How I Use Films (and TV!) to Learn Languages

This post is inspired by a lot of things; mostly, by my love of films and TV shows, but also a lot by this post (which I’ve had bookmarked forever) from The Everyday Language Learner. Obviously, I’m always looking for fun ways to keep myself motivated – whilst still learning effectively. I do think films are a good way to do this and what’s great is, it doesn’t really matter what level you’re at!

When I was learning language in school – particularly German – the only films we used to watch were those really ‘culturally important’ ones; the ones that had won Oscars and things like that. Which is nice, but that’s not what I found I wanted all the time. Yes, they’re interesting, but I don’t always want to spend my time exploring the themes or the characters – sometimes, I just want to watch a film.

Of course, the great thing about watching a film (or a TV show) in your target language is that you obviously get some free listening practice and, sometimes, a better understanding of the culture in a place where your TL is spoken. I watch films or TV shows in most of my languages (not Russian yet, but I’ll get there eventually…), and since listening is usually my weakest skill, it really helps me to improve in a way that doesn’t bore me half to death.

So, how to go about it?

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It can, as a beginner, be a little daunting to just start a film and try and muddle your way through it. At this stage, I tend to rely heavily on English subtitles – whilst still listening to what is being said. Listening is key. Much like with reading, you’ll pick up on words you already know – or ones that you’ve sort of heard of but match up with the subtitles in a way that you understand. At this stage as well, I tend to keep to things I’ve already seen in English. Disney movies are good for me; but as ever, the best thing to make sure is that you’re interested. Right now for Spanish, for example, I’m watching Águila Roja, which is clearly not something I’ve seen before. I’m learning lots of new words though! 😉

At an intermediate stage, I try to drop the subtitles a little bit – though again, if the content of the film is ridiculously confusing, I will go back to them. It is mostly about entertainment, after all. I also sometimes start watching TV shows I’ve seen over and over without any subtitles at all. (Things like Friends, which I’ve seen a million times.) With Mandarin, I’m mostly at this stage – I’ve watched a couple of films without subtitles but I know I’ve missed some parts of the story. One advantage of Mandarin is that most of the time, the programmes or films have subtitles in characters already. If you can find them, subtitles in your TL can be as effective at this stage, especially if you’re finding more difficulties with listening comprehension than with vocabulary or grammar. For me, I notice that I recognise a lot more vocabulary at this stage, even if I can’t always pick up new words from context.

Past this stage, of course, is when you try to drop subtitles altogether. I’m mostly there with German; I’ve seen a lot of films without subtitles, but occasionally I do still switch them on, depending on what I’m watching (here’s looking at you, Das Leben der Anderen). This is the stage where I can learn new words just through what I’m hearing, too, which is very exciting – and, depending on the film I’m watching, helps me to collect some useful vocabulary.

So, there we go – an easy way to get more TL exposure that can also be fun! What about you guys? Do you watch anything in the language you’re learning? Do you think it helps you to learn?


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