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In the world of language learning folklore I often hear that foreign language movies are a golden ticket to fluency.
But are foreign language movies really a great way to learn a language? Or are they a big waste of time?
Let’s take a look…
The Wrong Way to Watch Foreign Movies
“Watching foreign movies is a great way to learn a new language” is really exciting to hear. After all, it sounds like you can sit down in front of your TV, and expect to miraculously become fluent in Italian after 90 minutes of watching Cinema Paradiso.
Needless to say, this doesn't happen.
When watching foreign language movies fails, you can end up tossing the whole idea of watching movies in favour of your tried and tested flashcards. As a result, you’d miss out on rich cultural experiences and the opportunity to improve your language skills.
Watching foreign language movies can help you learn another language, if you go about it the right way.
You can’t just watch a movie. You have to study a movie.
Here’s The Right Method for Watching Foreign Language Movies
Before I share a specific method for watching foreign language movies, I’d like to dig into the foundations you should lay before you start viewing films in another language.
Here are the five attributes of a study-focused approach to movies:
Passively watching a movie for fun won’t help you learn a language. You have to actively study the movie you’re watching, and focus on every word that’s said.
Watch an entire 90 minute movie in one sitting, and your brain won’t be able to absorb most of what you see. You'll slip into “passive watching mode”. Break up movies into smaller chunks of time — even down to just one scene or a small 10 minute segment — for greater language absorption.
Watching a movie just once is akin to looking at a flashcard just once. If you are going to study the material you need to review it multiple times.
You should be actively engaged with your movie. Speak along with the characters, practice mimicking their pronunciation, and copy their body language.
Subtitles can either be a huge crutch, or an incredible study aid. Using them the right way can elevate your study of a language to new heights. I’ll explain how to use them in a moment.
My Method for Studying a Language with Foreign Movies
Here’s the method I recommend to help you learn a language when watching films in another language. I’ve broken it down into five simple steps that will help you get the most out of your foreign movie study.
Step 1: Pick a Movie You Like, With Subtitles
The key here is to make sure your movie has excellent subtitles, both in your target language and your native language. This is no time to settle for second-rate products. It will be worth your while to shell out a bit more money for the right DVD.
Since you’ll be studying this movie over the course of several weeks, the cost is actually quite reasonable for the sheer volume of language learning you’ll get from a single movie.
You should also pick a movie that you have some familiarity with or covers a topic you are interested in. You're going to be watching this movie several times so be sure you enjoy it. If you're a big sci-fi action adventure fan, then watching a romantic courtroom drama will quickly get boring.
Step 2: Watch The Story and Break It Into Segments
The first time you watch the movie you have two goals:
- Learn the story and get to know the characters
- Break the movie up into segments
Watch the movie all the way through with your native language subtitles on. Learn the story and get to know each character’s personality. This way you can just enjoy the movie itself, so the story doesn’t “get in your way” of using it for language learning later.
Also, at the same time take out a notebook and pen to write down time markers for short segments of the story. You’re looking for scenes of around five to ten minutes that are fairly self-contained, plot-wise.
Step 3: Write Down New Words and Phrases
The next time you watch the film, you’re into study mode. This time, just watch the first segment and turn on the foreign language subtitles. Write down any words or phrases that you don’t known. Pay particular attention to words or phrases that seem significant to the story or are repeated regularly.
Since you have the subtitles on you can easily pause the movie to write down words and phrases, then look up in your dictionary. Aim to collect around 20 new words and around 10 new phrases per segment. Don’t worry if there are more than 10 or 20 words or phrases that you don’t know. Just pick the ones that stand out to you. You can always go back and repeat this step again to pick up more vocabulary.
Watch the segment at least five times while picking out your selection of words and phrases. Repeat the words as you hear them to work on your pronunciation. With a 10 minute segment, this step should take about an hour or two.
Bonus Hack: Once you have a list of vocabulary add them to your SRS (Spaced Repetition System) flashcard deck, and include them in your daily vocabulary review.
Step 4: Check What You’ve Remembered
After you’ve watched this segment of the movie five times, you’ll know it really well. Next, turn off the subtitles and see how much you can understand without them. You don't need to have full comprehension, but you should be able to get the gist of what you hear.
For this step play the segment between five and ten times, depending on how many characters there are and the amount of dialogue. By the end of an hour or two you should have pretty good comprehension.
Bonus Hack: To give yourself a more intensive study session, imagine yourself as one of the characters in the film and when someone asks them a question, quickly pause the movie and try to answer as that character. Then push play and see how you did. Take note of the actual dialogue to see how you could adapt your response.
Step 5: Review the Film with Your Tutors and Teachers
To take things to the next level, meet with a language exchange partner or your teacher, and watch the film together. Be sure to let them know ahead of time what parts of the film you want to study so they can look it up and watch it before they meet with you.
Here are some ideas of what you can cover with your teacher:
- Ask for help understanding cultural nuances in the film, or why characters are doing specific things that you don’t understand.
- Ask for clarification on phrases or accents that are used in the film.
- Have your teacher ask you questions about a specific segment, then try to answer them in the target language.
- Have your teacher play the part of one of the characters in the movie and practice dialogues with you.
- Ask about the role this film plays in your teacher’s society and culture.
These are just a few ideas to get your started. Your teacher may have other suggestions for how to use the movie in your study sessions together.
Bonus Hack: Not sure how to find a teacher? The language network italki helps you locate native speaking teachers that you can meet up with from the comfort of your home using Skype. With Skype you can share your screen and review specific segments of the movie together!
How Long Does It Take To Study a Movie?
As you can see, studying a foreign movie takes time, effort and focus. But that’s true of language learning in general, right?
I recommend spending at least three days, studying for at least one hour each day, studying each segment in your chosen movie. That way you’ll have time to practice, learn and review all of the necessary words, phrases and dialogues.
Break up a typical 100 minute film into 10 segments of 10 minutes each, and you're looking at around a month of study for one movie, at an hour per day. It sounds like a lot, but you will get quicker and quicker, and be able to watch a subsequent one quicker, and eventually simply enjoy the movie in the target language the first time.
You make this investment now, so you don’t have to for the rest of your life!
The Benefits of Studying Foreign Movies
Keep in mind that the method I’ve shared is just one way to approach a language study project through foreign movies. Of course, whatever method you decide to use, the benefits of studying foreign movies are countless.
I love watching foreign language movies, because they:
- Expose you to new cultural situations.
- Are a great way to observe body language and other nonverbal cues.
- Have more “authentic” vocabulary than what you might find in a textbook.
- Allow you to pick up idioms and colloquial ways of expressing ideas.
- Show a language being used in “real world” scenarios.
Watching foreign movies can benefit your language learning projects, but only if you study them.
Approach watching foreign movies the same way you approach any other part of your language learning project. You’ll get out of foreign language movies what you put into them.
Then soon enough the time will come where the fact that it’s in another language will be irrelevant, and you’ll enjoy it just as you would a movie in your native tongue.