Let's assume I have no knowledge in a language I want to learn. I know only some basic alphabet, but don't know any words. Is it possible to learn a language just by watching videos and reading books on the language without translation? Has anyone tried to learn a language that way? I would like to know.

4 Answers 4


Practically, no, but with huge amounts of time and willpower, maybe. In Japan, for example, there is a small community of people from developing countries as well as Chinese people who largely learned to speak Japanese from sheer exposure and being forced to use it for work, but they were probably taught by friends and family.

Personally, however, as someone who's spent thousands of hours around Malayalam, including spending 6 weeks in Kerala surrounded by Mayalayalam every day, and hasn't learned a single word through osmosis, just through the tiny bit of studying I've done, I'm not sure what conditions need to be fulfilled for it to work.

I'd imagine it'd probably be something like this: (3:00 to 5:00 ish)

But in my opinion and based on Krashen's hypotheses, without first being able to comprehend the language input you're getting, whether it's straight from the foreign language or using an explanation/definition from your native language, learning words in a foreign language is going to be impossible. You need to understand what someone's saying in a foreign language to pick up new words, so it would be extremely difficult to learn even a few words in the beginning purely through osmosis, nevermind an entire language. Because chances are, people won't just pick up a ball and slowly say 'ball' 50 times for you.

Anyway, I haven't had any luck with it but feel free to try. Listening will help you to break apart sounds and get used to how a language feels and sounds, but I'd be surprised if you learned anything from it. I think you need to learn foundation vocabulary in a language, and then it's possible to pick up some new words in sentences where the new word is the odd one out and the meaning is obvious enough to pick out.

E.g. In the UK, a tatakai is raging over one simple question: to make a cup of cha, does the miruku go in first, or the hot mizu?

If you guessed tatakai=battle, cha is tea, miruku is milk and mizu is water, congratulations! You've just learned some Japanese without using a dictionary! But if you didn't know any of the words around it, how would you have done it?

For example:

Onaka ga suita kara gohan wo tabetai desu

What do you think it means? Any guesses? No? How about:

I am hungry, so I want to taberu some rice.

You can guess 'taberu' might mean cook, buy, or eat, maybe, with eat likely being a strong contender, and if you guessed eat then you'd be right. These are the conditions needed to learn language, so if you can set up these conditions then yes, theoretically you could learn a language without a dictionary.

Hope this helps and sorry if I ranted on a bit!

  • A fine answer. The question assumes some knowledge of the alphabet and reading books; perhaps one could start with children's books to learn some basic words, if one was purposefully studying.
    – Tommi
    Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 5:47

It is definitely possible, but you need some half decent learning materials. French for foreigners in France and Belgium are exclusively taught without translation and it works fine. You learn the basic words from pictures and learn more by training.

Reading simple stories helps a lot.

I personally learnt the basics of croatian just like that from the mother in law


It should be possible, babies do it. It is just that an adult's brain is not as developed, therefore it will take a great deal of time to achieve the same result. I'm guessing that if you are exposed to a language every day and are surrounded by people willing to teach you how to speak properly (exactly like we do with children) then you'll slowly get a grasp of what is being said.

You will have to start to learn with very concrete stuff that people can touch and show ("Apple", "Car") before going in vocabulary that require more abstraction level ("companies")

  • Hi, do you have a typo here: "adult's brain is not as developed"?
    – Tommi
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 11:26

Yes, it is possible. Some children in my country learn German by watching cartoons on TV. But it takes a lot of time, which children have, but adult learner might not.

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