learn french with subtitles

Watch Like a Detective: The Logical Approach to Learning French with Subtitles

Thanks to subtitles, we have access to a huge world of cinema.

You don’t have to understand a word of Chinese, Hungarian or Polish to watch films in any of those languages.

If you’re a Francophile, you know that French films in particular are ridiculously accessible.

Due to their international popularity, you can find French movies on Netflix, at film festivals all over the world and maybe even at your local theater.

So, that’s a good thing…right?

Well, watching a foreign movie with subtitles can be a bit tricky when you’re trying to learn the language.

Subtitles can even form something of a barrier between you and your target language.

So if you’re a cinephile who’s trying to pick up French, you’d do well to make sure your Netflix binges aren’t devoid of the linguistic nutrients you so sorely need in your learning diet.

Don’t worry, though, I’ve got you covered!

With the right techniques and considerations, you can actually use English subtitles to help you learn French.

In fact, when used correctly, subtitles can be a great aid in language learning.

You really just have to know what you’re doing.

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Why Subtitles Can Be Tricky for French Learners

Watching a movie with subtitles is a largely passive activity. Wouldn’t it be great to pop in a movie and pick up French by osmosis? Unfortunately, it’s not quite so easy.

It’s also extremely tempting to read a movie with subtitles rather than watch it. When presented with the option of either trying to aurally make sense of words in a foreign language or reading their translation in a language you already know, which would you pick?  You’re not alone—taking the easy way out is just human nature!

However, subtitled movies still provide an awesome way to study French if you watch them actively.

How Subtitles Can Be Useful for French Learners

Subtitled movies allow for both aural and visual inputLearning a foreign language requires the acquisition of multiple skills in both the comprehension and production of the language. With subtitled movies, not only will you hear French, but you’ll see the corresponding translation and accompanying body language along with the words on the screen. It’s up to your brain to put it all together and make sense of it. Mental gymnastics: It’s good for you.

Subtitles also provide exposure to the important nuances and subtleties of the French language. Subtitled movies are a great way to pick up on French jeux de mots (plays on words), metaphors, idioms and the like. Because cinema is a medium that relies heavily on cultural specificity, it’s not unusual for an advanced French learner to recognize all the words in a line of dialogue, yet still not understand what was said. English subtitles can help you quickly absorb new phrases and expressions without interrupting your French listening practice.

How to Use Subtitles Like a Responsible Adult 

First, honestly evaluate your level and decide what subtitled movies can do for you. While it may seem counter-intuitive, imagine you’re a six-year-old French kid for a second. Would you rather watch “Kirikou et la Sorcière” (“Kirikou and the Sorceress”) or Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” (“Pierrot the Madman”)? (Both films are excellent, by the way. Don’t let the fact that “Kirikou” is a cartoon fool you.) If you’re a beginner, you’ll improve your French more if you watch films with simple dialogue and plot lines that are familiar and/or relatively simple. Keep this in mind when deciding what subtitled films to watch.

While we’re on the subject, FluentU is all about responsible subtitle use and helping you improve your French with handpicked material that’s just right for your level. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons with optional subtitles and other cool learning features.

Be active. This is not the time for your blankie or popcorn—sorry! Active learning is about placing the onus on the learner. It’s not up to the movie to teach you French, it’s up to you to use it to learn. Not only should you have the remote control on hand, you should also keep a notebook to jot down vocabulary. Also, turn on the lights. Or at least make sure you can see your notebook!

How Beginners Can Get the Most out of Subtitles

  • By using subtitles to tune your ears to French. As a beginner, the French spoken by native speakers will sound very fast. At this stage, watching movies with subtitles will be less about comprehension and more about habituating the ear—getting used to how French sounds, and trying to pick out individual words that you’ve learned so far.
  • By watching films with familiar storylines. Linear plot lines are your friends. Plots that rely heavily on flashbacks, hidden memories and parallel narratives? Not so much. By picking a film you’re already familiar with, or one that’s relatively predictable, you’re prone to actually listen to what is being said, rather than just reading.
  • By watching documentaries. There tends to be much more of a 1:1 correspondence between words and images in documentaries, making them more literal than narrative films. This also makes it likely that the English subtitles will correspond more directly to the spoken French. Besides that, documentaries tend to feature people talking one at a time.
  • By watching the same movie over and over again. Instead of watching a new movie each time, rotate between a few films, and center listening, pronunciation and repetition exercises around them. Find a 30-second clip and try to pick out individual words. Listen to how they’re being pronounced in “real time.” Repeat them.
  • By taking it slow (and easy). You might not like what I’m going to say, but I’ll say it anyway. As a beginner, watching movies with subtitles should be kept to a minimum as a learning tool. In your downtime, you’re free of course to watch whatever you want. But trying to pick up native speech in full movies before you have a grip on the language won’t magically take your French to the next level, and might be frustrating, so don’t push yourself too hard.

Movie Recommendations for Beginners

  • “La Belle et la Bête” (“Beauty and the Beast”) — 1946 release directed by Jean Cocteau. Be warned: This is not the Disney version from your childhood. Cocteau’s adaptation of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale raises difficult philosophical questions.
  • “Être et avoir” (“To Be and to Have”) — 2002 release directed by Nicolas Philibert. This beautiful, understated documentary depicts a rural French school and the devotion of Georges Lopez, the school’s only teacher. The film is especially poignant in light of debates about France’s school system, deemed by many as overcrowded and ineffective.

How Intermediate Learners Can Get the Most out of Subtitles

  • By translating. At the intermediate level, you should be watching French movies to test your listening comprehension. Try this: Turn off the subtitles and translate a few lines from French to English. You can either translate orally or in a notebook. I recommend doing this with a 30-second clip of a monologue. Turn the subtitles back on to verify your translation.
  • By identifying faux amis (false friends) and cognates in action. Subtitles provide an intermediate learner with the opportunity to compare how certain key words with similar sounds and/or spellings are actually translated from French to English.
  • By analyzing your strengths and weaknesses. Identify what you can and cannot understand. What do you have trouble with? Is it the way a character speaks? Is it the speed at which she/he speaks? Do you find that children are more difficult to understand? Is the vocabulary too focused on a certain theme? Use this information to work on your French outside of movies.
  • By doing halfsies. Try turning off the subtitles and do a dictée (dictation) by writing what you hear. Turn the subtitles back on and check the translation to see how much of the general ideas you understood. Doing this with a movie you’ve already watched a few times is a great way to work on your spelling, grammar and conjugation along with listening comprehension.

Movie Recommendations for Intermediate Learners

  • “Le Dîner de cons” (literally “the dinner of fools,” released in English as “The Dinner Game”) — 1998 release directed by Francis Veber. This comedy revolves around a game between friends. The goal is to find the biggest idiot and invite him to dinner, so that everyone can take part in teasing the guests. Actors/comedians Jacques Villeret and Thierry Lhermite have great on-screen comic chemistry.
  • “Entre les murs” (literally “between the walls,” released in English as “The Class”) — 2008 release directed by Laurent Cantet. This film, adapted from a memoir by François Bégaudeau, depicts the evolving and ever-complicated relationship between a passionate teacher and his students in a school in a rough neighborhood in Paris.

How Advanced Learners Can Get the Most out of Subtitles

  • By doing full dictées (dictations) along with translation. Before translating from French to English, transcribe what you hear. Turn off the subtitles, pick 30 seconds of a monologue (or a dialogue if you’re really in the mood for a challenge), and try to duplicate exactly what you hear (this means paying attention to grammar and tense!). Then try a translation, and turn the subtitles back on to compare your work.
  • By leaving “L’Hexagone” (“The Hexagon,” a nickname for France).  By watching films with subtitles from other parts of the francophone world, you will get used to the cadence and intonation of the many varieties of French spoken all over the world.

Movie Recommendations for Advanced Learners

  • “La Haine” (“hate”) — 1995 release directed by Mathieu Kassovitz. This cult film is especially pertinent in light of the surge of police violence in the United States. Set in a quartier populaire (working class neighborhood), it depicts what happens when a young Arab is arrested and beaten unconscious by police—and a riot erupts.
  • “Bamako” — 2006 release directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. Imagine a country putting the World Bank on trial. This is exactly what happens in Sissako’s powerful film set in Bamako, the capital of Mali. The film artfully intertwines documentary-style scenes with a soaring love story.

And there you have it.

Subtitles totally have their place in a French learner’s arsenal.

So kick back and turn on a movie.

Just make sure you have a pen!

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