoolers, and mention is made of practically every university linguistics department in the Kerbin system clearing the decks for the footage being delivered by Subspace Ansible.

    Film - Live Action 
  • Madison from Splash speaks only... Mermaidese at the beginning, but just as Allen has gotten into the swing of making excuses for her not speaking English, she picks it up from watching TV at Radio Shack.
  • At the beginning of The Fifth Element, Leeloo speaks only the Divine Language of the priests ("bada-boom"), but her perfect, genetically engineered self, is able to pick up the basics from a massive dose of future Internet. This also leads her to unfortunately absorb human war and hatred (and presumably a lot of porn).
    • And of course, "Please help" when she crashes into the hero. Where she learns it from READING it. Not quite sure how that works...
  • In Better Off Dead, the protagonist Lane Myer is challenged to a street race by two Asian brothers several times. Each time, the brothers pull up alongside him, and one provides pre-race commentary in an impression of a certain famous American sportscaster. During one of these incidents, Lane tells his passengers:
    Lane: One speaks no English, the other learned English from watching The Wide World of Sports. So you tell me which is better, speaking no English at all, or speaking Howard Cosell?
  • In Explorers, the three kids meet aliens who pick up English from watching television. One alien did a better job than the other, so the latter communicates by speaking in TV catch phrases and clips from old black-and-white TV broadcasts.
  • A possible variation in The 13th Warrior: Ahmad ibn Fadlan doesn't speak Norse at the beginning, so he can communicate only via some shared Greek and Latin with one of them. Thus, the audience doesn't get to understand them, either. However, in a montage of them travelling and talking around the campfire, more and more start to turn to English as Ahmad begins to understand more until he eventually surprises them at a campfire by insulting them in their own tongue. When asked how he learned their language, he just replies, "I listened."
  • Mac, Teebo and Wiploc from Earth Girls Are Easy also learn English from watching TV; it helps that they have an ability to exactly mimic the speech of others, and even noises, to begin with.
  • Wayne's World:
    Wayne: Hey, where'd you learn to speak English?
    Cassandra: College... and the Police Academy movies.
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial learned some basic words (y'know:"phone" and "home") from Sesame Street in a fairly well justified way: the show had basic words sounded out next to a picture of what it was talking about. It is a show directed at preschoolers, after all.
  • In The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, an eccentric man (played by Stan Lee) has his weird behavior explained as a result of learning English from The Three Stooges.
  • In the live action Transformers film, Optimus Prime tells Sam and Mikaela that they learned English from the Internet, with the exception of Bumblebee, who uses the radio to speak Junkion-style (and one of the soundbites he plays is the alien from Explorers).
  • The Incredible Hulk: Justified Trope: Bruce Banner is shown learning Portuguese by watching the Brazilian dub of Sesame Street with a dictionary in his lap. Unfortunately he hasn't even learned enough to make a proper threat.
  • Deconstructed in Threads. The language skills of children born after the nuclear war are very underdeveloped, leaving them barely able to form simple sentences. While there is a scene in which a group of children are being shown a videotape of the British educational programme Words and Pictures in what is implied to be an attempt to improve their speech, none of the children are even attempting to engage with the (badly worn) tape. The woman who is apparently meant to be their teacher is simply lip-synching with the presenter's dialogue and is not interacting with the kids in any way.
  • X-Men: Apocalypse. Apocalypse uses his superpowers to download both language and information on the modern world directly from the screen of a television set.
  • in The Day The Earth Stood Still Klaatu says he and his people learned Earth languages monitoring radio broadcasts

  • In John Grisham's The Pelican Brief, a Lebanese assassin perfects his Southern (US) accent by watching local television as part of his cover.
  • Mentioned in The House on Mango Street, when Esperanza's neighbor's son starts repeating a Pepsi commercial.
  • In The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School by Kim Newman, which is set before the invention of television, there's a character from a remote part of Asia who learned English from American pulp magazines, and litters her speech with stereotypical gangster slang.
  • The novel I Want To Buy A Vowel is about a Guatemalan immigrant who learns English from TV and as such has a tendency to repeat lines from game shows at inappropriate times.
  • The Stainless Steel Rat was sent back to Earth in 1974. He learns English first from a Hell's Angel he turns the tables on, and then from TV in his hotel room.
  • A series novels set in the Stargate-verse written prior to Stargate SG-1 the television series features the people of Abydos having to take refuge on Earth. Since these books didn't feature Aliens Speaking English, we learn that some of them have gone so far as to watch childrens' television as a means of improving their English.
  • Chuy from Evidence of Things Not Seen is an illegal immigrant who learned most of his English from reading comic books.
  • On the Spectrum: Most of the French teenager Michel's knowledge of English comes from movies and TV. His mom loved Shakespeare and wanted him to know English, so whenever he wanted to watch anything from Britain or America, she would get him the English version.

    Live Action TV 
  • In the Fawlty Towers episode "The Germans," Manuel practices several English phrases he knows, including "I can speak English; I learn it from a book." Unfortunately for the Major, he sees a moose head while Manuel is behind the counter, leading the mystified Major to think that the moose head is speaking (and that the "book" note somehow explains everything).
  • In an episode of the TV show spinoff of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, a cat accelerated to human intelligence and body-swapped with a human learned English by watching television.
  • On Limitless this is one way Brian can learn languages fast while he is on NZT. He listens to an interrogation conducted in Russian for a few hours and due to his super intelligence learns some passable basic Russian. However, his vocabulary is still sparse. In other episodes he is shown learning languages by listening to proper language education tapes which give much better results.
  • Liv and Maddie: Korean pop star Kathy Kan learned how to speak English perfectly by watching Liv's show Sing it Loud!.
  • In Red Dwarf, it's explained that The Cat's race learned English from watching the American movies (specifically John Wayne movies) in the ship's hold. Of course, The Cat obviously learned his mannerisms from watching James Brown, though it's never mentioned in series.
  • Resident Alien: Hugh Mann Harry learns English by watching a lot of Law & Order. His love of the show becomes a Running Gag.
  • In Skins, Anwar tells the Russian girl he meets what he'd like to do to her and becomes embarrassed when she reveals she speaks English and learnt it from watching Friends. Cue her saying "How you doin'?"
  • On Wandavision it's shown that as a child Wanda would watch DVDs of American sitcoms with her family to practice their English. It would also help distract them from the ongoing civil war that has reached their city. This is why Westview has taken on the form of old sitcoms. Wanda, severely depressed after Vision's death, has mentally retreated into her happy place. Which unconsciously triggered her Reality Warper powers to transform the whole city, and she is now in denial that her perfect sitcom life is both fake and absolute torture for the people around her.
  • This was the whole point of Sesame Street in its first few decades on TV in Japan. While other countries created original versions or dubbed the original into their vernacular tongue, NHK broadcast the series in English and without subtitles, as it was believed the show could teach English through immersion, similar to what Destinos did with Spanish, and was simple enough for viewers with a minimal grasp of the language to understand. NHK published Japanese translations of the dialogue for purchase and later added a Japanese language option via a secondary audio channel. Once the franchise moved to TV Tokyo, it shifted production to original episodes in Japanese, and was heavily criticized for eliminating the English immersion aspect.

  • Parodied in Trond-Viggo Torgersen's "Hjalmar", where the titular boy thinks he has learned English from listening to Elton John, but actually speaks English-like gibberish.
  • RM of the Korean boy group BTS famously learned English by watching Friends and listening to rap songs when he was young. As a result, he is the only member of the group who is fluent in English.

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    Tabletop RPG 
  • GURPS Aliens. The Engai learned the language used by the rest of the interstellar community by monitoring radio transmissions.

  • In Starship, Bug learnt English from watching old recordings on the starship.

    Video Games 
  • Dimitri of Sly Cooper is a French Iguana who is stated to have learned English through rap music videos, which explains why he talks in incomprehensible slang.
  • The boss of one of the Halloween events from The Secret World is a Russian scientist from the Cold War who learned English from old radio-dramas. Since he never saw anything written in it, nouts from him transkraib ze vords dairektli.
  • Meta-example: when he was young, Hidetaka Miyazaki of Dark Souls fame had a poor grasp of the English language but had a fondness for Western fantasy novels. His inability to understand more than about one word in three and being forced to piece the story together on his own using contexts and his own imagination inspired the style of fractured storytelling that Dark Souls is known for.
  • Xenoblade Chronicles X: One alien the player meets on Mira, L, is remarkably fluent in English from the first time you meet him. It's quickly explained that he happened upon an archive of the Library on Congress that happened to crash near his home, and has been studying it, learning English through that. Though he does not have a particularly good grasp of idioms, frequently getting sayings wrong.

    Web Original 
  • In a Q&A video made for the Hydraulic Press Channel, the host, Lauri, stated that while most Finns have to learn English in school, he was a poor student and ended up learning how to at least read and understand English from English language TV shows, films, and video games that he downloaded from the internet when he was a lad. He didn't speak English much until his channel went viral near the end of 2015, however, resulting in his famously thick Finnish accent that the channel is known for.

    Western Animation 
  • The Junkions and their leader, Wreck-Gar, from The Transformers learned to talk by watching TV and listening to radio to justify Aliens Speaking English. They tend to speak in "commercial" voice. Hilarious in that (A) they are voiced by Eric Idle (in The Movie, anyway), and (B) the show is itself a 30-minute commercial.
    Hot Rod: Where'd you learn to talk like that?
    Wreck-Gar: T.V. We talk T.V. You talk some T.V.?
    Kup: I talk some T.V. And now the news, don't touch that dial.

    Wreck-Gar: Yes, friends, act now, destroy Unicron! Kill the Grand Poobah! Eliminate even the toughest stains! Money back - guaranteed!

    Wreck-Gar: And the answer is: Unicron!
  • In The Secret Saturdays, V.V. Argost, a yeti, learned to speak through a television set with black and white horror films.
  • The 2006 revival of Biker Mice from Mars had this mentioned in the episode "A Hairy A-Bomb", where the yeti A-Bomb explains to Charley that his kind learned to speak English from watching humans' broadcasts.
  • The Owl House: While the denizens of the Boiling Isles already have English as their primary language, Amity starts learning how to speak Spanish after her Relationship Upgrade with Luz (who is bilingual) by using some cookbooks that Gus gave her. This leads to her giving Luz the Affectionate Nickname "batata" (sweet potato) because she mistook it for a term of endearment.
  • The Amphibia episode "Temple Frog" shows that Polly learned to speak fluent Thai after watching Mrs. Boonchuy's romcoms.

    Real Life 
  • It is common for TV to be the most widespread form of mass marketed entertainment even in places that have never heard of English before, and because TV shows are usually directed with the lowest common denominator (and cost) in mind, subtitled, English language shows become the chief means by which the people learn English while getting entertainment.
    • This is true for some children. Because given a choice between sitting in a class room and listening to a teacher drone on about adverbs, grammar rules or what not, OR watching cartoons (in English), the cartoons, and English language will win the day for children's minds and limited attention spans.
    • Courtesy of being a U.S territory, many Generation Y and younger children of Puerto Rico have access to American television, and even English versions of video games, which in turn leads to many of them being bilingual from a young age.
    • Nearly everyone in Latvia speaks at least some English, with most being fully fluent, as every film and the majority of television shows are in English with Latvian subtitles. This makes the country an attractive exotic location for Americans, Canadians, and British tourists to visit.
  • Victor Borge and Arnold Schwarzenegger both learned English by watching movies.
  • Legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi learnt English from watching Sesame Street and soap operas.
  • Mila Kunis learned English by watching The Price Is Right. She thanked Bob Barker for talking slowly enough for her to understand.
  • In non-English-speaking parts of Europe, it's not uncommon for English-language Harry Potter books to be under the "language education" section of bookstores, since lots of kids just learning English become better at it by reading the English books and comparing them to a translation.
    • This is occasionally inverted in England, where school libraries will stock non-English versions of popular cartoons and popular young adult and children's books.
  • Ricky Martin claims he learned English by watching television.
  • Joannie Rochette, a Québécois Olympic figure skater, says that no one in her family speaks English. She learned it by watching Scooby-Doo.
  • Jackie Chan has said he learned some English from listening to country music, since the words are generally sung more slowly and are easier to follow.
  • RM from BTS learned most of his English from watching Friends.
  • It is common for foreign language learners to hear their teachers advise them to practice the language they are studying by listening, reading, or watching media in the said language. This is to be familiar with the common use of the language, word pronunciation, and vocabulary words.
  • United Nations translators read newspapers and comic books to keep up with all the latest jargon and slang in the languages they specialize in. (According to the nonfictional DVD extra about them in The Interpreter.)
  • While The Internet has sites in hundreds of languages, most users pick up at least a passing understanding of English as a Wiki Walk is nearly guaranteed to lead one to an English-speaking page. Some ESL Tropers credit reading and editing pages on this very wiki with helping them learn English.
  • Some Israelis have learned English off Cartoon Network, which aired without subtitles in Israel for many years before being cut off first from cable and later from satellite.
    • The same is true to Portuguese people, who had Cartoon Network in English for twenty years (from 1993 to 2013). Then the Portuguese version came and eventually kids no longer watched their favorite shows in English.
  • In an inversion, many English-speaking fans of anime admit to using the medium as a way to help themselves learn Japanese.
    • Do note however that anime is generally discouraged from being used as a primary source of Japanese language education, due to the medium's suffering heavily from Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic.
  • Kristyna Ng's family moved from China to Canada when she was eight. She credits Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune with helping her learn English. On February 11, 2020, she appeared on Jeopardy!.
  • Many ESL Québécois persons admit to having learnt English from watching Anglophone Canadian television.
  • If an entire culture does this for long enough, it can subvert the trope via the birth of a new language, one that has an interesting property in relation to the original language of the media, called Asymmetric Intelligibility. While this is by no means the only way this phenomenon can arise, the gist is that a native speaker of the new language can understand a native speaker of the original language, but the native speaker of the original language can't understand someone speaking the new language.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): English From Watching Television, Learned English From Watching Television



In order to prepare herself for traveling to Japan, First Interrogator Suzuno learned all she could through watching Period Dramas, Samurai Movies, and Showa-Era Documentaries.

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Main / LearntEnglishFromWatchingTelevision

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