Everyone wants the picture-perfect movie ending.
You know the one—the music swells, the main character smiles, the credits roll as you pick the razor-sharp popcorn hulls from your gums.
But to get to that picture-perfect ending, the main character had to overcome some pretty big obstacles like cunning villains, a thwarted romance or an army of giant spiders.
If you want to learn a language by watching movies, you’ll also face some obstacles on your route towards fluency.
Sure, they won’t have as many legs as some cinematic obstacles, but they can be just as intimidating and can keep you from your picture-perfect ending.
Luckily, you can prepare yourself to navigate the pitfalls with ease and confidence.
Watch out for these common pitfalls so you can find your way to picture-perfect language learning by watching movies!
Why Learn a Language by Watching Movies?
There aren’t many methods of learning a language more beloved than watching movies. After all, there are brilliant films in nearly any language you can think of, including Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. Regardless of what language you want to learn, there’s probably a movie in that language that you’ll love.
First of all, watching movies familiarizes you with native speech. Since movies are intended for native speakers, the language used generally reflects authentic speech. Sometimes, historical or fantasy films might not be accurate reflections of current speech norms, but most contemporary movies use common language that people who watch the film also use. By listening to authentic, native speech, you’re more likely to be able to understand actual speech in context.
Additionally, watching movies puts vocabulary in context. You won’t just have to rely exclusively on the words themselves to understand what’s happening. If you don’t understand a word, you can often guess based on what’s happening and visual cues, like characters’ facial expressions. Plus, you can see how vocabulary might be used in different situations, helping you understand when different words are appropriate.
Finally, watching movies is addictive and fun. Once you get on a roll, you’ll just want to keep watching them. And when you’re watching in your target language, the addictive nature of movies can lead to massive improvements in your language skills.
However, a lot of language learners don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to learning a language with movies. It can be tempting to just watch a movie and hope to learn from it. But because so many learners are unprepared, they often fall victim to pitfalls and don’t get as much out of the movies as they would have hoped.
Not to worry, we’re here to help!
How to Learn a Language by Watching Movies: 10 Tips and Tricks to Dodge Potential Pitfalls
1. Watching Movies Without Support
When watching movies in your target language, it can be tempting to go at it alone. After all, you know how to watch movies, right?
If you haven’t watched a lot of videos in your target language, you might not be ready to dive into a full-length movie just yet. Practicing with supportive resources will give you the skills you need to watch movies in your target language.
Start with shorter videos on FluentU.
FluentU is one tool that can help. Regardless of your skill level, FluentU can help you upgrade your skills through authentic video content, like movie trailers, music videos, news and more. Each video is captioned and the captions are annotated, giving you easy access to any word’s definition, several example sentences and an associated image. Want to see how a word is used in other videos? Just click it.
If you’re looking for uniquely engaging activities, you might also try Quiz mode. This mode combines videos, pictures and example sentences in flashcards and exercises, giving you plenty of in-context practice. Plus, FluentU is personalized. Since the program uses an algorithm that takes into account your user learning history, the questions you see will be based on what you already know to ensure they are the right level for you.
Watch short videos on YouTube.
Another resource you might use to brush up your skills before diving into full-length movies is YouTube. There are plenty of short videos in other languages, and many offer subtitles. For instance, Korean students might watch girl-group MAMAMOO’s song “Paint Me,” complete with lyrics in Korean and English. Watching shorter videos like this is a good way to transition towards longer works, like movies.
Use additional resources for support.
If you’re ready to dive into movies head on, though, that doesn’t mean there isn’t another support you can use. Using a translator app with a voice translation option, like Google Translate (iOS | Android), is a quick and easy way to look up any words or phrases you might be unfamiliar with as you watch.
2. Choosing the Wrong Movie
It can be tempting to watch the biggest blockbuster, but big doesn’t always mean best, especially when it comes to language learning.
Rather than selecting viewing material based on difficulty level and vocabulary, language students often select movies solely based on what they feel like watching. While you should definitely choose a movie that interests you, there are so many more factors to take into consideration.
Check the movie’s difficulty level.
First, you’ll want to consider the difficulty level of the movie. You can often assume this based on the genre. For instance, most children’s movies are relatively easy. Some action movies are also approachable since they frequently lean more on visuals than dialogue. However, serious, deep movies (the type that get the Oscars) are usually a little harder for language students to follow since they may lean more heavily on subtleties that can be hard to catch in a foreign language.
Target specific vocabulary.
Next, you’ll want to consider what type of vocabulary a movie is likely to use. For instance, a police procedural will probably include a lot of technical terms that you might not need to know in your target language. However, movies like romantic comedies usually feature more common vocabulary. Similarly, if you want to learn a specific set of vocabulary, you might consider finding a film that will use those terms. For instance, if you want to learn legal terms, look for a legal drama.
Don’t forget to enjoy!
Finally, consider what movies you’ll actually enjoy. Enjoying a movie is a valuable motivator to keep watching and therefore learning. Plus, why bother learning a language with movies if it isn’t going to be fun?
3. Going in Cold
All you need to do to prepare for watching a movie is pop some popcorn and press play, right? Well, you might want to do a little more than that (and we’re not just talking about adding butter to your popcorn).
If you go in cold, you’re making watching the movie more challenging than it needs to be. After all, if you don’t know anything about the movie, it will be more difficult to follow. You may end up focusing less on the language itself and more on trying to figure out who characters are, what they’re doing and why that guy’s eyebrow is so nefariously arched.
Worse still, if it’s difficult for you to follow the movie, you might lose interest and give up altogether, thereby missing out on your opportunity to improve your language skills in one of the most fun ways imaginable.
Do a little research.
Do a little preparation ahead of time. We’re not talking about an in-depth study of the themes or camera angles, but something far simpler—look up the movie before you watch it. If you can find a summary, read it. Better still, read a few summaries. IMDB and Wikipedia usually have English-language summaries of popular foreign-language films. Reading a summary ahead of time can give you context to fill in anything you miss.
Know who’s who.
You might also look up the actors ahead of time. Pay attention to the characters’ names as you look at images of the actors’ faces. This way, when you start watching the movie, you’re not wasting any time trying to remember who’s who.
4. Getting Overwhelmed
Movies can seem long… very long.
Since most listening activities are relatively brief, a lot of language students haven’t listened to their target language for such long stretches. However, movie lovers often assume that because they can watch a movie in their native language, they can watch it in their target language.
While you can totally watch a movie in your target language, learning from such a long work can be overwhelming because understanding your target language can take a lot of focus and thinking. With so much effort involved, watching movies can become overwhelming.
Split it into chunks.
One of the best ways to avoid getting overwhelmed is segmenting the movie. Rather than trying to watch the whole thing at once, break it into smaller chunks. You might not be ready to watch two hours in your target language just yet, but you can probably handle watching one scene.
Breaking the movie into chunks will ensure your listening practice doesn’t get overwhelming. As an added bonus, a few minutes of viewing are much easier to work into your daily schedule than a full-length movie.
5. Rushing Through
When you watch a movie in your native language, you probably watch it straight through with only a few breaks to get more snacks. However, when you’re trying to learn a language, watching straight through might be rushing the process too much.
There are a couple reasons for this. First, you might miss something. It can be harder to pick up key details in your target language, so you might get lost. Additionally, repetition is valuable for language learning and watching a movie straight through just doesn’t provide the sort of repetition you need to memorize vocabulary or grammar rules.
Take breaks to process information.
Because of this, you’ll want to take frequent breaks. After every scene or two, you might take a break to think about what you just saw. What happened? What new vocabulary did you hear? Considering this will give you time to process what you’re watching.
Watch it again and again!
Then, you might also consider rewatching key scenes, paying particular attention to interesting quotations, new vocabulary or challenging grammar rules. If you like a line, try memorizing it! Not only will this help you memorize the vocabulary, you can also use it as a model when constructing similar sentences in the future.
6. Expecting to Understand Immediately
You’ve studied the language. You do well in class or your independent studies. You should be able to understand the entire movie right off the bat, right?
Not necessarily. Many resources for students are slower and easier to understand than native speech, so even students who’ve studied extensively might not be able to understand authentic resources like movies right off the bat.
Plus, expecting to understand immediately is doing yourself a disservice. If you expect listening to be easy, you might be disappointed and demotivated when it isn’t as easy as you thought it would be. Worse still, you could start to question your own skill.
Set reasonable expectations.
To dodge this pitfall, don’t set your expectations too high. Trust that you’ll understand part of the movie, but realize that not understanding everything is nothing to be ashamed of and doesn’t reflect on your overall knowledge.
Understanding native speech takes time, even if you’ve studied extensively. Keep watching, though, and at some point, you might be able to understand entire movies in your target language the first time you watch them.
7. Watching Passively
Most of the time, you probably don’t interact with movies. And if you do, chances are strong that the people you usually watch with aren’t so eager to watch more movies with you.
Yes, most movie fans are passive viewers, quietly watching their favorite films. But when you’re learning a language, you need to engage more. After all, watching a movie will give you listening practice, but if you want to really maximize the learning punch a movie can pack, you’ll need to do a little more than watch.
Listening, speaking and writing are very different skills. While watching movies can improve your listening skills, it doesn’t usually do much for your speaking or writing skills, which could lead to an imbalanced skill set. But if you put in the extra effort and engage, you can transform movies into well-rounded language practice.
Integrate speech into movie-watching.
To get the most out of your movie viewing, you should try to speak in addition to listening. For instance, try interacting with a movie. During dialogue scenes, pause and guess what the next character will say. When you hear a line you like, repeat it aloud. Hey, you could even shout advice to characters if that’s what you’re into. The key here is speaking your target language.
Write it down.
In addition, keep a notebook and pen handy. Make notes as you’re watching: Write down words you don’t know, phrases you like and anything else that catches your ear. For an added challenge, try summarizing a scene in your target language after you watch it.
8. Looking Up Too Many Words
“OMG! I don’t know that word! I need to look it up!” Those words might come out of your mouth a lot when you’re watching movies in your target language. In fact, it can be tempting to look up the exact meaning of every single word you’re not 100% familiar with.
While this could be a good vocabulary-building activity, it doesn’t provide great listening practice. After all, you’ll be focused too much on individual words to really understand the overall message.
Plus, part of the reason why listening practice is so valuable is that it prepares you to fill in any words you don’t know based on context. In conversation, you may hear a word you don’t know. Having experience in determining meaning based on context will help prepare you for this situation.
Get the gist of it.
Instead of focusing on individual words, focus on overall meaning. If you miss a word or two, that’s fine. Sometimes, it just isn’t realistic to pause and look up every word you don’t know, so learning how to fill in any vocabulary gaps with educated guesses is a valuable skill.
9. Leaning Too Heavily on Subtitles
Subtitles are magical. If you can’t understand a spoken language, you can still enjoy a movie by just reading it.
However, for language learners, this can prove problematic. Subtitles can be a great tool to help you understand what’s happening even if you miss a few words. However, if you’re not careful, you might find yourself inadvertently reading a film and not listening at all.
Strategize your subtitle use.
To avoid this, it’s good to develop a strategy. For instance, you might try alternating watching segments with the subtitles on and off. Listen to the scene in your target language and see how much you understand. Then, turn on the subtitles to check how much you caught. Turn the subtitles back off to see if you can understand more now.
Skim the subtitles.
If you don’t want to repeat segments so often, you can also develop a strategy for how you read the subtitles. As soon as a subtitle pops up, you can skim it quickly and then focus on listening to the spoken dialogue. Otherwise, focus on the dialogue and if you realize you don’t understand, quickly skim the subtitle after.
Always remember that subtitles are just a tool to help prop you up until you’re skills are refined enough that you don’t need them. Your ultimate goal should be weaning yourself off from them.
10. Learning Alone
Watching movies is often a solitary pursuit. After all, only one hand can fit comfortably into a box of Junior Mints.
Language learning, on the other hand, is an inherently interactive pursuit. Conversational skills are best developed with actual conversation.
Engage in communal movie-watching.
To really upgrade your language skills, you’ll need to interact with others. However, that doesn’t mean you need to give up your favorite movies! You might start a movie club in your target language.
Gather a group of learners, native speakers or just some friends, then pick a movie in your target language. You can watch it as a group or independently and discuss it afterward. Not only will you get the great listening practice that movies provide, you’ll also get conversational practice and a nearly endless stream of potential conversation topics.
Connect with fellow fans online.
You can also connect with other movie fans online through message boards or fan sites. There are many fan forums for specific regions and/or languages. For instance, Spanish film fans might enjoy posting in Foro de cine (movie forum). To find a forum, just search the name of the language and “movie forum” in your target language.
Don’t let being unprepared ruin the end of your journey to learn a language by watching movies. Watch out for these pitfalls and be prepared to smile as the credits roll!
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