How to learn Mandarin with Chinese Netflix Shows

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In my previous blog I wrote that over the past ten years an explosion of mobile apps and online learning programmes has revolutionised the way we learn Chinese. However, I omitted one key tool from my list of recommendations because I felt it deserved a blog of it’s own: Netflix. In this blog I will outline how I use Netflix to learn Mandarin and recommend some of the best Chinese shows for you to enjoy.

Netflix has a large collection of Mandarin movies and TV series making it one of the best tools available to immerse in the language. I first began delving into this content around a year ago and soon saw big improvements to my listening skills and spoken Chinese.

My method is straight forward and mostly involves searching for interesting content before watching it. But there are a couple of additional points worth mentioning.

First, anyone using Netflix for language learning purposes should first download a Google Chrome plugin called Language Reactor. When watching films on Netflix the plugin enables you to hover over unknown words and characters that come up in the subtitles and instantly discover their meaning.  

Screenshot of Language Reactor Netflix subtitles

When you hover over a word to look it up the film automatically pauses, allowing time to create a flashcard of the word which you can review later. By clicking the forward and backwards arrows you can swiftly and conveniently skip to the following sentence and back again.

I prefer not to hover over every word I don’t know because if I did this I might never reach the end of the film. Instead I prioritise saving words, phrases and sentences I’d like to use myself. I also look up characters I’ve not encountered before as well as key words which prevent me from understanding the overall meaning of a sentence. 

Due to a lack of patience, I usually don’t watch the same episode or film more than once. However, a strategy that can work well for new learners is to watch an episode with English subtitles first, before watching it again with Mandarin subtitles. That way the second time you won’t have to worry about losing the plot and can concentrate instead on picking out comprehensible words and phrases. 

The Netflix content I have found most useful falls into three categories. 

  1. Mandarin Dubs

Films produced in other languages but available to view with Mandarin dubs can be easier to understand than original Mandarin films. This is because the voice actor’s accent is usually very clear and the translated scripts tend to stick more closely to common words and expressions.

Productions worth checking out in this category include Zero to Hero about Hong Kong Paralympic athlete So Wa Wai’s road to sprinting glory. The Life of Bruce Lee a series of 50 episodes dramatising the late martial artist’s legacy is also easy to follow and entertaining. Finally, be sure to check out Netflix’s extensive library of Anime films, originally produced in Japanese but often available in Mandarin.

2. Romantic TV series 

Chinese romantic TV series often follow unoriginal plots which may not be to everybody’s taste. However, there are two reasons why they they can be very effective for language learning. First, the predictability of the storylines helps make the content comprehensible. Second, they are addictive so before you know it you’ll have clocked up dozens of hours of input.

I enjoyed watching The Rational Life, a well produced series reflecting the social pressures faced by many professional women in modern China. It follows a career driven woman in her mid thirties as she deals with pressure from her colleagues and mother to get married and have children. On the more light hearted side is Use for My Talent about a young cleaner who falls in love with her mysophobic boss.
3. Taiwanese Films

The Taiwanese film industry is thriving and a number of excellent films are available to watch on Netflix. I am used to immersing in listening material and interacting with native speakers from mainland China so the Taiwanese accent presents more of a challenge. However, in my opinion the quality of Taiwanese film productions is on the whole far better and there is a wider variety of genres to choose from.

I especially recommend the critically acclaimed A Sun about a young man released from juvenile detention after being involved in a violent crime. For fans of science fiction check out On Children which has been dubbed the Taiwanese Black Mirror. Each episode fuses futuristic technology with current social issues to tell allegorical stories about the strained relationships between young people and their controlling parents.

How about you? Do you use Netflix to learn Mandarin? What shows do you recommend watching? Let me know in the comments below.

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6 Thoughts

  1. Ainsley Walsh says:

    Thanks Mischa for another inspiring post. I had no idea about Language Reactor so thank you. I have seen the Taiwanese movie “A Sun” too – excellent movie.

  2. Gonna check this stuff out!! “Reactor”! Interesting!!!

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