This post was prompted by numerous discussions and speculations on language learning discussion forums whether it is possible to learn a language "just by watching TV. The boob tube. The idiot box. I wrote this on a whim and rather quickly and it shows. I don't know if it's more effective than a more traditional approach to language learning but I do believe that it beats spending 4 hours per day in front of the telly consuming programming in one's mother tongue. It's also "possible", if you were ever wondering about it.
My "incomprehensible input" consisted in massive amounts of TV programming during summer holidays. This was not a conscious attempt to learn anything. The "student" was a 5-year-old kid. Next year he was 6, then 7 and so on. I saw my first cartoon in Italian when I was five. I was alone and bored and I remember playing with an old-fashioned TV-tuner, the antenna was weak and pointed in the wrong direction (the local TV tower) but I managed to catch an Italian-language cartoon about a family of bears. I liked it so much that I had to see more at all costs. I spent a lot of time for someone my age bustling around antennas, disassembling amplifiers and fine-tuning the channels on an old black-and-white TV. The picture was not great but the sound was usually excellent. After about three-four summers I was able to understand children's programming.
I remember in vivid detail my first triumph over my father. He had teased me about watching something I could not understand. I demonstrated that I completely understood a show by recounting it in minute detail. After several more summers I believe I had a full grasp on what was going on the TV screen at all times. That includes most TV programs. Obviously, I watched only what piqued my interest. My language skills blossomed (and wilted) several times before I started high school.
I went to the beach and I also played with friends but I believe I managed to spend 8-10 hours per day watching Italian TV. I'm estimating that it took me about 3,000 hours of TV watching to achieve excellent passive understanding of Italian.
I had access to Italian reference books and dictionaries. They stayed on the bookshelves. Since I was a kid with no guidance I used a dictionary only a handful of times - after I realized that I could understand the language. I do remember looking up a few things and getting a kick out of it. I still remember looking up “basilico”. I already knew that it was a culinary herb. I played a few times with an old Italian encyclopedic dictionary looking at the pictures and reading randomly. I remember listening to Italian radio a few times when I was especially bored but I quickly lost interest. I do remember that I could easily follow radio programs.
Foreign magazines were easily available during the summer months. Italian magazines especially drew my attention since I noticed that I could easily read the headlines. I remember looking wistfully at German-language "Dagobert" (Uncle Scrooge) comics which were way too expensive for my pocket. I remember reading a few articles in the Italian magazine "Gente" about sharks, about a 19th century brigand and a girl who later became a saint. By the time Enzo Tortora went to jail I was able to understand Italian. It's a curious thing for a kid to remember but Italians just kept talking about it and one of the magazines had TORTORA printed on the front page.
The types of TV content I consumed:
I examined a non-exhaustive list of Japanese cartoon shows aired in Italy at the time and I recognize around 150 titles including Heidi, La Principessa Zaffiro, Ken il Guerriero (Fist of the North Star), Ikkyu San, the Time Bokan series, La battaglia dei pianeti, Il fantastico mondo di Paul, Lo strano mondo di Minù (Mrs. Pepper Pot), Pinocchio, Candy Candy, Georgie, Maison Ikkoku and Mademoiselle Anne. The combined running time of these shows is easily over 3,000 hours. That's without commercial interruptions and not counting any reruns.
Movies: American movies, Italian movies, other foreign movies (sci-fi, horror, comedy etc.)
Series: Italian and foreign: crime, sitcoms, drama etc. Little house on the Prairie, The Dukes of Hazzard, Battlestar Galactica, La Piovra, Brazilian miniseries and soaps (La Schiava Isaura).
Japanese cartoons about: fishing ("Sampei"), giant robots ("Jeeg"), history, sport, aliens (Lamú - Urusei Yatsura), animals (Demetan), insects (L'Ape Maia, L'Ape Magà) etc. etc. I can still sing along to many theme songs.
Other: Takeshi's castle, Mai dire Banzai, Colpo Grosso, "catch" wrestling...
I saw an awful lot of commercials. I remember many jingles: "non ci vuole un pennello grande ma un grande pennello!" "Sanpellegrino aranciata esagerata," various Barilla commercials, and the now very inappropriate "Ta-ta, ta-tabù!"...
I never had any opportunity to speak. I was never completely “fluent” in this sense.
I studied Italian in high school. I usually did my homework five minutes before the class. I never prepared for any exams. During the first year the teacher told me that I could go for a walk if the class proved too boring. This was also the time when I spent a lot of time on other language programming and I neglected Italian. My skills were very broad and deep but if someone carefully probed a particular area they would have certainly found shortcomings. For my high school leaving exam paper (a loose translation) I chose "I Promessi Sposi" - a famous historical novel that is the bane of all Italian high school students. I defended it in Italian. That was pretty gutsy at the time.
I chose to study Italian at university. Most of my university exams were straight A’s. I never had to study grammar in order to pass a language test. I was required to read and write a lot and this is where I benefited tremendously.
I achieved intermediate-level, passive German using a similar approach: link.
I hope this is of some use to language enthusiasts out there.