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I tried to learn languages from an Asian drama streaming service

Viki, a streaming site that lets you watch Asian dramas, now has a translation tool called “Learn Mode” to help you learn Chinese and Korean. It’s not effortless, as learning languages never is, but it’s probably one of the more pleasant ways I’ve attempted to learn a new language. I took Chinese classes in college, and the professor’s MO was recitation and pop quizzes, so given the choice, I prefer the $4.99 a month standard Viki pass.

When you activate Learn Mode on an episode, the dual subtitles (one in English and one in the original Asian language you’re learning) located on the bottom of the screen become interactive. Hovering your mouse over the subtitles will automatically pause the episode, allowing you to decode each line of dialogue.

You can currently learn to speak Korean or Mandarin in two different accents, with the mainland Chinese influence or a Taiwanese twang. The selection and range of languages is still limited. For instance, where is Japanese and Thai on the list? Taiwan, which is a smaller producer of dramas than China or Korea and often makes more low-budget shows, also needs more of a selection here. There are some non-cheesy, good Taiwanese shows like Meteor Garden, which is the Taiwanese adaptation of a romantic Japanese manga, and KO One, about a delinquent high school class that has demonic powers, not on the list yet. It’s clear that whoever curated the list of available dramas in Learn Mode is a huge fan of Lee Min-ho (Boys Over Flowers, The Legend of the Blue Sea) and Jun Ji-hyun (The Legend of the Blue Sea, My Love From the Star), but so am I, so that’s fine with me.

Unlike apps like Duolingo, which doesn’t offer any Asian languages, or private tutors, which require money and scheduled time, Viki’s Learn Mode makes learning Chinese and Korean a lot less painful. Guided by subtitles, a dictionary definition, and the sound of each word, you’ll begin to learn what’s what just by watching TV. Sure, you’ll be clueless of grammar, but you’ll get pronunciation, an expanded vocabulary, and probably, a dose more passion and interest. And, if you’re into multitasking, you can admire South Korea’s resident babe, Lee Min-ho, or marvel at how Jun Ji-hyun does not age, while parsing each character of the sentence they’re speaking.

On the flip side, you might find that the pacing of your drama is totally ruined by the constant pausing you have to do when your mouse hovers over a Chinese character. And what if you’re just scratching your arm and accidentally shift the mouse over the screen? Instant pause.

If you’re thrifty, you don’t actually need Learn Mode; you just need to be willing to keep rewinding whatever you’re watching. But I’ve tried the virtually free way of learning Cantonese solely through watching film before and it’s not pretty. I watched and rewatched Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong classic In the Mood for Love first with my boyfriend, and then my dad. Everything slipped through one ear and out the other, but I could imagine myself learning the language by pausing at every scene, repeating each phonetic sound I heard and hoping that it strung together a sentence. After a dozen years watching anime and eight years of watching Korean dramas, to this day, I still can only say, “hello,” “thank you,” “you’re stupid,” and “I’m extremely sorry,” in Korean and Japanese, which is the extent that listening passively can help my language learning.

I often think, with a sense of regret, if only I were a one-year-old child! Then I’d be a polyglot.


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