You can most certainly pick up words from context in books and TV almost effortlessly IF you watch shows or read books that are 98% comprehensible to you. I know because I do it.
If you are starting out from scratch in a language get a word frequency list and monolingual flashcard the first 3000 concrete words that can be represented with a picture. Using no English helps with getting your brain to not translate. After you’ve done that, you are ready to watch TV and read books with a dictionary in your hand and a grammar reference book. You DO NOT need to flashcard the words you read or hear in books and TV to pick up the language.
Input is all you need… CORRECTION! COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT is all you need. This means you need to consume the native content which contains the highest frequency words: Words that you just got done monolingual flashcarding, so read and watch kids stuff: Picture books and preschool shows. Kids do not have complex vocabulary or grammar internalized. They learn it slowly at school over many many years. So watching and reading books meant for preschoolers and elementary school aged kids means you are going to be able to achieve a high comprehensiblity of that content because the words most commonly used in kids media are high frequency words.
I’ve been studying Japanese doing this. I will read Magic Tree House chapter books in Japanese and watch Netflix preschool shows in Japanese like Llama Llama and Super Monsters; picking up new words in context mainly as I only look up 5 words in a 20 minute episode. If I am confused about the grammar, I jot down what I notice and look it up later in a grammar reference book. No flashcarding needed. You can learn from native books and TV shows almost effortlessly if you go to a low enough level to do so. Will I watch preschool shows the rest of my life? NO. When they get easy I will go up a difficulty level until I eventually just watch adult shows with the same high level of comprehension 🙂
Editors note: This sounds promising! So simple and inexpensive!
The biggest problem with this method is that making 3,000 flash cards with pictures from a vocabulary list is a huge chore. You could start with a free program, such as Anki, but you will burn out long before you are done. You will not use your free time to do anything you hate for very long. Do not set yourself up for failure by setting a goal to make 3,000 flash cards with pictures. Just use some flashcards with audio you find online for free until you get tired of them, which will be way before you learn 3,000. (flashcards of several languages are on that site)
The next step is to watch preschoolers’ shows in the language you want to learn. Sometimes use subtitles in your target language so you can learn to read, and sometimes use no subtitles so you can hone in on your listening skills.
Search on YouTube for the name of a preschoolers’ show and the name of the language you want to learn, spelled the way it is spelled in that language, for instance, “Peppa Pig Español.” If you have Netflix, search for shows that have audio in your target language. Netflix originals often have German, Spanish, French and Mandarin. See if they have subtitles in the target language too. If you want to learn Spanish or French the DVD’s you already own may have Spanish audio and subtitles.
Try to get the gist of what is happening in the show, and be glad if any words jump out at you as words you have heard before. If you enjoy watching shows in your target language right away you are in luck. If you are bored or annoyed at first, hang in there for a bit, and see if you can’t develop a taste for it.
Language Lover looks up about 5 words per 20 minute episode and that is reasonable. You can’t look up too many words because then you will not remember the words nor will you be paying attention to the show. Language Lover doesn’t address this, but sometimes you can’t remember any words you look up, and you don’t feel like looking up any. I say, if you don’t feel like looking up words, don’t bother.
Once you can read a lot of subtitles, google things in the language and see if you can read articles. Wikipedia has a surprising number of languages and is a great resource for articles.
The internet has plenty to read, but to prevent eye strain, it is best to spend money on paper books. Amazon really does have Magic Treehouse books in Japanese. It also has Captain Underpants in Japanese. Amazon has Bibles in every language I can think of. Try to get a version which is not archaic. You probably don’t want the equivalent of The King James Version, but rather an easier to read, more modern version.
If you accidently get a book which is too hard for you to read, save it for later. You’ll be proud of yourself when you can read it. More about learning to read is here.