FYI: At the time I wrote and published this, none of the companies I mention in this post are sponsoring (or know about) this post. Everything expressed is my opinion.

In case you missed it ...

A month ago, I shared that I wanted to revive my long-buried attempts to be a polyglot by building a sustainable habit of language learning through books, movies or TV shows so that I could be entertained and educated at the same time.

So which language to begin with? I decided to start with Spanish, since that was the the most familiar language out of my desired quartet (Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish, French) to ease into. Then, it was a matter of finding a book or show in Spanish that I wanted to watch. I'd been eyeing Money Heist, or La Casa de Papel in Spanish, on Netflix over the past year (and yes, being late to TV shows is kind of my thing). Apart from being in Spanish, I also love heist movies and heist stories, so it was an easy sell.

Now we entered unknown territory. I knew the key was to find a way to watch it with double subtitles - i.e. the show's audio in its original language of Spanish, the original Spanish subtitles, but then an additional set of subs in English below that, in sync and accurately translated.

A quick check told me that this wasn't a feature offered by Netflix themselves. So then my attention turned to browser extensions, and a quick search on the Google Chrome extension store later, I was hit with a gazillion options. Now if you're like me when you get overloaded with options, you defer to the trusty method of user reviews - which led me to Language Reactor, which had over 2000 reviews and a rating above 4/5 stars. Good enough for me.

So I installed the app and finally started watching!

First of all: great show. GREAT. SHOW. I'm usually reluctant to get into TV shows because of the time commitment, to the point where I've missed out on some classics like Game of Thrones. But Money Heist was so easy to watch and get started on, although I'm not here to discuss plot points.

What about the double subtitle extension I've been using? So far so good, I'd say. I was worried I'd have a 'Google Translator' situation full of weird, alien and non-human translations - i.e. literal but simultaneously nonsensical for an English speaker. But thankfully that hasn't been the case - the translations are mostly accurate and semantic translations rather than literal.

So one month in and one season of Money Heist in, here are some things I've noticed.

About the Language Reactor extension:

  • As I said, the app's default translation mode is semantic and not literal, which means instead of taking the original Spanish script and translating it word-for-word the English translation is presented in phrasing that would actually make sense in an English conversation. However, as I did more research I discovered that the extension offers a literal translation too, which I have yet to try out. The app calls the semantic vs word-to-word/literal translations human vs machine translation, respectively. My Spanish is at a level where I have a good understand of basic grammatical structures and vocabulary so I find the semantic/human approach considerably better, but I could see how the literal mode would benefit beginners more. So far I haven't found many faults in the translations; the extension even seems to be able to accurately apply more abstract concepts such as idioms. Take the line below, for example. I'm pretty impressed, but maybe I'm just comparing it to the very low bar of Google Translate.
The literal translation of "le dijo la sartén al cazo" would be "said the frying pan to the saucepan", i.e. an accusation of hypocrisy by a character to another. But of course in English the applicable phrase would be " pot calling the kettle black" - and the extension gets it right!
  • Occasionally the space taken up by the Spanish dialogue differs significantly from the English translation, leading to moments where the Spanish dialogue and subtitles shows up before or after the Language Reactor English translations. Doesn't happen often, but a little disorientating when it does.
An example of the English subtitles loading on screen before the actual line is spoken.
  • The one consistent issue I've noticed with the extension is it can't seem to compute ... numbers. Now this isn't a problem because, well ... numbers are numbers, and the original audio and Netflix Spanish subtitles will give you the real number in numerical rather than word format. But a very oddly consistent pattern? See below for example.
'Exactly' how many yards?

About diving back into Spanish using Netflix:

  • The good news for you fellow former language learners is that diving back in is miles easier than learning it for the first time, or at least that's been my experience. I think getting back into things via media is especially quick because all of those words are put into the context of a story, so you can build those associations with emotions, characters, sayings, etc. Not to mention real-time, fairly authentic dialogue (although of course TV show dialogue does not equal real-life dialogue).
  • The best thing about this approach is the wiggle room for how intensely I learn. If I just want to enjoy the show I can, but if I'm up for some intense learning I can stop the show after each line, pick apart the sentence and make sure I understand the words, and repeat the dialogue out loud. This actually makes language learning as a habit easier, because you're able to tailor each session to how much energy you have.
  • For this approach to work, you probably need at least a foundational understanding of your target language. Think 200 words, most common tenses and their conjugations and particularities (for example in Spanish there are 2 past tenses, the preterite and the imperfect, which are analogous to the 'single' English past tense), and a basic understanding of grammatical structure and pronunciation. It would probably be too steep of a learning curve to start at point 0 and jump straight into a native language TV show (I'm sure it's possible, but it would not be a fun time).

So, what next?

I'm glad to say I've successfully managed to get back into the routine of language learning. So now what? As I looked more into Language Reactor while writing this post, I discovered there are a multitude of additional options with the extension. For example, the interface actually allows you to skip forwards or backwards by subtitle, repeat a subtitle, and automatically pause after each subtitle. Other options include being able to read the transcript in advance and signing up for additional features such as saving lines and subtitles. I honestly haven't experimented with any of those things yet, but as I ramp up my study I'll continue to explore what the extension has to offer.

Settings tab, with more options than I've had time to explore yet.
Option to read the transcript in advance. 

Overall though? A solid A on the report card for this app - go check it out! As I continue to experiment with different ways of learning/different languages, I'll continue to post updates and probably a tutorial on how to maximise use of the extension. But until then, back to Money Heist.

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