Out of nowhere, here it is.
The answer to your language learning prayers.
It’s a regular deus ex machina, and a valuable one at that.
You might have heard this Latin phrase if you’re really into cinema or theater.
Literally, it translates to “god from the machine.” It originated from a Greek phrase that was used to describe a character (usually a god or demigod) appearing via a crane device in a Greek play—much of the time, they would literally swoop in at the last minute to save the day!
The Latin phrase has come to describe any plot device that provides a miraculous solution to any situation a character is in.
The aim of this article is to act in a similar way and “miraculously” provide you with the ideal solution to help you learn a foreign language: The best foreign films.
Why Learn a Foreign Language Through Films?
Films are a great way to get a taste of a different culture or place.
They’re not always completely accurate representations of people or culture, but oftentimes they do a great job at capturing the essence of both. What’s more, they have enormous value for language learners.
If you’re a beginner or an intermediate learner, films are a great way to see how conversations actually flow in your chosen language. And if you don’t understand everything, you can usually use subtitles to help bridge a few gaps.
In fact, studies have shown that learning through films can help in ways beyond just subtitles. People tend to become a lot more motivated when it comes to learning anything with movies. That’s the reason why you probably got so excited as a kid when the teacher would wheel a massive television into the classroom.
There’s also the exposure to different cultures. Films are a great way to peer into the heart of a culture you’re unfamiliar with. Foreign films usually feature the people, real-life places, traditions and even traditional music found in the cultures they explore. If you’re unable to travel abroad, it’s worthwhile to watch a foreign film just for that experience.
A Few Things to Remember About Using Foreign Films to Learn a Language
Watching films might seem like the best method in the world to learn anything, but take all this advice with a grain of salt. There are no perfect methods when it comes to learning anything.
Films are certainly no exception. Although they’re great resources, they do have disadvantages such as the fact that they’re made to entertain first and foremost. That means that what you see in a film will never be 100% accurate in its depiction of people or cultures. Everything in film is slightly exaggerated.
You might have guessed this after watching a Bollywood film before visiting India, and then feeling disappointment when you realize that no one actually breaks into song and dance after resolving a personal crisis.
So how should you use films to learn languages?
First of all, it’s going to take some work. Being a couch potato won’t cut it. You really have to pay attention to the film. You don’t have to understand every single word, but you should try to grasp as much context as you can from whatever you’re watching.
Try not to dive into overly complex films. Stick to films that you know feature relatively linear plots. When you’re still just learning a language, you probably won’t be ready for that indie-art film with abstract meanings. That means it’s probably best to stick with simple action, drama, romance or comedy, which leads us to the whole reason why you’re reading this.
You want to know the best foreign films for learning languages. Look no further than this useful list below. These films are fantastic for those who are just beginning, as well as intermediate learners who want to get a proper feel for the culture behind the languages. These films do just that.
And if you find that you adore this learning method, you’ll want to check out FluentU.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store or from the Google Play store to access material on your Android and iOS devices.
Now, onto the movies!
Deus Ex Cinema: The Best Foreign Films for Language Learners
Language: English (American)
Based on the novel of the same name by Winston Groom, “Forrest Gump” (directed by Robert Zemeckis) tells the story of Forrest Gump (played by Tom Hanks), an intellectually disabled man with a goodhearted nature, who recounts his life to a stranger at a bus stop. It’s a life full of heartache, war, valor and accomplishment.
So why is this a great film for English learners?
If you want to focus on language, the film will give you several different types of American English to listen for, which is useful for English learners who are looking for some way to grow accustomed to the varying accents across America.
Through the titular character’s travels, you’ll also see a lot of America’s culture. You’ll see the passion surrounding football, music and its vast history with music and warfare. It’s part of what made the film so great and so interesting.
Language: English (British)
You might be looking to adapt your ears to the rougher British dialects. If that’s the case, have a look at “Snatch” (directed by Guy Ritchie). The film is about a diamond, a group of thieves and a boxing promoter named Turkish (played by Jason Statham) who finds himself indebted to a dangerous gangster.
It’s an extremely exaggerated look at the British underworld so the film features some great examples of different English accents and dialects. Some are easier to understand, such as the southern dialects, and there are harder ones like those from the north. Then there are near-impossible ones—like the bizarre accent Brad Pitt uses.
We did say to be careful. This film is a great way to train your ears but you have to keep in mind that it’s a comedy film, so not everything will be 100% true to the culture it’s depicting.
Language: Chinese (Mandarin)
Directed by Zhang Yimou, “Happy Times” begins as a comedy but quickly shifts to drama as it showcases the desperation of a former factory worker, Zhao (played by Benshan Zhao), who opens up a very small hotel in his attempt to regain a life of relative comfort and happiness. He unintentionally finds himself caring for an orphaned girl, Wu Ying (played by Jie Dong). Together, they work to make the hotel a functioning business.
The film is great for Mandarin learners who want conversational language. It’s also fantastic for those who want to see the heart of China in the present day. The film focuses on characters who have fallen victim to the nation’s move toward capitalism.
It’s not a happy movie but everything from the cinematography to the dialogue strives to showcase what living in China is like for those with less than others, which is something no one should ignore.
Language: Chinese (Cantonese)
Revolving around the Hong Kong Triads and the police force, “Infernal Affairs” (directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak) focuses on two people, Chan Wing-Yan (played by Tony Leung), an undercover cop in a triad gang, and Lau Kin-Ming (played by Andy Lau), a triad member who has infiltrated the Hong Kong police force.
If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because “Infernal Affairs” was remade as Martin Scorcese’s 2006 film, “The Departed,” but don’t be tempted to use that to work your way through the dialogue and plot because for the most part, the two movies are vastly different.
With “Infernal Affairs,” you can pick up both formal and informal Cantonese conversations. It’s also a great way of showcasing Hong Kong’s darker side, the one you won’t see as a tourist. But to understand the culture of Hong Kong, that’s the kind of thing you have to keep in mind, and the film helps with that by capturing the spirit of the city and the westernized culture.
Language: Spanish (Castilian)
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “Volver” starts off with Sole (played by Lola Dueñas) returning to her small village for the funeral of her Aunt Paula. On her way back to Madrid, Sole discovers the ghost of her mother, Irene (played by Carmen Maura), stowing away in the trunk of her car. Meanwhile, Sole’s sister and niece, Raimunda (played by Penélope Cruz) and Paula (played by Yohana Cobo), must deal with a murder and their discovery of the truth about Paula’s father.
It’s a fantastic comedy for Spanish learners as it uses various characters and places to showcase different aspects of Spain. You’ll see the countryside life and you’ll be able to compare it to the more urban environment of Madrid. You’ll get a great sense of the architecture, the people and, of course, the Castilian dialect of Spanish, which is quite easy to understand in this film.
Language: Spanish (Venezuelan)
This movie by Alberto Arvelo tells the story of Simón Bolívar (played by Édgar Ramírez), a great Venezuelan historical figure. He was a 19th century military leader who fought against the Spanish monarchy. Through his campaign across South America, he helped to bring independence to Venezuela and several other Latin American countries.
The Spanish in the film is Venezuelan and for the most part, the conversations may seem a little formal, which might be a great thing for language learners. You won’t see modern-day Venezuela in the film but you what you will get is an invaluable lesson in Latin American history, which will no doubt help you understand their culture a little better.
Language: Spanish (Rioplatense)
If you’re interested in history, you should also check out “The Motorcycle Diaries” (directed by Walter Salles). It tells the story of a young medical student who travels through South America, contemplating the poverty and suffering rampant throughout the continent. That student eventually becomes the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara (played by Gael García Bernal).
The film largely contains Rioplatense, which is a dialect spoken in the areas surrounding Argentina and Uruguay. The language may be slightly difficult if you’re just a language learner trying to pick it up, but that’s not where the value in this film lies. “The Motorcycle Diaries” does a fantastic job at showcasing Latin America and the history behind many of the countries, as well as the life and personality of one of its most important historical figures.
Language: Portuguese (European)
Filmed across Portugal, “Our Beloved Month of August” (directed by Miguel Gomes) is a docu-drama in which a father, obsessed with his daughter’s resemblance to her mother, begins to grow wary as she develops an infatuation of sorts with her cousin.
It’s more a collection of clips of people just being people, which is perfect for those who are just looking to pick up on more basic aspects of Portuguese such as colloquialisms, grammatical structure and the like.
It’s also a wonderful exhibition of Portugal’s lush countryside and people. If all you want from a film is the language and an honest depiction of culture, then this is the film for you.
After being left behind by her husband and her son, Rosalba (played by Licia Maglietta) hitchhikes her way to Venice, where she begins a new life working at a flower shop.
The premise is quite simple, as is any premise for a romantic comedy, but don’t let that fool you. “Bread and Tulips” (directed by Silvio Soldini) is an excellent example of what Italy is all about: romance, beauty, great food and the enjoyment of life.
Of course, Italian language learners will benefit greatly from the dialogue, but you’ll also get a glimpse of what Venice is like and how people there really live—taken with a grain of salt, of course. Much of it is still highly romanticized.
If you’re a lover of films about war and romance and you happen to be learning Russian, we have the perfect film for you: “Stalingrad” (directed by Fedor Bondarchuk), a war film set in 1942 during the Battle of Stalingrad. That was the battle where the Soviet Union fought to defend Stalingrad against the Nazis and their allies.
The film doesn’t paint either side as being particularly heroic or villainous as other war films do, but instead attempts to remind viewers that every soldier fighting, regardless of their allegiance, was a human being capable of immense love as well as horrific violence.
The battle of Stalingrad was an important point in Russia’s history and while the film does take certain liberties with its source material, it still manages to embody the intensity of it. There’s also a fantastic amount of Russian with both informal and formal conversations taking place, which language learners will undoubtedly benefit from hearing.
Fans of dark comedies might enjoy “A Coffee in Berlin” (directed by Jan-Ole Gerster), a black and white film which follows Niko (played by Tom Schilling), a college dropout who wanders Berlin, encountering one eccentric person after another.
The film might not be great for those who want to see what life in Germany is like, but it’s great at showcasing the spirit of Berlin and German humor (yes, Germans do have a sense of humor), as well as the grittier aspects of German culture—the things they probably won’t show you in the brochures.
For language learners, it’s a fun film with which you can learn German because there’s a lot of informal conversation—curse words and everything.
Edith Piaf was a musical icon in the mid-20th century and “La Vie en Rose” (directed by Olivier Dahan) adapts her life to the screen. The film stars Marion Cotillard as Piaf and follows the singer’s tragic life from childhood to the peak of her singing career, and then to her fall.
This movie is a must for any fan of Edith Piaf. The songs are all sung by Piaf, while the rest of the film shows audiences just a little bit of French history and how their vibrant culture survived some very dark times, while acknowledging that there’s more to it than just the romanticized aspects you see on television. There’s also the wonderful language present throughout the film. It’s more or less what you’ll hear in modern-day France, if not just a little more refined to fit the film.
Language: French (Canadian)
This French-Canadian film, directed by Ricardo Trogi, depicts the life of Patrick (played by Louis Morissette) as he goes through a midlife crisis. It’s a film full of drama, laughter, sex and growth, relatable for pretty much everyone who isn’t too put off by more mature themes.
The French-Canadian language is a little different from European French and “The Mirage” is a great exhibition of the dialect. You’ll also get a sense of life in Quebec as well as an idea of what the people are like.
It’s a dark comedy, so expect almost everything to be exaggerated for the sake of shock and humor. You may also notice a bit of social commentary in the subtext of the film, so it’s a really great one to watch if you’re trying to challenge your language skills.
Based on a novel by Yoshinaga Fujita, “Adrift in Tokyo” (directed by Satoshi Miki) follows a lazy student, Fumiya (played by Joe Odagiri), who owes a lot of money to loan sharks. One day, a man named Aiichiro (played by Tomokazu Miura) comes to collect and of course, Fumiya cannot pay.
Fortunately, Aiichiro agrees to consider the debt paid if in return, Fumiya accompanies him on a walk across Tokyo.
The film is wonderful for Japanese language learners who want an example of conversational Japanese that’s easy to follow. It’s a beautifully written film that encapsulates the spirit of Japanese customs and traditions as well as the darker side of Japanese society.
It takes audiences across Tokyo, giving audiences a fantastic look at life throughout the city. So if you’ve ever wanted to visit Japan but could never find the time or money, “Adrift in Tokyo” would be a great place to start.
In 1597, a battle took place between Japan and the island of Jindo, in the Myeongnyang Strait. On one side was a Japanese fleet of more than 300 ships to support their invasion of Korea.
Against them was Korean admiral, Yi Sun-sin (played by Choi Min-Sik), with a fleet of just 13 ships. “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” (directed by Kim Han-min) tells the story of that battle and the admiral’s brilliant defeat of the Japanese navy.
It’s an incredible bit of Korean history and will only help to shed more light on the historic relationship between Japan and Korea. Of course, the language will be slightly different from modern-day conversations in Korean, which makes it better for Korean language learners who want a film free of colloquialisms.
Now, Start Watching the Best Foreign Films!
These are some of the best foreign films to help you learn more about different cultures and languages. So get to watching!
But remember what we’ve said about taking these depictions at face value: Don’t do it. As long as you do that, you’ll be fine and you’ll walk away with a sense of what you can expect when you actually visit that foreign country you’ve been meaning to travel to.
Because in the end, there’s no better way to learn about a culture or language than actually visiting the countries in person and seeing for yourself.
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