French Netflix hits like Lupin can boost language skills

Many English-speakers prefer to watch shows such as Lupin and Dix Pour Cent in the original French with subtitles rather than the dubbed version

4 March 2021
By Toby Bryant

Netflix hits such as Lupin and Dix Pour Cent (Call My Agent) are being used by learners of the French language to improve their language level as many turn off the dubbing and tune in to the show in its original French but with subtitles so they can follow.

The shows’ successes could also be encouraging new learners to try their hand at le français.

When French-language Netflix original Lupin launched in January it attracted viewers around the world from a staggering 70million households in the first 28 days of its release.

The series, starring French cinema megastar Omar Sy, even beat English-language originals such as The Queen’s Gambit and Bridgerton for viewing figures.

Omar Sy's Lupin most popular ever French show on Netflix

Now, series five of Paris-based Call My Agent is winning over audiences away from France too, being awarded five-star reviews from the BBC and The Guardian.

As Netflix’s global audience tunes in to more French than ever, the question arises of how these shows are affecting the learning of the language globally.

Suzanne Graham, a professor of language and education at the University of Reading, said: “It is fairly surprising that these viewing figures for shows like Lupin surpass those for English-language material.

“The reasons why UK viewers are now watching them is hard to say without doing research - and it could just be the quality of the programmes!

“However, it may also reflect a wider trend of an increased interest in language learning, that has been noted elsewhere, during the [Covid-19] pandemic.”

A 2020 report published by a senior lecturer at the University of Otago in New Zealand states that “the emergence of Netflix, available in over 190 countries and in 26 languages, has made foreign films more accessible”.

The study assessed 12 intermediate German learners who watched Netflix shows over a period of three weeks. It found that “exposure to Netflix series positively impacted on the participants’ willingness to engage in extensive out-of-class listening.”

Another study, published in 2018 by a foreign languages lecturer at Himeji Dokkyo University in Japan, found that subscription video on demand platforms such as Netflix have “the potential to foster second language learning”.

innerFrench is a Youtube channel that analyses language and cultural trends in France, and the host recently took a deep dive into Arsène Lupin and the series.

“It’s great to have more diversity on Netflix,” innerFrench’s Hugo Cotton told The Connexion.

“Not only for language but to discover different cultures and ways of thinking.

“The attractiveness of a language also depends on its ‘cultural offering’, which is particularly true for French. Most of my students learn because they love French literature, music or cinema - not because they want to get a job in a French-speaking country.”

“I hadn’t planned to watch Lupin, but in the end I had to as my community was repeatedly asking for it!

“It’s interesting because if you compare the critics on Allociné and IMDB, you can see that it was more popular abroad than in France.”

The international pull of Lupin is something also noted by the fan club l’Association des Amis d’Arsène Lupin, which has been running since 1985.

“Our association has seen a rise in members, by around 10, over the last two months,” club president Pierre-Antoine Dumarquez said.

“We are also talking with publishing house Pan Macmillan UK who are looking to roll out the first series of Maurice Leblanc’s Lupin books in English by autumn 2021. To this end, one of our most active members, Ahmed Kocht, an American citizen, has been approached by the Macmillan editor to write the introduction!”

Duolingo’s pandemic success

As the world entered lockdown in 2020, the number of people finding time to take on a new language sky-rocketed.

Duolingo, a language-learning app, recorded an estimated revenue of $140million (€116.3) in 2020, a 40% rise on the previous year.

Whilst a concrete correlation with Netflix’s popular foreign-language shows and Duolingo’s increased popularity is yet to be found, both companies share a similar audience: 70% of under 25s in the US are estimated to be Netflix subscribers and the same group made up 40.5% of Duolingo’s new users globally last year.

Prof Graham said: “My own research has shown how important a sense of progress is for motivation for language learning.

“Trying to watch and understand a programme in the language being learnt might be a welcome challenge - if people can understand some of what they are hearing, then that brings a sense of achievement and progress.

“I would see any effort to learn a language as a positive. Apps are convenient, give a sense of progress and challenge, repeated encounters with vocabulary - all things that are important for language learning.”

Breaking down Duolingo’s language-specific figures shows French and Spanish as the most popular languages to study globally after English. Spanish was the number one most-learned language on Duolingo in 34 countries in 2020, with French topping the list in 23.

These are both still far behind English, which is the top-learned language in 121 countries.

The motivation behind learning French and Spanish differs from those brushing up on their English, though.

Around half of Duolingo’s English users do so for school or workplace purposes, whereas those learning French or Spanish mostly do so for travel or cultural reasons. 

The Connexion spoke to fans of Lupin who were some of those viewers spurred onto Duolingo having watched the show.

Sierra turned to Lupin after watching Spanish show La Casa de Papel (Money Heist).

She said: “I had no idea that it [Lupin] would be in French, but it was fine because I’ve been wanting to learn French for a while now! 

“Before I started Duolingo I had already watched episode one and it was hard for me to pick up on the vocabulary.

“After I started Duolingo, I was able to hear familiar words and watch the show without always having to read the subtitles.

“These foreign language Netflix shows definitely encourage me to learn new languages because often they’re better than the English-speaking shows!”

For Anita, Lupin was her first dive into the foreign-language Netflix pool.

“The casting of Omar Sy initially attracted me to Lupin. I feel the type of role he plays in Lupin as this international man of mystery is always reserved for white actors, so my interest was piqued by a show that went against those standards.

“I enjoyed the French immensely! I originally was watching the show with English dubbing but I realised I wanted to know what Omar Sy’s real voice sounded like so I switched to French and turned on the subtitles.

“I think watching foreign language entertainment has pushed me to actually take the first steps to learn a new language.”

Read more:

Brexit: Sky stops cross-border online viewing in EU

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